George Lewis’ Recombinant Trilogy is a triptych of recent compositions for solo acoustic instruments and interactive electronics. As the title implies, the electronic component, a software program written by Damon Holzborn, combines with the sound of the acoustic instrument to double its voice, alter its timbre, pitch, and apparent location in space, and otherwise fragment and recombine it into what Lewis describes as “multiple digitally created sonic personalities.” The Recombinant Trilogy represents the most recent stage in a long history of evolution; Lewis’ experiments with interactive electroacoustic systems reach at least as far back as his work at IRCAM in Paris in 1984, which included a performance featuring Lewis’ computer-generated improvisations in combination with improvisations by Joelle Leandre, Steve Lacy and others.
The current album encompasses three duets, each of which features an outstanding instrumentalist conversant in both contemporary composed and improvised music. Flutist Claire Chase, accompanied by Levy Lorenzo on electronics is first with Emergent (2014), followed by Seth Parker Woods, on electronics as well as cello, on Not Alone (2014-2015), and then bassoonist Dana Jessen, with Eli Stine on electronics, on Seismologic (2017), which Jessen commissioned. Holzborn’s program takes the instruments’ sounds and pans them from side to side and top to bottom; breaks them into fragments and then chunks them into quanta of repetition and layering; warps their timbres and shifts their pitches; and in the process synthesizes a global continuity out of multiple local discontinuities. One of the fascinating points of comparison is the very different timbral signature each instrument carries; while all three pieces are similar in their general processes of sonic interface, dilapidation, and rearrangement, they differ greatly in the details of color, density, and plasticity. In all three meetings of electronics and acoustics, the voices of the instruments come through even while undergoing the metamorphoses they’re subjected to: the flute’s pure, nearly disembodied soprano in Emergent, the dark friction of the cello in Not Alone, the earth-shaking low tones of the bassoon in the aptly titled Seismologic. And all of it is built on the foundation of Lewis’ concept and compositions, the solid ground on which these meetings take place.
Winter Chapel, an album of solo performances by new music bassoonist Dana Jessen, announces itself with a shakuahchi-like, upper register fluctuation of sound. This opening gives some idea of the rest of the music to follow on this stunning meeting of contemporary bassoon technique and physical architecture. The album was recorded this past January in Fairchild Chapel at Oberlin, where Jessen teaches contemporary music and improvisation. Jessen’s previous solo release, Carve, demonstrated the versatility of the solo bassoon; Winter Chapel continues in that vein by pushing the instrument further out to the edges of its possibilities, aided and augmented by the deeply resonant surroundings of the performance space. The space in fact becomes something of a duet partner, particularly on Part Two, where its reverberations double Jessen’s furiously cascading sheets of sound; the room not only creates the impression of a second instrument playing but also lends the bassoon’s sound the acerbic edge of a hard-played, baritone saxophone. The more reflective Part Four is an essay in phrasing and dynamics, its languidly-unspooled lines allowed to echo and die away into a thick silence. The long improvisation of Part Five, which includes delicate passages of conventional technique alongside of aggressively dense forays into extended technique, captures the spirit of the entire album in miniature. A remarkable album of disruptive beauty.
Like 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.
One of the most enduring legacies of 20th century art music is the use of timbre as a major element in musical organization. Whether through serialism’s principle of klangfarbenmelodie or Impressionism’s sound painting with orchestration, the blending and sorting of instrumental voices as a theme in itself took on a salience that continues to resonate in contemporary music. With this release of six new and recent works, Splinter Reeds, a quintet from the San Francisco Bay area, reveals the richness of color inherent in a small, all-reed ensemble.
As a unit, the three-year-old group draws on its individual members’ extensive experience with contemporary art music both composed and improvised. Oboist/composer Kyle Bruckmann, who is well-represented on new music recordings, played experimental music in Chicago before joining the Bay Area new music community in 2003. In addition to working with small new music ensembles, clarinetist Bill Kalinkos has performed with the Philadelphia and Cleveland Orchestras as well as with the Oakland Symphony, where he was principle clarinetist. Saxophonist David Wegehaupt has premiered new works for saxophone and has played for or guested in several new music ensembles including the International Contemporary Ensemble and Ensemble Dal Niente. Jeff Anderle, the group’s bass clarinetist, has played with the Paul Dresher Electro/Acoustic Band as well as in the genre-blurring bass clarinet duo Sqwonk and the bass clarinet quartet Edmund Welles. Dana Jessen, who has played free jazz and contemporary improvised and experimental music here and in Europe, is doing for the bassoon what Bertram Turetzky did for the double bass in the 1950s and 1960s: Actively commissioning a repertoire for it in order to bring it into its own as an expansive and adventurous voice in contemporary music.
The ensemble’s attunement to the expressive and structural value of instrumental color is apparent from the first track, the precisely played, eight-part suite Splinter by composer Marc Mellits. The work frequently distributes its lines across the ensemble in contiguous pieces, giving the impression of an elaborate mosaic each tile of which consists of an individual instrumental voice. It’s a timbral pointillism whose points of color are rhythmically interwoven into an overall textural continuity rather than set out in a succession of isolated fragments surrounded by silences. Ryan Brown’s Pinched, which was originally written for pizzicato string quartet and is here arranged for reed quintet, is a similarly pulse-based, pointillist piece. By contrast, the additive structures of Erik De Luca’s Songs and Interludes emphasize color in a different way, largely by having the individual instruments contribute their distinctive voices to increasingly complex, composite timbres. Bruckmann’s Mitigating Factors is a denser work exploring close-knit harmonic textures. Dominated by the earth-toned palettes of bassoon and bass clarinet, it is a dark, deliberately-paced composition containing a bestiary of unorthodox sounds for reeds—hisses, groans, growls and whooshes—within a framework of dissonant chords and tone clusters supplemented by electronic sounds. Ned McGowan’s Wood Burn has the plosive low reeds mimic a funk-rock bassline, while the closer, My Bike by Jordan Glenn, is a nostalgic, hymn-like piece that has the composer join the quintet on drums.