The music of Lewis Nielson, who recently retired as chair of the Oberlin Conservatory of Music Composition Department, pushes the fragmentary language of modernism to a breaking point and couches it in contemporary timbres.
Nielson’s work can be highly expressive—his Il Romanticismo di Lucrezia e Cesare (2014), a theatrical piece for double bass, soprano and tape, appropriates the grand emotional sweep of opera and turns advanced double bass technique to equally dramatic use. By contrast, the three recent pieces collected here, composed between 2005 and 2010, largely eschew dramatic rhetoric and instead tend to rely on the accumulation of piecemeal gestures which gradually gather up into a whole. In a way they recall what Carlo Ginzburg called the “intuizione bassa”—the inductive leap by virtue of which a full picture suddenly appears out of scattered traces.
The string quartet Le Journal du Corps (2010), performed by the JACK Quartet, is an episodic work in which the four voices occasionally converge but more often seem to operate independently. It begins sparsely, testing the silence with tentative stabs of sound, and slowly gathers momentum and mass. Nielson intersperses rapid runs, droning chords and brittle harmonics with the “unmusical,” quasi-industrial sounds of creaking and grinding. A few minutes away from the ending there’s a chant-like sung part drawing on text taken from a play by Martinican poet Aimé Césaire. Nielson’s choice of text makes explicit the quartet’s anti-imperialist programmatic intent. Tocsin (2009) is a similarly programmatic work of assembled and disassembled pieces. The all-percussion work, performed by red fish blue fish, uses changes in sound density and dynamics to illustrate the coalescence and dissolution of crowds during periods of political upheaval. Finally Axis (2005), for solo percussion and string quintet—for which cellist Emily Du Four joins JACK—is a concatenation of nervous spasms of sound, the restless pizzicato and scuffled bowings of the strings playing off of percussionist Steven Schick’s unsettling attacks on drums and cymbals.