AMN Reviews: Alvin Lucier – Orpheus Variations [Important Records IMPREC469]

Orpheus Variations, a recent work for cello and seven wind instruments by Alvin Lucier, is a thirty-one minute piece based on a single seven-note chord. This would seem to be extremely limited material for a work of this length—and it is—but by exploring the timbral and resonant effects of distributing these seven notes across winds and cello, Lucier develops in detail a rich sound world that manages to be both hypnotic and kaleidoscopic at the same time.

Lucier has said that he thinks of this collection of tones primarily as a sonority, by which he seems to mean he imagines them as they would actually be played with the specific timbres and registers appropriate to the instruments for which they’re scored. It is a concern with the concrete qualities of sounds as they are actually played. He realizes this in the way he orchestrates his pitch set: throughout the piece he has the seven notes circulate through the ensemble in a constantly shifting pattern of arpeggiated long tones played with and against various instrumental combinations. Although the piece is long, its recurrent cycling of this closed set of material in changing registers and voices defeats any mundane sense of duration the listener may have; in my own repeated listenings the piece has seemed considerably shorter than its run time as measured by the clock.

The chord that forms the basis for the Orpheus Variations appears in Stravinsky’s score for the first part of George Balanchine’s 1947 ballet Orpheus. A product of Stravinsky’s neoclassical period, the music for the ballet was inspired by Monteverdi. The chord itself is highly unstable, a quality Lucier dramatizes by breaking it down into consonant and dissonant subsets that overlap, clash, float and dissolve at an unhurried pace.

Orpheus Variations was composed for cellist Charles Curtis and was premiered by Curtis in August, 2015 at the Ostrava days; here, it’s performed by Curtis with members of the SEM Ensemble.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Splinter Reeds – Hypothetical Islands [New Focus FCR222]

Extended technique long ago lost its shock value, which is all to the good. For many composers as well as performers, extended technique is a resource that can be drawn on as a matter of course—as one musical device among many, rather than as novelty or anomaly. As their fine second album demonstrates, the music written for and performed by the extraordinary reed quintet Splinter Reeds—oboist Kyle Bruckmann, clarinetist Bill Kalinkos, saxophonist David Wegehaupt, bass clarinetist Jeff Anderle and bassoonist Dana Jessen—shows how artfully extended technique can serve as the organizing principle for stimulating works that are challenging to performer and listener alike.

An excellent example of this is composer Sky Mackley’s Choppy, which was written in 2017 for Splinter Reeds and premiered at the Berkeley Art Museum that November. The piece weaves together a dense tissue of multiphonics, microtonal detuning, overblowing and the non-musical sounds of disturbed water (a sonic allusion to the title’s evocation of windblown water, perhaps). It’s a piece that inhabits extremes of register and dynamics and might be something we could imagine the Furies listening to when not out pursuing transgressors.

Like Choppy, Eric Wubbels’ Auditory Scene Analysis II, written for the group in 2016, employs multiphonics as a significant element. Also like Choppy, it contains jarring dynamic contrasts as well as harsh, massed sound clusters. Some of the percussive effects in Wubbels’ piece find an amplified echo in Theresa Wong’s Letters to a Friend, which uses key clicks and slap-tongue to set up a complex set of rhythms and counterrhythms.

The title track, by Yannis Kyriakides, augments the sound of the acoustic winds with electronics. The piece begins with a wind-like background rumble that, rising and falling in prominence, runs as an undercurrent throughout. On top of it the reeds carve out dissonant islands of sound—short, discordant fragments of ensemble work that take the guise of tantalizing, because deliberately incomplete, hints of melody.

The album also includes the gleefully stuttering polyphony of Matthew Shlomowitz’s Lines and Length, and the Cara Haxo’s alternately pointillistic and movingly lyrical Exercices I and II.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Karris Adams Duo – Nothing Stays Buried (la la la la) (2019; Personal Archives)

Chicago improvisers Reid Karris and Alexander Adams team up for this live-in-the-studio-with overdubs EP, released at the beginning of the month as a cassette and download by Personal Archives. Karris provides prepared guitar and skatchbox (a cardboard box with contact mics and a number of household items taped thereon that can be played by manipulating the items), while Adams mans the drum kit.

This is non-repeating music. There are no melodies, harmonies, rhythms or beats of note. Instead, Karris and Adams build dense structures with controlled timbres and colors. Adams sets forth an aleatoric, patternless base that resembles an all-out drum solo. Karris overlays these with textures that often sound little like traditional guitar. Blasts of distortion and short feedback drones combine with speed picking, loops, effects, and delay. Karris and Adams are at their best when they hold nothing back and bury the listener under massive walls of sound that are constructed and de-constructed on an ongoing basis.

Comparisons? If you are familiar with the previous works of these artists, Nothing Stays Buried (la la la la) will probably not sound like it is out of left field. Otherwise, some similarities to the Flying Luttenbachers might be observed. Regardless, this singular release is in its own twisted category and comes highly recommended.

AMN Reviews: The Cloudwatchers – S/T [Unexplained Sounds Group]; Ståle Storløkken – The Haze of Sleeplessness [Hubro HUBROCD2616]

Forms by themselves are inert things: accumulated conventions and materials that, for all their inertia, are nevertheless available to be appropriated and made newly meaningful through the projects and programs that somehow have need of them. The Cloudwatchers, a quartet of musicians working in Spain, and the Norwegian keyboardist/composer Ståle Storløkken each take an awareness of the conventions and materials of classic electronic avant-garde and cosmic music and creatively reimagine them as something authentically their own.

The Cloudwatchers’ membership comprises Andrés Alonso (electric guitar and bass, digital synthesizers and audio processors); Iván Cebrián (analogue synthesizers and audio processors); Coco Moya (voice, analogue synthesizers and audio processors); and Jaime Munáriz (analogue synthesizers, electric guitar and audio processors). The group’s overlapping instrumentation—three of the four play analogue synthesizers, and all four engage in audio processing—doesn’t prevent them from creating rich soundscapes of varying colors. The three long, untitled pieces are constructed around more or less fixed harmonies; as a foundation this may seem simple, but with this kind of music what matters isn’t complex harmonic change but instead changes in texture, timbre and voice. Sometimes, as in the first piece, the voice is human, oscillating in microtones around washes of synthesizer and echo-drenched guitar. The dominant voice on the second piece, by contrast, consists in a modal keyboard melody floating lightly over the gravitas of a slow beat and densely-layered background texture. The closing piece features luminous sounds and culminates in an ostinato for sequencer—a clever recontextualization of an old convention from space music.

Like the Cloudwatchers, Storløkken’s natural point of reference is the classic electronic music of the 1960s and 1970s, but also like the Cloudwatchers, he doesn’t try to recreate those sounds through direct imitation but rather by indirect hint and allusion. With The Haze of Sleeplessness he sets out to make a soundtrack for a non-existent film, the better to let the listener dream his or her own characters, plot and setting. Each of the seven pieces is a tone poem in itself, but taken together, all add up to a collectively coherent suite which—in a coincidental parallel to the Cloudwatchers’ final track–ends in a sequencer-driven flourish.



AMN Reviews: Post-Haste Reed Duo – Donut Robot! [Bandcamp]; Lori Freedman – Excess [Dame cqb 1923]

The technical innovations of the past sixty or so years have given instrumentalists and composers a vast and diverse set of resources to draw on in creating new music both written and performed. Just how vast and diverse is something best seen in the context of music for solo performers or very small ensembles. Two releases for reeds–one for reed duo and one for soloist–provide good examples.

Donut Robot! is the second release from the Post-Haste Reed Duo, the Portland, Oregon duo of saxophonist Sean Fredenburg and bassoonist Javier Rodriguez. Both are instructors—Fredenburg teaches saxophone at Portland State University, while Rodriguez is Assistant Professor of Bassoon at the Lionel Hampton School of Music at Idaho State University—as well as performers; they’re also dedicated to presenting new music for their instruments. In fact, all of the pieces on Donut Robot! were commissioned or inspired by the Post-Haste Duo. The album opens with the title track, Ruby Fulton’s lively, contrapuntal sound portrait of mechanical processes cycling through smooth function and complete breakdown. Drew Baker’s First Light, for bassoon and soprano saxophone, is a spatial work that has the two instrumentalists standing in close proximity while playing parts separated by microtones. The piece develops as a thick-textured, slowly descending pattern of oscillating tones that take on the quality of the falsetto human voice; the closely-spaced pitches effectively fuse into something approaching pure timbre. Michael Johanson’s Soundscapes was partly inspired by a residency the composer spent in Noepoli in Basilicata. The three-movement work begins with lively, intertwining lines for both instruments; moves to a slow, wintry section notable for its use of multiphonics; and culminates in a quick-paced movement built on unison rhythms in changing time signatures. Snapshots, a shorter, four-movement composition by Takuma Itoh, contains an eclectic mix of extended techniques, chance-derived orchestration of repeating figures in overlapping pulses, and a very concise homage to Charlie Parker at the finale. Donut Robot! also contains Edward J. Hines’ Hommage: Saygun et Bartok en Turquie 1936, a piece that draws on his engagement of Middle Eastern musical traditions, and Andrea Reinkemeyer’s movingly austere, hymn-inspired In the Speaking Silence, a piece dedicated to the memory of the composer’s mother.

In contrast to Donut Robot!, which cleaves to a mean between technical experimentation and more conventional modes of playing, Lori Freedman’s Excess furnishes exactly what its title promises: a program of music for bass and contrabass clarinets that pushes instrumentalism to its outer edges. Freedman, originally from Toronto but now based in Montreal, is known as an improviser as well as a composer and performer of new work; it is in this latter capacity that she appears on Excess, some of whose works were written for her. Each embodies the notion of excess in its own way, whether in the quick shifts over extremes of register and dynamics of Brian Ferneyhough’s Time and Motion Study I (1977), or in the expressive excess of Richard Barrett’s Interference (2000) for contrabass clarinet, voice and kick drum. In opening the recording with the confrontational sounds of Interference, Freedman seems to throw down a challenge to the listener to stay with the recording and hear her out. Persistence will be rewarded. Paul Steenhuisen’s 2015 composition Library of Fire, for bass clarinet, was composed for Freedman and alludes directly to her skills as an improviser: the piece was created out of transcriptions of some of her recorded improvised performances. The growls, shrieks and half-articulated, half-breathy sounds of Paolo Perezzani’s Thymos (2014), for contrabass clarinet capture the emotional immediacy and drive of the ancient Greek concept of the thumos, that human faculty thought to be responsible for prodding a person to take up a challenge and grapple with it in a spirited way. As to Freedman’s challenge to the listener, this virtuoso set shows it to be something worth meeting.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Byron Metcalf & Mark Seelig – Persistent Visions (2019; Projekt Records)

Metcalf and Seelig continue their long-running collaboration on Persistent Visions, released March 15 on Projekt. As a whole, the album harkens to the type of tribal ambient music pioneered by Steve Roach 25-35 years ago in a series of now-classic releases. This is not terribly surprising, as Metcalf and Seelig both have worked with Roach at various points since then. But what separates this recording from others of the same ilk is how easily it brings one into its meditative soundscape.

Metcalfe provides exquisitely-timed hand-drum rhythms that are both hypnotic and not overly repetitive. On top of these, Seelig offers lilting bamboo flute melodies and a subtle synth layer. This simple combination is the basis for the album’s 71 minutes, which are broken up into six raga-like “visions.” These trance-inducing pieces are neither overly bright nor dark – instead, they evoke a sense of harmony with nature, others, and oneself. It is difficult to make it through more than a few minutes of Persistent Visions without feeling a rising sense of calm and serenity, even if one is not a practitioner of the meditative arts.

AMN Reviews: Andrew Voigt and Ed Herrmann – Three Duets [Pan y Rosas pyr270]

Dating back to 1991, Andrew Voigt and Ed Herrmann’s Three Duets delves into some of the creative possibilities of the then somewhat novel pairing of saxophone and analogue modular synthesizer. Nearly thirty years after it was recorded, the set still stands as compelling music.

As musicians, the two have explored different paths. Saxophonist Voigt was a founding member of the Bay Area ROVA Saxophone Quartet—he’s the “V” in “ROVA”; at the time these improvised duets were recorded in San Francisco, he’d recently left the group after having stayed with them for a decade. Herrmann, in addition to being an improviser and composer, is a sound engineer and instrument maker who leads audio tours of Chicago. As these improvisation show, though, different paths can converge quite effectively.

Voigt and Herrmann’s collaboration tends to center on the linear mobility of pitch rather than on the more abstract qualities of timbre as such, although certainly there are moments where the quality of a sound becomes its preeminent feature. Assault of the Palindrome, the opening track, finds Voigt’s serpentine lines weaving around and between Herrmann’s uncanny simulation first of upper register plucked strings and then of a low-register, snapping elastic band. Deferring Delusion follows with the two instruments closely overlapping in sound and timbre and then dissolves into the rumble and hum of synthesizer overlaid with the soft twitter of the saxophone. For the third and final piece, Succumb to Mercury, Herrmann sets the textural atmosphere as Voigt explores a range of extended techniques.

Daniel Barbiero