AMN Reviews

AMN Reviews: Christopher Chandler & Heather Stebbins – Roots [New Focus Recordings fcr364]

As much for their similarities as for their differences, Christopher Chandler and Heather Stebbins are well-matched in this album of recent compositions for orchestral instruments and electronics. Both are represented by works for solo instruments or small chamber ensembles, accompanied by electronics in various capacities, that focus on sound resonances rather than more conventional melodic or harmonic movement; while Chandler’s compositions tend toward a nuanced introversion, Stebbins’ range more freely into more variable dynamics and a somewhat harsher overall palette.

Chandler, based in upstate New York, is in addition to a composer a co-founder and executive director of the chamber music group [Switch~Ensemble], who perform the works on the album. His these old roots, for amplified bass drum and fixed media, opens the album with a surf and rattle of spatialized sound fragments. His Strata (2021) for contrabass clarinet, violin, cello, percussion, and live electronics has the acoustic instruments producing feedback-like sounds in slowly moving layers. Still Life (2022) for bass flute, bass clarinet, violin, cello, and generative electronics is an open-form work in which the performers select the order in which they realize the collage of gestures—trills, glissandi, multiphonics, long tones—written for them. The resulting episodic movement and unsettled washes of harmony create a soundworld of suspenseful tension.

Stebbins is a composer on the faculty of Washington, DC’s George Washington University and an occasional presence on the local experimental music scene, where she can be found performing on cello with live electronics or on modular synthesizer. Her contributions to Roots demonstrate an interest in the characteristic personalities of the instruments she writes for. Sub Rosa for bass clarinet and electronics is an essay in elemental microsounds that foregrounds the physical processes involved in playing the instrument—the movement of its keys, the buzzing of the reed—over a foundation of rough-textured electronics. Ursa Major (2017) for piano, percussion, saxophones, and fixed media leverages extended techniques for an intriguing set of effects, most notable of them being the gamelan-like sounds of piano played with keys and plucked strings simultaneously. The highlight of the album is Stebbins’ three-movement Among Arrows (2021) for flute/bass flute, contrabass clarinet, cello, and electronics. The first and longest movement exploits harmonics, overtones, microtones, and fused timbres to set out a vertical structure of evolving complexity that builds to a very slow crescendo over crackling, rain-on-a-tin-roof electronics. After an interlude consisting of a repeated chord broken up by pauses the third movement reintroduces long, slightly jarring stacked tones for the acoustic instruments underscored by dissonant, close-interval chords from the electronics, culminating in a quarter note pulsed chord for the two strings.

Daniel Barbiero

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