AMN Reviews: Sean Ali – My Tongue Crumbles After [Neither/Nor n/n007]; James Ilgenfritz – Origami Cosmos [Infrequent Seams 12]

Discount this as predictable partisanship if you like, but it seems as if the double bass is coming into its own as the instrument par excellence for solo performance. Whether used for improvisation or the realization of compositions, played prepared or unprepared, modified by electronics or plain, the double bass is a large presence in recent new music releases. Two new CDs focusing on solo double bass show how expressively and technically versatile the instrument is.

At 35 minutes long, Sean Ali’s debut solo recording, My Tongue Crumbles After, is a succinct portrait of the artist. Ali is a New York City based musician who, playing in tandem with double bassist Pascal Niggenkemper, has taken prepared double bass into extreme territory. On this recording of improvised music he employs preparations as well as tape collages using recordings of the spoken word as their source material. On each of the pieces, Ali teases out the implications of a single or related set of sonically well-defined gestures and techniques. His use of preparations allows him to distort the instrument’s native sound while maintaining enough of its natural profile—through the recognizable actions of bow and fingers—that it still makes itself known as a double bass. This is as true of pieces like Heartstack and Fingerdeep, rooted in a pizzicato technique that links them directly to a more conventional double bass sound, as it is of a track like Salutations, which largely takes place in unpitched territory, or Lime Works, the industrial sounds of which seem far removed from the wooden acoustic instrument that produced them.

Like My Tongue Crumbles After, Origami Cosmos, the second solo recording by James Ilgenfritz—another New York double bassist—focuses on pieces built around the performer’s repertoire of sounds and techniques. In this case, though, the pieces were written by others–four New York composers, who collaborated with Ilgenfritz in order to translate his sound into their own compositional languages. Often the vocabulary is his, and the syntax theirs. Annie Gosfield’s Rolling Sevens and Dreaming Elevens arranges Ilgenfritz’s bowed and plucked harmonics and multiphonics into distinctively formed phrases following regularly structured rhythmic cycles. Rhythm is an unexpected element in Miya Masaoka’s Four Moons of Pluto, a microtonal drone piece whose long bowing patterns implicate a recurring, if variable, pulse. JG Thirwell’s Xigliox leverages multiple stops, open strings, and call-and-response phrases across registers to make Ilgenfritz’s single instrument sound like a choir; this piece in particular brings out Ilgenfritz’s robust tone and vocal-like vibrato. The polyphony woven into Xigliox is developed to an extreme degree in the closing piece, Elliott Sharp’s Alethia for prepared bass. This etude for constant pitch and constantly changing timbres multiplies musical and non-musical sounds simultaneously and represents Ilgenfritz’s most radical performance of the set.

Both recordings are highly recommended.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Jérôme Combier – Gone [Aeon AECD1651]

Pitch can be likened to shadow. Shadows exist along a gradient, varying in darkness and density with the position of the viewer, the relative constancy of the light source, and the interposition of objects. Like shadow, pitch is something that exists in gradations rather than in discrete units that are precisely defined one against the other, the equal temperament tuning system notwithstanding. Much of the music of Jérôme Combier’s Gone, a set of five compositions for chamber ensembles of various sizes, takes pitch as a shadowy phenomenon with blurred boundaries.

Terra d’ombra (2012-2015), a work for partly-prepared piano, harp and cello, evokes the analogy of sound to shadow in its title. Combier’s allusion is to umber, a dark brown color named for a clay originally from Umbria, but the term translates literally as “earth of shadow.” This archaeological meaning comes out in the piece itself. The composition is based on gestures producing muted sounds—most dramatically, percussive strikes on the instruments’ bodies and partly-damped strings—which blend into well-defined pitched sounds on piano. There is no hard-and-fast boundary between the two classes of sounds, and pitch itself, particularly as it’s played on the cello or the prepared strings of the piano, is often treated as a continuum or fuzzy aggregate. Gone (2010), for clarinet, piano, string trio and electronics takes the conception of pitch as a continuum even further. Playing alone or in combination, the instruments create clouds of sound through glissandi, harmonics and extended techniques; pitches slide into and through each other and disappear into pure timbre. A similar effect is had in the swooping, wobbling microtonality of 2015’s Dawnlight for flute, piano, violin, cello and electronics.

The taut and at times jagged Dog Eat Dog (2014) for cello and acoustic guitar relies less on a dilution of pitch and more on a simplicity of structure. The three-movement work is organized to feature one or a limited number of gestures per movement; although the performers are restricted in the types of sounds or techniques they are to play, they manage to draw timbres from every part of their instruments. The string trio Noir Gris (2007) is somewhat more conventional in sound but it, too, is built up out of deliberately limited elements, in this case melodic fragments meant to parallel the rhythms and durations of speech.

The Ensemble Cairn, a group founded by Combier and made up of alumni of the Conservatoire National Supérieur of Paris, bring these pieces to life with vividness and a refined sense of color.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Michael Pisaro – Resting in a Fold of the Fog [Potlatch P117]

P117_cover.inddMuch of composer Michael Pisaro’s work is driven by the desire to explore the often complex ramifications of an ostensibly simple, fundamental idea. It isn’t unusual for him to take as his starting point the act of listening, whether to environmental sounds or to the properties of the material resources—sometimes deceptively basic—that his compositions call for. And focused listening does seem to be the key to the reception of the two long pieces collected on Resting in a Fold of the Fog.

Grounded Cloud (2015-2016) is a work for electric guitar, electronics and amplified bass drum. The latter instrument, played by the Dedalus Ensemble’s Stéphane Garin, gives the performance a distinctive, rain-like sound by having been prepared with grains of rice arranged to vibrate on its surface. Over its twenty-minute length the piece traces a long-period, undulating dynamic of accumulation and dispersal helped along by noise from Pisaro’s electronics and the electric guitar of Didier Aschour, also of the Dedalus Ensemble. (Although Pisaro played electric guitar on the piece’s premiere performance in November 2015, here he is on laptop.)

Hearing Metal 4 (2010-2011) for bowed glockenspiel, electric guitar and laptop, is the fourth in a series of compositions centered on the sonic properties of a specified metal percussion instrument. Originating with a piece for sixty-inch tam-tam, with this installment the series moves to a much smaller and higher-pitched instrument. As with many of Pisaro’s compositions, the focus of Hearing Metal 4 is on making explicit the multiplicity of sounds implicit in a single material or sonic gesture. The pitch material is accordingly simple: An ascending A major scale. The scale is arranged as a series of events separated by silences; with each succeeding tone the glockenspiel’s thin, almost transparent sound shimmers when intersected by the guitar and electronics. When listened to closely this piece, like the previous one, yields a sometimes surprising, albeit restrained, sensuality.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Hannah Addario-Berry – Scordatura [Aerocade]

hab_scordatura_digitalTwenty-fifteen marked the centennial of the composition of the Sonata for Solo Cello by Hungarian composer Zoltán Kodály. To commemorate the anniversary, cellist Hannah Addario-Berry conceived the Scordatura Project, a program of music featuring the Kodály sonata along with commissioned works for cello by contemporary composers which use the same systematic detuning—the scordatura of the title–as the sonata.

A technically challenging composition, the Kodály sonata was one of the first pieces written for unaccompanied cello since the Bach suites. What distinguishes it is its grounding in a distinctive modality and tuning; Kodály based much of the musical material on Hungarian folk sources, and called for detuning the cello’s two lowest strings down a half step. Doing so produces a B minor seventh chord on the instrument’s open strings, which adds resonance to the work’s predominant modes. Addario-Berry’s interpretation is robust and liquid, keeping in the foreground the sonata’s origins in song.

The release’s other highlights include Eric Kenneth Malcom Clark’s Ekpyrotic: Layerings IV, which appears in a shorter and a longer version. Drawing on contemporary electronic technologies and acoustic techniques, the piece exploits micro-irregularities in the pitch, phrasing and intonation of both voice and cello by taking repeated material and looping and superimposing it into a thickening mass of close-but-not-identical figures. The longer and more dramatic of the two versions builds to a high density, microtonally discordant drone.

Addario-Berry includes several less abstract, more songlike compositions in the collection, the most intriguing of which is Calor, by composer Jerry Liu. Liu’s score specifies pitches but not their rhythmic values; likewise, measures are unmetered. This allows the performer broad discretion in phrasing and forming an overall narrative arc. Addario-Berry’s interpretation brings out the natural lyricism in her playing, which indeed is evident throughout the entire set of music.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Laurence Crane and Asamisimasa – Sound of Horse [Hubro HUBROCD2582]

laurence-crane_2400x2400-px-1024x1024Composer of a catalogue encompassing over eighty works, London-based Laurence Crane (1961) writes music of elementary parts and structures. The simplicity is deliberate; Crane has expressed an interest in taking simple pitch and harmonic relationships and recontextualizing them in order to renew their capacity to appeal to listeners, and to convey musical content.

The five compositions performed here, spanning the years 1998-2009, are based on drones, slowly unfolding melodies of a handful of notes, and harmonic cycles of as little as two chords. For example, Old Life Was Rubbish (1998), a slow-moving, short work for unspecified instrumentation (here orchestrated for electric guitar, bass clarinet and piano), centers on the simple motif of a unison line placed over a deliberately struck, slightly jarring piano chord. The nuance comes out in the scoring: The three voices blend into a composite timbre that seems to belong to a hybrid, as yet unidentified instrument. Even in the twenty-minute-long, seven-movement work Sound of Horse (2009), the musical material is simple and its exposition unhurried. The melodies consist in scales or scale fragments played in slowly descending or ascending sequences on clarinet or bass clarinet; long tones bowed on the cello; and broken chords. The effect can at times be hypnotic or liminal, with each musical object being differentiated from the others by subtleties of inflection or orchestration.

On all of the pieces, the palindromically-named Asamisimasa ensemble, a Norwegian new music chamber group, gives suitably uncluttered and fine-grained performances.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Dana Jessen – Carve [Innova 910]

726708691028-front-coverLike the double bass in the 1950s, the bassoon is an instrument often overlooked as a solo voice with the potential to push the boundaries in new music. In order to change that, bassoonist Dana Jessen has been endeavoring to develop an adventurous repertoire of new work for solo bassoon. On Carve, her debut release, she does that with a set of four pieces she commissioned from contemporary composers for solo bassoon and electronics.

The four compositions, written in 2014 and 2015 and recorded in September, 2015 and May, 2016 at Jessen’s home institution of Oberlin Conservatory, are the products of a collaborative process. Jessen met with the composers and played some improvisations for them; these served as the kernels around which the compositions were constructed, each of which was shaped as much by her musical language and sensibility as by the composers’ own ideas. Working this way entailed a strategy of mutual interpretation that upends and in a way reverses the conventional relationship between the composer as originator and the performer as interpreter.

On all four pieces, creatively employed electronics serve to transform, supplement or challenge the sound of the acoustic instrument. Paula Matthusen’s of an implacable subtraction is a melodic piece whose minor modality is tinted with melancholy; the electronics pick up and reinforce key points in the bassoon line, stretching and repeating them to make them a harmonic bed of lingering tones. In Points against Fields by Sam Pluta, Jessen’s extended technique and energetic playing lend the bassoon an otherworldly sound that complements the surrounding surf of electronic splashes, chirps and static. Peter V. Swendsen’s Fireflies in Winter casts fragments of bassoon melodies in the role of commentators on field recordings of the natural and urban environments. During one passage in which the bassoon is surrounded by the sounds of crickets and other nocturnal wildlife, one can almost hear the vast expanses of night sky reaching above. Cadenza and Degradations seems a contemporary improvised bassoon sonata, with an elastically-scaled virtual wind ensemble made up of composer/oboist Kyle Bruckmann’s multiply recorded oboe and bass oboe forming the backdrop for Jessen’s elegant solo lines. In between the compositions are brief solo interludes each of whose sounds derive from a gesture or technique relating to the pieces on either side. These interludes lend the CD the cohesive feeling of a suite of distinct but mutually supporting performances.

A second factor that gives the release a notably holistic sense is Jessen’s own voice. Hers is an expressive presence with a warm tone and a refined vibrato, both of which preserve a humanistic heart in the midst of technological embellishment. It’s a finely calibrated balance, achieved as well by the composers’ sensitively crafted environments in which Jessen’s voice can resonate. And in the end, it’s Jessen’s appealing musical personality that animates this outstanding collection of work.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Jean-Luc Guionnet & Dedalus Ensemble – Distances Ouïes Dites [Potlatch P416]

montage.inddIn his 1966 paper “Space as an Essential Element in Musical Composition,” composer Henry Brant asserted that the spatial element in concert music was an important variable to be taken into consideration when shaping a composition. Since 1950 he had been composing works calling for performers to be grouped and distributed throughout the performance space in order to exploit the effects of spatial dispersion on pitch, timbre, and instrumental interaction. Composer / instrumentalist / field recordist Jean-Luc Guionnet’s composition Distances Ouïes Dites, recorded live in March, 2013, continues in this tradition, focusing in particular on the effects of linear distribution on the sound of a small chamber group.

For this performance, a seven-piece mixed ensemble consisting of viola (Cyprien Busolini); cello (Deborah Walker); voice (Vincent Bouchot); double bass (Eric Chalan); trumpet (Christian Pruvost); trombone (Thierry Madiot); and electric guitar (Didier Aschour) was arranged in four rooms reaching from front to back on the ground floor of the Le Consortium art center in Dijon. Except for the viola, which was placed in the front room with the audience, the instruments were arranged two to a room, with cello and voice in the room closest to the viola, double bass and trumpet next, and trombone and electric guitar in the room farthest back. The titles of the composition’s fifteen parts convey something of the conceptual territory Guionnet explores—a territory encompassing combination and mixture, relationships of signal to noise, the propagation of stationary sounds from near to far, imitation, and so forth.

Much of the music’s interest lies in the interactions of the seven voices’ timbral properties as well as in the sound differentials arising from the variations in their distances from each other. The instruments’ spatial dispersal as well as the effects of architectural features on their sound quality impact their relative volume and capacity to blend with each other. This is most dramatically demonstrated when the composition calls for long, overlapping tones—often involving a dissonant collision of half- or quarter-tones—which aggregate the individual instruments into sometimes uncanny hybrid voices. The title of the work can be translated as Distances: Hearsay, which neatly conveys the rumor-like nature of the sounds it generates—half heard and half overheard as they travel back and forth echoing and diminishing, ultimately leaving behind a sonic image of continuity and loss.

Daniel Barbiero