AMN Reviews: Alexander Sigman – Nominal/Noumenal

Alexander Sigman: Nominal/Noumenal (Carrier Records)

Nominal/Noumenal is a release of recent acoustic and electroacoustic chamber work by composer Alexander Sigman. Like his teacher Brian Ferneyhough, Sigman uses thickly notated scores to create complex compositions exploiting a sometimes dense, sometimes sparse arrangement of conventional and extended methods of sound production.

The seven pieces included in this release, conceived of as parts of two intersecting cycles, are scored for solo instruments as well as small ensembles of varied and sometimes unorthodox instrumentation. Entartete Musik 2, for example, combines viola and percussion to create a contrast between resonant low-pitched percussion and the comparatively bright timbres of the viola; a kind of rhythmic harmony follows from the overlap of irregular percussion strikes and the viola’s tremolo. The Shining Pillar of Anti-Beauty (int-0) for solo cello transforms the instrument’s ordinary sound profile through use of a microtonal scordatura, a lead mute, and selective amplification. The resulting voice somehow manages to be harsh and ethereal at the same time. The composition calls for an intriguing mixture of extended techniques and varied dynamics—not so much anti-beauty as beauty as seen from a different angle.

In some respects the recording’s centerpiece is Detritus I, scored for counter-tenor, chamber ensemble and electronics. Here again contrasting textures are set up, this time through the use of membrane and metal percussion, and the sound of the human voice doubled or opposed by trombone. Another layer of contrasts is encoded in the two texts Sigman sets: The fifth strophe of the proto-surrealist poem “Maldoror,” and Eric Gill’s “An Essay on Typography.” In many respects Detritus I epitomizes the work on this release which, with its often surprising juxtapositions of instruments and techniques, can be described with the well-known image from “Maldoror”: The chance meeting of an umbrella and sewing machine on a dissecting table.

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