AMN Reviews: Rand Steiger – A Menacing Plume [80747-2]

Composer Rand Steiger, five of whose works are presented here, has a long history of using electronic processing and amplification to modify the outputs of acoustic instruments. Thus it comes as no surprise that much of the work included in this release reflects an interest in the effects on sonority of digital enhancement.

As borne out in the five tracks included here, a central concern of Steiger’s music consists in the exploration and manipulation of timbre. Although the makeup and nature of the ensembles differ from composition to composition, a commonality to emerge from all of the music is the predominance of timbre as musical center of gravity.

The aptly named Résonateur (2005), commissioned on the occasion of Pierre Boulez’s 80th birthday, uses reverberation and delay, as well as computer-facilitated retuning, to bring out the resonant properties of acoustic instruments and electronic keyboards. This tends to fortify the instruments’ aural signatures, sharply defining each in relation to the others. The piece balances on a tension of contrasts between resounding long tones and the measured, atonal counterpoint of lines carried most noticeably by sampled harpsichord. The chime-like, metallic timbres brought to the fore here carry over to the piece that follows it, A Menacing Plume (2011). Although written as a program work about the Deepwater Horizon oil platform explosion and its environmental consequences, A Menacing Plume can be listened to for the pure sensual stimulation of its sound sculpting built up out of glissandi and suspended harmonies. Elusive Peace (2000) draws on an entirely different palette of sound. Scored for rock drumkit and amplified cello, the piece is a study of contrasts of timbre, dynamics and density of motion. Slow moving planes of sound emanating from sustained open strings play off against hyperkinetic drumming, giving the impression of independent voices juxtaposed in separate sonic fields. The other duet, awhirl (2008) for piano and processing, uses digital delay to enrich the saturation of chromatic lines over a steadily moving chord progression. By contrast Elliott’s Instruments (2010), written in honor of composer Elliott Carter’s 100th birthday, is a largely pointillistic chamber work for a mixed ensemble of strings, winds, piano and percussion in which phrases are divided among the six acoustic instruments, creating rows of sound colors as well as tones.

Although digital technology plays a significant role in Steiger’s explorations, an at least equally important ingredient of all of these compositions is his fine sense of instrumental balance and contrast. This is most immediately apparent in the purely acoustic Elliott’s Instruments, but is also a critical factor in creating the rich textures in Résonateur and A Menacing Plume. And the technology never overshadows the fine performances by the acoustic ensemble, whose precise realizations bring this shimmering work to life.

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