On October 20th Populist Records—a Los Angeles label dedicated to local experimental music—released two new albums: Nicholas Deyoe’s “for Duane” and Ashley Walters’ Sweet Anxiety (review of Walters’s album is forthcoming). The day after moving to Los Angeles, I abandoned the assembly of Ikea furniture for the double-release show at Thymele Arts, complete with vegan cupcakes and custom beers from Solarc Brewing. But if the familiar faces, cozy venue and homegrown accoutrements rang more of a trendy Thanksgiving dinner than a classical concert, it certainly wasn’t for lack of musical substance: Selections from the albums were performed with a virtuosity and commitment that commandeered my sugar-high into a full case of gotta-get-home-and-listen-to-this. And so, surrounded by mockingly-tiny allen wrenches and indecipherable assembly instructions, I enter the violent and delicate sound world of Deyoe’s “for Duane”.
In talking about his music, Deyoe emphasizes how building friendship, collaboration and trust with his performers has informed his work since arriving in California a decade ago. “for Duane” is an album born of these relationships, marked by detailed instrumental writing and performances saturated with musical intention. Deyoe’s sound world is one of seeming contradictions; bold yet nuanced, violent but fragile. Throughout the album there is a dialectic between body and mind, pitting raw physicality against moments of distilled clarity and introspection. But behind these dramatic shifts in affect is always music that shimmers with complexity, keeping the listener suspended in the neurotic, intricate atmosphere that pervades this album. If one thing in particular stands out on first listen, it is that this atmosphere is inhabited by the performers with such conviction and vulnerability that many moments feel intimate—even voyeuristic—to listen to. But with each subsequent listen the uncompromising degree of creativity and care afforded every moment becomes clear.
The album opens with Finally, the cylindrical voids tapping along, commissioned by the LA Phil and premiered by wasteLAnd at the 2016 Noon to Midnight festival. Six songs and an interlude for soprano, flute, trombone, cello and double bass, set to a text by Allison Carter, comprise the piece. A work of outrageous expressive agility, it functions well as an introduction to Deyoe’s musical language: the composer weaves Carter’s text into an ensemble impassioned with frenetic, nervous energy and punctuated by inescapable, foreboding stasis. A formidable palette of noises are summoned from the trombone, combining with the low strings to create heavy, thick textures whose surface twinkle with flute, sometimes appearing suddenly, other times emerging from the background. Soprano Stephanie Aston masterfully navigates these transformations of character, and the pacing of each textural change feels natural and carries a sense of inevitability before yielding finally to the work’s sinking, moaning conclusion.
1560 is a relentlessly energetic three-movement work for violin and viola. Written for and performed by Adrianne Pope and Linnea Powell of Aperture Duo, the resulting sound is much bigger than its parts. The crispness of their unison playing gives the moments of departure the impression of an object coming apart at the seams as it spirals wildly (which is likely heightened in a live performance by Deyoe’s instructions for the changing physical positions of the players). Here, too, the timing proves fundamental to the work’s success, building to one final, screaming, bow-heavy stand before dying away to the whispering harmonics that end the piece.
The next two pieces on the album are both solo works. Lied/Lied was written for speaking/singing violinist Batya MacAdam-Somer using fragments of her own text. It is a modular work of twelve parts, which can be combined and varied in a number of ways, and on the album MacAdam-Somer brings great wit to her performance of this conversational, sometimes light-hearted collection. But where the playful moments of Lied/Lied bounce around the room like banter among friends, Immer wieder offers a sobering, reflective alternative to solo work. Stephanie Aston performs this second solo piece with a patience that aptly highlights Rilke’s superimposition of love and fate. Deyoe inflects the vocal writing with microtonal shadings that amplify his use of extreme registers, adding a haunting ethereal quality to the soaring high notes and an emotive, human quality to the lows. Taken together, the solos are a brief respite from the dense, imagined soundscapes of the earlier works, instead offering protagonist-driven performances of more personal and relatable impetus.
The album closes with a considerable, two-movement work, Lullaby 6 – “for Duane”, dedicated to Deyoe’s father who passed away last year. The first movement functions mostly like a chamber concerto for cello, and Ashley Walters’s playing embodies the love, tension and conflict of the piece with astounding musicianship and sensitivity. The gestural cello writing awakens lush backgrounds—sometimes aggressive timbral blocks, other times intricate, animated whisperings—carefully balanced in their counterpoint of fore-and background in a way reminiscent of Berio’s writing. The ensemble’s playing is chaotic and precise, creating a sense of urgency as it evolves into raucous, tutti, walls of sound. Suddenly, though, the intensity recedes into a quiet choir of voices, a distant resonance of the preceding brutality. Given this space, the cello comes to the lead once more, only in this second movement it finds itself fruitless in arousing the once anxious ensemble. Instead, the cello is itself absorbed into the quiet murmurs of the background, slowly and gradually. As the other instruments disappear completely and the cello begins to dissipate into the atmosphere, Deyoe offers one final, grounding gesture—a quiet, open strike of the lowest cello string, which vibrates freely for just a moment before it, too, is silenced for good.
Overall, the album “for Duane” is a testament to the creative potential born out of serious collaboration between composer and performer. Deyoe’s fiercely intelligent writing articulates a musical voice both bold and sensitive. Brought to life by the excellent performances of the musicians, this album truly hits you in the chest with its raw physicality before re-crossing its legs and asking you sweetly over rimmed glasses, “… and how does that make you feel?”
Well make of it what you will, but it makes me feel good, Populist Records. It makes me feel really, really good.