AMN Reviews: Roger Reynolds – imagE/imAge set [Neuma 450-114]

neuma_records_and_publications_we10_10-6-15006006Roger Reynolds (b. 1934) is a composer whose career and music seem to be built on harmonizing apparently divergent paths and influences. Trained as an engineer after having studied piano seriously when young, he left a job as a missile systems development engineer to return to school to resume study of the piano. He ended up a composition student of Ross Lee Finney, was a co-founder, with Robert Ashley and Gordon Mumma, of the experimental, multi-disciplinary ONCE Group in Ann Arbor, and spent time at IRCAM in Paris. His compositions draw on the divergent traditions of American experimentalism and the European avant-garde; much of his work involves intermedia crossings of music, theater, dance and spoken word as well as the integration of analogue and digital electronics with acoustic instruments. With this fine new collection of recent work, though, Reynolds addresses the most basic of purely musical situations: the unaccompanied, unenhanced acoustic instrument.

The imagE-imAge series consists of linked pairs of related but contrasting compositions for solo instruments. The imagE half of each pair is lyrical—Reynolds characterizes these pieces as “evocative,” hence the upper-case “E”—while the imAge pieces, which Reynolds describes as “articulate,” are instead made up of distinct sections of heterogeneous sounds and musical gestures. With each pair, Reynolds is able to bring out seemingly opposed but in fact complementary aspects of each instrument’s expressive and technical potential.

The imAge compositions are marked on the surface by moments of disjunction and musical parataxis, often embodied in staccato dissonances and dramatic leaps of register. The imAges for piano (played by Yuki Takahashi) and guitar (Pablo Gómez) feature abruptly sounded, tension-filled chords at extreme ranges, broken in the piano’s case by repeated patterns of chromatic tones. The imAge for viola, played by Mark Menzies, casts these basic tropes for bowed strings, exploiting string techniques such as tremolo bowing and brief, rapid runs played in one bow. For the other two string instruments represented here the approach is different. The imAge for cello explores variations in color as cellist Alexis Descharmes mixes pizzicato with conventional and spiccato bowing, underscored by dramatic dynamic contrasts. Double bassist Mark Dresser performs the imAge that Reynolds wrote specifically for him; the highly percussive piece reflects Dresser’s rich engagement with harmonics, which here are plucked and struck.

The contrast between this and the imagE for double bass is perhaps the greatest of any of the pairs. Played entirely arco, the harmonics and melody lines, many of which are made up of minor seconds separated by register, flow smoothly, creating a sense of continuity despite the gaps between the notes. Like imagE for double bass, the other imagE pieces tend to be highly chromatic and, like their imAge counterparts, range across extremes of register. The sense of continuity and lyrical flow is often imparted by expressive dynamics, as in imagE for viola (played by John Pickford Richards), or the alternating of long lines and fluid, rapid passages, as in the pieces for cello and for flute (Rachel Beetz). For guitar and piano (Eric Huebner plays this latter), Reynolds unravels harmonies into arpeggios and other horizontal lines.

Daniel Barbiero