AMN Reviews: James Ilgenfritz: Compositions (Braxton) 2011

Anthony Braxton
Anthony Braxton (Photo credit: digital_freak)

James Ilgenfritz: Compositions (Braxton) 2011 [Infrequent Seams IS1001]

Double bassist James Ilgenfritz’s new CD provides an intriguing twist on the orchestral reduction. Ordinarily a matter of adapting music for larger ensembles to the piano, here Ilgenfritz takes Anthony Braxton’s compositions and reduces them to the double bass alone. It’s an ambitious undertaking with fittingly audacious results.

The challenge Ilgenfritz sets himself is to take Braxton’s multifaceted works for ensemble and to render them on a single instrument, all the while retaining their salient properties. Ilgenfritz’s approach is to combine segments of multiple compositions into any given performance. These pieces include Braxton’s Language Music and Ghost Trance Music materials, as well as two trumpet cadenzas. The works chosen cover a diverse range of styles and notations, ranging from the fully-scored to those suggestive of melodic contours and rhythmic pulses. The Language Music approach– in which sound elements and techniques function as phonemes to be combined in various ways—seems to encapsulate much of what’s heard here. Within its parameters the performer is allowed a good amount of discretion, which Ilgenfritz makes good use of.

The individual tracks, all of which are of substantial length, range from the march rhythms that open the CD to the angular pulses and timbral discontinuities that mirror some of Braxton’s solo work on alto saxophone, and through to passages that seem inspired by twelve-tone composition. The playing is clear throughout, with the frequent shifts of direction handled deftly.

As important as the compositions are, the double bass itself is the key to this recording. The material facts of how the instrument creates sound provide the vocabulary for the sound world here and indeed leave an essential imprint on the music. Thus the kaleidoscopic experience Ilgenfritz wishes to create is as much driven by the way the instrument creates sound as by the compositions. Because of the focus on materiality of the bass, sound color is as important as harmonic or tonal content. In the development of these performances, Ilgenfritz uses expansive bowing techniques to bring out the full range of the bass’s capacity to generate rich overtones and to create sometimes abrupt changes of color. Some of these techniques include the generous use of harmonics and sul ponticello bowing; overpressured bowing; bowing & plucking simultaneously; and bouncing both the haired and wooden sides of the bow on the strings. Ilgenfritz’s technical exploration is well-served by the pristine recording, which brings out the full range of nuance on offer.

In addition to being a significant engagement of Braxton’s compositional legacy, Compositions (Braxton) 2011 is a considerable achievement of solo instrumentalism and an important demonstration of the possibilities open to the double bass in the early 21st century.