Author: Molly Sheridan

Sounds Heard: Common Eider, King Eider—Sense of Place

It was hard not to reflect on Andy Doe’s record industry analysis while sorting through CDs this week, particularly the suggestion that “if a record isn’t unique, it shouldn’t have been made.”

There are plenty of unique albums out there, of course, but San Francisco-based Common Eider, King Eider’s Sense of Place is a particular standout in this regard. The physical product is actually a paired DVD and CD, the audio tracks included on each designed to be played simultaneously while footage documenting the building of a small cabin in Alaska fills the screen. The set also includes a 56-page softcover book almost exclusively devoted to images from that same Alaskan construction project, but also including a poem by Ben Chasny that might be a meditation on the merits of building a hut of one’s own, an outline of the genesis of the album (it almost reads like a score for the piece), or perhaps an even broader reflection on place and dreaming. Regardless, its admonishment that “one should always have a well built hut to keep an eye on the horizon” neatly compliments the piece contained on the discs in the separate folded paper packet.

It’s also where the words end, though in a sense the entire bundle taken together could be taken as more of a short story spare on words than a straight-up album. The unusual packaging of the project lends an air of mystery to the proceedings, like receiving keys and a map to an adventure of unknown parameters ahead.

While this is the first piece by Common Eider, King Eider that I’ve experienced, a perusal of their back catalog on their new website shows a deep affection for spare orchestration, slow evolution, amplified quiet. In Sense of Place, the ensemble (Rob Fisk, Blaine Todd, and Vicky Fong) keeps to that aesthetic, mixing an ambient score of male and female wordless vocal tones and whispers over a bed of distant organ drone, the character more ancient and haunted than necessarily delicate. The voices echo, sometimes muffled—frozen spirits calling across the snow-covered landscape as the images capture three people erecting a shelter among the trees.

The dual tracks (each emphasizes and/or compliments different parts of the mix as the work ebbs and flows) must each be started by the listener, make the recording alive in some sense, the slight variation possible lending an impermanent quality to each performance.

I will concede that visually, I wasn’t much of a fan of the work at first. The shaky, home-movie character disappointed me initially. It wasn’t beautiful in the way I was expecting it to be beautiful. On subsequent viewings however, my opinion did a 180, the style adding a kind of visual timbre to the piece and carving an additional interesting facet into this unusual travelogue. While the music moans closely to the ear, visually the audience is kept at arm’s length, observing either the very practical and rough ordinariness of building or catching glimpses of the landscape, the sun reflecting across vast expanses of crisp snow bed, mountains visible in the distance. As the piece moves towards its conclusion, I experienced a nervous tension in the isolated landscape. It was a relief whenever a person would appear in the frame.

Yet in the end, there is a fire going, a finished cabin, a shelter made—and, ultimately, an album constructed that’s part postcard and part poetry.

Sounds Heard: Duo Scorpio—Scorpion Tales

With Scorpion Tales, Duo Scorpio doesn’t require you to set aside all of your wedding prelude and garden party images of the harp before you hit play, but they are going to stretch those sonic ideas out of whack once things get going. This may be the sum distillation of the work included on this album—it doesn’t build barriers out of repertoire, but it does open quite a few windows in the library.

And that suits the broader mission of the ensemble quite neatly. When harpists Kathryn Andrews and Kristi Shade founded Duo Scorpio (they were both born on November 5, 1982, hence the astrological nod), they noticed somewhat of a hole when it came to contemporary repertoire for this instrumentation and set about trying to correct that absence through commissioning and arranging existing compositions. A portion of that work resulted in a Kickstarter campaign to record some of these pieces and promote them more broadly—an album that would ultimately feature three premiere recordings (including one commission) plus three other pieces for harp duo by contemporary composers. They exceeded their $12,000 goal and produced an impressively packaged collection drenched in the ethereal photography of Frances J. Melhop.

The disc takes its name from the nearly 15-minute work contributed by Robert Paterson (a commission by Duo Scorpio and the American Harp Society), each of its three movements a play off of the scorpion—animal, vegetable (hot pepper), and Greek mythological legend. Plenty of those iconic cascading harp lines run through each of the movements, but they appear in the mix amid intricately orchestrated moments, two harps and four hands filling the sonic image from top to bottom to deliver a neatly locking quartet-worth of sonic information. The play of harmonics, the dark and loose vibration of low strings, and the tight unison playing elsewhere accent the balanced clockwork-like integration of these passages.

Premiere recordings of Sebastian Currier’s Crossfade and Stephen Taylor’s Unfurl both take the harp out a few paces further into the stereotype-challenge, playing more aggressively with technique, rhythmic material, and slightly altered tuning. In Crossfade, quickly strummed repeated notes and patterns build a bed of nervous energy atop which each instrument rises and recedes, riding her own wave and offering sharp statements as she passes by, one often interlocking with the other in interesting ways. Where Currier was rhythmically adventurous, Taylor creates a floating (or perhaps drowning) world of unconventional harmonies. The retuning of certain strings is something his program notes suggest is an optional way to present the piece, but I can’t imagine the work not having this amazing color. Despite the sharp staccato of much of the delivery, this gives the same material an intriguing watery-edged gloss. For Caroline Lizotte’s Raga, the duo grabs a few extra-curricular percussion instruments and mixes in some Hindustani-flavored extended techniques in the harp lines, conjuring Indian colors that float in and out of the frame, accenting more than stealing the focus of the work. Perhaps we might subtitle this one “two Western harpists dream of the Subcontinent.”

Works by Bernard Andrès bookend the disc: the shimmering Le Jardin des Paons and the exotic Parvis. Both works, in their way, showcase the diverse range of timbral color that the harp is capable of delivering. If there was actually any question at the outset that the harp was the instrument of angels, fairies, and cocktail receptions, Andrews and Shade will likely have erased that notion by the close of the album (if they hadn’t succeeded in doing so within the first five minutes). Scorpion Tales is a showcase of way contemporary composers are finding their music within its timbral compass, and it’s likely to leave music makers and fans inspired to seek out more. I suspect Duo Scorpio will consider that appraisal mission accomplished.

Lembit Beecher: To Tell a Tale, To Sing a Story

When Lembit Beecher was named composer-in-residence with the Opera Company of Philadelphia (in collaboration with Gotham Chamber Opera and Music-Theatre Group of New York) in 2011, he didn’t bring a large portfolio of operatic work with him to the brand new three-year program. An instinct and affection for storytelling, however, already infused his compositions. Though he clarifies that he doesn’t often approach a piece programmatically, his music—whether for the operatic stage or for piano trio—often begins on a strongly emotional level, and its development is focused on how various elements interact and play off one another to achieve balance.

Raised in California with strong ties to his mother’s Estonian heritage and native language, Beecher went on to earn degrees at Harvard, Rice, and the University of Michigan—schools, he says, that seemed “pleasantly outside the loop” in that students were free to pursue their own interests, absent particular ideologies. Once he realized that even though he loved playing the piano, he didn’t love practicing, his focus began to shift towards writing his own music. “I don’t think I’m one of those composers who’s felt that I always had to be a composer,” Beecher admits, “but I’ve always been unhappy unless I was making something.”

He found himself particularly attracted to the subtle shadings that music can bring to the expression of emotion. “It’s seldom ambiguous but it’s always nuanced,” he explains, “and there’s always a sense of an emotion being incredibly deep and varied. More than writing or painting, it’s what speaks to me most vividly.”

He can follow this braid of music, emotion, and storytelling back to a childhood spent listening to his grandmother’s accounts of the occupation of her native Estonia, tales he equates with scenes straight out of a Hollywood movie. He built And Then I Remember, a 50-minute chamber opera, around the memories she shared. It’s a piece he describes as a “documentary oratorio—a combination of This American Life, Different Trains, and maybe a little bit of Les Noces thrown in there.”

By mixing recordings of her actual voice from interviews he conducted with instrumental portions and sung sections built out of arrangements of selected phrases, he was able to capture the “sense of legend” he felt as a child. “It doesn’t matter if all the facts are true [in the musical representation]; there’s something deeper that’s being expressed.”

Beecher has taken these lessons and is now applying them to his opera residency work. Not all stories translate well to the form. For Beecher, the best sources are not necessarily found in plays or novels, though admittedly he finds it hard to generalize. “Part of the challenge is not just what stories, but what parts of stories can best be expressed,” he explains. “Personally, the stories I’m drawn to have emotional clarity and deeply felt emotions.” Opera provides a way for him to frame those feelings for an audience.

It’s a task that he notes is particularly challenging when dealing with contemporary audiences likely to be turned off by the overt displays of sentiment common to the genre. Opera can be powerfully expressive, but as a result it can too easily come off as fake to a cynical consumer. It can’t compete with movies or even the straight drama when it comes to expressing reality, Beecher points out. However, “what opera can do is express an emotional reality that is in some way more true to our experience. The audience can then come along for the ride realizing that this is part of an inner experience of the world, rather than trying to show us what the world looks like from the outside.”

By putting on display what is rattling around inside our heads rather than flashing before our eyes, the listener accesses an experience that opera—even in an age of CGI and reality TV—is still perhaps especially suited to revealing.

Sounds Heard: Robert Carl—From Japan

I am already on record as an admirer of Hartford-based composer Robert Carl’s music. His compositional language, which to my ear mixes a nuanced experimentalism within organic phrasings, speaks to me on a deep and strangely (considering that all the pieces I’ve heard are wordless) philosophical level. It readily takes me to an existential thinking place. Given that, I admittedly approached his latest release on New World Records, From Japan, with high expectations.

The slow pacing of the opening composition, A Clean Sweep (2005), invites deep and careful listening to the tones of a single shakuhachi (played here with notable sensitivity by Elizabeth Brown), and it accomplishes this without ever inducing the feeling that the listener is trapped in an expensive hotel spa. This is attributable in part to the way the poetic breath of the instrument is held in sharp contrast against a metallic, whining drone of variable pitch, which keeps a steady twist of tension running through the work. The two elements tangle on equal sonic ground, the drone taking on the role of a dance partner rather than a chaperone. A second performance of the work closes the disc, for which the composer joins Brown in a shakuhachi duet of sorts, the two artists leaning into and away from each other over the drone, providing slight variations on a single melodic line. It makes for a naturally more complex and crowded reading, but also one filled with more warmth in the companionship of making it.

In between these neat bookends are three later works by Carl. In the course of its 16-minute run time, Bullet Cycle (2007) takes the listener on a journey that mixes recordings made inside Japan’s high-speed bullet trains with the sounds of acoustic musicians (two improvising soloists and a percussive time keeper, roles here performed by Katie Kennedy, cello; Bill Solomon, vibraphone; and Sayun Chang, percussion). The world Carl establishes drifts in more of a leisurely spiral than typical point-to-point travel, the music mimicking something more akin to a dozing passenger’s experience—uneasy sleep regularly interrupted by train announcements and noise, the passage of time and miles strangely difficult to quantify, personal thoughts mixed up with glimpses of passing scenery, yet always the rocking train encouraging the mind to drift until just before the destination is reached.

Carl incorporates recorded sounds from Japan even more concretely in his electronic installation Collapsible Mandala (2008-09), his sources ranging from chattering birds to aggressive explosions, from children at play to adults in prayer. Though designed to be expanded and collapsed to suit various programming situations, the piece is here presented in a 26-minute version. In addition to the various ambient sound sources—which are collaged into sections ranging from seconds to minutes in length—the work includes fast fades into significant periods of silence (sometimes more than a minute in duration) between scenes. My experience of this structure surprised me; rather than allowing me to sink deeply into the music, I felt it as an extreme surface tension, the image of the preceding section echoing in the suddenly enforced quiet while my ear strove to catch the beginning of the next; meanwhile, the noise of my own listening environment taunted me with distractions.

At the very heart of the disc is Brown Velvet (2009-10), a piece for bassoon and live electronics (performed for this recording by Ryan Hare with Aleksander Sternfeld-Dunn on laptop). Echoing elements of A Clean Sweep, the piece sets the woodwind against a deep drone of fluctuating pitch, its timbre this time more muted yet more ominous. Once again a deliberately paced dance plays out between the players, the drone supporting the movements of the bassoon, the bassoon made all the stronger in its ability to envelope the listener in the seductive richness of its tone. I never thought much about the dark beauty of the bassoon before, but this work makes it an unforgettable star.

Taken as a whole, the work included on From Japan may stand as a document to Carl’s multifaceted exploration of the intersection between American and Japanese musical culture. In much broader and perhaps simpler terms, however, it is evidence of how careful a listener Robert Carl is, and how generously he invites us all to listen with him.

The Education of Randy Gibson

Plenty of composers flourish within the halls and harbors offered by academia, developing their artistic voices and finding their professional footing; Randy Gibson understood pretty quickly that he wasn’t one of them. While his education now spans training in composition, electronic music, and percussion—including the study of Balinese gamelan, traditional Japanese music, and raga singing—only a portion of that instruction occurred within the confines of the typical classroom. After two years of part-time attendance at the University of Colorado, Boulder, his try at full-time composition study ended after two weeks.

“The university experience was not really for me,” Gibson admits with a shy laugh. A year later, he moved to New York and began studies with La Monte Young. “It was a much larger, more interesting education, I think, than I could have gotten at the school, and I’ve never regretted it.”

If the three-pages-and-growing list of compositions which now crowd his C.V. is any indication, it’s a path for which he need make no excuses. It is, however, one for which he offers a great portion of credit to the role Young has played in his development.

“As soon as I went to my first composition lesson with him, it really just opened my ears and my mind to what had already been present in my work,” Gibson recalls. “These repeated structures, these slow tempos, these longer statements—my studies with him really sort of freed me to be able to explore those and really take them as far as I could.”

The relationship proved to be “a perfect fit,” their first lesson beginning just after midnight and ending six hours later. Though Gibson began by studying composition with Young, that eventually expanded to include raga singing as well, providing additional revelations concerning the structure and the character of the music he wanted to write. He traces subsequent works such as his Aqua Madora (for just intonation piano and sine wave drones) firmly back to this study and the influence of Young, particularly the example provided by The Well-Tuned Piano.

While Gibson is careful not to simply co-opt the music that he’s encountered through his studies, the ritual of presentation in traditions such as raga singing speak to him deeply. Using lighting and incense, he surrounds his own audiences in an experience from the moment they enter the performance space. The compositions themselves explore form and tuning in a way that often leaves room for variation and further exploration with each performance. Out of just intonation, sine waves, extended durations, and close collaborations, Gibson is building a vocabulary for his work that has carried him deeply into a particular sound world alongside a special group of performers who are up for the challenge. This is particularly evident in the large-scale frameworks of pieces such as Doleo Æternus (for soloists, drone performers, and rhythmic performers [any variable pitched instruments] and computer; 90-120 minutes) and Apparitions of The Four Pillars (an evolving composition model for just intonation toy organs, variable pitched instruments, prime harmonic sine waves and harmonically related delay lines; variable durations). If these complexities mean the pieces are not destined to become part of the standard repertoire, that’s fine—that’s not Gibson’s goal. He’s looking, rather, to create a particular and immersive experience for his audience.

Yet even if the strategy of following “an all encompassing theory in which I can create new things” appeals to Gibson, he doesn’t need to yolk the audience with the details. “What I want to pursue is stuff that is beautiful and stuff that is powerful and emotional and is complex, but there’s a simplicity to it,” he explains. “The audience member doesn’t care if it’s the 81st harmonic or the 1331st harmonic. From the audience standpoint, it’s about how the music sounds.”

Admittedly, this may still not be for everyone. “But nothing is,” he acknowledges, “so why not just do the best that I can at what I really want to do.”

Additional video samples of Gibson’s work:

The Art of the $100 Guitar

Video presentation by Molly Sheridan
Image of signed guitar courtesy Steve MacLean

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Nick Didkovsky and Chuck O’Meara had something of a running joke going when it came to expensive guitars. The men would often taunt one another via email, trading ads for various high-priced instruments as they came up for sale alongside the suggestion that the recipient consider making the big ticket purchase. So Didkovsky says he was surprised to open “Subject: The Guitar of your Dreams” and find a link not to a $100,000 Fender, but to a nameless electric guitar going for $100 on the respected vintage guitar site Elderly Instruments.

“Maybe three or four of us should buy it together and share it,” Didkovsky fired back, but the joke turned onto a serious conversation, and he and O’Meara sent out a few emails to colleagues to gauge interest in a possible project. “By the next day, and this is no exaggeration, we had 25 guitarists on board who said ‘I would love to do a track with this.’ And we didn’t even own the guitar yet.”

On Oct 20, 2010, they made their buy. “It’s a very unique object,” Didkovsky explains, pointing out that the instrument’s one surviving pickup resembles an old radio. There is no brand name on it; though many have opinions, no one is really sure of its pedigree. And it has seen some wear and tear. “It’s replete with failures,” he admits. “You have to meet it on its own ground.” It’s the antithesis of guitar fetishism—it’s attractive because it’s so cheap.

Since that initial pitch, a wide spectrum of guitarists have responded to the siren call of the $100 Guitar Project, the players arriving through a network of friends and colleagues. No curatorial bar was set, no competition encouraged, no stylistic walls erected. It has been a community exercise, each musician taking ownership of the instrument for a week, encouraged to come to the project without preconceived ideas and to simply explore whatever the guitar suggests to them. Each participant is asked to record a short composition “that honors the guitar in some way,” then sign the guitar’s body (it now hosts archeological layers of signatures) and pass it on, often in person. After 65 participants opted in—enough music to fill a double CD release—the project stopped accepting more names. Bridge Records will release the complete set of recordings in December 2012.

“It’s really the story that is so beautiful about this,” says Didkovsky. “People have been very generous and that exchange has been spectacular.”

Tracking the $100 Guitar Map

Oh, the Places You’ll Go: Tracking the $100 Guitar

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Much like the initial call, Didkovsky sent out word that a NewMusicBox story on the project was being filmed (see video above) and, on less that 24 hours notice, he and five of the project participants crowded into his Midtown practice space in New York City for a chat.

Mark Solomon quickly honed in on the element of nostalgia that pervaded the project in his mind. “What touched me about this particular conception is that every guitarists on the planet remembers their first guitar; it’s like your first love. And it’s generally a piece of crap—a $100-ish instrument.”

Blowing up that idea of the uniquely personal experience with the guitar, Bruce Eisenbeil pointed out that the resulting compositions will give listeners the chance to explore the styles of all kinds of musicians. “This one instrument is being used as a mode of expression. What is it that informs all of these people at this time? How do they make music? Why do they make music?”

Still, was this a gimmick, a serious art project, or did it encompass elements of both?

Caroline Feldmeier wasn’t shy about admitting that she was “crazy, crazy obsessive” about her composition. “I received the guitar from Nels Cline. So I knew there was a very high bar, and I definitely wanted to produce something that would be consistent with the high level of talent that is part of this project.”

Jesse Kranzler agreed, pointing that he “had to take it seriously to some extent,” since he was more accustomed to working alongside bandmates than playing alone in a solo context. Still, he acknowledged, “it’s kind of hard to take it too seriously when it’s such a fun, light-hearted project.”

Distilling down the enthusiasm in the room for the scope and talent the project encompassed, Joe Berger said plainly, “I think it’s going to be one of the most talked about guitar projects when it comes out. I’m certainly going to be talking about it.”

For his part, Didkovsky seems to have recovered his investment and then some. “Putting it out in the world, letting networking take it over, seeing it tumble from hand to hand, player to player, and without guiding it too much seeing what came out…It’s enriched my life tremendously.”

Sounds Heard: Due East—drawn only once

I have been especially attracted to music that has a visual component of late. I get excited when concerts include film projections, and I often find myself reaching for the recordings packaged with DVDs first. I know there are those who would say that this reflects a childish inability to focus on recorded sound without fiddling with my cell phone. Admittedly, this may not be entirely off base, and visual presentations that accompany music can run the risk of simultaneously adding and subtracting (or sometimes only subtracting) from the experience. More often, however, I find that they provide a banister into certain new works on first listen and a kind of bonus poetry to music that is already familiar.

I got to thinking about all this again while listening to Due East’s drawn only once (late to the game, seven months after its release date—my apologies), a recording from the duo of flutist Erin Lesser and percussionist Greg Beyer, produced with a small cast of additional players. The album comes packaged as both an audio-only CD recording of two works by John Supko, as well as a 5.1 surround sound DVD which features accompanying videos by Kristine Marx and Don Sheehy.

To my eye, I couldn’t divorce the quick-cut style of abstract and processed imagery used in both video pieces from the way a feed of Instagram snapshots offers snatches of experience, shared and made romantic through filters and reinterpretation at a remove, half-glimpsed understandings of the intimate experiences of others.

This fit neatly with the push and pull of the music itself while leaving plenty of air in the room and sidestepping the idea that there was any sort of direct soundtracking occurring. Both pieces ride a disquiet of rapid motion that contrasts with a simultaneously delivered deeper meditative and exploratory spirit. (See liner notes for Supko’s discussion of his use of “tuned randomness” in the works, and a deeper analysis of how and why these aural images are created.)

The opening track, This Window Makes Me Feel, begins with a kind of inability to start, the closely mic’d shuffling pages and the stammer of breath the only sounds accompanying the visual images caught through (appropriately) windows, first bucolic and then urban in flavor (Hello, NYC pedestrians!). The narrator is hesitant to begin, apologetic even, and then she finally lets loose her rapid whisper of Robert Fitterman’s poem of the same name, only some of the words and phrases coming to the surface clearly—again, as with the visual, more of a half-grasped overheard confession than a message intended for the listener directly.

Beneath and around this 15-minute vocal bed, the breathing flutter of flute, the spare piano (David Broome) and percussion tones, the long pure notes sung by Hai-Ting Chinn (who makes an incantation out the work’s title) and plenty of ambient bits from the city streets ground the piece, anchoring the fidgeting admissions in the embrace of the wider, heavier world.

While the opening work carries a decidedly personal, perhaps even voyeuristic, and urban flavor, the latter, Littoral, feels both more outward looking and more expansive in scope (and not just because it clocks in at a lengthier 35 minutes). Here again the momentum to begin is slow to gain speed, the flute the most aggressive player in the fight to get free of the lethargy, though the percussion keeps at her heels. The tension ratchets up one notch at a time, and it’s not until more than eight minutes in that the first of the piece’s two text sources enters, recited by the author: Cees Nooteboom’s poem “Cartography (for Christina Barrosa)”. The flute and percussion weave in and around the language, reaching up and out until, in the middle of the poem, they suddenly fall, and the line goes fuzzy as if the listener has slipped out of signal range and a much stranger message in a bottle has drifted in to take its place. Up to this point in the work, the listener has been hearing (and seeing, for those watching along at home) allusions to large bodies of water, riding the sway of the current both by ear and by eye, but now a processed voice (the composer’s) narrates an excerpt from Richard Hakluyt’s The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques & Discoveries of the English Nation (2nd edition, 1598-1600). As this glimpse of an historical ghost fades back into the spray. Nooteboom’s poetry returns, the pulse is up, the character sharper and more insistent. By the piece’s concluding moments, the pace may have cooled down again, but it’s been a tough voyage and we are all dirty and out of breath, a little older than when we embarked.

Sounds Heard: Jherek Bischoff—Composed

Jherek Bischoff’s Composed is presented by its Brassland label as “orchestral pop,” and a quick review of his track-by-track collaborators—David Byrne, Caetano Veloso and Greg Saunier, Mirah Zeitlyn and Paris Hurley, Nels Cline, Craig Wedren, Carla Bozulich, Zac Pennington and SoKo, and Dawn McCarthy—makes that an obvious circle to draw. The project’s own PR points out that its “creation was informed by Jherek’s history of playing in indie bands (Parenthetical Girls, Xiu Xiu, The Dead Science and more), a fervent desire to make great pop music and a love affair with the potential of the orchestra.”

Now, if I never had to hear another clichéd discussion of “blurring genre lines” again, I would sleep just fine at night, but in this case it strikes me how comfortably Bischoff’s music achieves his stated goals—mixing and matching stylistic elements of both worlds and ending up with something uniquely his rather than just a gloss of orchestral color decorating a rock band. More than that, however, what really makes this orchestral song cycle stand out to my ear is the diverse range of timbral color the vocalists brings to their tracks (a few of which were co-written by the singer alongside Bischoff). Taken as an album-length work, the collection of unique voices Composed encompasses as part of its scheme is impressive; that it all comes together so seamlessly is a credit to the strength of Bischoff’s singular one.

Beneath these distinctive actors, the orchestra lays out an occasionally pointed but more often lush and sweeping sound bed, remarkable considering how it was assembled. According to the composer, the album was written on the ukulele and then recorded one instrument at a time using a single microphone and a laptop, with Bischoff traveling house-to-house (via bicycle, no less) to capture each part in various musicians’ living rooms. Aside from being an adorable backstory, it also makes Composed an interesting compositional project: a deep bag of puzzle pieces later assembled by the composer into (DIY-affordable) sonic images as memorable for their clever lyrical content as they are for the places their musical lines travel. Whether it’s the rhythms in “The Secret Of The Machines,” the harmonies of “Eyes,” or the tempos in the sparing duet that is “Young And Lovely,” each song is playing a game just a little more startling than anticipated. It’s an easy stretch of the ear that keeps things exciting, not a breach of expectation so severe that it provokes an aural confrontation. And if you find yourself inspired to sway along in time, I suspect the orchestra won’t mind the impromptu accompaniment.

Exponential: The Music of Zoë Keating

The Center Stage auditorium at the Reston Community Center
Reston, Virginia
April 14, 2012—6 p.m.
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Homepage photograph by Jeffrey Rusch

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When Zoë Keating takes the stage, her charismatic presence—a perfect balance of focused performer and welcoming MC—exerts a magnetic attraction. If you have heard Keating’s music on recordings or encountered it in TV commercials, you are already familiar with the immersive worlds she conjures with her cello, using digital technology to build up an entire orchestra of sound out of the timbres of this one instrument. In live performance, however, her stage persona (which I strongly suspect is not all that different from her real-life self) adds a beautiful gloss to the work she is presenting. Anecdotes about the genesis of the music, life as a touring musician, her love of pancakes, pull the audience into the experience, a background on which Keating then lays out her compositions with a serious intensity. Hearing Zoë Keating’s infectious laugh is in no way essential to appreciating the powerful music she creates, but it is perhaps crucial to best appreciating the artist who makes it.

This combination of compositional prowess and generous personal spirit may also be integral to understanding the successful DIY career she has built, which includes a largely self-managed touring career (she only began working with a booking agent a year ago), the sale of more than 45,000 copies of her self-released albums, and the astounding (as of this writing) 1,268,864 member community of followers she has attracted on Twitter (she’s on Twitter’s “Suggested User” list). Writers often refer to her as a one-woman orchestra, an avant cellist. It might also be effective to think of her as a composer who, with a chair, a cello, a bit of software, and some amplification, hopes you’ll join her inside the evocative aural spaces she constructs. To help you feel welcome there, she’s not afraid to introduce herself first.

As a result of her methods and her success, a lot of people want to speak with Keating about the business of making music, and she has been incredibly transparent about this on both her own blog and in industry conference sessions. However, with so much reporting already out there devoted to such topics, we chose to focus here on the music-creating side of this equation, digging into the “whys” and “hows” of her private work in the studio and her public stage performances.

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Molly Sheridan: When I speak with classically trained musicians, it often seems that the longer they study and the deeper they get into the repertoire, the more uncomfortable they become with the idea of making their own music. When you decided to make the transition away from being the classical cellist you had been trained to be, how did making your own music fold into that?  Was composition something that was already part of your life?

Zoë Keating: One thing that happened to me, and I think it’s true for some other people who are trained classically, is that there’s this long period where you have to give yourself permission to play your own music.  It doesn’t seem valid somehow; it doesn’t seem like real music.  It’s like, “Well, I’m just playing.  I’m making up this stuff.”  And I had a really long period of that, of feeling like there were all these different buckets.  There was the music that I would play that was classical—the stuff that I was learning, or that I was being judged on, or graded for. Then there was music that I listened to, which was mostly popular music, that I would sometimes try and work out on the cello.  And then there was the music that I would improvise or that was just my own.  And they were all very separate.

It was when I was in college and right after for a couple years where I started feeling like making my own music was maybe actually a thing.  It wasn’t just this way to let off steam. Initially, you know, I had this terrible stage fright, and I found that I could calm myself down by just playing open strings.  So I would sit at the cello and I’d close my eyes and just play open strings until my hands stopped shaking. I would play patterns, because patterns were this great way to sort of cancel out all the chatter in my brain—it’s almost like a meditation.

My composition really came out of that. I realized that the thing I was doing didn’t have to just be this way to calm myself down so that I could play this other music.  It could actually be this thing I could develop. Eventually that happened.  But it wasn’t like one day I woke up and said, “Egads!  I’m a composer.” I think I didn’t even start calling myself a composer until a few years ago.

MS: Really? What shifted that for you?

ZK: It was actually a reaction to being described as a cellist. When I was trying to describe myself, I realized I wasn’t just a cellist, I was also a composer. I think there’s this idea that composers write music down, and I think I thought, well, I don’t write it down, so I’m not really a composer.

MS: Well, you weren’t writing it down as a score, perhaps, but at a certain point you did begin developing and capturing your work using various technologies.  I don’t want to ask you to rattle off a complete list of all the gear you’re using on stage, but since this is such a significant part of your identity, I would like to know what some of the most important items have been as you’ve developed your sound.

ZK: Well, like everything else, it’s an organic process. I started out wanting to have maybe two cellos playing, and so I had some gear that would allow me to double what I was doing, like a delay pedal.  I explored the limits of that box. Then, I was like, now I want four.  So then it’s four; and then it was six; and then it was eight.  Everything I do, I’m just exploring the technology that I have on hand.

The vision I have in my head, the music that I want to make, is so vast and multi-dimensional, and the tools in this three-dimensional world are so much smaller than the music that I want to make.  So it’s a never-ending process; I’m still not there.  Right now, I’m using a computer. I can do up to, like, 24 tracks of cello. I can sample things and store them, and throw them back at the audience later. Now, I need to make it more fluid so that I can really improvise more with the computer.  If I think about it in advance, I can structure it so that I have places where I can improvise.  But it’s still very structured.  The technology creates a box for you to work in, which is a good creative tool, but then you reach the limits of it. Then you’re starting to add new technology and it’s very much a part of the writing. I think that struggle to make technology do what you want it to do, and to make it maybe do something it wasn’t designed for, there’s something interesting there. But then, I don’t like the technology to overwhelm the music. I need it, but I’m always changing.

MS: Do you find that you go looking for technology to match the sound in your head, or do you use the parameters of what the technology can and cannot do as a starting point, a creative challenge?

ZK: Usually I go looking for something that will allow me to do a problem. I have a problem: I really want to be able to have 16 tracks of cello.  What will allow me to have 16 tracks and record them and not have too much latency? Things like that.  So I’ll go looking for a tool, and I’ll use the software program that will allow me to do that.  But then as I’m learning how to use this program, I might discover something interesting that I wouldn’t have thought of.  So it’s definitely both. That’s what I mean by “I need the technology”—as a creative challenge.  But at the same time, I’m using it to problem solve.

MS: One of the things that’s interesting to me about what you’ve done with it, though, is that even with all the sounds you could make using the technology, you haven’t buried the sound of your primary instrument. You’re using it to amplify the cello exponentially.

ZK: Well, I love the cello!

MS: Can you talk about your relationship to the instrument and your attraction to this sound world?

ZK: I think the cello is the best instrument, I’m sorry.  Bassoon is pretty great; I love French horn—you know, no offense to other instruments! But I just love the cello. I was really influenced when I was in high school by this disc that I got—it was The 12 Cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic—and they were playing a whole bunch of stuff. I heard that sound, and I was like, “Oh my god!  That is the sound to end all sounds.”  It was this big, big sound. Also, when I was in high school and just taking lessons and classes at the Eastman School of Music, every Saturday all the cellists would be there and we would play ensemble music.  We would play Klengel’s Hymnus, or we’d play the Bachianas Brasilieras by Villa-Lobos, and that was really my favorite thing to do.  I could just do that all day.  So I just want to recreate that feeling of lots of cellos.

Except, I have my own musical vision that I’d like to make, and initially I didn’t have the finances or the ability to get a bunch of cellists to do this.  I couldn’t figure out how to translate my ideas to them.  The little experiences I had of saying, “Okay, just play it like this for like four bars and just vamp that, and then we’ll do this.”  Total blank stares—”No, you have to write it out, please.”  And I felt like that was really limiting.  The idea of writing something out, and then playing it, it just was all wrong.  I wanted it to be about feel, like this other emotional world that was more flexible.  So I just found it easier to do myself.  So when I’m layering up all those cellos, I still want them to be cellos. When I’m doing the actual recordings for an album, I have a lot of microphones all around me and I’ll put a microphone closer in a certain place to get a certain kind of tone.  Or when I’m playing live, I’ll bump up the EQ on some particular phrase so that it stands out.  Because the thing is when you have 12 cellos, you have to sort of differentiate, or you just have a wall of sound.

I just find it really interesting.  The cello can make an infinite number of sounds, and I infinitely prefer them to anything electronic.

MS: I know musicians and composers who work with technology and then struggle to keep playing works in their catalog as hardware and software continue to develop or break down. Some hold tight to keeping things as set as possible, but I’ve heard you say that you actually change your gear quite frequently. How do you keep playing the music that you’ve already written in that case?

ZK: Well, the music that I’ve already written is always evolving on stage. I have a piece called Frozen Angels. If you were to listen to that piece two years ago, and then listen to it today, they’re pretty different.  That’s because I have different technology I’m using.  I have different microphones.  My microphones change really frequently. Again, the cello has this beautiful sound, and the microphone is taking, like, a picture of it, and then giving that to the audience.  When I started out using Piezo pickups, that picture was like a photocopy. Then I was like, “Okay, this isn’t working,” so I started using contact microphones and that was like a color copy. Now I have some different microphones, and those are pretty good digital photographs. I want the audience to feel the sound of the cello the way that I feel it, and I’m still trying to get that.

Every time I even just change a microphone, that changes so much the kinds of recordings I make that then, of course, I want to change all the parts that stack up against those recordings.   It’s like the butterfly flapping its wings, and everything down the line changes. I’m playing a certain way because it sounds better or worse with the microphones I’m using.

MS: So you are actually going back and re-making pieces?

ZK: Definitely.  Oh, sure.

MS:  That’s quite a volume of work.

ZK: Yeah, it’s never ending.  It also keeps it interesting, though. When I make a piece of music for an album, I spend a lot of time making it the perfect thing ever that I want to hear.  And it’s really difficult to choose the one version that is the piece, because there are so many permutations.  At some point, I have to just choose one and develop that because it’s very time consuming.  The thing that makes me choose that one is usually some sort of artificial deadline, like I have only two weeks.  That’s how I get things done because that crystallizes all your decisions and I do that. And I always feel sad about all these other little musical children I had to leave by the side.  Some of them will turn into whole new pieces.  Other times, they’re just kind of like variations, and when I go on tour, I just let them develop.  So I’ll have an album version of a piece. Then, tonight I’ll play this piece called Lost and this piece called Seven League Boots and those are very different than the album versions because I’m just exploring other areas with them.  Also, because my technology has changed since I wrote them, I can make different kinds of sounds, or things like that.

I feel that there’s no reason for it to be stuck in time.  A piece of music is a snapshot of all of my past, with whatever is going on right now.  And it’s going to be different each day.

MS: I wonder if that would be surprising to a lot of people.  Looking at the gear you use on stage and how clean the presentation is, the audience could assume that you must be playing tightly to a set script for it to come off. But what is really happening in performance? How much flexibility do you have?

ZK: I have a lot of flexibility.  Sometimes it’s about how confident I’m feeling. If I’m feeling confident, I’ll really go far out there, you know, and the pieces will be vastly different today than they were yesterday.  Other times, I’ll have sort of a “this is the way that I’m doing them right now in this period of time” [version]—meaning this tour that is lasting three months.  There’s also this authenticity thing where, if I’m playing a piece and it’s not risky for me to do it, if it’s so easy because I know it so well that there’s not risk involved, I feel like I’m cheating the audience and I’m cheating myself. I’ll have a piece, and for a long time, I’ll try to make it as perfect as possible, this endless quest for perfection. I’ll really get into that, and I’ll make all the little parts as perfect as I can possibly make them, within the constraints of this one composition without changing it.  Just making the phrasing better and better and better and better.  It’s kind of like what we do as classical musicians.  Eventually I’ll have improved every little thing in there.  They’re all improved now.  They’re all where I want them to be.  And I’ll play it that way with great pleasure for a while, just enjoying that I’ve made it perfect now.  And then some day I’ll wake up, and I’ll be like, “This is boring!”  It’s perfect, but it doesn’t move me anymore.  And I want to be moved when I’m playing the music.  Then I start changing things.

MS: Since you’re not writing your pieces to short score and then orchestrating them out for an actual orchestra, would you briefly walk us through what is involved in making a new piece, either starting in the studio or even backing up further, depending on how it typically unfolds for you?

ZK: Well, when I’m making a piece of music, there are multiple places that I start from. I would say a good half of my work starts from me improvising. I’m just messing around, improvising. I’ve got all my technology around me, and I’m sampling things. I’m just playing, and I’m having a great time.  Usually when I do that, I don’t actually go back and listen to what I did.  I’ll have some memory of what I did, and that will stick with me.  So a couple days later, I’ll have something in my head, which is a memory of what I did, which might not actually be it.  That memory becomes a foundation for everything, so it’s sort of this thing in my imagination.  Then I just try to make that thing. I might go back to the original recordings that I made and take some of them in, and put them into my software that I’m using, and then start playing against them. I make a ridiculous number of tracks—like, 60 tracks of cello, just a huge thing. I make this big cathartic mess, which is totally overwhelming. I get totally swept away—I just love it.  I love it.  I love it.—And then I start taking it away, and that’s the process.

MS: How long does that take?

ZK: I tend not to do things very linearly, and I’m often working on multiple pieces at the same time.

MS: So you might have 180 tracks floating around and any one time.

ZK: Yeah, I have drives and drives and drives of material.  Often then I start sort of pillaging and putting them in other projects.  I have this one piece called Last Bird. There’s actually only eight parts in there. I made this piece over the course of two weeks and recorded it. That’s a great example: I had a deadline, because it was something I had to write for a movie, and I had two weeks to do it, so I did it.  Other pieces, like Escape Artist, that one was made for a performance. I had to premier a new piece on a certain day, so I made it.  I made it to be a live work.  That one took me about two months to figure out the piece, and also how to program it so I could perform it live; that was done simultaneously.  Other pieces are very much studio creations, and then I figure out later how to do them live.  And in the figuring out, I might change it.

MS: Then is the digital file—for whatever software you happen to be using—the score essentially? When you have to go back to older material, is that what you refer to? Or, considering how you like to work, are all your scores more like memories?

ZK: They’re just memories, which is why sometimes they’re different. I like that feeling, when you hear something on the radio, and then you’re left with a memory of it and you’re like, “Oh, that was such a great melody,” whenever you’re singing it.  Then, when you actually someday go back and listen to the song, it might actually not have been that melody.  That’s definitely how sometimes I interpret my own work. I have a memory of the recording that I made two years ago and I’m going to make a live version of it, so I’ll do it based on my memory of it.

Actually, for my last album, I did all of this recording and made all these pieces, and then I moved.  We moved from San Francisco to Portland, and we were staying with my husband’s parents because we were trying to find a place to live.  Then we moved back to California, and during that process, I lost a drive. I was on tour with Imogen Heap at the time, so I was just all over the place, and I lost my main drive of music. It was funny because I use Ableton Live, and you have to be really careful to collect all your samples.  If you don’t collect all your samples into the same location, you open the file, and you can see the lengths of them, but the samples are not there.  In my haste, I had put everything on a drive, and I had not clicked on all the samples.  The shells were there, but there was no audio in them. I was really devastated by this. Then in 2009, I was like, well, I’m just going to have to recreate them all from scratch.  So I recreated these six pieces from my memory of what I had done two years before.  Then, when I had a studio—because during that time, 2007-2009, I didn’t have a studio to work in—that was my album. Then after I released the album, I went back and I found the drive. Those pieces are nothing like what I made.  So that’s my next album!

I did have an interesting experience a couple of weeks ago. I played with ODC Dance in San Francisco at Yerba Buena, and we had five performances with the ballet dancers.  When you’re doing something for dance, it has to be the same every time, and that’s what’s hard about it. I can’t just be doing my usual self-indulgent thing of playing music, because they need to hear it—they’re getting ready to launch themselves across the stage on this particular phrase. That’s where I practice the most sometimes.  I had to practice for like for a week straight, just every single day, to make it the same.  Half the performance was me solo, and for the other half, I hired a string ensemble.  So I had six string players and a marimba player with me.  And that was a real big challenge because they had sheet music. They absolutely were not able to just riff or just do it from the recording.  It had to be written down.

MS: They had sheet music that you provided. So you can work that way.

ZK: Yeah, they did, but that was a very strange experience—to go out there and play the same piece every night, exactly the same way, off of music.  I was like, “Wow, that’s so weird!” though that’s what I always used to do [as a classical musician]. But it felt very odd for my own music to be written down on a piece of paper.

MS: You mentioned Imogen, and I know that you said when you were on tour with her that you knew you would lose the audience if you didn’t quickly convince them at the beginning. Your performer side and your composer side might have had different needs in a situation like that. How did you navigate?

ZK: Often I trust my own judgment with things, but I do feel like live is a very specific situation.  It’s all about the environment that you’re playing in, and that the audience is in. In certain situations, you just cannot take a million years for a piece to develop.  It’s just not going to happen in that format.  So I saw it more as a fun challenge: Okay, how could I keep my artistic integrity, but also make it more interesting for the audience? What would be fun to do?  So it was another little artistic challenge, just like having a new piece of gear.  It was like, “Oh, okay, I’ve got an audience full of 15-year olds with cell phones and I only have 60 seconds to win them over.” I definitely saw it that way.

Because I decided not to go the standard classical path, usually playing in a concert hall was not open to me as an option. I had to play in rock clubs.  If I wanted people to hear me, I had to be in an environment where I’m opening for a pop star, perhaps, and I’m playing in a nightclub.  And those are different artistic parameters. I didn’t feel like it was a non sequitur for me, also, because I grew up in the ‘80s. I listened to songs. I felt like it was actually more of a challenge to make something short.  On my own in the studio, I can make a 20-minute cello extravaganza, but it’s actually harder to make short things, I think.  So it’s like, “Okay, I have to do this all in seven minutes; that’s my boundary.”

There are times though when I make something, and I’m just like, you know, take it or leave it: this is the piece.  For a live performance, I definitely think about what makes a good show, because it’s not just me up there, in my own world.  We’re having this whole experience, and so it really, really matters to me that you have a good time. Or not “have a good time”—that makes it sound too light.  It’s more like I want us to escape time; that’s my goal.  Music is this thing happening over time, and when it really works, you lose the sense of time.  Was that a minute, or was that an hour? That’s a good musical experience, and that’s what I’m going for. I want to take you out of your little linear path along time. I’m doing that for myself as well as for the audience.

MS: Does the fuel for that creative impulse tend to come from extra-musical stuff, or is it you in your studio with those bits of pure musical experimentation that you’ve already described? Is there something larger than that that you’re drawing from, or looking to communicate?

ZK: No, I’m not. It’s definitely very abstract.  It’s more of an experiential kind of thing.

MS: You’ve said you have trouble even titling pieces, because you don’t want to make them concrete in that sense.

ZK: Yeah, because I don’t know what they are, and I change them all the time.  Also, if I say this piece is this, well then that piece is going to have to be that for me tomorrow, too, and it might not be.  It’s like I’m an abstract expressionist, except that it’s not very abstract.  It’s very specific. I’m just expressing this sort of thing, and I try not to get too big about it.

MS: You might have too much groove to be an abstract expressionist.

ZK: Yeah, that’s what I mean. I think of my emotional landscape that way, but it’s much too organized. I’m really drawn to the minimalists, and I love that sort of order, but I’m not that ordered.  I’m too messy to be a proper minimalist.  Sometimes I feel like I have the most in common with a sort of instrumental post-rock, like Sigur Rós or that kind of stuff. I think if you were to cross that cathartic, instrumental post-rock with minimalism, maybe that’s where my landscape is.

MS: Many of your previous interviews focus on the business side of the career you’ve built for yourself and the ways in which you’ve leveraged technology and DIY methods to connect with fans and sell records. [Readers who want to dig into that further should check out Keating’s online talks, such as this one, which she delivered at MIDEM in 2012.] We’re focusing more on the music-making side of your work in this conversation, but I did want to ask you one DIY question:  You’re obviously a very charismatic, bracingly honest person, and that’s reflected in things even as simple yet as public as your Twitter feed. But unlike most people, you have a million plus followers—a huge audience to be regularly interacting with! Do you feel the need to set certain boundaries to protect yourself emotionally or is that kind of exposure the price you have to pay to be an independent artist in 2012?

ZK: I get that question pretty regularly—how to manage all that stuff—and I feel like I don’t ever give really good answers because I don’t think about it. At the same time, I’m actually really private, so I do have some sort of unspoken rules. I try to reveal as much about me as a person, doing my job here in the world, but at the same time I don’t want to expose my family to constant scrutiny. I think that I’m sort of lucky, in that the kinds of people who are interested in me are very respectful, and so I don’t experience any sense of intrusion from anyone else.  It’s more like, “What do I feel like sharing today?” I try not to over share; I’m not going to talk about crass things.  I’m just not going to go there.  So it’s definitely curated, but it’s not over-curated.

I feel like in order for me to exist, I need to interact with other people. I’m too isolated otherwise. I’m just this woman in her studio with a cello and a computer, and it feels kind of lonely. The act of sharing things with other people, and then they’re participating, I need it in some ways. When I was making my last album, and I was pregnant and trying to finish it before my son was born, I was spending hours and hours and hours down in my studio, just mixing and mixing and mixing—it’s a really laborious process. I found that I’d have a really intense mixing session, and then I would let off steam by using Twitter to interact with people. I totally needed it, and then I would feel refreshed and inspired, and I’d come back.  However, if I would go down to hang out with some friends in person, that would be so draining for me that it would sap all of my energy, and then I wouldn’t go back into the studio.  So it’s this thing, forward and backward, where I want to tap into the stream of human consciousness and interact, but then I want to get what I need from that and go back to being creative.  When you’re creative, it is kind of an isolating thing, because you have to figure out what is you.  Often having lots of dinner parties is not conducive to that, even though, left to my own devices, I might have dinner parties at home almost every day. I think we’re really lucky that you can have these tools, but I do know people and it gets in the way for them, so that they can’t be creative.  That’s just not how I am.  For me, it’s the opposite: they allow me to have interaction with people, but without getting in the way.

MS: Speaking of being left to your own devices, you’ve had the opportunity to play in so many unique situations.  However, where do you most like to make your music?

ZK: Well, that is an interesting question because I feel like I’m really struggling to find the right venue. There’s sort of these two extremes.  We have the concert infrastructure of America that was built for the Baby Boomers, the concert halls with the seats.  Then we have clubs, with the bar in them. I don’t really feel like either of those fits for me.  I feel like there’s some whole other architectural environment that I need to be in. This is my next project; I want to try to make the perfect performance environment.  My ideal space, it’s almost like everybody’s just sort of reclining on bean bags.  We’re going to talk, and I’m going to play music for you.  Then we’re going to have an intermission and we’re going to hang out, and then some other artists are going to play, and it’s going to be really interesting.  And because it’s this relaxed environment, people can maybe be a little more experimental as musicians.  Then I really want it to be about community. I often find that a lot of the people who come to my concerts are people that I wish we could just hang out, out in the lobby, for like an hour or something.  But it never really works out that way.

I was just talking with someone actually about the amount of wasted space that there is in America, places that don’t necessarily have places to hang out or cafés, and it might be kind of neat to go into town with your semi trucks. You’ve got the bean bags in one truck, you’ve got the portable café in the other truck.  Take over the abandoned strip mall and make it a place for art and ideas where we can listen to some music and then talk about urban planning—lectures and music and that kind of thing.  I feel like that’s the place where I exist, but I don’t know if it exists.

Sounds Heard: Meehan/Perkins Duo—Travel Diary

If I’m completely candid, the two large dinosaurs dominating the cover were what first attracted my attention to Travel Diary, a CD of works for percussion duo composed by Tristan Perich, Nathan Davis, David Lang, and Paul Lansky. Flipping the jewel case over to find the image of an airliner cruising through the clouds, I couldn’t imagine what sort of Jurassic Park-meets-Lost storyline this music might be treading. But was there any way this album could end without someone being eaten alive?

Ultimately, of course, it was the artistry of Todd Meehan and Douglas Perkins, the two percussionists behind this title, and not the surreal illustrations which truly hooked my interest. Opening with Tristan Perich’s work for crotales and six-channel 1-bit sound (the composer’s aural calling card), men and machine show themselves to be well paired. If you have ever lain awake in a canvas tent during a light rain, you can conjure a hint of the sound world Perich has created in Observations, the bubble-pops of tone relentlessly sparkling throughout the track’s nearly 12-minute runtime. The span of pitch being rather neatly fixed, the real game to watch here is in the intricate play of steady rhythmic evolutions.

Where Observations keeps up a hummingbird’s pulse rate, The Diving Bell by Nathan Davis stretches the line out to cast an echoing shimmer. Using microphones and electronic processing, the work demonstrates just how exotic and fascinating a sound world lives inside a simple triangle. David Lang, on the other hand, blows up the palette to encompass entire racks of instruments, all of which sound in Table of Contents (the title mirroring Lang’s original image of how the instruments would be laid out for performances).  In this case, the music is drawn in the contrasts of timbral color.

The Meehan/Perkins Duo performs an excerpt from Paul Lansky’s Travel Diary (Movement III: “Lost in Philly”)

Meehan and Perkins devote the bulk of this record to its namesake, Paul Lansky’s Travel Diary. A work in four movements, Lansky sets the stage in the opening “Leaving Home,” which is part “hmm, what shirt should I take along?” leisurely mallet work on marimba and vibes and part “oh my god, what the hell did I do with the damn tickets” anxiety, the deep echo of struck drum heads speeding the beat of the listener’s heart in sympathy. In the end, it’s out the door and on to “Cruising Speed,” the time and miles ticking by in a steady stream. The road is not always smooth (the drums again stepping in as the disruptors) but it is in the third movement that the composer, the music, and therefore the listener all find themselves “Lost In Philly.” The emotional undercurrent here reads primarily as curiosity to my ear, with only shades of nervousness over the sudden dislocation. If Lansky had found himself lost in Pittsburgh, I suspect that balance would have been swapped and it would have been quite a different composition. The piece lands on “Arrived, Phone Home,” the landscape perhaps less familiar, but the goal safely achieved. Throughout the journey, Lansky’s subheads imply the route, but the music itself delivers postcards to the ear that leave plenty of room for listener exploration.

According to the ensemble, this album was intended as a way to showcase the duo’s “on-going efforts to commission and collaborate with an eclectic mix of contemporary composers to create a new and unique body of percussion duo repertoire.” In this case, I’d say the goods on offer each sound so intriguing that I’d volunteer to play them all. At least until I remember that I don’t actually play percussion. For those who do, I suspect you’re going to discover something you might want to try out for yourself.