Richard Karpen is a composer whose work exemplifies what music historian Richard Taruskin characterized as “post-literate” composition—works composed with electronic or other means that eliminate the need for a formally notated score.
Karpen (b. 1957), who is Director of the School of Music at the University of Washington, trained as a pianist but also is a programmer who created software for use in composition and performance. Karpen’s method of composition is to bypass the middle term of notated scores and to work directly with the performers of his works. Many of these are developed around specific artists; both pieces on this CD were originally conceived as solos—Aperture for viola and Elliptic for guitar—and then scaled up for the versions recorded here.
Aperture II for amplified string quartet—performed by the JACK Quartet—is a tintinnabulation of accumulating overtones that surges and diminishes over the unhurried course of thirty-nine minutes. Sounding at first like a particularly rich, chiming drone, the piece undergoes gradual changes of harmony as well as dynamics as shifting internal voices slowly complicate its tambura-like buzz. Listening is like watching a relatively calm sea: Not looked at too closely, the surface appears to be a static plane; the more attentive view of a downward glance instead reveals wavelets in constant motion. Aperture II’s deceptively placid surface is occasionally disturbed by stabs and runs of individual notes and the unpitched squealing of massed, amplified harmonics.
Like Aperture II, Elliptic is a long piece of rising and ebbing sound grounded in increments of movement. The entire piece seems to pool around a single tone, whether explicitly stated or simply implied; what in a more conventional piece would be framed as development of line is instead reconfigured as deviations from a center. Here the JACK Quartet is augmented by nylon-string and electric guitars and two Vietnamese zithers–the monochord đàn bầu and the đàn tranh. The performance plays on the timbral contrasts between bowed and plucked strings; the metallic, twangy zithers set themselves off from the sustained tones of the string quartet, often simulating the effects of sustain with tremolo strumming.
This is beautiful music for close listening.