AMN Reviews Reviews

AMN Reviews: Quartet Solo Series Volumes 1 & 2 (sm0001 & sm0002)

A performance for solo instrument, at its best, can be like a compelling soliloquy offered by a well-developed character in a play: Nuanced, exposed, and drawn from those ordinarily obscured corners of personality that are completely revealing of character. In the case of solo experimental music, the character revealed is often that of the material substrate of music proper, whether of the instrument or object producing sound or of sound itself. With its Quartet Solo Series, the experimental music label Striking Mechanism provides an audio space for adventurous soloists to explore this material substrate.

The two CDs under review are the first two in the series. Each CD is issued in a limited edition of 500 and contains four solo performances by classically trained composer/performers. Rather than executing conventional compositions in a conventional manner, they improvise in ways that show a commitment to a broad conception of sonic possibility.

The first volume in the series contains two electronic soundscapes bookended by exploratory improvisations on acoustic instruments. Leading off is Marina Peterson’s five-part investigation of the sonic properties of the prepared cello. Peterson approaches the instrument with pressured bowing, rubbing and percussive strikes; the sounds she creates range from muted rasps to bell-like tones and quasi-whispers. Phillip Schulze presents “Cause Unfold Proceed II,” a work for electronics governed by parameters drawn from the environment, hardware and software, and feedback. Jonathan Chen, Striking Mechanism’s founder and a violinist and violist as well as a composer, provides a track of feedback produced by three independent, interactive systems run through a toy drum kit. The final solo is Andrew Raffo Dewar’s two-part “Diptych” for soprano saxophone, recorded live in the resonant Wesleyan Memorial Chapel at Wesleyan University. Dewar’s performance features rapid runs, multiphonics, trills and bent notes punctuated by discreet silences.

The second volume, like the first, contains experiments encompassing acoustic instruments and electronics, both alone and in combination. Jessica Pavone’s aptly titled “This Is My Violin” investigates the sonic properties of virtually all parts of the instrument. Pavone integrates percussive strikes on various parts of the violin with more conventionally played repeated motifs and variations, all gently modified with echo effects. In his five concise improvisations for unaccompanied double bass, Carl Testa employs bowing attacks and articulations that emphasize complex overtones. Each improvisation is titled with a graphic symbol suggestive of the sound—a provocative case of music being perhaps more directly described by an illustration rather than in words. Katherine Young’s “Storm” for bassoon and tape takes the shape of overlayered clouds of tones, often creating the effect of a variable drone and ending with a brief, repeated phrase in a minor mode. The CD ends with Jonathan Zorn’s undulating, atmospheric “Dia no vive aqui” for electronics.

Since the pioneering composers of the last century began insisting on placing music in the larger context of sound, the mutual influence and interaction of sound as material and music as form has provided a fruitful field of investigation for experimental musicians and composers alike. These two discs present eight thoughtful ways of working in that field.

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