For their new CD, Ensemble neoN, a Norwegian chamber group dedicated to performing works of new music, chose to program together two conceptually and sonically dovetailing works by composers Phill Niblock and Catherine Lamb. Call it two perspectives on drone music.
Niblock’s To Two Tea Roses (2012), a paradigmatic work, is a long-tone composition for combined live and prerecorded orchestras. Niblock makes good use of nuanced movement within a solid block of sound, giving the piece the character of a sustained, suspended major chord with a fluctuating undertow of microtonal disquiet. Ensemble neoN’s realization employs an octet of winds, strings, piano and bowed vibes that fuses into a composite voice that has the ringing sound and subtle, cyclical dynamics of a particularly dense tamboura.
Catherine Lamb’s Parallax Forma (2016), like To Two Tea Roses a long-tone work, is less dense than Niblock’s and includes more overt harmonic movement. The piece’s foreground is dominated by singers Stine Janvin Motland and Silje Aker Johnsen, whose voices float ethereally over the seven-piece chamber orchestra.
As stated in its subtitle, Robin Hayward’s new release is an elegy to the Saxhorn nouveau basse, an unsuccessful brass instrument invented by Adolphe Sax, whose saxophone went on to enjoy a considerably better career. From Sax’s failure, Hayward retrieves success in these works for a microtonal tuba he developed using Sax’s six-valve layout as a model, though one that he modified substantially.
Two of the compositions on the CD are for solo microtonal tuba run through speaker systems. The title tracks uses six speakers to image the tuba’s six valves which, following the original design of the Saxhorn nouveau basse, are used independently of each other. Tones cycle through the six speakers to a seventh, during the course of which the sound is altered. The second solo performance, Plateau Square, uses a quadrophonic speaker setup to give the sound a spatial dimension. Both of these lengthy pieces exercise a hypnotic effect through a gradual accumulation of harmonic and timbral density. Long tones and their electronic afterimages overlap into slowly pulsating chords with long decay times and unexpected lacunae. The title track’s low, fluttering rumbles have something seismic about them, something almost more felt than heard.
On the shorter Travel Stain, Hayward is joined by Seth Josel on scordatura guitar. Relative to the solo tuba pieces, Travel Stain has a certain textural lightness. The ranges of the two instruments contrast nicely, as do their differences of timbre and duration of tones.