Category: Listen

Sounds Heard: Douglas Detrick—The Bright and Rushing World

Album cover for Detrick's The Bright and Rushing World
Douglas Detrick’s Anywhen Ensemble
The Bright and Rushing World (Navona 5955)
Douglas Detrick—trumpet, composition
Hashem Assadullahi—alto & soprano sax
Shirley Hunt—cello
Steve Vacchi—bassoon
Ryan Biesack—drumset
Recorded September 15-17, 2012 at Firehouse 12 Studios (New Haven CT)

Longtime readers of this site should recognize the name of Portland-based composer/trumpeter Douglas Detrick from an overview on the creative music scene in his hometown he contributed a few years back and a subsequent report on the Chicago-based EveryPeople Workshop.

I first became acquainted with the music he composes and performs with his eclectic trumpet/sax/cello/bassoon/drums quintet, the Anywhen Ensemble, through the group’s second album called Rivers Music, which was released the same year that Detrick wrote those NewMusicBox articles. That disc consists of just one massive sprawling track lasting over 40 minutes which begins with Feldman-esque pointillistic drone exchanges between the four melodic instruments before the drums introduce a rhythmic element and then gradually take it to something more frenetic and impassioned. Both in terms of his composition and his ensemble’s performance, it was a true hybrid of the aesthetics and sensibilities of (to use genre terms many of today’s most forward-thinking music makers would rather eschew) jazz and contemporary classical music. It’s somehow straight down the middle. Cello and bassoon immediately send a subliminal message of “that’s classical” while saxophone and drums shout “this is jazz,” even though there have been valuable improvisational contributions made on the bassoon and the cello and a now significant body of score-based repertoire for the saxophone (though not so much for drumset). It’s telling that the trumpet, which has had an important audible impact in both worlds, is Detrick’s instrument.

His third Anywhen Ensemble album, The Bright and Rushing World, has just been released on Navona and offers the same broad range of musical possibilities though it is parsed into ten separate chunks. Well, not exactly. Detrick conceives of it as one piece over which he labored for the better part of a year, the various sections are just convenient markers. As if to further make listeners aware that it is an integrated whole, the titles for each of the ten sections are actually the lines of an original ten-line poem:

The door is open
And you watch as he goes out
A seeker, insubmissive
Into the bright and rushing world
Who, over the years in your care
You never thought to give a name
You gasp and ask aloud
How can you live without a name?
A question so weightless it floats away
On the wind of his leaving

But since Detrick offers these ten divisions on the CD, it seems as good a way as any to navigate through the listening experience. “The door is open” begins with just the trumpet alone. Over the course of the first minute, spare embellishments from drummer Ryan Biesack build gradually into something more clearly foregrounded and then the remaining horns enter in a quasi-chorale, though still ceding center stage to the trumpet. “And you watch as he goes out” begins with a long low note played by bassoonist Steve Vacchi which is immediately answered by the other horns before a drum solo kicks in amid Shirley Hunt’s pizzicato cello, mimicking the role of a jazz bassist. By a minute in, though, the cello, now arco, has become the primary voice, offering sweeping melodic lines that are periodically interrupted by outbursts from the various horns, sometimes in tandem, sometimes not. Here’s what some of his music looks like on paper:

Detrick-Bright & Rushing World score excerpt

An excerpt from Douglas Detrick’s score for The Bright and Rushing World. Copyright © 2012 Douglas Detrick and reprinted with permission.

At the onset of “A seeker, insubmissive” the bassoon repeats a five-note ostinato over which the other instruments add layers of counterpoint. But for “Into the bright and rushing world,” the drums initially set the tone, receding into the background or dropping out entirely when other instruments grab the spotlight with brash and harried musical gestures. The bassoon briefly takes the lead, but is quickly shouted down. About half way through, trumpet and saxophone take the center stage, moving in parallel motion as they might in a head on a hard-bop recording from the 1950s, though not for long. Eventually all dissolves to just the cello wandering pizzicato across the open strings, its cycle of fifths ringing out.

“Who, over the years in your care” continues with just pizzicato cello, though now playing more linear material over which the saxophonist Hashem Assadullahi folds a melody soon joined by trumpet and bassoon with the drums keeping everything under control. “You never thought to give a name” opens eerily with just a series of quiet, breathy cello harmonics that then lead into a more rhapsodic tune, though still unaccompanied for roughly the first minute. Others enter briefly and then the bassoon takes the lead in more angular melodic shapes.

“You gasp and ask aloud” starts with what is probably the most sublime drum solo on the album. Again, as with the earlier spotlights on individual members of the ensemble on this album, it’s about a minute long. The horns, in tandem, introduce another chorale-like tune, but the drums never stop being the main focus. A spare open fifth leads directly into the more introspective “How can you live without a name?” in which the bassoon is really given an opportunity to shine with some fancy cadenza-like figurations.

“A question so weightless it floats away” begins as a call and response between the cello and the trumpet with the drums serving as an intermediary. The other instruments then join in the ensemble interplay. Breathy harmonics return on the cello as well as other extended techniques which usher in a plethora of otherworldly squawks from the other players. Finally, more harmonically directional contrapuntal activity returns with each instrument blending together like threads in a complex tapestry, eventually dropping out except for the cello, which offers one final dirge-like flourish. At nearly 12 minutes, it is the longest piece of this massive sonic puzzle. Saxophone and bassoon trade motives at the onset of “On the wind of his leaving” over which the trumpet eventually weaves a tune that is somehow a cross between a fanfare and a lullaby.

For folks still wanting more—I know I do—Detrick’s generous website offers tons of ear candy. Walking Across, the very first Anywhen Ensemble album, is offered in its entirely. There are also recordings by his earlier group, The Turning Point, which he describes as playing “eclectic pop material,” but to my ears it just sounds more firmly rooted in jazz than his more recent sonic explorations. Tantalizingly, one page embeds a Soundcloud stream of a series of excerpts from a session in which Anywhen collaborated with pianist Wayne Horvitz in a fascinating reimagining of traditional American folk material; it’s a sneak preview of a full album that will be released in the coming months. Next year Anywhen is embarking on a nation-wide tour. I plan to attend at least one of their gigs!

Sounds Heard: These Just Out

The Puppeteers: The Puppeteers

It’s a charming, slightly romantic notion that musical collaborators who began their friendship at a much-loved performance space would later unite to form a group after that venue has come and gone as a tribute of sorts, but that’s exactly what The Puppeteers have done. In memory of the Brooklyn club Puppet’s Jazz, which closed its doors in 2011, drummer Jamie Affoumado, pianist Arturo O’Farrill, bassist Alex Blake, and vibraphonist Bill Ware have all thrown their creative ideas into the same hat and recorded their self-titled first album. The release is also the premiere recording offered on their new label Puppet’s Records.
All of these musicians have individually made so much music with so many different and amazing groups that I’m not going to venture to list them (although in the “we are all connected” department, it is worth mentioning that Bill Ware was a 2003-4 Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute participant), but suffice it to say that the strength of this album lies in the fact that everyone has contributed their own tunes; there is no bandleader. Because the musicians have played together so much, the music is varied without seeming disjointed, and the balance between instruments—especially the agility with which the instruments move between background and foreground to allow for the featuring of solos and prominent lines—is so fluid that the listener barely notices such shifts of texture until they have already taken place. From O’Farrill’s blazingly fast piano lines and Ware’s similarly propulsive vibraphone playing to Blake’s quiet, tuneful scatting over bass improvisations and Affoumado’s exacting-yet-still-relaxed drumming, it’s easy to hear that the four are having a blast playing together, and it’s most definitely a fun and energizing listening experience.


Michael Gordon: Rushes
Hitting the streets just today is a commercial recording of Michael Gordon’s composition Rushes for seven bassoons. Named after the tall grass that is reminiscent of the materials from which bassoon reeds are manufactured, Rushes is a triathlon—the piece is written in three parts; two 20+ minute sections sandwiching a short seven-minute movement—of constant musical motion; wave upon wave of repeated tones constantly wash over one another in a multilayered tapestry of darkly beautiful harmonies. It is at first warm and then, over time, becomes somehow electronic-sounding, but without losing the sense that humans are behind the music. (And don’t forget to check out the score and assorted insights into the production of the work.) Like his previous composition in the same vein, Timber, this piece is intended to evoke an ecstatic, trancelike state, and also to “expand the boundaries of a single instrument’s repertoire into hitherto unknown (and at times, otherworldly) spaces.” Mission accomplished.

Order from Cantaloupe Records

Joseph Kubera: Book of Horizons
With more than thirty years’ worth of musical contributions to the American contemporary experimental music scene, pianist Joseph Kubera has pretty much played, well, nearly all of it. He is known for unrelenting precision, stamina, and patience—qualities all required to master some of the most challenging piano works of our age, such as those by Feldman, Ashley, and numerous pieces by John Cage, to name just a few. He also has wide-ranging tastes, which are demonstrated on his new album, Book of Horizons released by New World Records. Two of the works, “Blue” Gene Tyranny’s 1994 composition The Drifter and Michael Byron’s 2009 Book of Horizons, were written especially for Kubera, and he has grouped them with Julius Eastman’s Piano 2 and Stuart Saunders Smith’s Fences, In Thee Tragedies. The music spans the lush to the thorny, and the textures range from sparse to brick wall density; the recording below of the first movement of Michael Byron’s Book of Horizons conveys the sonic cognitive dissonance of unceasing tangled fingerings that nonetheless sound strangely effortless.


Sounds Heard: Zwerm—Underwater Princess Waltz

Zwerm—Underwater Princess Waltz

Underwater Princess Waltz: A Collection of One-Page Pieces (New World 80748)
Featuring work by: Karl Berger, Earle Brown, Alvin Curran, Nick Didkovsky, Joel Ford, Daniel Goode, Clinton McCallum, Larry Polansky, and Christian Wolff

I have a “less is often more” world view, and in keeping with that ethos I’ve long found something particularly engaging about “small” art—eight-inch canvases, brief poetry—as if the space constraints actually cleared more room for a spectator to form a deeper, interactive connection with the work at hand.

So it was easy for me to fall into the concept of Belgian/Dutch electric guitar quartet Zwerm’s release Underwater Princess Waltz: A Collection of One-Page Pieces, since in a way they were developing that sort of relationship with the included music. In each case, the quartet began with the parameters of the piece presented through these brief scores, and the recoding then served as a document of their own exploration and dialog, both with the work at hand and with each other.

Their release of pieces by American composers on New World Records provides that label’s typical brand of thorough booklet notes. For the curious, Amy C. Beal explores the pieces one by one, with each of the scores reproduced for the listener to examine—works that rely on everything from more-or-less traditional notation to what one might characterize as “Marvel comic super heroes battle a graphic score” (h/t to Nick and Leo Didkovsky for that one).
The increasing circular chaos of Joel Ford’s Gauss Cannon (2006) opens the disc before the wistful sweet romance of Alvin Curran’s Underwater Princess Waltz and Her Waltzing with Her (both 1972) take over—a bowed saw adding the liquid character to Curran’s tracks.

Zwerm doesn’t allow the listener to sink too far into this daydream, however, before diving into the above-mentioned Didkovsky score Mayhem (2012). Presented in three interpretations spaced out over the course of the album, each one-minute version assumes as its subtitle one of the weapons depicted in the score—hammer, bow, and blade. Where “The Hammer” takes Didkovsky’s word at the encouragement to “be brutal,” what actually impressed me here is the nuance Zwerm brings to subsequent perspectives—”Blade” is given a sexy, high-speed car chase danger and “Arrow” a Wild West horror. (The banjo certainly helps things along there.) This quirky spirit also tints Daniel Goode’s The Red and White Cows (1979), a narrated mathematic story problem leading into a bluesy meditation on “the girl I love” for rhythm guitar, solo guitar, samples, and voice.
Larry Polansky’s tween (k-tood#2) (2002) may give some musicians exercise flashbacks as short phrases roll over and over in delicate complexity, whereas Clinton McCallum’s round round down (2012) starts in sonic bedlam and then just keeps climbing.
The most texturally diverse performance on this disc might be found in Zwerm’s interpretation of Christian Wolff’s Burdocks, Part VII (1970-71), as the musicians react to one another while old radio samples climb the dial and other recorded sounds color the field, often ratcheting up the tension. A solo version of Earle Brown’s December 1952 (1952) resides at the other end of that spectrum, a steady flicker of pitches nearly always blaring their way across a more than eight-minute span, solid yet malleable, with the artfully sculpted sound only thinning out for brief moments of recovery until it reaches a clear summit and quickly drops off into a lengthy decay.

After this imaginative tour, Zwerm brings the show to close with Karl H. Berger’s Time Goes By (1975). When it first began, the simple organ and hand percussion tricked my ears into thinking that iTunes had somehow skipped over to a Yo La Tengo album elsewhere in my library. But actually the track is an appropriately extended meditation on the piece’s title, the simple words sung over and over, up and down and up and down the scale again. The meditative trance it induces is broken apart by the guitars a third of the way in, and the instruments continue to claw at the choir until they fully shrouded it completely in their curtain.

Sounds Heard: The Quiet Ones

Considering the volume of pitches and announcements from various and sundry PR organizations I receive every week, I can’t help but wonder about all of the things happening in our musical world that are less aggressively placed in my path. The noise level out there is such that interesting-yet-below-the-surface things can be missed, and I just hate missing interesting things.
With that in mind, I have picked three recordings that have been sitting patiently and quietly in the pile on my desk without flash or fanfare, waiting to be listened to. Two of the discs are from just down the road in Washington, D.C., while another comes from San Francisco, and the music they contain couldn’t be more diverse.

D.C.-based composer/pianist Jessica Krash’s album features six compositions for solo piano as well as duos, and chamber ensemble combinations with piano. The track presented below is a solo piano work, Dangerous Curves performed by the composer herself. The piece is an exploration of “…banned and provocative music from many genres, places, and times in history.” Indeed, it is a delightfully quirky kettle full of musical worlds jostling against one another, performed with skill and plenty of zest. It’s also a good introduction to Krash’s music, which is often eclectic and animated, with a sly sense of humor.

You might know Mark Winges primarily as a composer of choral music, so perhaps it makes sense that his latest disc, entitled Night Voiced, contains new music for viola, the range of which mimics that of the human voice. The CD’s title track is scored for the eyebrow-raising combination of viola and organ, though the two instruments maintain a very conversational quality (to my ears, anyway) throughout the piece. A version of this same work for viola and piano also closes the disc, but I couldn’t resist posting the organ version (speaking of underdogs!). The other works on the disc include Reciprocal Tapestries for viola, cello and piano; Diverted Vignettes for solo viola; and San Francisco Stopover for viola cello and guitar, performed by The Left Coast Ensemble.

QUIRK is an album of new music for clarinet and electronics performed by clarinetist Mauricio Salguero. The composers represented include Christopher Biggs, Jason Bolte, Andrew Cole, Eric Honour, Sarah Horick, Jorge Sosa, and Asha Srinivasan. The album title speaks to the broad range of musical sensibilities and influences heard within the pieces, from the skittering, glitchy soundscape of Christopher Biggs’s Ten To The Power Of Negative 33 to the more melodic, slightly pop-tinged aura of Sara Horick’s Looking-Glass Changes. Quirk by Eric Honour (who also engineered, mixed, and mastered the album) begins with a dash of techno-oriented flare that is quickly pulled in different directions which allow the bass clarinet to let loose and sing before being snapped back to its beat-oriented soundscape—a sort of theme and variations that characterizes the shape of the composition.

Sounds Heard: Janice Misurell-Mitchell—Vanishing Points

While nowadays it’s pretty much common practice for music to be poly-stylistic, it’s still somewhat rare for music to completely internalize multiple musical languages from various genres and spew them back out into something that is ultimately untranslatable into anything else besides itself. But the music of Chicago-based Janice Misurell-Mitchell seems to do just that, seamlessly weaving elements from high modernism with jazz, Latin, blues, and even funk into an amalgam that is completely its own thing. Vanishing Points, the second retrospective disc of her music from the Southport Composers Series, collects six of her chamber music compositions spanning four decades.

The disc’s opening track, Agitación, is an ideal introduction to her extremely catholic approach to style and form. A roughly 16-minute work from 2005 scored for two pianists and two percussionists, it begins with almost a Latin tinge, albeit supporting a cascade of angular figurations. While the Latin feel grows less and less pronounced with each passing measure, it retains that music’s feeling of regular pulsation, but then that too drops off. Then, at about 3 minutes in, it starts to manifest a bonafide cool jazz aura, with a timbral combination of piano, vibes and drumset that sounds almost suggestive of MJQ, albeit if a young Cecil Taylor had subbed for John Lewis. The music grows somewhat dreamier with more subdued piano lines, as if John Lewis reclaimed the piano chair, but that too soon falls by the wayside. At about 6 minutes in, the Latin feel returns, now seeming fully in Afro-Cuban clave, though the harmonies continue far afield from anything you’d hear on most salsa albums.  But then the ensemble breaks down, allowing individual instruments to have brief, less rhythmically centered solos. Toward the end, a clear jazz groove briefly reappears, but so do other musical elements. At times various percussion thwacks—on instruments that fall outside of 12-tone equal temperament—even wink at Harry Partch. All in all Agitación is a remarkably fluid processing of multiple stylistic streams into something that is completely organic and unified—a defining piece of early 21st century music!

The other works are also intriguing for their polyglot sensibilities. The earliest work on this album, Vanishing Points/Quantum Leaps from 1977 (though revised in 2011), is a hefty and heavy, three-movement piece scored for clarinet and piano trio—the same forces that Olivier Messiaen used in his Quartet for the End of Time. But whereas that famous work exploits the combinatorial possibilities of various subgroups within the quartet for contrast and great emotional intensity, Misurell-Mitchell mostly keeps the full ensemble in play but revels in how the same material (intervals, rhythmic figures) appears to sound different depending on which instruments are foregrounded. According to Seth Boustead’s detailed program notes for the recording, the work—as is suggested by its title—is “concerned with perspective and … how the listeners perceive the development of musical material.”

The very first gestures of Dark was the Night, a 1994 work for solo guitar, have an almost a Flamenco tinge, but from there the piece quickly morphs into something couched in a more modernist contemporary music language—replete with cascades of harmonics and angular leaps. But that too is only part of the picture. Later on it feels more like improvisatory folk guitar and by the end it becomes a full on Mississippi Delta blues, slides and all. According to the notes, the inspiration for the piece was “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground,” a classic gospel-blues by Texas songster Blind Willie Johnson (whose 1927 recording of it was sent into outer space on the Voyager Golden Record!). However Misurell-Mitchell uses Johnson’s tune only sparingly and except for the clear homage at the very end, it is almost completely unrecognizable.

On Thin Ice was originally composed in 1988 for flute and guitar but is presented here in a 1998 arrangement for flute and marimba. It is a relentless, highly contrapuntal interplay spiced with bravura flutter-tonguings. In addition to her compositional activities, Misurell-Mitchell has been active for decades in the Chicago new music scene as a flutist and vocalist, although flutist Caroline Pittman is the featured soloist for the performance on this recording. The disc, however, does include a sample of Misurell-Mitchell’s own remarkable playing—her 2009 solo composition, border crossings at sunset, in which she recites an original poem, plays flute, and sings (sometimes into the flute).

The remaining work on the disc, Deconstruction Blues, is also an arrangement. A 1991 work originally scored for English horn and keyboard synthesizer (in fact, it was commissioned for that combination specifically to counter stereotypes of 18th century double-reed chamber music), this new version from 2012 returns the music to a much more idiomatic context. By scoring it for the much grittier combo of bass clarinet and Hammond B3 organ, Misurell-Mitchell’s off-kilter flights of fancy here sound like a surreal cross between a chamber piece by Ralph Shapey and a Jimmy Smith album from an alternate universe.

This disc of Misurell-Mitchell’s music is dedicated to the memory of her son Gabriel Mitchell (1973-2012), an extremely talented film-maker, visual artist and songwriter who suffered from schizophrenia. There is an online archive of his work which is also very much worth exploring.

Sounds Heard: Things You Already Know

It’s always exciting to find a “new” favorite piece of music or music maker, and when a genre’s emphasis is on the innovative, that perhaps lays the foundations for a particularly blinkered focus. I almost passed up the three discs below for that reason, because while they were new, I had covered these artists in some measure before and felt obliged to keep my ears moving. But then I heard Kamala Sakaram in her interview this month suggesting that there is so much to be gained by digging past the premiere, and I decided to apply that to my listening.

Once this idea slapped me in the face, Chris Campbell‘s Things You Already Know (poetically appropriate, no?) metaphorically hit the other cheek. In this case this was not music I already knew but rather Campbell playing around (as he explains in his CD or vinyl-accompanying note to the listener) with dialog across his own internal and external realities. While much music might be traced in one way or another to a similar root motivation, here the work wears its intention on its CD sleeve and it led me to consume the tracks as a sort of tour though the composer’s aural memory palace, several doors left temptingly unlocked and the drawers open for ready snooping. With the assistance of musicians drawn from various genre specialties in the Twin Cities and a colorful collection of unusual and/or processed instrumental timbres, it’s a rewarding journey—particularly Water Variations, with its exotic string instrument collection. Campbell himself sits at the piano at key points offering reflective commentary until the listener is beckoned to peek behind the next swaying curtain.

David T. Little’s Haunt of Last Nightfall was stuck in my head for nearly a month after our Spotlight interview, and it has taken up residence there yet again in anticipation of the commercial release of a recording on New Amsterdam (out today!). It’s not always comfortable sonic material to host in one’s ear. The history which Little explores through the music—the massacre at El Mozote, El Salvador in December 1981—draws on a full palette of extreme content stretching from horror to prayer. What particularly impresses me about this piece, however, is how rich and gripping an emotional experience Little, Third Coast Percussion, and guest musicians Eileen Mack, Mellissa Hughes, Andrew McKenna Lee, and Toby Driver are able to conjure—particularly in the percussion-only sections the work offers. A visceral reaction to a driving electric guitar is perhaps not an experience to brush aside, but it’s the timbral interplay of the various percussion sounds that bring a remarkable exploration of the events to light and one that won’t easily be shaken even after the last sounds fade.

Saxophonist Aaron Irwin is a bandleader whose projects sometimes catch my ear even before I realize his name is attached, but they tend to stick around in the rotation long enough for me to do my liner note research and get my credits straight. His latest release, Ordinary Lives, is sure to take up similar residence. In addition to Irwin on alto, this outing features Danny Fox (piano, Fender Rhodes), Sebastian Noelle (guitar), Thomson Kneeland (bass), and Greg Ritchie (drums), and the men are clearly well at home in one another’s company. The tracks are filled with too-easy-to-eat hooks, seductive gestures, and, well, regular injections of joyful lick playing that neatly keep things from getting tedious and ruining the party. It’s a warm and welcoming recording that quickly rewards attention.


Sounds Heard: Big Robot

Big Robot
Big Robot
Unmanned Studios
Viewing last year’s self-titled DVD from Indianapolis “computer-acoustic trio” Big Robot is an exercise in forbearance. The DVD includes six audiovisual pieces, the last of which is divided into three movements; all of this material works by suggesting and then withholding, cannily but almost ceaselessly, the formal and rhetorical identifications, explicit visual and auditory referents, and narrative connections that, by the end of the DVD, we’re made to crave.

Big Robot comprises Scott Deal, Michael Drews, and Jordan Munson, all of whom are affiliated with IUPUI (Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis)—a mouthful of a school whose Arts and Humanities Institute is credited in the DVD’s acknowledgments. Each of these collaborators has a distinct instrumental specialty, but “programming” is chalked to all three; although Munson (winds) receives the nod for “video,” it is indicated that Drews (keyboards/guitar) and Deal (percussion) furnished some assistance in this department as well. Composition and improvisation, planning and spontaneity by the group and by its constituents, intermingle in an unknowable but apparently near-equal proportion—and the degree of aesthetic single-mindedness in evidence on the DVD is impressive: Deal, Drews, and Munson, who have been working with one another since 2009, have cultivated a strong sense of ensemble and shared purpose that knits together every track.

Indeed, throughout the DVD we encounter shapes, whispers, and intimations issued with a delicacy that requires such thorough creative sympathy. At the center of Big Robot’s DVD is the relationship between the only-partially-heard and the only-partially-seen. The only-partially-heard has many guises here—the tumbled and distressed sounds of various instruments and synths and even a voice or two, all with a distinctly digital flavor. The only-partially-seen is often people, or at least one suspects it is: fleeting and heavily processed images of what seems to be a person walking, what seems to be a person leaving a car, what seems to be a person’s face. These alienated, once-quotidian images invite us to hear their musical accompaniments in the same light—as defamiliarized everyday sounds that tantalize us most when they skirt the outermost edges of our recognition.

That’s not to say that Big Robot doesn’t occasionally indulge in some rather more straightforward moments, too. Jackwalk, the fourth piece on the DVD, includes some material reminiscent of the opening credits of an unprecedentedly opaque CBS procedural—CSI, Twin Peaks, maybe. But even in that case, the simple decision to bring this material back later on has a profound effect, because it lets us apprehend the intervening stuff as a temporary breakdown rather than a return to the status quo. Noir, meanwhile, has a much firmer narrative framework than the other pieces on the DVD; it’s more an unsparingly edited sequence of slasher flick outtakes than an experimental video piece of the sort Big Robot has trained us to expect. It’s a surprising but genuinely bold move to explore a sound world that many lay listeners find ominous and menacing while showing us a Volvo stranded in the rain at night, a mysterious wooden box with a portentous, impossible photo in it, and a creep with burlap on his face—exactly the kind of images that those of us more accustomed to drones, shrieks, and sub-100Hz bumps in the night have probably stopped associating with the sensorium of experimental music. Big Robot is challenging us: have we really scrubbed those horror-movie accretions from our hearing brains, or can we still be scared by electroacoustic music?

The DVD’s final gesture, however, betokens a less confrontational turn: among the very last images we see in From the Ripples of a Towering Ocean III is what appears (as always, it’s hard to say for sure) to be one of the group’s members. It looks like he’s exposing “the cross points of virtual and physical gesture,” as the group’s blurb has it, by performing tracked motions that correspond to (and are no doubt somehow responsible for) the piece’s audio. The possibility that one of Big Robot’s human operators has popped up to bid us farewell at the DVD’s conclusion is a pleasing one, and not just because it reminds us that these three musicians are more than just three chutes emptying into a single churning vat, as the monolithic unity of the DVD sometimes implies. For Big Robot to show us part of itself is for it to commit the ultimate vulnerability, to subtly break character just in time for the curtain call. It’s the perfect way for the DVD to end, and I encourage you to pick up a copy so you can enjoy this small but generous reveal—and the very un-small, un-generous plane of sound and light that precedes it—for yourself.

Sounds Heard: Keeril Makan–Afterglow

Afterglow cover
Keeril Makan
Afterglow (Mode 257)
Performed by ICE: Eric Lamb, flutes; Joshua Rubin, clarinets, James Austin Smith, oboe; Gareth Flowers, trumpet; Erik Carlson, violin; Kivie Cahn-Lipman, cello; Randall Zigler, double bass; Nuiko Wadden, harp; Cory Smythe, piano; Nathan Davis, percussion; Erik Carlson and Adam Sliwinski, conductors.

It is always a pleasure to encounter music that serves as a reminder of some basic creative ideas: that music is a physical thing, connected to the body and to breath; that simplicity is often the most satisfying option; that the present moment and all that it holds is important. All of these notions are present in composer Keeril Makan’s latest release on Mode Records, Afterglow, a selection of chamber music and solo works performed by International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE).

In an effort to listen with ears as widely open as possible, I always do a first pass on a recording without reading the liner notes or considering biographical details about the artist(s) involved in any way (barring past information that I may already know). Although Robert Kirzinger’s liner notes and Makan’s New York Times essay about the link between his struggles with depression and his creative life are both excellent and well worth reading, I appreciated that my first listening experience of Afterglow was uncolored by extra input. Either way, the six compositions featured on this album communicated a strikingly beautiful sense of clarity and openness in both form and content.

The opening track, Mercury Songbirds, is scored for a Pierrot plus percussion ensemble. It opens with a smooth-as-glass, sine wave-like tone performed by clarinet, which is quickly thickened by additional long tones and peppered with short interruptions over top that build up and abruptly return the instruments to the previous spare texture. While there is a subtle and nearly constant drone emanating from the piano, percussive sounds performed inside the piano play a prominent role in marking the start and stop points of the more active material.

After the seven-minute mark, all of the instruments join together in a short, plaintive song that, while ultimately returning once again to slower, sparser content, causes a transformation in which all pitch content is raised to a higher register. At 9:25 we experience the first bit of silence in the work; the drone cuts off briefly, leaving gentle chords to make footprints of their own for a short time. Almost without noticing, the drone fades back in underneath the chord progression and is eventually overtaken by piano and long string tones that are abruptly cut off by a final wooden smack on the body of the piano.

Husk for flute, oboe, and harp is a more “in your face” affair—a study in contrast from start to finish. It begins with short yet dramatic harp gestures and flute jet tones, but still sports plenty of sustained pitches, many of which are performed by the oboe and set squarely in the instrumental foreground. At three minutes, an instrumental “panic attack” breaks in of twirling oboe, brash slaps, and glissandi from the harp and piano (played with plenty of fingernail action). This frantic outburst is quickly replaced by intensely quiet material, such as the sound of hands rubbing across harp strings and breath tones from the flute, made all the more dramatic when placed against the material before.

Afterglow for solo piano revels in the sonic landscape of the instrument’s harmonies and overtones that are created through a limited palette of harmonic and rhythmic material. Opening with one repeated note that keeps cycling around, it blooms with additional pitches and slightly altered rhythmic gestures. The progression of events is quite slow, so when new notes and different registers come into play, the sonic effect is fresh and surprising. The pace picks up just a bit at about eight minutes, but by the end it has slowed back down to the original pulse. According to the liner notes, the timing of the piece is quite flexible, allowing for differences between both instrument and performance space; I hope that many pianists will take up this work and bask in its sound world as much as the composer obviously has.

The other solo work on the album, Mu for prepared violin, also has a somewhat flexible score that allows the performer to explore the nature of unexpected and/or changeable timbres that result from her or his instrument. This close microphone recording puts the listener practically inside the violin; the proximity of the delicate yet complex sonorities of bowing strings prepared with paper clips creates a feeling of vulnerability and unpredictability. The effect is like the sound of slightly labored deep breathing.
Becoming Unknown for flute/bass flute, clarinet/bass clarinet, trumpet, and double bass, follows a fitful opening of melodic fragments with a plaintive melody that is, after a short time, smacked to a halt by double bass. The material afterwards features a combination of chordal material, textural exploration, and snippets of melodic content, both compressed into short gestures and stretched out into long tones.

The final work on the disc, titled After Forgetting, is a big change, as the biggest, brightest (in terms of instrumentation), and most accessible composition of the set. A pulse is established right away that continues throughout the work, but the music never rushes—all of Makan’s work exhibits a sense of patience, even at its most frenetic. Bright, open orchestration is also a hallmark of Makan’s music, with every sonority fully present in its own space, and After Forgetting is particularly lush and engaging in this regard, with vibraphone adding a metallic sparkle.

What I find most notable in this music is its complete lack of pretension; there is nothing flashy or forced, nothing trying too hard. It’s an unexpected kind of exciting music, of the fiercely quiet sort, that will greatly please discerning ears.

Sounds Heard: Chris Wild–Abhanden

Abhanden (Navona Records) is the debut release from Chicago-based cellist Chris Wild. Wild is a mainstay of the Chicago contemporary music scene; he has been a core member of Ensemble Dal Niente since its founding and is an active conductor and music educator. His onstage presence is intense and contemplative, so it comes as no surprise that Abhanden presents six works which, in radically different ways, explore intimate and interior worlds. The recording is expertly crafted by Wild and his co-producers, engineer Dan Nichols and composer Eliza Brown, and features excellent performances from Dal Niente’s pianist Mabel Kwan, percussionist Greg Beyer, violinist J. Austin Wulliman, and soprano Amanda deBoer Bartlett.

The album’s first work is Chinary Ung’s Spiral (1987) for cello, piano, and percussion. Ung, a Cambodia-born composer whose music draws on (and works to preserve) the musical traditions of his native country, has written a series of pieces for various instrumentations, all sharing the title Spiral. In this, the first piece of the series, Ung frequently places the cellist in the traditionally virtuosic, singing role of soloist. Wild’s approach to the material is soaring, lyrical, and bold. Pianist Mabel Kwan and percussionist Greg Beyer contribute dynamic and exciting performances; they create a rich, dark, percolating atmosphere which can spring to rhythmically ferocious life at any moment. It is hard to imagine Ung’s enchanting music finding finer advocates than these. Each moment of the piece’s heart-stopping final sequence is painstakingly shaped and colored by the trio, and the cello’s final note seems to both swallow all of time, and be swallowed by it.

The next track is Claude Vivier’s 1975 Piece pour violoncelle et piano. (Vivier was a promising French-Canadian composer whose career was cut short by his murder at age 34.) With its dramatic passages of extended recitative, the piece calls to mind great chamber works by Ravel and Debussy. Vivier, like his French predecessors, was interested in the musical cultures of Asia (in this case, Balinese gamelan music). The piece, written for a Canadian performance competition, walks the line between celebrating cellistic virtuosity and taking the formal and harmonic risks we might expect from late-20th century music. Wild and Kwan’s performance is sensitively timed and supremely patient, allowing the work’s material to sparkle as it unfolds at a glacial pace.
Chicago composer Daniel Dehaan’s If it encounters the animal, it becomes animalized begins calmly enough, in an ether of harmonics. But then an arresting groan, as if from the mouth of a living creature, emerges and startles the listener. This is the first signal that the piece, a virtuosic tour-de-force for solo cello, will indeed engage the instrument’s “animal nature.” Dehaan’s piece places the animal (the human performer) in a many-sided physical relationship with the cello and all the raw materials of which it is made. The recording and production work is particularly excellent here, capturing Wild’s full-bodied performance and successfully creating a three-dimensional sonic image of the cello itself that the listener feels she can almost touch. The closeness of the microphones leaves us delightfully uncertain whether Wild’s audible breathing is a part of the notated score or not.
If it encounters the animal… is an excellent representation of the creativity that can result from long-term collaboration between performer and composer. Each cello sound seems to have been carefully and collaboratively developed. The piece feels so multi-layered that one could easily forget it is an unaccompanied cello work. It evokes both an animal–whips, groans, breaths, rasps, slaps–and the windswept chasm in which the animal might manage to survive. This recording is yet another reason why Dehaan has become one of the most exciting young composers in the city.

Andrew Greenwald describes his music as being concerned with “issues of pixelated sound material viewed at increasing resolutions.” His Jeku II for violin and cello, performed here by Wild with J. Austin Wulliman, demands a wide technical range and interpretive daring. The duo delivers a focused and dramatic performance; there’s particular flair in the way the piece’s long silences amp up the tension before another burst of activity. Wild and Wulliman execute Greenwald’s palate of extreme sounds with a combination of playfulness and precision. Every whoosh, clatter, and scramble sparkles in contrast to the surrounding sounds. Wulliman seems to know the dimensions and density of each centimeter of his bow; in one passage, he creates an arresting series of percussive clicks with the movement of what seems like one “tooth” of the bow hair. It’s a clear-sighted performance that demonstrates why Wild and Wulliman are such successful longtime collaborators.

Marcos Balter’s elegiac memoria, for solo cello, shows off Wild’s strengths as an introspective performer. Balter has written subtle and slow-moving shifts of timbre that make the simple addition of a second pitch feel magical. As the piece spins in what feels like one never-ending note, there are haunting glimpses of harmonics that seem to ascend and descend from other dimensions. The recording quality is again excellent, embracing the three-dimensional aliveness of the cello itself.

Eliza Brown’s Ich ben der welt abhanden gekommen–a work for cello, soprano, and electronics inspired by Gustav Mahler’s setting of the same Ruckert text–was, for this listener, the most fascinating and revelatory on the disc. Brown describes her music as exploring “culturally defined elements of musical meaning and syntax,” and succeeds wonderfully here. This is art song that alternates between feeling like Mahler and feeling like Mahler played through a radio on the moon. Brown makes subtle and powerful use of electronic tracks, which move in mysterious waves as Bartlett opens the piece with wide-vibrating long tones and a melodic line of Mahlerian scope. Brown’s setting often finds the cello and soprano in intimate interaction, trading off unisons that blend seamlessly into one another. The electronics are a highly dynamic third character: sometimes tender and lush, lending superhuman strength to the cello; other times self-consciously machine-like, crackling with cold, post-apocalyptic static.
Abhanden offers the listener excellent renderings of work by three of Chicago’s most interesting voices, as well as three fascinating works by composers less often heard in the city–yet each one manages to project a sense of musical intimacy. Abhanden confirms that Wild is not only an exciting performer to watch, but also a wise programmer and collaborator. The album manages a delicate balance between being both a fascinating portrait of Wild himself and an intimate map of the collaborative community in which he works.

Sounds Heard: Duo Scordatura, The Act of Loving You, and Ritual

Three very different albums showed up on my desk recently. One came from a friend, another from a friend of a friend, and the last from out of the blue, and the wildly varied music reminded me of what NewMusicBox is all about: exploding the idea that contemporary American music is any one thing.
Duo Scordatura

Violinist Nicholas Leh Baker and violist Faith Magdalene Jones form the Houston-based chamber group Duo Scordatura. Their eponymous debut album is the result of collaborations with all the composers featured on the album and each of the works came from their ongoing commissioning project.

Jordan Kuspa’s Beneath the Magma starts out with quietly growling unisons glissing and whining wider and wider into small turns. High energy, quasi-Balkan (or maybe real Balkan?) rhythms evolve from these opening gestures, populating alternating odd time signatures. While not straight-up tonal, the piece is centered in this ballpark for the most part and serves as a strong opening to the album. Robert Garza’s Ill-Tuned Illusions is one of the two works that reflects the duos namesake. Here the violin is tuned G D A# E and viola C G D# A, and the extra tension on the instruments can be heard in the work. A series of truncated vignettes, the piece is almost cartoon-like in its extreme changes of mood and texture. This is not meant pejoratively and, while there are a number of disparate sections, it certainly holds together quite well.

Jack Benson’s Tightrope Sonata is in two movements, and the first features long lines, each instrument having a turn at shaping them. Long soliloquies traded between the players merge into a languid dialogue, the back and forth spiraling upward in register before returning to material reminiscent of the opening. The second movement comes out guns blazing with its muscular jetés across double-stopped lower strings. Throughout the movement, one player plays chordal material in the chunky double-stop vein while the other lays out melodic material above. There are larger, more distinct sections, some of which have enough character to possibly warrant their own movements.

George Heathco’s Turbine features a Q&A between the two instruments that quickly overlap and become a sort of hockety canon starting in the lower registers and ascending by and by as the piece develops. A bright harmonic tonal center sways from dark to light and back again, as an ostinato in the viola plays against double stops in the violin. Pizz moments make their way into this trading texture, one that never gets too busy but always feels full and focused. This leads to a more legato section followed by a reductive ending in which a long phrase played between the instruments gets pared away until there is nothing left. Alexandra T. Bryant’s All True Passion Comes Out Of Anguish begins with a single keening line drawn out and punctuated with pizz. Glissando on the viola begins to break up the call while gentle dips in the violin mark the start of a new section, one in which arguably brighter harmonic content prevails. Chords long held by the violin are coaxed upward by sharp stabs in the viola, which upon dying away make way for a new and welcome texture of light arpeggiation from the violin and slowly gliding double stops in the viola. The arpeggiation moves into the realm of harmonics and dies away at the closing of the work. A final work by Benson, Fringe, provides an approachable and visceral close to a spectacular debut by the Houston duo.

Odessa Chen and the Invisible Stories Ensemble—The Act of Loving You

Odessa Chen’s chamber-folk EP The Act of Loving You is certainly an album of its time. Chen’s lyrical content and vocal delivery would fit comfortably in the pop rotation, though the former is more richly varied than much of that rotation and the latter has a breadth of character that outshines the average pop singer. Accompanying Chen are nine seasoned classical musicians and a composer/arranger.  (Full disclosure: the last is my friend Max Stoffregen.) The Act of Loving You has four charming tracks, each with their own character but wonderfully connected as well. The first thing that struck me about the opening song, “Our Hearts Boom Boom, was the distinctly different mic positions and distances between the vocal parts and the instrumental arrangements. Chen’s breathy vocal treatment is largely in line with typical pop production (the reverb is lush but not over the top) while the instruments are somewhat drier and more present. Delicate, intricate, and linear, the largely polyphonic arrangements set the piece apart from a pop track simply sweetened with orchestral instruments, though I admit that I missed the homophony a little bit in the choruses where, in pop, all things are tutti. Just a little.

In “Spring Comes On” a less rhythmically driven texture dominates. Filigree flute lines play around piano and bassoon while seagull strings serve to fill the space. The rhythmic activity does ramp up towards the end of the track, but the piece continues to float along by and large. “Objects May be Closer” begins with guitar and continues with a pulsing texture which at first blush is quite conventional. However, as the piece progresses and is overtaken by the orchestral instruments, one can hear the possibilities this sort of treatment has both in terms of density as well as timbre. Frankly, the pop world has no shortage of timbral possibilities, and that embarrassment of riches certainly plays a role in too many overly simplified broad-stroke arrangements. Here a strong understanding of each instrument and its timbral characteristics works strongly in favor of emphasizing the lyric at times, as well simply matching the quality of Chen’s voice, occasionally fusing the voice and instruments into a single entity.

The title track finally brings the homophony that I personally craved in the preceding arrangements while retaining the timbral matching of “Objects May be Closer.” While still floating along like “Spring Comes On,” “The Act of Loving You” is somehow bigger and thicker in spots, and when the piece ends like an indrawn breath, one is certainly left wanting more.

David Dominique—Ritual

David Dominique’s album Ritual reminds me of the best parts of the tradition of “rock band plus horns,” albeit with violin, flute, and flugabone in this case. The ten tracks feature four “Rituals” in spots one, three, seven, and nine, the first of which was salvaged from an opera and reworked from the original in which the piece acted as a sardonic fanfare for Saddam Hussein. As Dominique explained it to me:

The four “Ritual” tracks are all tied together by an emphasis on cellular repetition. In Ritual 1/BDB, that repetition gets a bit of development. Ritual 2/Dirge has a long chord progression that repeats once with repetitions in the way Andrew Lessman is improvising (not all exactly cellular). Ritual 3/Hostage overtly repeats almost the same material six times in a row, with small variations at the end of the “phrase.” And Ritual 4/Release takes an opening series of motives and deconstructs and varies them through processes of literal cellular repetition followed by a motivic group improvisation.

While the album is by no means derivative, listeners of a certain vintage will pick up on Zappa and Waits, while others may hear elements of Morphine and early Mr. Bungle channeled through Dominique’s tight arrangements. The album has a dirty, visceral quality, and while there is no story per se, there is a quasi-narrative forward motion—kind of like Zorn’s “Naked City,” without the hyperkinetic/schizophrenic arrangements and vocals.

In addition to the eponymous tracks, highlights include Golden Retriever, with its wandering pizzicato strings and lowing tenor sax, and Mulatto Shuffle, which marches in on its namesake before shuffling off, and last but not least, Drunk Hump, which sounds like the end of the night, no doubt. The album is very evocative, totally begs live performance, and to my ear lends itself to additional elements of theater and dance. Dominique’s performing contribution to the album is on flugabone on all ten tracks, and my only criticism is that with an album with a vibe like this, if you play a flugabone, you should name one of your tunes after it. Ritual 5, anyone?