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.

https://newfocusrecordings.com

https://www.splinterreeds.com/

Daniel Barbiero

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.

http://posthasteduo.com/wp/

https://aerocademusic.com/donut-robot

https://actuellecd.com/en/album/5957/Lori_Freedman/Excess

http://www.lorifreedman.com/en/accueil

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Bearthoven / Scott Wollschleger – American Dream [Cantaloupe CA21145]

Whether by design or by accident, the three Scott Wollschleger compositions performed on the trio Bearthoven’s American Dream album capture, in their spare beauty, the pervasive sense of uncertainty and disorientation so characteristic of recent years. This may not simply be something imagined: Wollschleger himself sees them as expressing an often contradictory set of emotions—“doom, optimism, hopelessness, and the sublime.” Perhaps as a result, the collection is pervaded by an elegiac, haunted atmosphere, an impression conveyed by the fragmentary and understated nature of much of the music and made explicit by the title of the final work in the trilogy: We See Things That Are Not There.

Gas Station Canon Song, the opening piece for solo piano, captures this mood in a concise manner. It’s a short work made up of brief phrases, dissonances that sound like stumbled-upon “mistakes,” and an artfully halting pace. Hearing Karl Larson’s performance is like listening to someone reaching for a memory that won’t quite crystallize. The five-movement American Dream for the full Bearthoven trio of Larson, double bassist Pat Swoboda and percussionist Matt Evans continues and expands on the atmosphere established by Gas Station Canon Song. American Dream is very much an ensemble piece of collective sound rather than a work with sharply defined figure and ground relationships; it frequently features instrumental combinations of novel colors, such as when piano and percussion fuse to mimic the sound of a toy piano. The final track, We See Things Are Not There for piano, vibraphone, and crotale, is in mood a fitting complement to the opening track and serves to bookend the collection nicely.

https://cantaloupemusic.com/

https://scottwollschleger.com/

Daniel Barbiero

 

AMN Reviews: Marianne Gythfeldt – Only Human: Electroacoustic Works for Clarinet [New Focus Recordings FCR 220]

At first glance, the title of clarinetist Marianne Gythfeldt’s Only Human would appear to be ironic. The album is a collection of work for clarinet and bass clarinet augmented by electronics in various capacities; the resulting sounds are more than just what human breath produces when vibrating a reed. But in fact there’s no irony: the technology never overshadows the essentially human rhythms underlying the music and the equally human urge to convey, though sound, an expressive message from one person to another.

Gythfeldt brings a depth of experience to the music here. She is on the faculty of the Brooklyn College Conservatory as well as a member of the Zephyros Winds ensemble; her repertoire is diverse, encompassing classical and contemporary chamber music as well as the kind of work represented on Only Human. The album shows something of Gythfeldt’s history with electroacoustic music, since earliest composition on the CD, Robert Morris’ 1999 On the Go, was also the piece that introduced her to the possibility of integrating electronics with her clarinet. In structure if not in the particulars of sound, Morris’ work is fairly conventional. It is modeled on a concerto for solo clarinet on one side and a lush, yet unmistakably synthetic quasi-orchestra on the other; the two parts seem to move with a high degree of independence, but in doing so they throw off a counterpoint that seems as inevitable as it is unpredictable.

The CD’s title track was composed for Gythfeldt in 2005 by John Link. The piece, for clarinet and stereo sound, has Gythfeldt playing against a virtual ensemble made up of prerecorded, largely unprocessed samples of herself. The multiplication of voices turns a fractured, register-leaping lead line into a series of echoing hockets and long harmonies. Like Only Human, Mikel Kuehn’s Rite of Passage (Hyperresonance V) of 2014 was composed for Gythfeldt. Here she plays bass clarinet, threading her way through a more or less dense thicket of electronic sound as she circles around a bass clarinet part taken from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Elizabeth Hoffman’s And when the white moths were on the wing (2017), a three-movement work for clarinet and live electronics, was composed for Gythfeldt through a collaborative process of improvisation and conversation. The collaborative spirit of the piece’s composition translates out into its sound: the clarinet and electronics are dynamically balanced and well-integrated, with each voice serving as an atmospheric complement to the other. Eric Lyons’ Little History of Photography (2015), for clarinet and interactive computer, takes Gythfeldt’s real-time performance as input for live manipulation. Gythfeldt’s part consists of a vigorous, rising and falling flurry of notes embroidered at the edges with timbral effects courtesy of computer processing. Licorice Stick Groove by David Taddie matches live clarinet with a prerecorded soundtrack that cycles through a series of energetic rhythms.

http://www.newfocusrecordings.com

http://www.mariannegythfeldt.com/

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Anna Thorvaldsdottir – Aequa [Sono Luminus DSL-92227]

Composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir has spoken of how, growing up in Iceland, she developed a close relationship to natural landscapes and an appreciation for the subtle changes in light and weather peculiar to a location sited between mountains and ocean. This sensitivity to the quiet drama of nuance carries over to her music, as shown in the recent work on Aequa.

The seven compositions on Aequa—for solo piano, small instrumental groupings and a large chamber orchestra—tend to focus on the resonance of sustained tones undergoing incremental dynamic or timbral changes. The first track, 2011’s Scope for solo piano (performed by Cory Smythe), does this simply and elegantly by building a framework around the lingering decay of held notes. The small ensemble piece Fields (2016) is a wintry composition made of slow, consecutive melodies on cello, double bass and bass clarinet, overlaid with a restless scattering of notes from piano and guitar. Thorsvaldsdottir orchestrates it nicely by dividing the lead lines among the strings and reed, and the ornamental flourishes between piano and guitar. Aequilibria (2014), for eleven-piece chamber orchestra, creates a soundscape of slowly moving timbres through the canny division of the whole ensemble into subgroups. It’s the perfect sound analogue of the gradual environmental metamorphoses Thorsvaldsdottir remembers.

http://www.annathorvalds.com

http://sonoluminus.nativedsd.com

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Scott L. Miller – Raba [New Focus Recordings FCR198]

The electronic and electroacoustic music on Raba represents an updating, in its own way, of ambient music by way of contemporary art music. As composer Scott L. Miller explains, the CD began as a retrospective of his work but evolved into a reworking of some old pieces along with the creation of new work.

The title track, composed in 2015 and revised in 2017, exemplifies the paradox of tension within drift that characterizes Miller’s reimagining of ambient composition. The piece is orchestrated for a small electroacoustic ensemble of winds, strings, piano, percussion, and electronic sound. The latter is responsible for the ambience, providing as it does a textural backdrop recalling at times the electronic hum of a distant engine. Over this foundation, the acoustic instruments intervene with complementary washes of sound. The work is low-key but psychologically taut; it creates an atmosphere permeated by unresolved anticipation. The title of The Frost Performs Its Secret Ministry (2016) hints at an esoteric action hidden in an everyday meteorological event; this trio for flute (Laura Cocks), guitar (Daniel Lippel) and electronic sound keeps that action veiled in mostly abstract, unpitched sounds: the flute comes in on a gust of air notes, for example. Lippel’s agitated strumming keeps the piece from wafting into languor and instead adds an urgent, emotional edge. Lippel is the pivot for Meditation (2016) for guitar and interactive electronic sound. The piece is undergirded by a feedback-like hum on which the guitar’s coloristic fragments float; from this basic division of sonic parts Miller builds a subtle drama out of oppositions of timbre: the sharp attack, short sustain and relatively muted tones of the nylon-string guitar provide a compelling contrast to the electronics’ sustained sounds.

http://newfocusrecordings.com

http://scottlmiller.net

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Kate Soper / Wet Ink Ensemble – Ipsa Dixit [New World Records 80805-2]

The junctions and disjunctions that bind and divide language and what we try to mean with it: this is an old and perennial problem for philosophy and one that provides the subject of Ipsa Dixit, composer/vocalist Kate Soper’s six-movement work for soprano and small chamber ensemble.

The work, which was a finalist for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in music, was initially written as separate pieces between 2010 and 2016; as a unified work it was premiered in Troy, New York in December 2016. As presented here on two discs, Ipsa Dixit is a 90-minute fusion of classical and contemporary texts, spoken and sung, underscored  by flute, violin and percussion.

Soper’s voice provides the dramatic center around which the various parts cohere; she speaks, lectures, recites, questions, and above all sings in a beautiful, precise soprano. As she does all this, the Wet Ink Ensemble’s flutist Erin Lesser, violinist Josh Modney, and percussionist Ian Antonio play a score that tends toward a sparse, modernist vocabulary of fragmented chromaticism and timbral interplay. The passages for voice and flute, and voice and violin in movements II and VI respectively, balance on the subtle gradations of tone within comparable ranges and, as duets, bring out a certain paradoxical sensuousness implicated in austerity. It’s one irony in a work built on ironies, starting with the title, a feminization of “ipse dixit,” the legal term for an unsupported claim. Soper is quoted in the liner note as saying that Ipsa Dixit is about the difficulties of conveying human experience in language. But despite its ambiguities and inevitable lapses, language still allows us to make ourselves understood, and that may be the fundamental conclusion Soper’s work draws us to. Let Guido d’Arezzo, whom Soper quotes in the final movement, have the last words: “Just as everything that can be spoken can be written, so everything can be made into song that can be written. Therefore everything can be made into song that can be spoken.”

http://www.newworldrecords.org

Daniel Barbiero