AMN Reviews: James Caldwell – Pocket Music (2021; Neuma 135)

“Pocket Music” is collection of suites of electroacoustic miniatures from composer James Caldwell.  Caldwell is Professor Emeritus at Western Illinois University (WIU). In addition to his teaching, Caldwell co-directed the annual New Music Festival at WIU where he programmed hundreds of new pieces by living composers. “Pocket Music” is his first portrait release and represents just one facet of his wide-ranging interests as a composer.

For this CD Caldwell’s compositions explore his sonic imagination with everyday items that are often found in his pockets. As he writes, “For more than twenty years I have pursued a sporadic project of making small musique concrète pieces. The original set used sounds I made with things I found in my pockets while working in the studio—coins, keys, plastic pill bottle, comb, paperback book, rubber band, and a screwdriver struck against a wrench. … As I returned to the project, I continued working with small found sounds, but not necessarily things from my pockets: ping-pong balls, a stapler, M&M’s,  binder clips, finger cymbals, a pencil run over the rungs on the back of a chair, dresser handles, the bag from a bunch of apples from the grocery store, a wine glass, and then — moving outside into my yard — cicadas, lawn furniture, garden stones in a wheelbarrow, birds, the distant rumble of the Macomb Speedway, and some odds and ends sitting around on my hard drive. Even as the objects became larger or farther from me, the pieces remained pocket size.”

Armed with his imagination and his computer Caldwell explores the various relationships between representation and abstraction with the object(s) he has chosen; sometimes imposing his compositional ideas on the object and other times led by his discovery of hidden sonic properties in the object itself. There is a great deal of variety amongst each of these miniatures. Some are very rhythmic, a few are very harmonic, others are more acousmatic. There is always a sense of both an idea and of playfulness in each of these pieces and that is what makes “Pocket Music” a really interesting listen. Recommended.

Chris De Chiara

AMN Reviews: The Return of Neuma Records

One of the more positive things that happened in 2020 was the relaunch of Neuma Records.  In 1988 Shirish Korde and Jerry Tabor launched the label. They built a catalog that included recordings of well known twentieth century composers such as Xenakis, Cage, Boulez, Messiaen, Nono, Scelsi  and Varese. But the catalog caught my attention in the early 90’s because it was releasing recordings of works by contemporary electroacoustic composers and recordings by performers who focused on the work of lesser known contemporary composers . The catalog includes works by Dashow, DeLio, Dodge, Gaburo, Johnston, Karpen, Lansky, Laske, Lippe, Martirano, Oliveros, Reynolds, Risset, Saariaho, Subotnick, Yuasa and many many more.

By the end of the 90’s Neuma’s release schedule had really become sparse. In 2020 the label relaunched with Philip Blackburn taking over. Blackburn is a composer who spent almost 30 years working at Innova Recordings. Innova focuses on assisting composers and performers through the recording, publication, marketing and distribution process. As a result, Innova has curated a diverse body of contemporary music spanning more than 650 albums. Blackburn has brought this assistive and curatorial approach to Neuma.

In December of 2020 Neuma released three new recordings. The first was from composer Wesley Fuller (1930-2020).  It is a nice collection of seven electroacoustic pieces for instruments and computer.

Fuller ‘s works skillfully blends acoustic instruments and computer generated sounds with a focus on gesture, shape and color.

The second release is from composer Robert Moran. It is a nice collection of eight diverse works for orchestra. On this album Moran’s work is primarily neoromantic with occasional minimalist tendencies.

The third release is a concert recording from 1967 of composer Kenneth Gaburo conducting the New Music Choral Ensemble in a diverse program of twentieth century choral music. This is a really interesting release. If you don’t have any contemporary choral music in your collection then this would be the disc to have. It is not hard to imagine that in 1967 very few people in the US had heard live performances of choral music by Luigi Nono, Anton Webern and Olivier Messiaen. But practically no one had heard any music, never the less choral music from Pauline Oliveros, Ben Johnston, Leslie Bassett, Charles Hamm and Robert Shallenberg. Under the direction of Kenneth Gaburo the New Music Choral Ensemble took on the extreme technical challenges of performing such a diverse and difficult program. The program’s compositions included everything from 12 tone serial music to 31 tone just intonation to graphic and descriptive notation to works with live and or prerecorded electronics! The spirited performances on this disc are extremely well done. Also included are two interesting electronic pieces by Gaburo that were used to allow the singers a short break in between some of the pieces on the program. I highly recommend that you give this album a listen!

As I was getting ready to post this, Neuma released several additional titles – Robert Moran’s opera “Buddha goes to Bayreuth”, Gina Biver’s “Nimbus” which is seven miniatures for electroacoustic chamber ensemble, spoken word and soprano voice, James Caldwell’s “Pocket music” a set of concreté miniatures made with “small” sounds usually of things found in his pockets, and Spanish composer Juan J.G. Escuerdo’s “Shapes of Inner Timespaces” a collection of eight acousmatic compositions. Perusing their online catalog today it looks like several more titles are being released in February including a recording of Harry Partch’s “The Bewitched” ! I am glad to see that Neuma is back and that Blackburn has established an aggressive release schedule of diverse contemporary music. You can hear more samples of current and upcoming releases as well as selected back catalog on the Nuema Soundcloud Page. So check it out!

Chris De Chiara