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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.



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