AMN Reviews: Earl Howard – Granular Modality

Earl Howard, at Moers Festival 2007
Earl Howard, at Moers Festival 2007 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Earl Howard: Granular Modality [New World Records 80728-2]

Composer Earl Howard, four of whose pieces are featured on this fine recent release from New World Records, creates a variety of music characterized by a blend of predetermined structure and improvisational elements. Howard, who is perhaps best known for his work with Anthony Davis, Gerry Hemingway, Georg Graewe and other adventurous improvisers, not only composed the works collected here but plays on all four as well. For, like La Monte Young and Terry Riley, Howard is an accomplished improvising performer in addition to being a composer, and is featured here on alto saxophone as well as on the Kurzweil K2600 synthesizer.

Howard’s influences are wide ranging, covering, in addition to modern composition, jazz and film soundtracks. The latter in particular seems to have provided a kind of model for producing narrative continuity through episodic disjunction, a paradoxical trait characteristic of the work for electronics.

Three of the four pieces here are solo performances by Howard, the other being a duet for Howard on synthesizer and Miya Masaoka on koto. The two solo electronics tracks consist of montages of sound color juxtaposing diverse frequencies and textures to create a constantly changing audio tissue of dynamic weave. These pieces are more about timbral than pitch relationships, although pitched sequences are by no means absent from them. 2455 for solo alto saxophone features Howard employing an array of extended techniques including multiphonics and microtones in a performance balancing nuanced transformations of timbre and pitch.

The CD’s duet, Crupper, is a sparsely beautiful piece in which Masaoka’s koto is shadowed by Howard’s sound processing. Masaoka sets up melodic fragments to which Howard responds, all the while leaving expansive stretches of open space. The piece develops as Masaoka introduces extended techniques such as bowing the strings and tapping the koto’s body for percussive effects. The duet unfolds at a deliberate pace and is as starkly compelling as a winter treeline against a pale blue sky.