Posts Tagged ‘Symmetry Etudes’

Review: Andrew McIntosh: Hyenas in the Temples of Pleasure

Hyenas in the Temples of Pleasure, the new CD by Andrew McIntosh  recently released on the populist records label, consists of three distinct sections of four pieces each. Each group is connected not only by the instrumentation and scoring but also in projecting related sets of feelings. The first and last groups are comprised of the Symmetry Etudes and the middle tracks on the CD are the four movements of Hyenas in the Temples of Pleasure.


The first four tracks are Symmetry Etudes V, II, III and IV, composed from 2009 to 2012. These are written for two clarinets – in this case Brian Walsh and James Sullivan – and violin, played by Andrew McIntosh. The first of these, Etude V, starts with a syncopated violin line that is soon joined by smooth, sustained clarinet tones above and below. A sense of purposeful activity in the violin is immersed in tension as the clarinet pitches become stronger and more acute – almost electronic in purity of pitch. The violin struggles and is almost overwhelmed by the loud clarinet tones. There is a sense of virtuous purpose in the violin that contrasts with the emotionless and machine-like clarinet parts. As the piece concludes there is the sense that the two opposing viewpoints remain unresolved.

Etude II begins with a simple but elegant clarinet line that flows out, joined by the second in a higher register. This creates a wonderfully weaving and sinuous feel while the violin adds a thinner sound that provides a complimentary bit of definition in the texture. There is a sense of calmness and nature at work, like walking by a lake early in the morning. A very beautiful piece.   Etude III opens with the clarinets warbling together, accompanied by higher, sustained tones in the violin. There is a sense of mystery and anticipation – along with a slightly alien feel. As the piece progresses a feeling of remoteness develops that becomes increasingly agitated, although some nice interweaving harmonies appear that slowly die away at the finish.

Etude IV is a series of slow, ascending scales – there are some lovely harmonies that develop as the three pitches rise upward, like watching warm vapors rising and mixing, forming various combinations. Some occasional syncopation in the rhythm keeps the sound interesting and engaging. There is a wide open – almost Coplandesque – feel to this, like looking out at a far horizon. I first heard this piece performed at Disney Hall in 2013 and much of the finer detail was lost in that cavernous space; this recording is a much more satisfying experience. The clarinets dominate most of these Etudes and the playing by Brian Walsh and James Sullivan is right on target, fitting the various moods exactly.

Hyenas in the Temples of Pleasure (2012 – 2013) is a four movement work that occupies the four center tracks of the CD and is performed by Laura Barger and Ning Yu on pianos with Ian Antonio and Russell Greenberg on percussion. The first movement starts off with two pianos playing scales in different directions and this evolves into separate lines with differently syncopated rhythms. Now marimbas are added in what becomes an almost random pattern of notes. The pace slows and the feeling is like hearing rain drops. There is an exotic, primal feel by midway through – as if in a rainforest or jungle. A growing sense of tension arises, as if far into deep wilderness, perhaps lost. Now a brief repeat of the first piano lines as the movement ends and it is as if we have traveled deep into the unknown to arrive at a strange place.

Movement II starts off with rapid runs of sixteenth note scales by two pianos – now slowing to single notes spaced a few beats apart with the percussion.  A single bell sounds at four second intervals accompanied by a low bottle blow sound. A series of lovely chimes ring out, as if in a Buddhist temple, with piano chords sounding at intervals. There is a serene, meditative feel to this, disrupted by the occasional forceful piano chords. A strong sense of contrast here – restful and menacing at the same time.

A low booming drum roll opens Movement III creating a sense of anticipation. A cascade of piano notes develop into mysterious melody that adds a hint of tension. More ringing percussion now, the same bell chimes from Movement II. There is the feeling of standing on a high, windblown hilltop in Tibet. Lovely, yet vaguely ominous in its mystery.

The final movement opens with a strong piano chord that gives a definite sense of menace. High pitched, sharp tones appear – like shards of glass- and this adds to the anxious feel. Now a bell sounds, restoring some calmness. More chimes arrive – less tension but still an uncertain  atmosphere. Stronger chimes now, with lighter, metallic bells above. The piano takes up the theme ending the piece with a feel of anxiety mixed with calmness. There is a definite sense of journey and mystery in Hyenas in the Temples of Pleasure that unfolds in a satisfactory arc across the four movements. Tension and restful calm seem to coexist uneasily together and the picture that forms is one of a distant, sacred space suddenly defiled. The playing is remarkable for its range and precision. The percussion was especially artful in both the scoring and the performance.

The second group of Symmetry Etudes begins with Etude I and this starts out with a single clarinet producing a sort of wavy sound. The violin takes this up, and now the other clarinet. The sounds oscillate in and out, eventually escalating to loud and piercing tones. Intense and high in pitch, this becomes almost like a whistling sound by the end. Just two minutes long, Etude I starts low and ends very high, one continuous crescendo of pitch and volume. Etude VI starts out softly but with high, sustained tones in all three instruments. There is a sense of relentlessness – like looking at a bright sunrise on a clear day. As this piece continues the sounds become more strident with zero beating occurring between the pitches. The playing is very precise here – as is needed to attain these exacting sonic effects.

Etude VII begins with a single clarinet playing a simple scale. The second clarinet joins in, but is offset by just a fraction of a beat. This produces a playful syncopation that is quite engaging. The violin now repeats the scale and a clarinet becomes the offset part. Only 1:40 in duration, the success of this etude springs from a simple idea that produces a complex and interesting result. Etude VII begins with a low, sustained clarinet tone that is almost electronic in its purity and constancy. There are slight wobbles in pitch, just as if from an electronic oscillator. A second clarinet joins at almost the exact same pitch to produce some zero beating. The violin joins on what sounds like a harmonic and the the three tones move about to various fixed pitches in a close approximation to the sounds produced by a series of oscillators. The purity and stability of pitch is impressive and this perfectly evokes the cool remote feel of electronics. This second group of etudes has a more synthetic and remote feel where the first group was more organic and pastoral. Overall the Symmetry Etudes are an impressive collection, evoking a wide range of feelings and gestures from just three players.

This collection of pieces in Hyenas in the Temples of Pleasure combine impressive playing and excellent scoring with artful storytelling. The mixing and mastering by Nick Tipp, along with Ian Antonio and Ressell Greenberg are state of the art and have accurately captured the widely diverse dynamics and timbres.

Hyenas in the Temples of Pleasure is available now from populist records.