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.