AMN Reviews: Mikel Kuehn – Object/Shadow [New Focus Recordings fcr160]

The results of the musical revolution that Modernism midwived during the last century are still with us. At one time a matter of novelty, the possibilities Modernism opened up—regarding pitch relationships, the role of timbre, and musical syntax—have grown into a kind of alternative common practice whose strategies are always already available to contemporary composers.

For composer Mikel Kuehn (b. 1967), the common practice of Modernism is a notable presence animating his work. Kuehn, who is Professor of Composition at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, began as a percussionist while in his teens in the Los Angeles area. Like many composers of his generation, his background includes jazz and other musics outside of the Western classical tradition. Some of these eclectic influences can be felt in his compositions as, for example, in their instrumentation. But on Object/Shadow, the first full release dedicated to his music, Modernism, with its expansive pitch and timbral vocabularies and especially its divisionist syntax, is the central point of reference.

On the ensemble pieces Undercurrents (2013), Color Fields (2006/2008) and Between the Lynes (1994), Kuehn employs Modernist-derived strategies for handling textures and phrasing. On all three pieces, he treats the surfaces as complex, colorful mosaics made up of small, irregularly-shaped tiles, foregrounding different instruments or instrumental combinations as brief, constantly changing events. The tensions created by these fragmentary textures are complemented by unresolved dissonances and phrase endings left dangling like open and unanswered questions. Those are general observations; each of the pieces has attractions of its own. Color Fields, for example, written for and performed here by the Flexible Music quartet of tenor saxophone (Timothy Ruedeman), vibes (Haruka Fujii), guitar (Daniel Lippel) and piano (Eric Huebner), like Milton Babbitt’s All Set takes a jazz ensemble and turns it to abstract uses. Whereas All Set broke the ensemble down into constantly changing subgroups, Color Fields is notable for combining instruments into a single line of composite timbre. The contrast of staccato and sustaining voices sounding in parallel gives the piece a restless push, as do the generally long, propulsive phrases running through it. Between the Lynes for flute, cello, and piano, the oldest work represented, is also the closest in sound to a mid-20th Century, broken-surfaced serial composition. It’s a gratifying excursion into audio painting: Like pieces falling in a turning kaleidoscope, the three voices—Ensemble Dal Niente’s Emma Hospelhorn, Chris Wild, and Winston Choi–combine and divide into quick, short-lived alliances and oppositions.

Unfoldings (2004), a solo guitar work written for and played by Lippel, treats color nuances within the more restricted palette of a single instrument. The composition consists in a subdued drama built on the different timbral characteristics of open and stopped strings, harmonics, varied chord voicings, and the placement of the right hand relative to the bridge. Lippel’s sensitive and unhurried performance brings out the fine-grained shadings this subtle work calls for. Chiaroscuro (2007) also focuses on the timbres of a single instrument, but the sounds here are enhanced and multiplied by virtue of having the solo instrument—a cello—augmented by its own pre-recorded and manipulated sounds. As a result, Chiaroscuro is as bold as Unfoldings is temperate; Craig Hutgren’s robust realization foregrounds percussive strikes, microtonal clashes, and deliberately harsh bowing.

A fine and stimulating collection of music.

Daniel Barbiero