Posts by Alicia Byer

Toward Meaning: Werder and Frey with the Southland Ensemble

Last Sunday evening, a 20-odd crew quietly gathered at Automata in Chinatown for Southland Ensemble’s first concert of the season, a presentation of works by Manfred Werder and Jürg Frey. What works about Southland is their commitment to making space for a delicate strain of experimental music that requires care to present well. As the audience settled into their folding chairs and the lights dimmed in the compact gallery, a peculiar hush spread through the room.

The program’s three pieces were judiciously selected explorations of an attenuated sound world – more or less: unison cued harmonies, each lasting between half a breath and a full breath, floating into one another, and into silence. This kind of program is especially exciting because the audience can settle into a certain kind of careful listening, appreciating the nuances between each piece, and between each composer.

When materials are this bare, fluctuation is content. This is music about gesture, and the multiplicities of meaning that the tiniest variations in gesture can encode. The physicality of the music approaches dance, or theater. Maybe some would describe popular or folk dance as the height of physicality. But here, so many more revealing movements of the body are transcribed. Hidden personal rituals, telling missteps.

The first piece by Frey was 60 Pieces of Sound for bassoon, alto saxophone and flute. The 60 musical events begin simply: unison cued dyads with impeccable intonation, sans vibrato, lasting roughly half a breath, expanding into triads or clusters. If that sounds like a performance direction for a structured improvisation, it’s because the production here is so transparent that just being an audience member feels like being part of the creative process. All music depends on its audience for completion, but this music especially seems to require the audience as container. It’s nice to be needed.

The harmonies expand and contract, gently leaning and pulling. Silences are not uncomfortable, attention can ebb and flow. Gagaku comes to mind – a heightened atmosphere in which declamations have meaning, can take root.

In this context, harmonic grammar carries real weight. This music is not abstracted from canonic music, it’s stripped. The house is not rendered in multiple perspectives, it’s just the furniture has been taken out. History is still richly in evidence, if one cares to find it, speaking through temperament and timbre, harmonic expectation. Much care is given to pleasure –  silences are perfectly satisfying, not intimidating. Switches to minor harmonies seem more powerful, emotional shifts more salient.  The alto sax tone was especially exquisite and well-controlled for such a bare context. Intonation between all was precise, reverberating just right in the intimate acoustics of Automata. It’s hard to say what kind of spiritual food this is exactly, but it’s certainly toothsome.

stück, by Manfred Werder, brings similar concerns to an ensemble of flute, violin, bassoon, viola, cello, and alto sax. In uniformly blue lighting, Southland’s focused performers were like specters, communicating from another plane. Again, limited materials are at play here – half to full-breath length drones. The difference here is that the larger ensemble creates a new meaning. No longer are we exploring the intimate thoughts of a single person; this music is inherently social. There’s a ‘we.’ Register-wise, the pitches explored are much higher and lower, and although the basic form is similar to 60 Pieces, this feels like a completely different personality. More emphasis on intellect, a little less generosity, a little sharper, not inherently more dissonant, but voiced more harshly. There is less pleasure. The contrasts between high, piercing tones and sul pont whispers are especially interesting – the strings are functioning as a section here, and the play on tradition is satisfying. Haunting, piercing intonation. As the piece develops, the contrasts feel more dialectic. Here we don’t have a described nar­rative, we are grappling with opposites, in real time. The overall feeling is so solid. The heritage of experimental music has produced a vocabulary not comprised of idiomatic phrases, bu­t a way of approaching temporality, the perception of time.

All this music deals with meaning – intensifying or distilling it. It’s not typical to describe experimentalism as concerned with psychological meaning. In fact, performance instructions on the Werder are “für sich, klar und sachlich. einfach.” (to itself, clear and objective. simple.) But what is objectively being described? It seems: experience.

And for an even richer kind of experience, the star of the show was Frey’s String Quartet No.3.  Although again we were presented with simple successions of harmonies, the tones here were instantly meatier, uniquely-voiced dissonances, all sans vibrato, by the superbly balanced Koan Quartet. The group is aptly named; their commitment feels squarely placed in the mysteries of the work rather than showiness.

The piece is theatrical, self-referential — a character, a monologue, setting the scene in the city, telling us about an experience before we dive into the epic. Then, traditionally, there’s a secondary theme. Rather than just hinting at the idea of a narrative, the whole story is here, impossibly: a character, a conflict, even a love interest, a journey. Schubert comes to mind. Suspended chords bleed into one another, extended tonality unexpectedly tilts into rapturous shimmering textures. The story stops at points at glassy pools of sul pont. The explorations here examine all textural possibilities without being glib. These points of interest are selected, chosen with care, composed! “Themes” return. Perhaps most interestingly, the work grapples with the history of the string quartet itself. There’s a Beethovenian sense of fate. Silences are used here to mark sections and narrative transitions, rather than as expressive means in their own right, as in the first piece. It’s uncanny how the meaning of silence can be shaped so strongly by a composers’ intent. The piece doesn’t play with extremes of register, as in the Werder. Instead, the contrasts are between harmonic progression and unexpected leaps into extended techniques. It’s genuinely surprising when the quartet turns from phrases to textures, and a third of the way through, into a whispering wintry sul pont landscape with solo tones emerging as voices. The piece as a whole is striking in its sincerity and seriousness of purpose.

The project in these pieces is, if not absolutely clear in intent, then perfectly clear in execution. What works about such harmonic play is that, more than melody or rhythm, harmonic grammar is deeply intertwined with cultural conditioning of Western music history. Hopes and expectations formed by acculturation battle reality, mirroring so much of experience.

Frey’s String Quartet No. 3 was extraordinary, and one felt that it should have been appreciated by more than 20-or-so lucky souls. The ending fades with long breath-like tones, receding into the ether. This is Romantic music, but in a way we can really hear, today. There are concerns about identity, hope, belonging, clothed in garments we understand. These composers take their task seriously and that is perhaps the most moving thing of all.

Shannon Knox, Micaela Tobin, Sharon Chohi Kim’s Unseal Unseam is not easily forgotten

Unseal Unseam, the title of an hour-long experimental chamber opera presented on October 6th and 7th  at Highways Performance Space, doesn’t give much away in terms of the rich programmatic soil from which it grew. This palimpsest of a piece by Shannon Knox, Micaela Tobin, and Sharon Chohi Kim developed through multiple iterations of MFA projects which responded to Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle (A kékszakállú herceg vára), which itself is influenced by previous settings of a French literary version of an even older folktale. Unseal Unseam seeks to recast Bartok’s female victim as heroine. Elevating and centering female subjectivity is the project at hand, and this nastiest of fairy tales couldn’t be a riper subject.

Unseal Unseam. Photo by Katie Stenberg.

Unseal Unseam. Photo by Katie Stenberg.

For the uninitiated, the original folktale of Bluebeard boils down to a cautionary tale about the unknowability of abusive husbands and the price of female curiosity. In most versions of the story, a nobleman with an unearthly blue beard selects a new wife from a small village. Whisked to his opulent castle after a shotgun wedding, the new bride is entrusted with a set of keys and a warning that all rooms may be opened save one. Of course the curious wife opens the door to the forbidden room, wherein she finds all Bluebeard’s previous wives dead, dripping blood, in some versions, hanging on hooks. She is subsequently caught by Bluebeard, and either dies similarly, or is saved by some handy brothers ex machina.

The tale can either be read as a literal warning against male violence, or perhaps more subtly as a warning against the horrors revealed in men by unsuspecting women who probe too far, desire too much power, or demand too much from their spouses.

The plot itself is a little thin, so in Bartok’s version, the locked doors number seven, each revealing a new treat: a torture chamber, an armory with terrifying weapons, a treasury with blood-spattered coins, a garden with flowers watered by blood, a pool of tears, an entire kingdom whose clouds are darkened by – you guessed it, blood, and the final chamber entombing Bluebeard’s dead wives. It is unclear how much of this exponentially unbelievable drama is literal and how much is psychological torment, but either way, the terrifying portrait of a serial killer is not soon forgotten.

It is this melange of folk and classical creepiness with which Unseal Unseam wrestles. Before Unseal Unseam is fully started, as the audience chats and catches up, one performer quietly conjures electronic whines with pedals on the floor, nearly inaudible to the meandering crowd, invisible to society. Another performer sits stiffly at a white piano as the lights dim and a scene begins on the concrete floor. Three wives enter in voluminous black skirts, connected by red cords bound over their faces as Judith, in beige, crochets a net with her hands. The group slowly unfurl their cords, their choreographed liberation punctuated by slams of the piano lid, plonks of prepared piano strings, and hocketed, dissonant phrases of “locked… what was locked?” and “Where did this happen? Outside or within?” These snippets of plot hints are as concrete as the libretto’s narrative gets, but the haunting, spare music and visual drama unfolding are so enrapturing that not knowing what’s going on doesn’t much matter. The attention to visual impact, from costumes to props, choreography to lighting, is intoxicatingly stunning, especially given a limited budget.

Unseal Unseam. Photo by Katie Stenberg.

Unseal Unseam. Photo by Katie Stenberg.

Similar scenes unfold in different areas throughout the space, from a domestic scene with broken plates used as percussion, to a particularly arresting scene of the women singing through hands over their mouths – both their own and sculpted plaster male hands which flare into trombone-like bells. The audience moved reverently throughout these transitions, naturally matching the ceremonial pace of all involved.

Each of these scene changes is meant to represent one of the seven rooms from Bartok’s original opera, and in some cases, this is clear, as in the pool of tears represented by three amplified cylinders full of water into which are dipped vibrating chimes, and the final tomb, a spectacle of the women singing “open the doors and you will find us” while smoke is somehow magically kept within the bounds of an invisible cube. But, it seems nearly impossible to determine where each door stops and start, and when we are in each chamber. Bartok’s original is present in the overall sense of suspended terror, but everything feels fractured – the throughline of Judith’s own subjectivity has broken even the physical structure of his castle.

Chohi Kim and Tobin’s music itself is built from a balanced palette of hypnotic, cyclical vocal ostinati, lyrical aria duets, earthy classically-structured cello lines, atmospheric electronic manipulation of acoustic phenomena (bowed and rubbed metal, amplified water, rubbing a steel wool-like substance over a microphone) and aggressive metallic percussion (throwing metal objects into a resonant tin). The music is very clearly workshopped, organically developed to flow between performers. It breathes. When the singers do let their full bel canto powers unfurl a few feet from audience members after such restraint, the effect is either hair-raising or paralyzingly beautiful, or perhaps both.

To do service to Bartok, in the original, Judith is hardly a two-dimensional opera character. Neither larger nor smaller than life, Bartok’s Judith is nervy, exhibiting both love and strength and moving Bluebeard with her agency: “I will dry these dripping walls. With my lips, I will dry them. I will warm the cold stone. With my body, I will warm it… together we will overcome these walls… I will have no doors closed to me.”

But of course, by the end, she pays with her life for these transgressions and assumptions of power. In Bartok’s version, Judith may temporarily exercise the power to open doors, but Bluebeard himself is still the defining palace in which her dramas unfold and ultimately end.

In Unseal Unseam, Bluebeard himself is all but erased. Judith is the setting and the actors, the past and the present. In some ways, she seems even more victimized. She is reacting in relation to Bluebeard’s castle, but his personage seems melted into the furniture, a memory she is trying to expunge. At one point, two Judiths appear and she sings to herself disconnectedly about her body, as if trying to gain power over her own objectification. As composers Micaela Tobin and Chohi Kim explained, “…we wanted to re-focus the story on Bluebeard’s wife Judith, and make it about how she was unlocking–unsealing, the doors to her own story… In our version, Judith eventually unlocks the door that reveals her true self, and finds the empowerment and self-love she needs to walk through the final door out of her psychological purgatory.

Was the project effective? Nearly all the audience members seemed moved afterward, and it’s hard to imagine that the dazzling impact of the visual effects could have been lost on anyone. Judith didn’t seem as completely freed from her bondage as the composers might have hoped, but there are things more authentic than an effectively happy ending. Quietly undergirding the entire project was the testimony of actual domestic violence survivors. Composers Micaela Tobin and Sharon Chohi Kim note, “Shannon, Sharon, and I decided that the design and structure … needed to be informed by the truths of actual survivors of domestic violence… every prop, color, and texture you witnessed in this production came from the anonymous answers to our questions.”  The project may not have completely succeeded in transmuting pain into power, but such a success is almost never achieved. More viscerally present, and perhaps more important, were chilling intimacies of abuse which were recognizable, disturbing at a level we almost never choose to experience, and like Bartok’s, not easily forgotten.

 

Review: Meerenai Shim: Pheromone

Meerenai Shim, contemporary flautist, describes herself as “[committed] to the advancement of the flute repertory.” Pheromone, the third of her solo recordings, doesn’t disappoint on this count. While Shim’s execution displays an appealing directness throughout, the album is thankfully much more than a virtuoso showcase. This album is about new pieces by exciting composers.

What is most effective here is the theme: the album is a collection of electroacoustic commissions, all in reaction to Eli Fieldsteels’ Fractus III: Aerophoneme, originally written in 2011, which is included as the first track. The piece is an extended exploration of flute and Supercollider dialogue, alternately spacey and pulsing, aggressive and reticent. Shim’s flurried runs are occasionally executed with less precision than her sharp attacks, flutter-tongue, and other effects, but not to the point of distraction. Eventually, familiar harmonic progressions appear in an extended pop language that is thoroughly enjoyable in context. Why feel guilty? Materials here are complex enough, no brain cells are being lost; might as well enjoy the scenery.

The score to Fractus itself is worth investigating, and is available as a video that can be watched along with the piece. What is really innovative is the care with which Supercollider has been scored with the same blend of traditional and extended notation as the flute. Supercollider is an expressive equal here, its potentials managed and planned with the deliberation of traditional compositional approach, creating a subtle “phonemic” dialogue with the flute. Originally intended for four-channel speakers, the piece occasionally loses a bit of strength in sections where four channels may have enhanced the experience – but there is something attractive about the flatness that results.

When composers can start with such a highly developed palette as a starting point for inspiration, pieces of real depth can emerge – the focus here yields a whole new expressive realm. Whether or not these works may be properly considered new “repertoire” is dependent on the performability of these pieces independently of the live electronic noodling of the original composers. Still, it’s a worthy goal.

Track 2, Huge Blank Canvas Neck Tattoo by Gregory C. Brown is for alto flute and digital delay and starts, as one might expect, purified of some of Fractus III’s excess. Predictable additive gestures quickly build, however, into a thicket of stimulating activity. Harmonic progressions loop and the texture becomes so homophonic at times, medieval texture is suggested, especially considering the rhythmic repetitions. While the soloist-plus-delay formula is not particularly complex in concept, in execution these layers are sophisticated and fulfilling. A particular pleasure is the lethargic, slowed loop of a flute attack, which showcases the uniquely wild partials of a flute attack in detail. Attacks are taut, microtonal descents are layered with an eventual lyrical alto flute lushness over pop harmonic language.

Track 3, Pencilled Wings by Emma O’Halloran is a pleasant respite, as shimmering filtered electronics surround crystalline leaping partials in the flute, with whistle tones lending the right kind of strained beauty. The texture shifts, here sparse, there heavy and modal, as piano plunks out ambiguous harmonic poles. Again, pop influences and “dated” electronic sounds are somehow completely welcome, as they are part of a larger vision. Tinkling piano octave samples mix with roasty electronic pads, and the effect is more than a little new aged, but who cares? There is real love for electronics as an idiom here, and we would be boorish not to be swept along. Besides, it’s not all butterflies. There is grounded ferocity behind all the cock-eyed ornament.

60.8% by Douglas Laustsen presents a number of puzzles: exaggerated Middle-Eastern melodies slide over ethnic percussion samples used in isolation and quirky electronic blips. Is it Orientalist or not? Melodies dive in and out of sincerity and the grotesque, alto tone gorgeous throughout. Probably it’s 60.8% serious. Toy piano and bobbling electronics belie an authentically intoxicating drone and 7/8 groove. Slithering zither samples wink over a dead serious bass drum. Shim seems particularly at home here, digging joyfully into the alto flute’s territory of haunted lyricism. I’d go to this party, just to see how it ends.

LA’s own Isaac Schankler contributed title track 5, Pheromone, the brightest on the recording. Sly coarseness is left behind and thought returns. Schankler’s interpretation of Fractus III clings to a few relevant concepts but mostly he explores his own interests in depth. Piano samples surround a delayed flute texture, bobbing in rhythm. Schankler is happy to retrace his steps for effect: something is being described, rather than experienced, or declaimed. The delight of the first section soon gives way to a pensive landscape, however. Repeated flute tones swell and fade, piano presents crisp chords and rumbling low intervals, and crackling electronics quietly recede. Schankler’s work on the video games Depression Quest and Analogue comes to mind here. Possibilities seem endless – we could choose any direction, be any character. This texture swells and transitions quickly back into driving rhythms, repeated flute leaps and runs bounded by low piano aggression. Like other tracks, the rhythm can be driving, but unlike the others, rhythm pulls, occasionally veering off-course with a real vulnerability. This gives way to even more low piano rumbling and arpeggiation, and finally into a more direct, dangerous texture, exploring darker themes and harmonies. Schankler’s strength is the range here – from light to forceful.

The final track is a one-minute and 41-second etude for contrabass flute and TI83+ calculator, and it is exactly what you think it is. As for me, this sort of shamelessness is just my cup of tea. Completely fun, and totally bizarre, musical complexity isn’t really the focus here. The form consists of some basic call-and-response binary sections of weird contrabass clarinet over a rather stupid calculator-generated groove, with hocketing syncopation. The composer, Matthew Joseph Payne, runs a “chiptune-folk-doom-jazz band” with Shim, and this ridiculousness is in full effect. Contrabass hoots with hauntingly bizarre gestures over a noxious square-waved electronic calculus. Higher harmonics in the contrabass flute are actually quite gorgeous in their whispering richness. Calculator music, yes please!

Overall, Shim and the composers have presented a stunning, and valuable vision of the flute’s capabilities. These pieces all engage with a raw earthiness not typically associated with the instrument, and one which could easily be more fully explored. Pheromone, with its connotation of intense humanness and connection to the natural world, seems an apt title. Materials are simultaneously in close contact and pulled apart. Narrative is abandoned as compulsion takes hold. I, for one, am looking forward to the next installment.

 

 

Review: Southland Ensemble, Gerhard Stäbler and Kunsu Shim

While wild Up clattered, reoriented itself, and clattered again downtown on Friday night, a much quieter kind of recapitulation of materials took place at Curve Line Space in Eagle Rock: Southland Ensemble, known for their careful presentations of underrepresented composers, performed intimate works by composers Gerhard Stäbler and Kunsu Shim. The pieces titillated and occasionally challenged, and as violist Cassia Streb commented, consistently offered an “intellectual puzzle.”

A particular pleasure was the stark simplicity of In Zwei Teilen, or In Two Parts, by Shim. The Teils, or parts, bookended the concert, an appropriate metaphor for the concert overall; in music this purified, when materials are stripped to their essence, structure becomes content. Teil 1, conducted by the composer, consisted of two tableaus: rain-like pianissimo plinks from a thumb piano against a sustained tone in the cello, alternating multiple times with long, glassy dissonant chords through a dispersed ensemble of recorder, cello, violin, and viola. The same tableaus ended the concert, presented as Teil 2. When our ears are bombarded daily, it’s gently fulfilling to apprehend something as fundamental as binary form. One forgets, there is clarity and power in simply reconsidering an idea after another has been presented.

Another highlight was Southland Ensemble’s a playful interpretation of Hart Auf Hart by Stäbler, a graphic score comprised of a bar-coded grid with coordinates. Ensemble members turned handheld radios and cassette decks off and on to Battleship-style coordinates shouted over a megaphone, rewinding and piping in tinny AM radio, bringing to mind Cage. More like Cage, some grid squares contained nothing at all, and silence delimited the material with an uncomfortable objectivity.

]and on the eyes black sleep of night[ by Stäbler presented more thoughtful juxtapositions, for piccolo, clarinet, and violin, in which breath-like cadences on piercing intervals alternated with passages of dissonant activity. Piccolo amplified the higher partials of the clarinet, as overtones interacted in the beating atmosphere, and the piccolo seemed to take on aspects of the clarinet, its woodiness suddenly apparent in the lower dynamics. Violin, a mediating force, held these fast.

Shim’s luftrand for violin, viola and cello continued the theme of self-contained scenes, but in a darkened tone. While Stäbler explores a taut, considered objectivity, in Shim, things loosen, junctures come apart. Wavering sul pont harmonics and unsure gestures are suspended precariously in short, motivic units. Each scene is presented as an aphorism, but an apprehensive one, made by somebody lost on some bleak shore. The form occurs within these aphorisms, musical meaning leaping between lilypads, bounded by silence. The dual structure evokes an individual voice, weighing options, assessing alternatives, all with emotional intensity.

Happy for No Reason by Shim, in contrast, was a straightforward conceptual exploration of noise and quietude – buckets, boxes, and bags of bells were dropped and thrown at random intervals, before a B section in which players reconfigured with deft, tiny gestures, while the Stäbler slowly pulled a roll of masking tape from wall to wall, around various players. Again, the simplicity of the binary form was remarkably effective.

X (February ’94) by Stäbler, “for closures and fasteners” featured the ensemble working with ziplock bags, Velcro, tape, zippers, shoelaces, staplers, boxes and clamps, manipulating each according to dice rolls. All of these items can only exist in one of two states: open, or closed. As dry as the content and structure seemed to be here, this choice of materials, and their implied states, suggested a subtle poeticism.

There is plenty of academic work on Stäbler and Shim’s music, exploring its theoretical and political underpinnings, but for the average, curious concert-goer, this music more than speaks for itself, with its careful emphasis on form, expectations, and purity.

Review/Interview: Diamond Pulses, Daniel Corral

Diamond Pulses, the new electronic album by Daniel Corral, released on Orenda Records and available September 12, is an odd duck. How could it be otherwise, as by Corral’s admission, it “started as a mockup for a microtonal Plinko game/sound-installation.” The Plinko element is referenced on the album artwork, as a glowing grid interacting with a drifting abstract background. There’s a clue.

On the surface of the single, 32-minute track, everything seems perfectly transparent, maybe even grid-like. Insistent, hopped-up Plinko polyrhythms braid together in a dense patchwork of minimalist activity, while oceanic noise waxes and wanes. Or it’s pop electronica, but more desperate, more worldly, shamelessly reverbed. Minimalist motivic transitions speed the texture through harmonic and registral shifts, while rhythm remains constant. Corral knows exactly what he wants us to hear, at what pace, and moody swells of noise give us enough respite to fool us into thinking we’ve made our own choices. Robert Ashley said that music either comes from speech, or it comes from dance. Diamond Pulses is unconditionally from the dance. There are no words here at all.

But there is something else, tugging. What is it? Why the Feldman quote in the liner notes, “Sound is all our dreams of music. Noise is music’s dreams of us.”? The rhythms aren’t just insistent, they’re rabid. Transitions aren’t just inevitable, they’re eerily prescribed. Electronic ephemera churn in atonal relation to pretty guitar-ish licks. Noise swells aren’t just a contrast; they undermine with a mysteriously undercooked autonomy. Things are not as diatonic as they seem.

The piece is not really diatonic, after all. It slowly transforms into an 11-limit tuning system, the middle of the piece swimming in shades of microtonal subtlety. Taken together, the whole is perplexingly different than the sum of its parts. Nothing here quite matches up, as Corral notes, “making it impossible to focus on the endless business of trying to square an imperfect circle.” Grappling with alternative tuning systems has a tendency to bring these kinds of cracks to the fore. Things don’t fit. The illusion of the joints of reality being flush is demolished. That’s the interest in this album; we don’t realize it, but the incongruities here turn us inside-out.

Take a few listens, and see if you notice the flip-flop. Maybe don’t listen to this, despite temptation, while driving. Listen at home, with dedicated ears, to this strangely rigid dance meditation, a fervent solipsism with a disturbingly wild, encroaching reality. Consciously intended or not, Diamond Pulses evokes Los Angeles.
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We asked Daniel a few questions about the album:

You mention that the album grew out of an experiment for a Plinko installation. Can you talk a little more about that process of development?

I was at a residency when I sketched out that original Plinko installation idea. I had a great studio right near the beach, and you might be able to hear a cheap imitation of those ocean sounds in the noisy washes that fade in and out during Diamond Pulses. That studio was quite large, and allowed me to imagine what installations might fit inside it. I really like Trimpin’s work, and I think his whimsicality comes out in my music box installations. I was trying to imagine similarly playful sound installations that also have a more conceptually sound footing. I sketched out a just intonation Plinko game on some graph paper, and started thinking about how that might be translated into a performable piece. At the same time, I had a 4-channel audio setup there with which I made quite a few quadraphonic electronic pieces with a tunable sampler. These streams of thought smashed together into Diamond Pulses. Perhaps it is a bit more serious than the original game show-inspired idea, but hopefully still enjoyable.

What specifically made you think that these materials would work as an album-length piece, rather than as an installation?

There are two big factors in the decision to turn Diamond Pulses into an album-length piece: accessibility and space. An installation has a specific time and place in which it can be appreciated, and that unique experience is part of what makes it so magical. On the other hand, an album can find its way all over the world via the internet. Also, live performances of it are solo, so it’s easy to plan and schedule. When my residency ended, I returned back to LA and realized that it would be ridiculous to try and put more installation-type pieces in my small house. But, I could develop the performable electronic piece practically anywhere. For example – I did a lot of programming for it on my laptop during a long Bolt Bus ride with Timur and the Dime Museum. After the first performance of Diamond Pulses at Battery Books, I decided that it would be worth trying to make an album of it. I knew that Orenda Records had put out some fantastic albums of adventurous music, so I reached out to them. I am grateful that they were interested, and they have been great to work with as I developed the piece into what’s on the album!

Is this whole piece in 11-limit temperament? Could you give a little more information for readers who may not be familiar with alternative tuning systems?

It’s hard to come to a succinct explanation of tuning, but I’ll give it a try! Most musicians using microtonality do so with systems based on ratios, often with some sort of fundamental pitch as the denominator. A ratio with a lower numerator and denominator is usually considered more consonant, while higher numbers are more complex and dissonant. “Limits” bound the available pitches to a certain level of complexity (EX: a system with a 3-limit will likely sound less complex than a system with a 5-limit). Basically, Diamond Pulses starts super simple, gets more complex, and returns to simplicity in a sort of ternary form. It starts with just one note and very gradually moves to a limit of 3, then, 5, 7, 9, and 11. After reaching a limit of 11, it gradually contracts back to the single note it started with, which is the fundamental that all of the tuning ratios relate to. Because Diamond Pulses starts with just one note and slowly increases it’s limit, the available intervals get more complex as well. When it decreases it’s limit back to one fundamental pitch,  it’s kind of like a symphony ending on a big V-I – at least that’s how I imagine it. I put an image of the “score” on my website here, if anyone is interested: spinalfrog.com/projects/diamond-pulses

I’ve spent a fair amount of time with people and works that use microtonality with great skill and musicality, and have long been a bit too intimidated to really share any of my own. Diamond Pulses is the first piece of mine built around a tuning system that I feel comfortable putting out in the world.

If there is one thing you’d want people to listen for in this piece, what is it?

I never have one universal thing that I want all people to listen for in my music. Rather, I hope that Diamond Pulses has multiple levels on which it can be experienced. Someone that has trained his/her ears to hear the tuned intervals might enjoy doing so, while someone else with no knowledge of or interest in that might just like the spacey rhythmic grooves. I want listeners to engage with Diamond Pulses in whatever capacity they see fit.

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Check out the official CD release show this Saturday, with special guests Danny Holt and Mike Robbins:

Saturday, September 12, 8pm and 10pm
Automata
504 Chung King Court
Los Angeles CA 90012

8pm:
• Workers Union, performed by Danny Holt and Mike Robbins
• Diamond Pulses, performed by Daniel Corral

10pm:
• Two Pages, performed by Danny Holt
• Diamond Pulses, performed by Daniel Corral

But tickets online here:
https://www.artful.ly/store/events/6883

Sounds: Isaac Schankler: Somniloquy

For this week’s Sound, check out Isaac Schankler’s Somniloquy for flute and electronics, performed by Kelly Sulick:

About the piece, Isaac says:

Somniloquy gets its title from a fancy word for sleeptalking. The flute’s subdued unconscious mumblings eventually give way to more loquacious and labyrinthine figures. This sleeper goes through many stages, exploring both complex, breathy sounds and pure, unfiltered tones. In the electronics, a chorus of unstable sounds bubbles up to the surface, beyond the control of the sleeper.

More info is at isaacschankler.com.

Review: wild Up, Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute Concert, UCLA

On Wednesday, August 12, (a while ago now; please excuse this reviewer, gentle readers) wild Up presented a unique collaboration between the American Composers Orchestra, the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music, and the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University: specifically, the final concert of the Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute, a workshop geared toward giving jazz composers the opportunity to learn about writing for orchestra. If this description alone is hard to follow, it’s because there were so many forces at play here – wild Up’s intuitive and intense grasp of chamber music, Rountree’s dynamic conducting, and a wide range of experience in jazz and classical composition. The marketing of this concert seemed a bit misleading – as the culminating concert of the workshop, one might expect to find some student pieces on the program. This was, however, a showcase of faculty pieces, with a single piece by a member of wild Up – all pieces that, in their varied and skillful ways, played with the intersections between jazz and orchestral music. According to the program, up to 16 of the composers participating in this workshop will present symphonic works in the second phase of the program in 2016.

The concert was held in the Ensemble Room at the UCLA Ostin Music Center, which had lovely, rich acoustics, especially appropriate for the stripped-down chamber orchestra resources of wild Up.   The environs strongly conveyed “workshop”, with all the camaraderie and vibrancy thus implied. This camaraderie was echoed in some opening remarks by director James Newton, when he asked audience members to join hands and experience the collaborative moment as one, chuckles and smiles all around. The obvious care and passion poured into this program was moving to behold.

The concert opened with a piece by this same director. Elisha’s Gift, described by the composer as dealing with direct spiritual experience of the Northern Lights, surprisingly began with a wholly intellectual dryness. wild Up’s well-poised players presented a bevy of dramatic gestures in rhythmically interlocking clothing. There was a jazz tautness here; although in classical garb, the precision of rhythmic trajectory was influenced by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gilespie, as described in the program notes. Executions were sharp, and hocketed phrases intersected with great intimacy; one’s ears were being sharpened for contrasts to come. This dryness gave way to an unexpected depth, as phrases opened up with more space, long tones and harmonics began to make an appearance. The dry, tense landscape flowered into a richer spectrum of time, and suddenly, harmonics pulled, what was intellectual became imperative, reactions slowed, and the conversation expanded. This awareness of how to resolve tension seemed quietly but powerfully from the jazz tradition. Rountree’s conducting was effective and natural, with a director’s ease. Finally, the last elements of tension gave way and the piece shone with the spiritual purity described by Newton. Motives traversed the full range of string registers, refined with ever-more delicacy, and when phrases finally elongated into lyricism, our ears had been refined by all the previous filigree to truly appreciate the melodic grace. The final, large group statement breathed strength and spiritual engagement, unified and tangible in the present.

Next up was One Modular Future by Chris Kallmyer of wild Up, a distinct about-face. After Rountree’s short introduction to the piece, a member of wild Up held up a small collection of cards, chirping, “And here’s the score!” The piece did betray this casual form of improvisation-influenced composition, but in the best possible ways. The piece started out of the hall, with wild Up members striking single tones on shimmering gamelan-like homemade percussion instruments – and listeners were quickly welcomed into that idiomatic frame of mind, a particular kind of openness. In a traditional manner, the single melodic line telescoped into double-time, and back again. The line lacked traditional gamelan contours however, as the order of tones was randomly based on the musicians’ placement on stage. In this way, the melody had the pleasing linearity of something like a modular electronic sequencer loop. Percussionists changed order, milling around the front of the stage with a fun, casual theatricality, and then played a sequence of new tones. During this, the clarinet and piano inhabited a different space, presumably the space of a different card from the score. The clarinet played improvisatory textures and multiphonics, while the inside of the piano was scraped and struck. Percussion lines broke down, a few unison clangs resonated, 3 and 4-note fragments remained, and the percussionists receded. There was a hard transition here, which was nicely handled. The next section opened with a small wind ensemble droning reedy unisons and fifths, pungent and resonant, contrasted with a light clattering of orchestral percussion. Winds in groups always seem to evoke the outdoors, and with the improvisatory percussion background, we were quickly propelled into the forest, or a field. Once we settled into this landscape, electric guitar entered with a heavy dose of Americana, and we were sure that we were somewhere with sky. The guitar improvisation continued on repeated motives, substantial and moving, and the piece ended with a (perhaps surprise?) abruptness. There were so many tropes here that could have been poorly handled: Partch-esque homemade percussion that could have been goofy, extended techniques that could have teetered into cliché, and an unabashedly beautiful guitar solo that could have been indulgent. The wealth of compositional ideas was compellingly presented however. The lack of cohesion worked as a series of tableaus, and every idea was well-explored.

Tempest, by Steve Coleman, was a completely different dish as well, direct and potent. wild Up was joined by saxes, and jazz trumpet, and came together as a strikingly alive big band. The program notes describe the piece as evocative of the ebbs and flow of a squall, and it did not disappoint. At least this reviewer had a sudden wish for the revival of the warmth and presence of live pop music that big band jazz epitomized, and that we seem to have permanently lost. The wild Up strings performed the typical big band sax role of fleshing out rich jazz harmonies, while the composer on solo sax navigated deftly and movingly in tandem with muted trumpet. The warmth here was palpable, the hall resonant. The structure was natural and well-formed; there was the feeling of a jazz “head” at important returns. The alto sax constantly commented on the textures but also lead to new territories. One was reminded, in case one had forgotten by listening to so much new music, that harmony can have grammar. Harmonies didn’t just move and shift, tonalities anchored us with physical security. Pivot points between these tonalities were navigated by a composer well-versed in extended tonal gravity, as only a jazz player really is, now. After a while, the rises and falls of the storm began to lack dramatic effect through extended repetition, but the overall texture remained compelling and fresh, through the “rainbow chord” which ended the piece.

Sinovial Joints, by the same composer explored different facets of the jazz idiom, through a distinctly physical lens. In stark contrast to the intellectualism of Elisha’s Gift, African polyrhythm and arrhythmicism here were strongly tied to the body, encouraging one to just be. As the composer describes, “sinovial joints … function as a means of connecting bones, binding tissues and providing various degrees of movement for our bodies.” How quickly wild Up transformed into a fully functioning, churning jazz organism! The political fervency of jazz was in full evidence – there was not only toe-tapping, but sweat. Melodic lines were stated and recapitulated deftly and vibrantly, the strings functioned beautifully in their harmonic choral role, and the blend of arrhythmic and polyrhythmic elements felt totally natural, toothsome. We were not in speculation mode, we were in reality. There were unexpectedly interesting piccolo and clarinet melodies in layers, the trumpet shouted with inevitability, and an eventual transition out of polyrhythm and into orchestra textures brought us back into the intellect, with final, reflective gestures.

After a well-deserved intermission, wild Up returned with String Quintet No. 1: Funky Diversions, by Vince Mendoza. The rhythmic strength here mimicked that of Joints, but in a tighter, leaner ensemble. In a delicate opening, the strings responded to one another, pulling, yawning. Pretty diatonic lyrical motifs contrasted with tight, cerebral runs and leaping, disjunct gestures. The bass was used well, separated enough to ground the ensemble, but still “of” the quintet texture, and at 30 seconds in, ushering in a distinct funkiness. Here we were rooted not by tonal gravity, but by a solid four on the floor rhythmic inevitability. Rountree was fun to watch in this piece, obviously enjoying grooving with the ensemble. The piece as a whole still had a strong classical influence, however, with violins and viola handled idiomatically. Pretty themes were traded and hocketed, and the texture at times seemed to breathe a post-minimal air of shifting diatonic harmonies before settling into bold funk grounding. There were a few transitions to long droning tones, with traded and built in intensity back to the impact of strong, funk rhythm. This “verse-chorus” approach to form seemed to emanate from jazz traditions as well, and overall the piece was solid, self-assured.

Journey of the Shadow, by Gabriela Lena Frank, was unique on the program, as a narrated story, with a fully orchestrated backdrop. The story is a magical realist tale of a boy sending a letter to his father at war in Afghanistan, and of the boy’s shadow that slips into the envelope, and has various poignant adventures and eventually arrives back home. The work is geared toward children and adults alike, and Lena Frank’s narration is good-natured and clear. The opening oboe melody heralds the character for the entire piece: so charismatically mid-century classical, beaming with poise and charm. South American influences soon creep in, Ginastera-influenced rhythmic interactions contrasting with well-shaped clarinet lyricism. One hates to call an entire work charming, but that’s what it was: not a superficial piece, but one that exuded real charm, that awareness of how to create audience delight. Word painting was indulged with abandon throughout – for example in the description of the many kinds of letters in the mail. There were interludes of pure cuteness, including woodblock, pizzicato strings trading with staccato on piano, and wind flourishes. Erin McKibben’s flute tone was particularly rich and haunting. The form generally follows the text, as the shadow encounters various adventures, and the whole work seems built for listening as a recording, at home. The piece is familial. The jazz influence is evident, with rich extended harmonies and perfectly crafted melodies. The cartoony quality of this word painting actually conceals impressive technical strength – orchestration of this kind is actually quite difficult and requires intimate knowledge of the resources at hand. The test of this kind of piece is whether the orchestration is effective in making the story vibrant and it definitely works: one wants to know what happens next, and by the end of the story, the darker nuances of the touching tale have quietly been understood.

The final piece on the program, Time’s Vestiges by Anthony Cheung explored, according to the program notes, “metaphors drawn from geological ‘deep time’. The rumbling, buried texture wasn’t just an evocation of the earth, however; the audience was presented with a fabric of activity so dense and dynamic that it seemed to reflect the complexity of nature itself. Rhythmic counterpoint towered on top of textural effects. There were so many threads here, it was impossible for a listener to follow every contrapuntal statement, so multiplicitous were the lines. Jazz influences here were subtler than in the other pieces, if they existed at all – the most salient jazz element could have simply been the emphasis, as in all these pieces, in the immediacy of the present and the pleasure to be found in textural interplay. The melodic gestures in themselves carried a 19th century kind of angst, or surface expressivity, but the subterranean forces at work were not sentimental; they pushed and ruptured with cold precision. This unique approach to orchestration brought to mind some of the duality of Classical forms, where surface-level expression can bely a more ironic or detached foundation. The composer in fact may take this texture for granted, having lived in it for so long, as the piece starts immediately with this kind of dense patchwork, but for a new listener, the varied surface texture is fresh and enjoyable. Texturally, the piece doesn’t explore extended techniques as much as traditional effects, with tremolos and glissandi expertly layered. The piece eventually transitions from this flurry of activity to quieter moments: pizzicatos are traded with more space for reflection, and tones lengthen. We have been desensitized by the previous complexity, however, and these quiet moments seem to pass us by as we are glazed with glacial indifference. This oddly neutral respite is short-lived. The piece moves quickly to swooping, diving gestures, moving throughout the ensemble, and eventually ends with a rising line that resolves into a surprising vulnerability, given the powerful direction in the rest of the piece.

With its raucous brew of influences, the concert was a fulfilling procession of courses. wild Up’s contributions were as always, singular: no other local ensemble could have handled the diverse demands here, both technical and aesthetic. And naturally, the execution seemed effortless. One can only look forward to the next installment, in 2016, when students will be able to display the fruits of this vibrantly fertile collaboration.

Interview: Scott Worthington on Prism

Scott Worthington

Scott Worthington

This Sunday, ArtShare LA will be hosting a party celebrating Scott Worthington’s recent release of Prism on Populist Records (out August 14, available for pre-order here), a collection of works spanning 2010-present, all in his singular voice. The program will include pieces from the recording as well as other pieces for bass and electronics. We asked him a few questions about the recording and upcoming party:

How did you go about starting work on this set of recordings? You seem to have developed a unique voice with bass playing and electronics. What do you feel is the relationship here? Are the electronics always more fixed and your bass playing more improvisatory? Do they inform each other? What comes first, and how do you craft the pieces?

Back in 2010 I tried to record At Dusk and Prism. That attempt didn’t turn out very well, so I guess you could say that I started to work on it all the way back then. The recordings on the album are from 2014 and 2015. I didn’t craft the pieces in order to produce the album, but I think I got lucky and they sound nice together.

I’m not sure if there’s a relationship. I just try to make electronic parts that don’t sound like my own *very* reductive stereotype of wiz/band/swoosh electronic music. I like some of that music but I’m just not good at making it and/or am too lazy to try.

Neither of the electronic parts on this disc are fixed. In At Dusk, they end up sounding like a very pitchy reverb chamber. It has an entirely notated bass part. I’ve adjusted some of the rhythms and dynamics as I’ve played it more, but I wouldn’t consider is improvisatory. As for the chicken/egg, I had the idea to get the computer to mimic the sustain pedal on the piano, wrote the bass part with that in mind, and experimented writing some different computer programs until I thought it sounded right.

In Reflections I cue the drones in a way that sort of fakes live processing. It has some melodic fragments and ideas that remain the same from performance to performance, but there is no score. This piece started as a bass ensemble work for five basses and I made a version for solo bass and drones afterwards.

Your work seems to prioritize some traditional musical ideas – there are memorable themes and motifs, as well as more atmospheric materials. Are you concerned with making memorable gestures that can be developed? Or do you have a different way of thinking about thematic material?

I guess I’m a “motive guy” or something like that. Sometimes I like to tell people my music is mash up of Brian Eno and Morton Feldman. I like things that can be remembered but aren’t necessarily played the same every time. I think most of the development in my pieces comes from layering different motives on top of each other, but not necessarily developing the motives themselves. Reflections works exactly like this. I have a bank melodic ideas and I put them together during the performance. I used to just write this kind of thing out in score form, but more recently I’ve been eschewing scores and trying to create environments where these kinds of ideas can live and get a bit of a life of their own from performance to performance.

There are two versions of a quintet, with a note, “After Feldman.” While somewhat static, there is still more trajectory here than what I associate with Feldman. Did you have a specific piece in mind that was influential? I’m curious about the reason for two versions – can you describe the compositional method here?

A specific piece, yes! Piece for Four Pianos. Here’s a youtube recording:

I think I have it right that the pianos each have the same part and progress at their own pace. In my piece, there are five separate parts, but I…borrowed…the “at your own pace” bit. Since it’s not exactly the same every time I thought I’d put two performances on the album. I also think they act as nice palette cleansers between the longer pieces on the album.

I really enjoyed Prism. I can see how you’re working with some potent, dramatic materials that are then refracted and explored, like light through a prism. Your handling of the form here seems really intuitive. Did you have a specific structure in mind, or did the materials themselves suggest the form? Is there anything else you’d like listeners to know about the piece?

Glad you enjoyed it 🙂 I think I did have a little structure mapped out (it’s from 2010, so my memory of writing it is a little fuzzy). There are five parts and I think those parts only had to do with the pitches/chords in the sections. I think that was the extent of the formal plan. So, maybe that means it was intuitive? I don’t think I set out with a plan for how long the sections were. It was towards the end of when I was really concerned with pitch sets and things like that and I was (clearly) moving towards using a lot of repetition and being sparse and droney in general.

Your fifth track is in memory of Stefano Scodanibbio. Can you talk a little bit about what his influence is?

He was one of the most incredible bassists (and perhaps musicians) to walk the planet. I never got to meet him or see him perform, but the kinds of things he was capable of on the bass are unparalleled. I wrote the piece shortly after his untimely death from ALS. It doesn’t use any of the techniques or pyrotechnics he was known for and capable of, but I tried to make a contemplative piece in his memory.

Are you excited about the release party concert? Do the other pieces on the program relate to this recording, or are they just pieces you enjoy performing for other reasons?

Yes, I’m excited! I’m also heading off on a CD release tour playing at the Center for New Music in San Francisco on the 14th, the Wayward Music Series in Seattle on the 19th (with Nat Evans), and at the Wandering Goat in Eugene on the 20th (with a lot of other artists and bands). Lots of miles on the car, but I’m looking forward to meeting people and playing some music for them.

I’ll be playing two new works that Nat Evans and Brenna Noonan wrote for me for these concerts. They don’t relate specifically to the album, but I wanted to make a nice concert and not just play the record for people. I met Nat and Brenna through a project that Nat did called The Tortoise (https://natevans.bandcamp.com/album/the-tortoise). The concert will close with Julia Wolfe’s piece Stronghold which is just an awesome piece–it’s kind of a barn burner.

And finally, if you could sit down with your listeners and tell them anything, what would it be?

Hope you enjoy it 🙂

We hope you enjoy it too. For more information, visit:
http://artsharela.org/event/scott-worthington-local-cd-release-concert-art-share-l-a/

Scott Worthington – Prism CD Release Party
8.9.15, 8pm, $10
ArtShare
801 E. 4th Place, Los Angeles, CA 90013

See you there!

Review: Scott Worthington: Space Administration

WasteLAnd’s third concert in their first summer series continued the theme of meditations on altered time, with a concert devoted entirely to Scott Worthington’s Space Administration. The piece is Worthington’s doctoral dissertation piece, an extended setting of Ken Hunt’s poem, Apollo Spacecraft. The venue was the Velaslavasay Panorama, a community cinema built in 1911 that’s gone through a number of incarnations before its current cozily dilapidated state. The piece shares a number of features with The Cartography of Time, but is most definitely a different beast.

Firstly, the piece includes a video which projects the text of the poem, and provides structure for the hour-long concert experience. The poem itself is an important player in the success of the piece, and deserves careful consideration. The text is taken from NASA’s voice transcription of the first day of the Apollo 11 moon mission, complete with timestamps. Hunt has erased words throughout, however, leaving a skeleton of fragmented phrases, combined and reconsidered through the poet’s lens to form a contemporary ode to Apollo and a meditation on space travel. The poem is quite strong, and even in the fewest phrases, the poet manages to convey convincing vulnerability, will, and longing. It’s to Worthington’s credit that he chose a strong poem to set. Often, poems that are worthy on their own merits can actually be difficult to set, as a powerful text has its own priorities. In this case, however, the absences in the text, as well as Worthington’s thoughtful pace in displaying them, provide enough room for the music’s own dialogue to flower. Here’s an excerpt from the piece:

The piece itself begins with a launch countdown in the video, which is effective in preparing the listener for the relentless march of timestamps that mark the piece. In the previous week’s The Cartography of Time, time stood still. Here, time is inexorably but weightlessly moving forward. Taken individually, the component parts are actually rather simple – samples have been recorded and processed from a Moog in use around the time of the Apollo mission, the green text fades quietly in and out of view, and the contrabass comments on the proceedings with a bank of recurring subjects and themes that bring to mind the frankness and inevitability of a rondo or ritornello. These rudimentary elements combine, however, to create something that does not just hold a listener’s interest, it feels substantial.

What really holds the piece together are the various conceptual tensions throughout. Many of the materials are traditional – recurring themes and motifs that arise with the introduction of key words or ideas, an ode to an ancient god, but these elements are unmoored, floating in a vast space. The poem purports to be about space travel, but there is so much in the imagery that is earthbound, quotidian. There are conflicts in the text between the known that is clung to, and the unknown, which is wholly undifferentiated. There is even a tension between Apollo’s realm – that of ordered music and light, and the occasionally malicious Moog context in which the piece takes place.

When Apollo actually does makes an appearance in the text, he is all of a sudden present. Worthington does an excellent job here at conjuring the sense of an ode in these moments, with variations and intensifications of musical material. We are all trying to communicate with the gods.

The form of the piece is actually somewhat difficult to follow. The form does change, and there are lighter and heavier moments, but transitions feel so inevitable that it’s hard to even keep track of the many locations we’re visiting. This can be a good thing, or a bad thing, depending on the intent of the composer. In this case, being without a goal is quite effective.

Most importantly, the overall effect is not really galactic so much as subjective. We are weightless, but are we really in outer space? The text is so powerful and the setting so passive that the listener’s reflections collapse in on themselves. This is hardly an outward looking conquest of the final frontier. We are definitely looking inward, and upward, with an ancient desire for the heavens.

EDITOR’S NOTE: an interview with Scott Worthington, whose album Prism will be out next week on Populist Records, is on the way too.

Review: WasteLAnd: The Cartography of Time

Gnwarwhallaby at Neighborhood Unitarian Universalist Church. Photo by Tina Tallon.

The inaugural summer series of WasteLAnd is an exciting addition to the innovative concert series – over the span of eight days, four concerts explore facets of WasteLAnd’s aesthetic. Summer casts a more languid hue on concert-going, and WasteLAnd’s thoughtful programming, and aptly named Waste(d)LAnd limited edition beer, seem to take advantage of this seasonal atmosphere.

On Saturday, July 25th, WasteLAnd teamed with the forces of Gnarwhallaby at the Neighborhood Church in Pasadena for the second of these summer performances. The Neighborhood Church has been home to a number of Gnarwhallaby concerts, and it was a refreshing surprise to find that the space had been transformed by the arrangement of the ensemble in the middle of the sanctuary, seats and speakers closely surrounding them, all lit by paper lamps and music stand lights. This subdued atmosphere had a noticeable effect on the experience of these pieces. Visual aspects are often distracting when trying to focus on sound worlds of great detail, and this staging facilitated an un-self-conscious concentration, which is lacking in many audience environments.

The first two pieces, DSCH by Edison Denisov and avance|impulsions mechaniques by Adriana Hölszky, are part of Gnarwhallaby’s standard repertoire, and were executed with characteristic familiarity and care. The pieces were both lovely in their jaggedly taut way, with surprisingly similar languages although separated by a number of decades (1969 to 1997). Both pieces use a vocabulary of ‘classic’ extended techniques, post-tonal, rhetorical gestures, and an abstracted sense of form, but explore different concerns. DSCH is form-driven, with clear demarcations of gesture and response, complex interaction and moments of reflection, while the Hölszky is more unified in its brutality and trajectory, building and exploring a singular kind of momentum with 90’s additive intensity. The experience of these pieces was also made different by the unique arrangement of the ensemble. Contrapuntal sections were clearer and more obviously social, rhythmic interactions more defined and intimate.

The focus of the night, however, was the premiere by composer David Brynjar Franzson, The Cartography of Time, commissioned specifically for Gnarwhallaby.

The commission has been a long time coming. Gnarwhallaby has been in consultation with Franzson since 2012, when the group first heard a piece by the composer at The Industry’s First Take concert. The quartet agreed that Franzson’s piece was their favorite of the evening, and began corresponding with him about writing for the group. In 2013, Franzson came to see the ensemble in New York, as well as in Iceland in 2014. The length of this association is evident in the extraordinarily subtle treatment of the ensemble.

The Cartography of Time begins imperceptibly, with electronic clicks and percussive effects in surrounding speakers gently immersing the audience in the three-dimensional world that is to unfold. Gradually, the ensemble enters with extended, strained tones built from an expertly orchestrated vocabulary of harmonics, multiphonics, and subtly colored intonation. A look at the score shows that the entire piece is organized with exact metrical shifts, and a tempo click heard in a headphone by the cellist who cues the ensemble, but this structural underpinning is completely hidden. Ensemble tones and percussive gestures combine seamlessly with the audio track, building and waning in dynamics from indiscernible to a mezzo-forte at the loudest.

The composite effect is mesmerizing and convincingly organic. Something is definitely living and breathing – if not a human being, then the landscape itself swells. The bass clarinet seems to lead in many areas, even if this is unintended, as its versatility allows for a range of expression that naturally contrasts with the other parts. From impossibly strained high tones, blending with the electronics, to low growls and multiphonics at the bottom of the range, the bass clarinet provides a frame and impetus for the rest of the ensemble. Muted trombone swells are insistent, but self-possessed. The piano is used economically, in a percussive manner. Franzson carefully chooses to forgo the enormous gestural capabilities of the piano. No cliché registral leaps are in evidence here: sharp attacks on single tones with subsequent ringing or damped harmonics fit beautifully into the texture. Cello tones are somehow simultaneously woody and glassy and blend imperceptibly with the electronics. Gnarwhallaby is at its best here; the execution was precise, integrated, and beautiful.

Gnwarwhallaby at Neighborhood Unitarian Universalist Church. Photo by Tina Tallon.

Rather than building from this texture or jostling the listener in another direction, however, Franzson remains in this temporality for the entirety of the thirty-or-so minute piece. Where other composers may have easily been tempted to exploit the materials here, quickening the pace, or exploring all electronic possibilities, Franzson’s approach is more receptive, and decisively so. The remarkable restraint here is by far the strongest feature of the piece; by focusing on a single experience of temporality, Franzson truly creates an altered sense of time, rather than simply the idea of one.

Many works of this scale and intent miss this crucial distinction. When a sense of immersive, suspended time is attempted, audiences are too often left adrift. A composer can easily disregard the natural ebb and flow of attention, demands on the listener are too great for the aesthetic reward, or the suspension of expectations in a piece breaks down, forcing attention elsewhere.

Here, Franzson has displayed the true craft of the composer – informed attenuation of the audience’s attention. The organicism and looseness of the landscape allows for real fluctuations of audience attention and perception, without dogmatic demands or meretricious ploys for listener interest. A glance around the room showed evidence of this skill: the energy in the room had dropped, people’s breathing had slowed, many had eyes closed and almost all wore contemplative expressions.

Rather than a first effort, Cartography is obviously the work of a composer experienced in creating this particular experience of time. Ironically, the title The Cartography of Time seems a bit misleading – cartography is the detailed cataloguing of uncharted territory, but in this piece, we have already arrived. We know exactly where we are, planted firmly in a single temporality in which gray, smoky landscapes seem to come in and out of focus, approach and recede around us. The world we inhabit is not the two-dimensional world evoked by maps, however allegorically intended, but a very real and vibrant three-dimensional world, crafted by an extraordinarily capable composer.