Tag: new release

RighteousGIRLS Release gathering blue

RighteousGIRLS is the New York-based duo of flutist Gina Izzo and pianist Erika Dohi. Their debut album, gathering blue (New Focus Recordings), was released today and features compositions by various contemporary/classical and jazz artists including Andy Akiho, Ambrose Akinmusire, Pascal Le Boeuf, Christian Carey, Vijay Iyer, Dave Molk, Mike Perdue, Jonathan Ragonese, and Randy Woolf. The project was funded in part by New Music USA.

Emily Bookwalter: This album seems like a huge undertaking; there is such a wide variety of artists represented, each with their own unique aesthetic and musicality that you’ve managed to capture so convincingly. To what extent did these artistic differences affect your creative process in putting this all together? For example: Was there a lot of improvisation in some of the works that required working more directly with those composers over extensive periods of time? Or with the walls between genres disappearing more and more, did you find that all the works, for example, had elements of improvisation?

Gina Izzo: When Erika Dohi and I first talked about recording an album together back in 2013, we had already been performing as a duo for about three years and wanted to document that—but were in a sort of musical transition. At the time, we had been thinking a lot about the downtown music community in New York City and were actively going to concerts and listening to a lot of different styles. Through this experience, we have developed a unified language as a duo—one that emerged from our curiosity with sound, improvisation, and live/recorded music. The artists we discovered during this time are those we approached for gathering blue.

Although the artists featured on this project come from different backgrounds, we chose to collaborate because we share similar musical values. It was a privilege to work closely with these composers/peformers, and it allowed us to shape each work and to better understand each piece. There is a common thread, a feeling, that links the music allowing a piece like Ambrose Akinmusire’s Anzu, Christian Carey’s For Milton, and Vijay Iyer’s Accumulated Gestures to work in context with each other.

gathering blue has thirteen tracks (a mix of notated and improvised music) and three guest artists—Andy Akiho, Ambrose Akinmusire, and Justin Brown—who play with us in improvised trio settings. Through a series of postproduction interludes linking disparate pieces, the complete album has a continuous flow. Each interlude developed by composer/producer Pascal Le Boeuf, is derived from material pulled from throughout the album (compositions, improvisation, outtakes). You’ll hear parts of Justin Brown’s improv from Iyer’s Accumulated Gestures in the intro to our opening track GIRLS, and parts of the improvised steel-pan on Akiho’s KARakurENAI used in the interlude Robe Threader, while …Out of the Blue, which closes the album, is actually Robe Threader with the audio reversed. These interludes allowed us to reconstruct, improvise, and pull from our experience on each piece, threading together the individual voices.

Emily Bookwalter: gathering blue is your debut album and includes nine (!) commissioned works. Did you feel that this was a huge risk—to not only commission but then to permanently document an entire album of unknown music? Or did this bold first statement seem like a natural course for RighteousGIRLS?

Gina Izzo: For me, the album was more a sweep of personal discovery than a risk—a metaphor about our gathering of colors and weaving them together to represent a collage of our musical values.

The album is titled after the Lois Lowry novel, gathering blue. I read this novel at a young age and came back to it later in life with a different perspective of what it might mean to “gather blue.” I don’t feel that either of us set out to do anything “bold” on this album—we don’t really approach music in that way—but rather, to reflect our development and identity as an ensemble. Over the five years Erika and I have been performing together, this seemed to be a rather natural course for our first album—and although the nature of the project is risky, the quality of the artists and their contributions was always a solid conviction.

Emily Bookwalter: RighteousGIRLS is a fantastic example of the genrelessness we’re beginning to experience within new music. You’re hardcore improvisers with classical training, and you regularly call on the traditions of jazz, classical, world music, and beyond. But how do you define yourselves as musicians? How did you choose this path?

Erika Dohi: Living in New York City for the last ten years has exposed us to various genres of music. We both go to tons of shows, some featuring new musicians we’ve heard about, and others where our friends are involved.

Music scenes can change quickly, and we like to be there to notice what’s changing, how, and why. That can affect our own musical direction. We feel extremely lucky to be in the middle of a rapidly transforming artistic environment where audiences are constantly being challenged.

Speaking of my own experience, I found a kind of genrelessness at The Stone, one of my favorite venues. A personal change for me was hearing [Vijay Iyer’s] Fieldwork for the first time there. I had never heard anything like it. Something about the unusual texture, rhythmic complexity, and incredible subtlety of their collaboration inspired me greatly. It didn’t seem to fall into any particular category of music that I had heard before. Hearing Jason Moran and Tyshawn Sorey play free improv at The Stone was also a turning point for me. I think that was the first time I experienced “free improv.” I heard these shows when I was just a freshman at the Manhattan School of Music. They changed my life. It was fascinating for me to discover a sound that could not be labeled.

It’s also important for us to know what’s “hot.” Even if our music doesn’t follow what’s trending, we like to be aware.

Our music has changed a lot since we formed the duo back in 2010. It continues to evolve, and we’re evolving in our own ways as individual musicians, too. I can’t think of a way to label our music, although of course there are elements of jazz, classical, more free improvisation, etc. We try to never limit ourselves. We want to keep growing.

Emily Bookwalter: You’ve performed and will no doubt continue to perform in a variety of styles and venues around the country. What have some of the biggest rewards and challenges been thus far in your music-making? How do you feel your unique voice has been received?

Erika Dohi: We’re challenged constantly. I’ve had some opportunities to play in more specifically “jazz” settings through saxophonist Brad Linde and the Bohemian Caverns Jazz Orchestra in Washington D.C. At these gigs I would read off chord charts, which I wasn’t really comfortable doing. I just hadn’t had that training. Count Basie and Duke Ellington tunes actually scared me. There’s a style and feel, and it takes time to own that. They’d call out rhythm changes on every gig and I’d improvise over them, too.

It really is the scariest thing, when you’re put on the spot, on stage, to play in a way you’re not used to, or play in a style you’ve never tried. But it pushes me to confront and get rid of that discomfort, and to see through a different musical lens. That kind of experience is so important for growth.

We ask a similar kind of bravery from our audiences, who can face the discomfort of hearing sounds they might not be accustomed to. For Gina and I, programming is extremely important. Our shows tend to have a variety of types of music. We like to program more tonal, accessible music that can be more easily understood, alongside more complex, dissonant works that might disturb or challenge the listener. We’ve gotten very positive results. I love when we get to introduce new music to completely unfamiliar audiences who end up really enjoying the more challenging stuff. We hope to always play for open-minded audiences who are ready for anything. gathering blue is a good example of how we program.

Sounds Heard: No Lands—Negative Space

No Lands
Negative Space
(New Amsterdam 057)
Performed by:
Michael Hammond
with cameos by Anthony LaMarca, Aaron Roche, and Jay Hammond
Order on Bandcamp

The work of electronic musician/sound artist Michael Hammond first engaged my ears while listening to Sarah Kirkland Snider’s large-scale work Penelope, to which Hammond contributed elegantly subtle electronic textures. Negative Space is the first full length album of Hammond’s own recording project No Lands; it features nine electronic works that combine song format and ambient soundscape—the work of, as Hammond states in the liner notes, “Three years and a hurricane.”
Much of this music was created in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, an event that greatly affected Hammond, a Red Hook, Brooklyn resident and member of the New Amsterdam Records team. The dreamy nature of the music, with restless patches of multi-textured noise, synth washes, and eerie pitch-shifted voices, is both graceful and slightly disturbing at times. While the music has a surface level techno/dance music feel, substantial composerly attention is devoted to form, color, and line, making Negative Space a gratifying listening experience.

Sounds Heard: J.C. Sanford Orchestra—Views From The Inside

JC Sanford Orchestra: Views From The Inside
(Whirlwind Recordings 4652)

JC Sanford: composer, arranger, trombone; Taylor Haskins: trumpet, flugelhorn, harmonizer; Matt Holman: trumpet, flugelhorn; Dan Willis: oboe, piccolo, flute, soprano sax; Ben Kono: English horn, bass clarinet, clarinet, flute, alto sax; Chris Bacas: clarinet, soprano, tenor sax; Kenny Berger: contra-alto clarinet, bassoon, alto flute; Mark Patterson: trombone; Jeff Nelson: tuba, bass trombone; Chris Komer: French horn; Jacob Garchik: accordion; Tom Beckham: vibraphone; Meg Okura: violin, electronics; Will Martina: cello, electronics; Aidan O’Donnell: bass; Satoshi Takeishi: percussion; Asuka Kakitani: conductor (tracks 6 & 12).
The transformations occurring in the world of jazz-oriented large ensembles—the big band and the jazz orchestra—are nothing short of inspiring. Thanks to groups such as John Hollenbeck’s Large Ensemble and Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society (to name just a couple) there has been an extension of musical possibilities so great that there’s no telling what will reach one’s ears. Composer-trombonist-conductor JC Sanford’s recent release Views From The Inside on Whirlwind Recordings delivers loads of aural surprises wrapped up in layers of jazz orchestra.

The 15-piece orchestra sports a number of unconventional instrument choices, such as accordion, oboe, and tastefully employed electronics, which result in unusual and highly compelling textures. Sanford is a masterful orchestrator, skillfully weaving together a somewhat disparate selection of instruments into delightfully intriguing forms. Matt Holman’s expansive trumpet solo in An Attempt At Serenity and Jacob Garchick’s spastic accordion ostinatos that open Verrazano Bikeride are just two examples of the range of expression on this album. The compositions are intended to be tributes to various aspects of Sanford’s life in Brooklyn, and indeed it sounds as if he soaked up the sounds of the streets and figured out how to gracefully incorporate them into his music.

Sounds Heard: Jeffrey Mumford—through a stillness brightening

Jeffrey Mumford: through a stillness brighteningJeffrey Mumford
through a stillness brightening
(Albany/Troy 1473/74)
Performed by:
Julia Bruskin, cello; Winston Choi, piano;
Miranda Cuckson, violin; Scott Dixon, bass;
Christina Jennings, flute; Lura Johnson, piano;
Wendy Richman & Eliesha Nelson, viola;
Argento Chamber Ensemble (Michel Galante, conductor); Avalon Quartet;
National Gallery Chamber Players (Peter Wilson, conductor)

an expanding distance of multiple voices – I. Estatico e molto appassionato
Miranda Cuckson, violin
Streamed with permission

Jeffrey Mumford’s recent 2-CD album through a stillness brightening features a selection of imaginative, skillfully executed solo and chamber works to fire up the ears. The composer’s evocative titles, always written out in lower case à la e.e. cummings, set the stage for similarly poignant music, rife with dramatic gestures and unexpected twists such as languid, sustained timbres that transform on a pinpoint into scampering flurries of notes or edgy, restless sections of double-stops. Mumford studied primarily with Elliott Carter—the influence is audible—but Mumford’s music has a powerful style very much its own, to be heard in his use of rhythm and counterpoint, and in the way he conceives of musical space and time.

The list of musicians involved is a potential dream team for tackling the challenges inherent in this type of musical complexity. Miranda Cuckson’s performance of an expanding distance of multiple voices for solo violin is ravishing, as are the expertly wrought performances of wending by violist Wendy Richman, to find in the glimmering air…a buoyant continuity of layering blue by cellist Julia Bruskin, and two Elliott Carter tributes by pianist Winston Choi. Mumford’s sense of instruments in relationship to and in dialogue with one another is revealed in an evolving romance for flute and piano performed by Christina Jennings and Lura Johnson, as well as through the filtering dawn of spreading daylight for viola and bass by Eliesha Nelson and Scott Dixon, to be still more thoroughly elaborated upon in the Argento Chamber Ensemble’s performance of through a stillness brightening, echoing fields…spreading light by the National Gallery Chamber Players, and the Avalon Quartet’s in forests of evaporating dawns.

Many of the performances are live concert recordings, another testament to the excellent musicianship at hand. Sometimes I worry about double portrait CDs, in that music by the same composer doesn’t always hold interest for two solid hours, but that is not a concern with through a stillness brightening; this is an engaging and varied assortment of fine pieces, deserving of multiple listens and careful attention.

Sounds Heard: Dan Becker—Fade

Dan Becker—Fade
Dan Becker
Fade (Innova 855)
Performed by:
The Common Sense Ensemble
The New Millennium Ensemble

The title of Dan Becker’s album Fade is named after one of its tracks, yet it doesn’t begin to disclose the manic sense of drive present in much of the music. This selection of chamber works composed between 1993 and 2008 suggests that Becker has an “on/off” switch resulting in either intensely energetic music or in work of concentrated repose. There isn’t a lot in-between, but clearly such extremes suit the composer, who according to the liner notes, is consumed by the idea of processes—both musical and otherwise—unfolding around him at all times.

Farthest to the “on” side of the spectrum are his Five ReInventions, which redress the two-part inventions by J. S. Bach in post-minimalist garb and set them for Disklavier á la Conlon Nancarrow at can’t-be-performed-by-normal-humans speeds. Other works that will make you consider skipping your morning coffee are the adrenaline-infused Gridlock, given a focused, enthusiastic performance by the Common Sense Ensemble, the second movement of Keeping Time, performed by The New Millennium Ensemble, and the final work, A Dream of Waking, for NME members Sunghae Anna Lim on violin, and Margaret Kampmeier on piano.

The title track, Fade, falls to the other edge of Becker’s compositional style; it is gentle, delicate music that walks on eggshells, ideal for laying in a hammock on a warm summer day. Similarly, the first movement of Keeping Time is a slowly measured dance through sparkling layers of vibraphone, piano, bass clarinet and strings. The excellent production by Judith Sherman makes all of the evocative works on the album glow, and delivers a satisfying punch in just the right places.

Sounds Heard: John Adams—City Noir / Saxophone Concerto

John Adams: City Noir / Saxophone Concerto
John Adams: City Noir / Saxophone Concerto
(Nonesuch 541356-2)
St. Louis Symphony
David Robertson, conductor
Timothy McAllister, saxophone
Buy now:

John Adams’s most recent album, released by Nonesuch, contains the 2007 work City Noir (freshly revised in 2013) as well as the Saxophone Concerto, with Timothy McAllister as featured soloist. The album could essentially be seen as an exercise in nostalgia; City Noir, commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is an homage to the city of Los Angeles and its movie-making style of the 1940s and ’50s, while the Saxophone Concerto gives a hat tip to Adams’s own jazz-steeped upbringing.

Both of these works sport all of the characteristic Adams-isms that we know and love—the frenetic, scurrying, tightly interwined lines, mountainous pile-ups of contrapuntal activity that are suddenly snatched away to reveal shimmering, gentler material, made even more dramatic for the contrast, and huge, yet still clear as a bell-sounding brass chords that bound across the musical terrain. The heavy-duty music geeks out there will find plenty of those “How did he DO that?! Must see score now.” moments.
Both compositions are rife with references to jazz, without “just coming out and saying it” directly in the music. Alto sax is featured in City Noir, with a “fiendishly difficult part” writes Adams in his liner notes, and according to legend, it was hearing McAllister perform the part that inspired the composer to write an entire concerto for McAllister. Well, that and McAllister’s past life as a champion stunt bicycle rider (!), which for Adams spoke to the musician’s fearlessness. Also in the liner notes, Adams states that for the Saxophone Concerto he wanted a sax sound associated with jazz performance, rather than the vibrato-laden French style that is often employed in classical saxophone music. Timothy McAllister’s powerful performance does have a more “American” sound, while the St. Louis Symphony’s performance (led by conductor David Robertson) achieves the intended infusion of bebop into its veins while maintaining a sense of clarity and conciseness throughout. One of my favorite parts is the very opening of the piece, which sounds as if McAllister is pulling an entire orchestra out of the ground with his instrument alone. But the jazz element isn’t just about the saxes—both works contain jazz-oriented harmonic and gestural material molded specifically for orchestra performance. These are vital, engaging performances by all involved.

Sounds Heard: Andy Biskin Ibid—Act Necessary

Andy Biskin Ibid
Andy Biskin Ibid: Act Necessary
(strudelmedia 014)
Performed by:
Andy Biskin, clarinet
Kirk Knuffke, cornet
Brian Drye, trombone
Jeff Davis, drums
Buy: Order from strudelmedia or

The first thing that might catch one’s eye about the details of composer and clarinetist Andy Biskin’s quartet Ibid’s album Act Necessary is that there is no bass player involved. Rather, the ensemble contains clarinet, cornet, trombone, and drums. It’s a quirky group, playing some appropriately zany tunes, to the point where, if you close your eyes for certain tracks, it’s easy to picture a tiny cartoon marching band dancing its way across your field of vision. Such a lighthearted style—definitely Biskin’s forte, as evidenced by his extremely successful Goldberg’s Variations—which includes a deft fusion of New Orleans jazz, Tin Pan Alley, funk, and yes, polka, gives the music healthy doses of spirit and groove.

Apparently before Ibid came into existence, Biskin had also been experimenting with drummerless bands, which would naturally lend a more chamber-music feel to his music, but for this group he decided to turn things around by dropping the bass and adding drums. Because the arrangements are top-notch, my ears never found the missing bass to be an issue. There’s plenty to hear without it, and indeed, the treble-heavy lineup contributes to the sense of lightness in the music. The three melodic instruments work together to capture a satisfying sense of range, often going off in different directions to spin and whirl around one another, and then suddenly meeting at a common chord and progressing forward in rhythmic unison, like four friends on a scavenger hunt. Everyone has ample soloing opportunities, and they take them with creativity and gusto. Kirk Knuffke stands out in “Page 17,” a wonderfully energetic tune full of quick changes and surprises. As one might expect, trombone spends a lot of time filling up the lower range of the sound spectrum (check out the beginning of “Page 17′ for a good example), but Brian Drye shows his soloing chops in “Pretext” and “The Titans” while cornet and clarinet take on support roles. Also notable is that Jeff Davis’s drumming—mostly with brushes—always fits into the texture just so and is never overpowering. That you’ll likely be dancing within ten seconds of his entrance in “The Titans” or at the outset of “Just Like Me” goes to show that a great groove doesn’t have to be loud.

While all of the musicians on Act Necessary are clearly virtuosic performers, this is not so much a show-off-the-chops album, but more of a let’s-all-have-fun album, and that sentiment absolutely extends to the listener as well. The songs are complex and substantial, but never self-indulgent, with plenty of small details to be discovered upon repeated listening. While you’re dancing around the living room, of course.

Sounds Heard: Jefferson Friedman & Craig Wedren—On In Love

Jefferson Friedman & Craig Wedren: On In Love
Performed by: American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME) with Craig Wedren & Jefferson Friedman
(New Amsterdam 056)

Composers Jefferson Friedman and Craig Wedren have joined forces to shove their different-yet-connected musical worlds successfully closer together into the album On In Love. With the ensemble ACME, the two have constructed a group of songs that are dramatic, unpredictable, and beautifully crafted, serving up both both punch and substance.

Many may know of Jefferson Friedman via his stunning 2011 album of string quartets, and his composing for this current album bears a similar level of craft and aural sensitivity. In the late 90s he served as keyboardist and backup vocalist for the avant-rock group Shudder To Think, for which Wedren was the lead singer and songwriter. According to the album press release, they saw one another as creative kindred spirits, and that connection ultimately led them to create this album together. Although I’m not so sure about the description of the music as “pop music from an as-yet-undiscovered planet,”—it’s not that weird (to my ears), plus the songs are purportedly about the various incarnations of love, and isn’t writing songs about love exactly what earthlings do? Nevertheless, it is a very compelling listen, full of unexpected twists and turns of the sort that make the listener stop to really pay attention, as well as melodies that stick in the mind, asking to be hummed later on.

The first track “Tarrying” begins gently with Wedren’s slightly plaintive tenor vocals atop light-as-a-feather piano and string harmonics, which are quickly joined by equally light drums; just present enough to augment the pulse initially set by the piano. Each chorus/verse segment rises in volume and intensity like a wave, only to return to the original gentleness of the opening, until the final section of the song piles on more and more intensity, taking the wave to a crest that breaks on shore.

“Fight Song” is just that—an ornery, fast-paced slalom during which Wedren’s vocals become increasingly creepy with the addition of fish tank style reverb. I especially love the break (indeed, this album sports many excellently satisfying breaks) of angry brass, piano and drums that clears out the busy textures for a few seconds without losing intensity. “Famous Planets” is a gorgeous song accompanied by string quartet and tastefully employed synth textures; the last track of the album features an acoustic(ish) version of the song with guitar, piano, and singer (included: a little nod to Steve Reich’s electric counterpoint towards the end of the track).

The production of On In Love effectively walks the tightrope between pop and classical production techniques; happily, the acoustic instruments sound like themselves and are not excessively amplified/electrified, and although there are plenty of effects employed, they are used in service of the overall musical vision and don’t hog the aural stage. Even songs like “WARZ” and “Refuse to Die” (my personal favorite song of the album for it’s jagged yet infectiously quirky nature) have a more chamber ensemble-oriented sound than one might expect for their styles, yet they are totally convincing; a testament to Friedman’s composing and arranging chops. The most “plugged in” music can be heard about two-thirds of the way into “Glacier,” when electric guitar and bass join the acoustic ensemble for a full-on big stadium-style rock band ending (but with added Xenakis-style string shredding).

Similarly, Wedren’s singing is nuanced and natural sounding; even at big dramatic moments it never reaches the point of self-indulgence that one might expect. Rather than being the “front man,” he works with the ensemble as another instrument to get the point across.

Although it is clearly stated on the album website that this project was only intended to be a record, it has been performed live a few times already, and I’m sure that this combination of musical forces would make for a great concert experience. Whether you’re into Fugazi or Messiaen, My Bloody Valentine or Scelsi, there is something to be gleaned from the music of On In Love. It’s a beguiling record that is bound to stay in listening rotation for a good while.

Sounds Heard: Thomas DeLio—Selected Compositions (1991-2013)

Thomas DeLio
Selected Compositions (1991-2013)
(Neuma 450-108 & 450-201)

Neuma catalog items 450-108 and 450-201 are, respectively, a CD and a DVD (whose job is mostly to support multichannel audio; only one piece includes a video component) that together represent a 22-year retrospective of the music of Thomas DeLio. Twenty-three pieces composed between 1991 and 2013 are included on these discs.

If you’ve ever been curious about DeLio’s catalog, you’ll find plenty to engage with here. If you already hold DeLio in high esteem—he’s been counted by some among the most important living exponents of post-Cageian American experimentalism—you’ll love having all of these pieces within easy reach so you can relive them whenever the spirit moves you. If you feel—as others I’ve spoken with about DeLio’s music do—that this particular emperor has no clothes, Neuma’s collection offers the perfect chance to reevaluate that conviction. And if, like me, you’re pulled cyclically toward and away from DeLio’s music and the discourse around it, these two discs provide an ideal checkerboard on which to allow your feelings about this insistently elusive music to play out once and for all.

The CD booklet includes the following mission statement, one I remember very clearly from my first brushes with DeLio’s output more than a decade ago and which bears excerpting here:

As William Carlos Williams once said of Gertrude Stein: “Stein has gone systematically to work smashing every connotation that words have ever had, in order to get them back clean.” I too admire Stein for this reason and, following in the footsteps of those who have tried to do the same for sound, would like to move away from gesture process and get sound back “clean.” My approach to composition, to which I came quite subconsciously, involves reducing the music’s surface to just a few sounds separated—pushed apart—by large quantities of silence; sound events pushed into isolation. Often writers and scholars comment that my music is about silence. However, it is actually about sound. I use silence, among other things, to frame sound so that we may experience it in new ways, highlighting qualities of sound perhaps otherwise lost. […] I argue for wiping the slate clean and rediscovering sound beneath all the rhetoric and dated mannerisms which have accumulated over so many years and, in the process, really coming to grips with the nature of our own experience—a complex task indeed.

Although I found a great deal to enjoy in these substantial Neuma releases, I did so for exactly the opposite reason to the one that DeLio seems (according to his elevator pitch) to have intended: DeLio’s music purports to get sound back “clean,” but it’s the dirt in his sounds—that which we track in on our shoes, so to speak, no less than that which collects during each piece—that makes these recordings so worthwhile.

There are two kinds of pieces on these discs, more or less: pieces with live performers and pieces that exist on fixed media only (here charmingly called “tape” pieces in spite of their inescapably digital pedigrees). In both kinds, per DeLio’s liner note, isolated sounds are separated by long silences. As Agostino di Scipio points out in “Notes on Digital Silence: Listening to Tom DeLio’s Short Tape Works,” there’s an ontological difference between silence in a concert work for live performers and the digitally encoded silence in a fixed-media piece; either way, however, a DeLio experience (to one who knows what to listen for) is generally recognizable as such, and recognizably distinct from pieces emerging from other experimental music traditions in which silence figures so significantly (scores published by Edition Wandelweiser, onkyokei performances, etc.). In “Luminous Presence: Thomas DeLio’s think on parch,” Linda Dusman writes that DeLio and composers like him reject “the musical languages and forms of the dominant culture and seeks to create newly with each work the distinctive style established by each composer.” Whether or not it can honestly be said to emerge “newly” with each work, the “distinctive style” DeLio has established is unflagging, regardless of medium.

To the extent, then, that hearing one of DeLio’s pieces should be an exercise in the decontextualization of unsullied sounds, the fixed-media pieces and the instrumental pieces function in much the same way. But, as I’ve already indicated, I don’t think these pieces are simply exercises in the decontextualization of unsullied sounds: thankfully, the sounds come pre-sullied. That’s where the meat of this literature lies, for me, and that’s where the fixed-media pieces and the instrumental pieces diverge categorically.
The fixed-media works are full of sounds which are by no means fully drained of the “rhetoric and dated mannerisms” DeLio aspires to eliminate. Indeed, they’re full of gestures, and very sensuous and richly legible gestures to boot. Song: “Foxrock near Dublin…”, the first track on the DVD, has recourse to a bridge-of-the-Enterprise ambience beneath fractured lines from poet P. Inman (a presence throughout the discs—more on him later). Meanwhile …transients, in which DeLio processes the recording of his transients/images for piano and percussion and then strives (in an anti-musique concrète instrumentale) to “project those sonorities not as the products of actions or gestures—the products of purpose—but as purely physical [i.e., sonic, acoustic] realities.” To my ear, this doesn’t really happen: in fact, it’s the traces of the original “physical realities” of performance that are truly at issue in the piece.

Even though DeLio encourages us in words to approach each moment in his music as a lone and unmoored present, the pieces themselves encourage us to make connections backwards and forwards in time. In the fixed-media pieces especially, this is a matter not only of the piece’s duration but also of historical time: on a technical level, the electroacoustic pieces’ use of resonators and phase vocoding point very clearly to the 1990s, an inevitable (but possibly trivializing) result of following Fredric Jameson’s charge to “always historicize”—the last thing DeLio seems to want us to do. “sam”, for fixed-media sound and video, inhabits circling repetitions or near-repetitions for almost eighteen minutes, a lifetime compared to most of the fixed-media pieces on these discs. The version of “sam” on the DVD is an adaptation of an installation, which might explain its length; even in truncated form, it’s a piece that develops its own history and web of internal relationships that militate against the primacy of the sequestered moment.
The instrumental pieces, naturally, avail themselves of a different palette. A word here about the performances: although they’re uniformly superb in both precision and spirit, the works for percussion are especially noteworthy. DeLio is fortunate to have strong advocates (in capacities as varied as conductor, performer, interlocutor, and analyst) in Christopher Shultis and Tom Goldstein, whose efforts have probably brought more listeners into contact with DeLio’s music than any others’. However, all of the renditions showcased here are faithful and tight, and they all deserve praise for keeping the quality of such a huge undertaking so high. (That the Philharmonia Bulgarica recorded the three-and-a-half minute Than is itself remarkable—who expected to find an orchestra piece on these discs?) And of course they all sound great, especially on a set of decent headphones; that’s one way in which “sound” is importantly thematized that I can’t complain about.

It’s not only the sound worlds of the instrumental pieces that differ critically from the fixed-media pieces: because the embodied effort of producing instrumental or vocal sounds is so much greater than the effort of processing or reproducing sounds electronically, DeLio’s instrumental works—which I haven’t heard live in recent years but used to encounter from time to time on programs at UMBC—engage with a sort of economics of sound. Unlike his fixed-media pieces, in which sound is “cheap,” his instrumental pieces are like manipulated markets in which sound is made more valuable by virtue of its scarcity. In these pieces, performers have to reckon with the long silences between sounds, incorporating them into a performance practice. (Goldstein has written about this very consideration.) The piano solo Though, performed on the CD by Jacques Linder, establishes just such a market, and its silences rely on the sounds that they follow to create a sense of desire —at least, this is my experience of the piece: a family of small, handcrafted objects, fascinating individually and as a set, for the next of which we have to wait. As though, another solo played here by Twin Cities percussionist Jeffrey Gram, works similarly, fabricating desire by separating gestures—and let’s not pretend they’re not gestures. DeLio writes:

Among other things, in this work I was very interested in drawing attention to the distinction between non-pitched and pitched sound. Toward this end, I introduced only one pitch into the composition, near the end—one very peculiar type of sound framed by the more complex sounds of the un-pitched percussion employed throughout the piece. My purpose was to try to return pitch to its place as “sound”; to strip it of its function as a mere element of language (melodic, harmonic, tonal or atonal).

There’s nothing “mere” about being an element of language, and even if there were, then shouldn’t the piece’s “more complex” percussive sounds—many of which also carry a perceivable pitch—be held equally accountable? To my mind, the sudden appearance of a ringing metallophone in as though only reinforces the suspicion that the pitch-content to be heard in what DeLio calls the “un-pitched” percussion instruments might be expressive, too. I want to make a mountain out of this molehill, and DeLio wants me to forget about it and direct my attention to the next molehill.

DeLio’s aesthetic is a kind of “innocent modernism” in which we imagine that sound is “just sound” rather than imagining, say, that all parameters of musical material can be graduated into twelve equal-sized slices—both then-necessary but ultimately now-false ideals. It does less injury to “sound” than other kinds of musical modernism, maybe, but the word “sound” has quotation marks around it here because sound isn’t actually a thing you can do injury to. This is the root of my objection to DeLio’s project: every sound that appears in his music was produced by human labor of some kind or another; every sound’s source has an historical specificity; many of the sounds include splinters of semantic languages; all of the sounds in a piece can be related to one another in a hierarchical way (or, more accurately, many possible hierarchical ways). They are not just sounds, and what the lengthy silences that are supposed to cut them off from their kin are actually doing is giving a listener time and space to assemble them into meaningful networks.

Consider American poet P. Inman’s voice, which features in several fixed-media works and whose character at times evokes the stray pre-song utterances found on early Todd Rundgren albums. I’ll digress briefly for a look at Inman’s orientation toward poetry, which mirrors DeLio’s to music in important ways. Dusman identifies an intersection in Inman’s writing (whose fundamental unit is not the phrase or the sentence but the individual word) of the imminent (“meaning is always imminent in his poetry, emerging in the moment from the multiple possible readings produced and present in each moment”) and the immanent (“At the same time meaning is immanent; that is, its meaning wells up from the word itself”). Inman conceives of his work in a political way:

Capitalist ideology hopes to dilute or deny the existence of anything other than the everyday given. By doing so current ideology stagnates thought, replaces the possibility of change with the statistic, frozen black on paper, legitimized by its very inertia.

(That may have been true when Inman wrote it in 1979, but it certainly isn’t now: capitalist ideologies in the 21st century are increasingly predicated on the construction of desire, the commodification of affect. They change constantly and appear in terrifyingly vivid colors. They haunt us so thoroughly that I had to turn to those very terms to properly describe my reaction to Though.)

In DeLio’s case, that meaning emerges in his pieces imminently is clear to me. The act of waiting is an essential part of hearing his music, and not only in Though one hears a sound, and then one has to wait some time to hear another. It’s just that these episodes are cumulative; each new one doesn’t negate all the ones that have come before it. Dusman’s description of DeLio’s music as a threshold experience is absolutely correct; the listener spends a great deal of time on the threshold between the apprehension of the piece he or she has thus far developed and the apprehension of the piece he or she will have after the next sound event, which will necessarily alter the former in an unexpected way. This is an intensely dramatic experience, at least for me, but it only works precisely because meaning in DeLio’s music is not constructed immanently but rather negotiated by the conditional and conditioned particularity of each sound-event within the piece’s world and the resonances of those sound-events in the world outside of the piece. DeLio may want to wash his hands of “geology, astrology, and acupuncture,” to paraphrase Grisey, but we should be grateful that he hasn’t been entirely successful—because this very contradiction is what makes
these Neuma discs so magisterial, their contents so captivating.

Maybe this is DeLio’s ultimate revenge on a new music community bent on overthought, on subjectivity run amok, on indulgences in memory and gesture, both of which he reviles: maybe he’s spent a career writing pieces whose insights are revealed only when the discourse around it is considered and then disregarded. This isn’t a review of that discourse, nor of DeLio’s prose writings, nor of his interlocutors’, of course; it’s a review of a CD and DVD that contain a sizable helping of recorded and fixed-media music. He was very nearly right all along: the worthiest ambassador for DeLio (to whom I’m happy to yield the last laugh) is the music—not to say the sound—itself.

Note: If you’re going to investigate the CD and DVD set, you might as well also investigate Essays on the Music and Theoretical Writings of Thomas DeLio, Contemporary American Composer (Thomas Licata, ed.), a collection of articles and commentaries that argue passionately—if not always, as I’ve opined above, persuasively—for DeLio’s work. I’m pleased to have had the chance to cite its contents several times in this review.

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.