Author: DanVisconti

Sounds Heard: An Exaltation of Larks—The Lark Quartet performs Jennifer Higdon

Grammy and Pulitzer winner Jennifer Higdon certainly doesn’t require an introduction, yet it’s remarkable how often people’s opinions of her music seem—for better or for worse—to be formed based on her fantastically successful orchestral works. This new release from Bridge Records showcases a more intimate collection of chamber works that are unmistakably Higdon’s but which explore different reaches of her musical interests than tend to find expression in her large and frequently blockbuster orchestral works. It’s a refreshingly different side of her music and a great starting place towards appreciating what makes this composer tick.

Leading off, An Exaltation of Larks (2005) is 16-minute work in a single extended movement originally commissioned for the Toyko Quartet. The composition is a natural match for the Lark Quartet, and not just because of its title. The Lark is a quartet rooted in tradition and lyricism, yet the four musicians have an openness and sensitivity to timbre that brings their interpretations nuance as well as occasional edge. Likewise, Higdon’s music is also rooted in traditional means and sources, yet handled with a sense of humor and curiosity that expands classical tradition even as it draws from it. In the right measure, the tension between these complimentary tendencies is eloquent, personal, and strikingly realized. An Exaltation of Larks begins tenderly and is never far from receding into a kind of hushed, expectant quiet, yet the piece blossoms in several forays into ever more ecstatic (and just bordering on frenetic) patterns of rapid string crossing. It’s a great showpiece for the Lark Quartet and an impressive tour-de-force of the many ways a skilled composer can manage to be expressive and creative even when adhering (mostly) to solidly traditional quartet writing. The ability to achieve Higdon’s level of sheer sonic interest via largely traditional means is one of her most attractive qualities as a composer—an incredibly vivid imagination combined with a certain plainspoken, straightforward demeanor. (Those who know her might agree that this is a rather accurate portrait of the composer herself!)


Scenes from the Poet’s Dreams (1999) adds Gary Graffman to the mix for a left-hand-only piano quintet. Higdon writes that the inspiration for this work came from her curiosity over about dreams of poets: “Because they presumably work in a world of imagination, would their dreams be different than what others might dream? Or are we all poets in our own dream worlds? The poet might be the main character or s/he might also just be part of the fabric, observing from the sidelines. This also represents the pianist’s role within a piano quintet, prominent but also just part of the story.”

This is especially true of the piano part in Higdon’s quintet, in which Graffman’s role is almost inconsequential enough to be superfluous, yet sparingly doled out over the entire composition to great effect—another example of Higdon’s economy of means providing character and interest. The movements lean toward the tranquil, although the third movement is worth noting for its positively nightmarish depiction of a host of electric insects. Here, Higdon breaks out all the stops including glissandi, tremolo passages, and ponticello effects punctuated by a funky groove in the low register of the piano—a rare eruption of instrumental color rendered all the more effective by the sturdy simplicity of the previous movements. Graffman’s playing is deft as always and the Larks pull off the virtuosity with a ferocity that made me imagine the cloud of rosin they must have inevitably produced during the recording session. By contrast, the quintet’s opening movement is a kind of cosmic reverie that cycles through all major keys, accelerating faster and faster through sudden changes of color, dynamics, and harmony.

The disc’s final offering, Light Refracted (2002) adds clarinetist Todd Palmer and pianist Blair McMillen to perform with members of the quartet. The work follows out of Higdon’s popular orchestral work Blue Cathedral. Inspired by Monet’s studies of the same subject viewed in different light, Higdon takes another look at her own musical materials and the result is a compelling two-movement work that becomes even more interesting for listeners who are already familiar with Blue Cathedral and will be able to appreciate the many ways that Higdon recasts that material.

Sounds Heard: Joseph Byrd—NYC 1960-1963

Joseph Byrd is a tremendously imaginative composer who spent much of his life moving in the same circles as experimental music luminaries Terry Riley, La Monte Young, Morton Feldman, Steve Reich, and John Cage, yet has remained a somewhat lesser-known name in part because of his incredibly broad range of output. “I had always been eclectic as a composer,” Byrd admits in the notes to an album by his psychedelic rock band The United States of America; “Indeed it was a detriment to my finding a single distinctive voice in the avant-garde, as I changed styles with almost every piece.”

This undogmatic, uncommitted, exploratory spirit is one of Byrd’s chief virtues as an artist, although it’s easy to see how this same quality makes him difficult to pin down in our increasingly soundbyte-based world while also being absolute anathema to the marketeers who preach branding and the kind of “image” that is not character, but a consistent act. This fantastically-performed disc featuring ACME and percussionist Alan Zimmerman reveals Byrd’s seemingly unquenchable curiosity and delight in uncharted territory, rarely settling into one aesthetic or approach to composition for very long and always pursuing new ground even as some of his cohorts pursued a narrower range of musical experience, with more single-minded purpose. This disc—the first commercial recording of Byrd’s “concert” music—fills a gaping hole in the recorded history of experimental music and should be one of the most exciting releases of 2013 for anyone interested in experimentalism or the New York scene.

Featuring music composed during a few of Byrd’s NYC years (1960-63), the material on this disc is nonetheless typically wide-ranging, with a greater aesthetic variety than most composers develop in their entire lives. The gamelan-like Animals which opens the disc wells up from whispers of rhythm into a climax of great textural richness, with a prepared-piano part negotiated with assurance and sensitivity by Timothy Andres, whose playing enlivens several of the album’s finest moments (particularly in the manic acrobatics in the solo prepared piano work, Three Aphorisms). In Loops and Sequences, Andres is joined by cellist Clarice Jensen for some Feldmanesque semi-improvisations on the composer’s given parameters; this kind of piece can easily become an indulgent slog unless invested with real attention and heart, and the musicians of ACME deliver plenty of both throughout the disc.

Four Sound*Poems is one of my favorite works on this disc, a work which develops small snippets of text by Gertrude Stein via an imaginative array of devices. The result resembles a kind of tripped-out, stuttering/hocketing polyphony that stands at the intersection of linguistics and musique concrète—a great introduction to the kind of unexpected combinations that result from Byrd’s imagination at its most anarchic and fertile. Likewise, Byrd’s Water Music—given a haunting and ultimately ominous performance by percussionist Alan Zimmerman—makes effective use of a tape part designed to resemble and resonate with a carefully-chosen battery of percussion timbres.


I would be derelict if I failed to mention the work that closes this album, Prelude to “The Mystery Cheese-Ball” for antiphonal rubber balloons, which was originally a relic of one of Yoko Ono’s famous loft parties. Byrd is most compelling when he’s flying free beyond the orbit of strong personalities such as the aforementioned Feldman, yet this short bit of Fluxus/Dada-inspired silliness is genuinely winning in the hands of the ACME musicians, who understand that a lot of what makes slowly releasing air from rubber balloons so interesting/funny/bracing is in the “how” part. If more presenters of obscure and experimental music approached the matter with the combination of genial nonchalance and curious attention that the members of ACME have mustered for this release, then the fate of Joseph Byrd and his varied successors will rest in trusty hands.

Other Hats

Different Hats
People often talk about “wearing different hats,” by which they mean assuming distinctly different roles with different priorities and types of awareness. Of course, this concept of varied roles could very well be explained without reference to hats, but hats are inherently funny and there’s something about the idea of their metaphorical donning that remains appropriate to the varied roles that many—especially composers—inhabit even as pursuing a seemingly unified trajectory.

I’ve recently taken over directorship of a music ensemble in the Washington, D.C. area, and it’s remarkable how many relics of the composing world appear totally transformed when donning the “hat” of artistic director. So far, one of the most interesting things about this new role has been the way it tends to shed light on certain composer habits.

In the interest of sharing my findings, below are a few of the observations I’ve made since donning the director hat that I hope will prove interesting or helpful to those currently wearing the composer hat:

1. If a composer website has any purpose, it ought to be to list titles, instrumentation, and durations of available pieces. So often ensemble directors will be interested in a piece that fills a particular programming hole or fits a strange, rare instrumentation, and not everyone will take the time to email a request if the information isn’t easily at hand—an unfortunate fact of human nature and limited time, with the moral being that you want to make it as easy as possible for interested parties to note the main defining details and requirements for performing a given work, without having to enter into an email conversation to do so. And since new music concerts often have thematic programs, including program notes or even one-sentence synopses certainly couldn’t hurt.

2. Listing the dates of composition is another important detail that seems pretty insignificant, but it’s worth keeping in mind that many programmers of new music are looking to program something new-ish, or even get in as a consortium partner on works-in-progress. Always list the dates your compositions were composed, and always list works-in-progress with as much information as possible. I’m not alone in searching for new and developing pieces, and you want to minimize the chances that a work or project of interest is passed up.

3. News flash: people actually go to your website! I have a few times contacted composers who seemed like potential fits for my ensemble’s projects, only to find they were oblivious that half their site was down, or they hadn’t updated it in a year because “no one goes on my site.” If you’re going to go to the trouble to maintain a website, you should plan for the desired outcome and realize that someone who programs new music may very well stumble upon it—especially because many of us in the new music world are so excited by discovering cool works by fantastic unfamous people. Remember: a website that hasn’t been updated in over a year makes an unfortunate impression, and no one will be able to notice your newest pieces if they’re not listed on the site.
This is some real meat-and-potatoes advice, not particularly lofty or inspirational yet hugely important in terms of maximizing the music that composers have worked so hard at creating. My final piece of advice would be: wear as many hats as you can! Each time I explore another nook of the music world, I find myself not only enriched and refreshed but also armed with new experiences that shed light on all the others. Whether it’s as a freelance composer, blogger, teacher, curator, administrator, or any one of the many roles a devotee of new music might inhabit, assuming a distinct and different point of view can be one of the most illuminating experiences it’s possible to have.

When Worlds Collide

Since 2013 started I’ve been working on a new piece through the American Composers Orchestra’s “Playing it Unsafe” initiative, which allows composers to develop pieces that combine the orchestra with all kind of experimental approaches through a collaborative workshop program that ACO aptly calls “coLABoratory”. The other composers working on “Playing it Unsafe” projects have been cooking up all kinds of phenomenal sonic ideas, involving unconventional instruments, spatial placement of musicians, and innovative use of video. It’s been really cool to witness these pieces developing as the creative process takes the participants through all kinds of twists and turns.
Speak & Spell
My piece will combine the instruments of the orchestra with the glitched sounds of obsolete electronics, all in various states of disrepair and several circuit-bent especially for the project. Below is a toy that many children of the ’70s and ’80s will remember, the Speak & Spell—an educational toy that’s been modified to create maximal sonic mayhem.

One of the most interesting aspects of trying to combine the sounds of glitched electronics with the symphony orchestra is the clash of aesthetics. The Western orchestra is based on ideals of precision, balance, and unison playing, whereas the raw and frequently warped sounds of glitched devices are largely uncontrollable, as glitches are by definition unwanted mistakes. To elevate these sonic “mistakes” to desirable effects flies smack in the face of what the orchestra is all about: presenting tightly controlled and carefully rehearsed moments that in fact vary only slightly from performance to performance. By exploring musical beauty in the random and the transient, I’m hoping to at least momentarily break the orchestra from its normal mode of operating and default aesthetic point of view.
Playing it Unsafe
It’s been interesting trying ideas out in workshop sessions, because trying to make a somewhat controlled outcome from an inherently impossible to control sound source is something of a fool’s errand, the kind of doomed attempt at conciliation only a composer would suffer. Along the way, it’s become clear to me that the piece will work best if I build in a certain amount of flexibility and freedom to react into the orchestra parts, trying to make the orchestra looser while controlling the wild glitching more closely in an effort to cultivate that narrow middle range where all the sounds can happily interact without sounding like some electronic sounds fused onto an unrelated orchestra piece.

Another part of the project involves a live video that will pulse and react to the rhythm of the music, the work of an experimental filmmaker who is figuring out how to get microphone input to drive certain kinds of changes in the video over time. Combining performance with projected images or video is such a nice balance, and it’s fun to explore the ways the motion of the video can compliment (or run contrary to) the motions created by rhythmic bow strokes and other physical gestures from the performers. It’s a wonder that more orchestras don’t make an effort to include pairings of images and music, as it’s one of the truly effective ways to help draw an audience into a new sonic experience.
Visconti video
Seeing the carved wooden curves and traditional craftsmanship of the orchestra musicians’ instruments against the abstract pulses of color and light on the video screen, I was reminded how one of the orchestra’s greatest strengths is its ability to adapt to new approaches and ends for which it was not originally intended. There are few artistic institutions that would take the addition of so many experimental elements in such stride, and when given a chance the orchestra is absolutely capable of rising to the occasion, even in a straight-up collision with musical approaches and aesthetics that run quite contrary to the orchestra’s traditional role.

If anything gives me hope for the orchestra’s viability as a contemporary expressive idiom, it’s that. I hope that this country’s major orchestral institutions will pay attention to how much the orchestra can be expanded given just a little extra rehearsal time, and throw their immense budgets behind the kind of initiative that the American Composers Orchestra has bravely supported.
(The next coLABoratory session will be on January 22 at 10 a.m. at Flushing Town Hall, in case any NYC-area readers care to stop by; all session are free and open to the public).

Recycled Instruments

Most Americans have never seen anything like Cateura, Paraguay, a city built atop a sprawling landfill in which most residents subside by foraging, repurposing, and selling useful bits scavenged from the trash. And most readers would admit that this seems like a highly unlikely location for the formation of a community orchestra, given that in Cateura even a cheap factory violin is worth more than most houses.

Enter the Catuera Orchestra of Recycled Instruments, the subject of a new documentary film-in-progress aptly titled Landfill Harmonic. The orchestra is the brainchild of music director Favio Chavez, and a team of parents and community activists are creating new opportunities for work in an initiative to build musical instruments from recycled trash. The orchestra plays classical music and Paraguayan folk melodies and has even started playing music by the Beatles; check out the video below to see neighborhood kids performing on instruments created from oil cans, forks, meat hammers, and all manner of “useless” debris:

I can’t think of another endeavor that so perfectly illustrates music’s capacity for social transformation or, furthermore, that on the most fundamental level music is social transformation. Music director Chavez has noted the impact that the orchestra is having locally and internationally: “People realize that we shouldn’t throw away trash carelessly. Well, we shouldn’t throw away people either.” For the impoverished people of Cateura, making the most of the materials you have at your disposal is both a musical and social mantra.

American major orchestras are an expensive affair, with budgets for soloists, publicity, instruments and insurance, and performer salaries, selling equally expensive tickets. And let’s not forget one of the largest expenses: executive pay. It seems to me that both musicians and administrators might learn something from the Cateura Orchestra of Recycled Instruments about investment, sacrifice, and priorities. In the words of the orchestra’s music director, “The world sends us garbage. We send back music.”

Warts and All

VOLTI

Last month I had the chance to work with the exceptional San Francisco chamber choir Volti as part of the choir’s choral arts laboratory for nascent choral composers. The singers in Volti are all new music specialists, and director Bob Geary and longtime composer-in-residence Mark Winges have brought countless works to life during the ensemble’s past seasons.

Volti commissions works by more experienced choral composers such as Stacy Garrop and Armando Bayolo, as well as performing contemporary classics by Aaron Kernis and David Lang, but Volti’s choral arts laboratory is all about offering younger composers a chance to learn the ropes in a supportive environment. It’s an experience that any young composer would be grateful for, and as I’ve yet to write a “real” SATB choral piece I couldn’t be more excited about the opportunity.

This year, Volti decided to try something new: the big theater in town (the American Conservatory Theatre) had just opened up a new black box theater in Central Market, and Volti worked out an arrangement to use the space for an open rehearsal of new music. There’s a sense in which showing off a work-in-progress with all its warts to a roomful of strangers isn’t something that would make all composers sit up and exclaim, “Sounds good! Sign me up!” but I found the questions and response from the assembled audience to be provocative and ultimately very helpful. I sure wish that I could rehearse every piece several months prior to having it turned in; and even more wistfully, I wish that every ensemble I worked with was as invested, thoughtful, and eager to explore new ideas as Volti.

A.C.T.'s The Costume Shop, a 49-seat black box theater in Central Market

A.C.T.’s The Costume Shop, a 49-seat black box theater in Central Market
Photo by Dan Visconti

Which makes me wonder: Why don’t we do this all the time? The idea of a composition as a public work-in-progress (and composition as an act deeply integrated with the community it serves) is inherently attractive. It’s an opportunity for the composer to hone his or her craft, solving difficult problem while there’s still time. It’s an opportunity for the ensemble to connect to a new community of concertgoers, and an opportunity for the audience to follow the process by which a new work is created. And it does this in a way that deepens a sense of connection, in the same way that growing up with close friends or family members provides for a deeper knowledge that is the basis of intimacy. Why can’t workshopping a new composition be an important community event?

Finished products are great, but if we living composers have anything to offer that dead dudes like Beethoven cannot, surely it’s the creative process itself, which when it comes to the old masters can only be inferred indirectly. I hope that more arts organizations wise up to this approach to new projects, and also that presenters of music in particular will keep in mind that much of the value of engaging living composers has to do with so much more than the composition they eventually produce—those unseemly musical warts might have more value than the preened and often put-on affair of presenting painstakingly rehearsed works, cut off from the context of their own creation.

Sounds Heard: Mohammed Fairouz—Sumeida’s Song

Sumeida’s Song was completed in 2008, when composer Mohammed Fairouz was only 22 years old. Taking inspiration from Tawfiq al-Hakim’s play Song of Death, the opera follows Alwan (Mischa Bouvier) as he returns from Cairo to his hometown in Upper Egypt. Rather than fulfilling an ancestral blood-feud, Alwan rejects violence but ends up paying a terrible price for his efforts to bring enlightenment to the village, in a plot that echoes another Middle Eastern Passion.

For a first opera, Fairouz’s work is a brilliant synthesis of Western opera and Arab musical traditions—specifically, the microtonal inflections typical of Arabic maqam which Fairouz allows to take hold in the second scene onward. Written for operatic voices and Western symphonic instruments, Fairouz’s command of traditional operatic craft would be astonishing for a composer twice his age—and at times, the work sounds almost Straussian in its textured web of motifs; imaginative and rigorous and expressive yet very far removed from any sound world that might be considered even vaguely Arabic.

One reason for this is doubtless because much of the development in Sumeida’s Song takes place within the characters’ minds, hence the intensely psychological, almost expressionist tone developed in the final arias. Another reason is that Fairouz often reserves his Arabic inflections for moments of urgency and crisis, giving his use of quarter tones a specific and musical significance. Those looking for a glib and obvious film-score, Arab-American fusion will be disappointed by this work, which casts Fairouz squarely as a serious composer of concert music in the Western tradition more than a crossover phenomenon.

Fairouz’s orchestration likewise stems from traditional 19th-century technique but is always peppered with arresting timbres and subtly shifting textures that support the drama in myriad creative ways. The first scene begins with Alwan’s mother and aunt anxiously awaiting his arrival by train, with the shrill and sudden screech of the train whistle expressing volumes. Fairouz understands that colorful sounds have an associative and expressive capacity, and his use of the orchestra—though largely traditional—reveals a composer intent on making every sound contribute to the overall psychological drama.

The opera’s libretto is perhaps not its strongest suit, largely expository and at times clunky and ill-suited to Fairouz’s vastly more natural vocal writing. And at times, I found myself wondering if the composer had shown too much concern for avoiding identifiable Arabic influence—sidestepping one kind of compositional danger only to embrace a musical blend in which classical tradition, performance technique, and orchestration threaten to smother the Arabic elements for a good amount of the score. Yet Sumeida’s Song comes off as a compelling musical drama nonetheless, a statement of tragedy and hope that speaks to a universal aspiration: that humans might one day turn away from a legacy of violence.

Several of Fairouz’s recent compositions have received a lot of attention in part because of their timeliness and thematic relation to recent uprisings in the Arab world, but this opera in particular addresses ideas and emotions that have relevance far beyond the events of the Arab Spring. Expertly recorded and mixed by Bridge Records, the disc features fine performances from all four singers as well as a taut and finely detailed account of the score by the Mimesis Ensemble under Scott Dunn. Bridge has released several new operas in recent years, including works by Tod Machover, Bill Bolcom, and John Musto, and Sumeida’s Song proves that Mohammed Fairouz is a composer whose sensitive musicianship and personal vision suggests that he is likely to claim a similar niche in the operatic world.

Sounds Heard: David Keberle–Caught in Time

Drawing on his work from the decade spanning 1997 to 2007, composer David Keberle’s new album, Caught in Time, showcases six chamber works that blend microtonality, extended performance techniques, and rich textural writing into spacious soundscapes for 21st-century ears.

Keberle revels in many details of performance technique that lend his work a haunting, organic, and particular quality, yet he is above all a composer who paints with broad brushstrokes. The works featured on this release all have an unhurried, larger-than-life, at times epic quality; this is music driven by powerful seismic forces lurking under the surface, music about events that resound with a global sense of scope and impact.

The disc opens with Keberle’s Soundings II, a piece recorded by commissioning flutist Tara O’Connor and the Pittsburgh Flute Club flute choir. The piece is the second in a series of pedagogical works in which Keberle sought to provide a way for student and professional performers of varying levels the opportunity to meet in a masterclass setting and explore the still relatively uncharted world of extended techniques. (In his notes, the composer explains that, “like an iceberg, classical flute study contains many unexplored sonic possibilities that lie under the surface.”) This is a fascinating idea for an educational piece, but in the hands of a composer less artistically assured it could have easily come off as a pedantic catalog of performance techniques. Far from a technical exercise, Soundings II is a haunting composition that weaves all kinds of breath sounds, key clicks, and microtonal glissandi into a large music space that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Keberle’s Four To Go for Pierrot ensemble is cast in four miniature movements that bustle along with a sense of motion that is a refreshing contrast to the opening work’s unhurried wide spaces. Even working with movements of two or three minutes, Keberle seems to paint postcards that function as windows onto spaces more vast than can be contained within the boundaries of each miniature’s brief duration.

David Keberle is also a clarinetist specializing in new music, and he performs on two of the other chamber works featured here, including the 15-minute work for clarinet and piano titled Incroci (literally “crossover” or intersection, and the closest word approximating the term “crossover” in Italian). Keberle’s performance reveals his secure technique and imaginative sense of tone color—many of his microtonal fingerings alter the instrument’s tone even more than they alter pitch, and in Keberle’s musical universe it’s clear that pitch and tone color are interrelated at an almost organic level. One of Keberle’s great strengths as a composer is his understanding of how several seemingly disparate elements may be combined to create impressions of singular expressive power.

The disc concludes with settings of three Yeats poems performed ably by tenor Rob Frankenberry with Eric Moe on piano. It’s interesting to hear Keberle’s compositional muse channeled into a slightly more linear/narrative mold, and both composer and poet seem well-served by the encounter. A very active piano accompaniment provides most of the textural interest, with a surprisingly art song-like vocal part.

This disc represents my first encounter with David Keberle’s music and rarely have I been so taken by a composer’s use of time as aural and expressive space. Each of these works cultivates its own musical space: an atmosphere that belongs to that work alone.

Appetite for Composing

Most composers I’ve met hunger for all kinds of things: for opportunities to create certain kinds of pieces, for recognition, for artistic growth, for the chance to impact the world, or for just a little more of that sweet cash-money to pay the bills. It’s fair to say that we’re all hungry for something, or we likely wouldn’t have undertaken the many labors necessary to develop our abilities to communicate in sound; yet at the same time, we’re all driven by individual tastes and appetites when it comes to where we invest our creative energy.

Some composers I’ve met have a voracious appetite when it comes to creating and collaborating, but find they have little stomach for the less exciting grunt work that’s often necessary in order for current creative work to lead to future projects. Conversely, I also know a lot of “operators” who seem to relish clerical and organizational tasks more so than the creative process. What whets one composer’s appetite often has little resemblance to the preferences and desires that drive others.

And just like our urge to eat, the appetite for composing tends to fluctuate throughout life, the current year, and even over the course of a single day. I know many composers who awaken hungry for composing and love working best in the morning, before the creative muse is clouded by the many other concerns of daily life. I find I usually wake up with a taste for catching up on emails, phone calls, and other busywork (like copying scores and mailing stacks of parts). Once these preliminaries are out of the way, I usually don’t get the urge to do some composing until the evening—there is something about being “off the clock” that makes me feel creative, and the preceding hours of busywork are just the thing to work up an appetite for writing music. Many artists speak of the normal ebb and flow of creative cycles or “seasons” that culminate with the “harvest” of finished work and a pronounced “fallow period” where there is a rest from the incessant intensity of creativity.

When I first started out composing in high school, I couldn’t get enough—I was hooked! With a few pieces under my belt and the focused scrutiny of academia, I noticed this hunger starting to diminish. Part of this was a natural and healthy result of increased introspection and the desire to figure out what I’d try to tackle next. At one point later in my twenties I was alarmed to find that my zest for composing had almost dried up—I still consciously wanted to compose, but that genuine feeling of hunger was, for a moment, close to flickering out. After the singular focus on composing during my school years, what I needed most at that moment was to take a break. Spending too much time composing is just like spending too much time eating; without cessation at least for a brief time, one doesn’t ever feel those pangs of hunger and therefore can’t find satisfaction. After taking some time off, my typical ravenous desire to compose returned.

Composers, what are you hungry for? What is it that most sustains you when it comes to composing, and what parts of the experience do you find less palatable? What factors seem to impact your “hunger” for creating music?

Sounds Heard: Boiling Point—Music of Kenji Bunch

Nashville’s all-volunteer Alias Chamber Ensemble received a Grammy nomination last year for their Naxos recording of Gabriela Lena Frank’s Hilos, and this season the ensemble—which donates 100% of its proceeds to other community-based nonprofits—has already been hard at work on a new collaboration with Nashville Opera as well as promoting their new CD for the Delos label. The plucky and progressive ensemble reflects a certain homegrown, do-it-yourself spirit, and the decision to follow the Frank release with the equally earthy and folk-inspired music of Kenji Bunch makes for an inspired follow-up.

Bunch is a violist and former member of the Flux Quartet, and his performing and composing often inform each other; Bunch’s recent viola showpiece The Devil’s Box was premiered at last year’s SONiC Festival at Zankel Hall with the composer as soloist, weaving folk sources into notated music of exceptional energy, expression, and charm.

Boiling Point represents some of my favorite and most personal chamber music of the last decade,” Bunch explains. “These are the works that have led me to define my approach as a composer of what I like to call New American music. Just as we see a culinary movement that incorporates locally sourced ingredients and unexpected creative flourishes into traditional forms to re-imagine classic American dishes, I draw from regional vernacular musical elements, infuse them with avant-garde improvisation, Romantic lyricism, and classical forms, and humbly offer my idea of chamber music for the 21st century.”

The disc features nine tracks, although listeners are strongly encouraged to purchase the album’s digital edition which features a final duet between Kenji Bunch and ensemble cellist Matt Walker. The first work, String Circle, is a string quintet featuring Bunch on the extra viola. The work’s first movement, “Lowdown,” moves through several moods in less than five minutes, seamlessly transforming the simplest open string sounds into laid-back grooves. Folk-derived string techniques like slides, bends, and percussive “chops” lend the music a primal character. Bunch uses drones in more than one movement of the piece, and his music always has a strong tonal center. That’s perhaps because Bunch stays very close to his materials, exploring all kinds of possibilities within vernacular idioms, rarely blending them to noticeable effect and never holding them at a distance. String Circle is closer to Appalachian Waltz than to Bartók; it is folk music for classical players more so than a contemporary composition tinged with folk influences. It is music with an immediacy and authenticity that is clearly audible from the first measures.

Alias negotiates material both rough-edged and refined in this composition, capturing moments like the rickety, old-timey pizzicato fourth movement, titled “Porch Picking.” Surprisingly, for music with such a folk basis there isn’t as much outright soloing as one might expect, and the majority of the movements groove well below peak intensity. The final movement, “Overdrive,” is wilder and also draws from a crunchier harmonic palette than the other movements; it’s a great ending to a piece that serves as effective a calling card as any to introduce listeners to the range of styles Bunch has absorbed.

The next works on the disc, Drift and 26.2, find Bunch working in a less Americana-styled idiom; it’s refreshing to hear examples that blend influences more completely with his own compositional voice, yet at the same time I find myself more excited by the works that give themselves wholly and unabashedly to the particulars of folk techniques that Bunch utilizes so persuasively. Luminaria for violin and harp stands out among these less overtly vernacular works, with lots of fine dialogue and some exquisitely ornate violin playing over the work’s many trill figures.

Boiling Point for amplified string quartet, bass, and drums takes the album in a new direction, with more improvisatory playing from the ensemble and a more contemporary hard-rock feel. The work accompanies a teakettle, which is set to begin heating during the course of the piece, the whistle coinciding with the piece’s climax. It’s a clever idea that works well even without the visual cue, hinting at a path unexplored on the rest of the album.

For those who purchase the album’s digital edition, Double Down is likely the best performance of the disc, with playfulness, drama, and elan, kind of a distillation of all that String Circle has to offer. Bunch and cellist Walker engage in some friendly competition and some of the only real dirty playing on the album—it’s an electrifying mix of deft compositional choices and wonderfully intuitive soloing that also suggests the kind of skilled improviser/performer by whom Bunch’s music is best represented.

There’s a tension between the different approaches to integrating classical and vernacular traditions on this disc, and that’s why it’s so fascinating to hear Kenji Bunch at work with an ensemble as talented and dedicated as Alias. I’m curious to see whether he will likewise “double down” on any one style or notational approach or continue to explore a wide breadth of genres and approaches. The works recorded on this disc give a lot of insight into Bunch’s musical journey and the kinds of close collaborations that fuel his creative efforts.