AMN Reviews: Robert Carl – From Japan


Robert Carl at the piano - from a concert at t...
Robert Carl at the piano – from a concert at the Salinas Arts Center (Salinas, KS) in Feb. 2004. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Robert Carl: From Japan [New World Records 80732-2]

As its title suggests, From Japan was inspired by University of Hartford composer Robert Carl’s longstanding interest in Japanese music and art, which culminated in a 2007 trip to Japan to interview Japanese composers roughly of his generation. All of the pieces included on the CD were composed within a couple of years on either side of the trip, a period spanning 2005-2010. The music collected here represents a highly effective and satisfying blend of electronic and acoustic elements informed by a sensibility that embraces both lyrical expression and an economy of means.

The CD opens and closes with two different versions of A Clean Sweep, scored for electronics and shakuhachi. The first version features Elizabeth Brown on shakuhachi, while in the second version she’s joined by the composer, also on shakuhachi. The piece features a spare melody with a distinctly vocal quality, floating over an electronic foundation. At first the latter appears to be a tamboura-like static drone based on D; a closer listen reveals it to be subtly unstable, seeming to drift upward and back down again in small increments. The addition of a second shakuhachi doubling the first shakuhachi’s part makes for subtle microtonal variances arising from the players’ deliberately slight discrepancies of phrasing and embellishment. These seem to recall the carefully crafted flaw, valued in traditional Japanese arts, that is meant to reflect the inevitable imperfection of the natural world.

Bullet Cycle, for improvising cello and vibes joined by percussion and electronics, takes the cello’s languorous arpeggios and punctuates them with percussion in what seem to be irregularly spaced, brief clusters of strikes, while the vibes set up sometimes mirroring and sometimes contrasting lines in response. Underneath it all an electronic continuo—based on Carl’s recordings of the Japanese bullet train, which have been processed to provide the composition’s harmonic underpinning–wafts through in rushes of sound.

The highlight of the disc is Brown Velvet, for Ryan Hare’s bassoon accompanied by live electronics. The emotionally lush but sonically austere bassoon line, initially built up from elements drawn from the Bb harmonic series, is played over an electronic pedal point moving through a Bb major triad. As the piece develops the bassoon melody, which aptly draws on the musical vocabularies of the last century’s interwar and immediate postwar periods, becomes more complex without losing its compelling directness.

The longest track on the CD is the electronic installation Collapsible Mandala, a 26 minute sonic environment made up of treated field recordings from Carl’s Japan trip, framed by substantial stretches of silence. The piece provides a marked contrast to the breath-based second version of A Clean Sweep, which follows it.