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 Exercises I and II.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Splinter Reeds – Got Stung [Splinter Records SR001]

downloadOne 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.

Daniel Barbiero