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.