For over fifty years now composers and performers have used electronics to enhance, augment, and otherwise expand the range of sounds that can be produced by a conventional acoustic instrument. There Never Is No Light, the debut recording solo by clarinetist Joshua Rubin, works within this by now well-established tradition by situating the acoustic instrument fruitfully at many points along a continuum running from music to noise.
Rubin, who plays bass clarinet as well as clarinet, is a founder and artistic director of the International Contemporary Ensemble. His skills as a curator are well-displayed in the selection of the six works on this CD, which range over thirty years and two generations of electroacoustic composers.
The disc opens auspiciously with The Soul Is the Arena (2010) for amplified bass clarinet and electronics, a work that Rubin commissioned from composer Mario Diaz de Leon and premiered at Chicago’s Velvet Lounge in November, 2010. For this sometimes boisterous duet Rubin plays the bass clarinet with a harshly distorted sound as he chases electronic shadows in a vigorous game of pursuit. Synchronisms No. 12 (2006) is another duet for reed and electronics by another Mario—Mario Davidovsky. In contrast to the manic energy of The Soul Is the Arena, Synchronisms is a more restrained, reflective soliloquy for unaltered clarinet with discreet electronic interventions. Rubin’s playing is deeply engaging, using carefully modulated dynamics and drawing on the full compass of the instrument. The earliest composition in the collection, Olly Wilson’s Echoes (1974), is a duet for tape and clarinet; in addition to its own inherent interest as an effective pairing of acoustic and prerecorded sounds, it provides historical context for the newer electroacoustic works on the CD.
Suzanne Farrin’s Ma Dentro Dove (2010) for clarinet and resonating body is one piece within the larger cycle Corpo di Terra, a collection of compositions inspired by the sonnets of the fourteenth-century Italian poet Francesco Petrarca. The title, taken from a line in Canzoniere 9, translates as “but within, where”—an apt name for a work that takes the sound of the mic’d clarinet and feeds it into the resonant interior of a piano. The rhetoric of the piece is built on a virtuoso technical vocabulary turned to expressive ends; Rubin’s performance is as affecting as it is arresting. Mexican composer Ignacio Baca Lobera’s exhilarating Salto Cuantico (2011) also calls for a virtuoso performance for a prepared clarinet that confronts electronic sounds on their own turf, as it were.
Rubin is co-composer of 2012’s Toast, a kind of aleatory work in which a synthesizer unpredictably accompanies Rubin and co-composer/pianist Cory Smythe through the rises and defiles of sonically broken ground.
Sampler and Zither is a release from Difondo, the Cagliari duo of Sergio Camedda (sampler) and Giampaolo Campus (zither). The group’s name translates as “basically;” it’s a fitting name given their conceptual focus on returning sounds to the things themselves—that is, to the basic elements and materials of their instruments. The group’s specific interest lies in realizing the possibilities inherent in the divergent natures of the two instruments’ timbral profiles and properties. The sampler is programmed to replicate the sound of a piano, while the zither is played with a variety of extended techniques in order to make the sounds of its individual parts carry more dramatic weight than their sum. Campus makes specific regions and materials of the zither audible through the scraping, squealing, and scuffing sounds of friction and percussive strikes on wire, wood and metal. For its part the sampled piano mostly appears in paratactical fragments—isolated notes and chords sounded fully and allowed to fade slowly. Put together, the two instruments offer contrasts not only of sound color, but of mood: Much of the musical ambience arises from the tension between the meditative pacing of the piano and the restlessness of the zither’s interventions—a restlessness that models the anxiety of anticipation.
Composer/instrumentalist Dan Joseph has had a highly varied career since his start in Washington, DC’s 1980s punk scene. As a sixteen year old in 1983 he became the drummer for 9353, an art-punk band notorious as much for its volatility as for its visually arresting flyers, which I remember somehow seemed to be on every lamppost, telephone pole and buildingside in the city in the early 1980s; later in the decade he participated in the experimental tape underground. After a move to California in the 1990s he studied with Pauline Oliveros, Alvin Curran, Mel Powell and Terry Riley; the influence of these performer/composers can be heard in the immersive, drone-based form of structured solo improvisation that Joseph eventually developed for electronically enhanced hammered dulcimer.
The seven pieces composing this two-CD set of recent works represent long-form excursions into incremental harmonic and timbral movement, as realized through electronically altered or supplemented hammered dulcimer performances. The first disc is largely taken up by two live versions of Dulcimer Flight, one recorded in 2011 at Corvallis, Oregon and the other recorded in 2013 at Experimental Intermedia in New York. Both pieces demonstrate how Joseph blends structure and technique to texture an evolving soundscape. On both pieces he first sets up a central tone and basic harmonic kernel, looping a tremolo opening statement that gradually gives way to bowing with conventional bow and ebow. Through subsequent processing Joseph brings out or obscures selected overtones to achieve a sound best described as a constant chord whose colors are constantly changing. The second disc is given over to a 66-minute version of Periodicity Piece #6 (2005) for dulcimer, sampled instruments, sine tone, A440 tuning fork and miscellaneous sounds. As its title implies, Joseph works here with harmonic cycles of varying lengths, which are spun across changing tonal centers. Although predominantly meditative, the piece registers the occasional shock of abruptly intruding sounds and suddenly coarsened timbres.
Originally a saxophonist and later a bass clarinetist, versatile Montreal musician Philippe Lauzier works as well with the less conventional instrumentation of sound art. On two recent releases, he delves into both sides of his creative work.
In A Pond in My Living Room, Lauzier offers four substantive pieces for solo bass clarinet. Composed and recorded in winter, 2016, each piece features the acoustic instrument multitracked and with no electronic treatments added. The four tracks fit together like a suite of drone pieces, each moving slowly to reveal changing patterns of overtones and emergent harmonies. The timbres are such as to give the impression of an acoustic simulation of electronic music—so much so that when the sound of breath makes a sudden appearance, it feels almost like an intrusion.
DÔME, a release on cassette, finds Lauzier on an alternative path. Here he works with a sound installation consisting of bells, zithers, motors and a Korg synthesizer. The installation was created for Montréal’s La Passe, where these two seventeen-minute-long tracks were recorded on 31 July 2015. Although conceived as drone-based works, both pieces draw attention to their variegated textures rather than to an underlying constant of tone or texture. Far Side is a shimmering, iridescent metallic jangle shot through with the semi-pitched chirps of small motors and scraped zither strings that ends with a call-and-response for small bells. Far Out, which rides an undertow of ringing alarm clock bells and a sustained electronic tone, is closer to a more conventional drone piece. But it too centers around subtle changes in texture driven by a series of discrete, layered events for scraped or brushed zither and whirring motors.
Alveare, a collection of electroacoustic music by Italian percussionist / composer Andrea Belfi, is part of a collaborative multimedia project with photographer Matthias Heiderich. Inspired by Heiderich’s pictures of the modernist housing complexes put up in Italy after World War II, the LP’s five tracks were composed and played between 2007 and 2016. As befits Belfi’s status as a percussionist, all are firmly set on a foundation of rhythmic drumming or percussion work, often wrapped in an atmospheric overlay of electronics. Grigio, which features cellist Audrey Chen as guest contributor, adds microtonally discordant sustained tones given various colors through changes in bow position. Abito creates the illusion of sounds passing back and forth in space, courtesy of guest artist Attila Faravelli on rotating speakers. The spare regularity of Belfi’s music aptly complements the visual rhythms of Heiderich’s images of these buildings’ unornamented, exposed concrete surfaces.
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.
The four pieces on Norwegian percussionist Ingar Zach’s Le stanze exploit the many-faceted sounds at the meeting place of an expanded percussion set, electronics and silence. The release begins austerely enough, with long emptinesses broken by the occasional scrape, rub or thump reverberating in an enveloping silence. The aptly titled second track, Il battito del vichingo (the Viking’s beat), enlists resonant, hollow metal for a rapid, regular rhythm that eventually stops short to leave an exposed, static chord. This in turn gives way to rattles and strikes on shimmering metal. Closing out the collection, the surge and decay of L’inno dell’oscuritá (The Hymn of Obscurity) opens out to the harsh abrasive electronics of È solitudine (It Is Solitude).