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On Patience and Sustenance: Microtonal Brass Works by Ellen Arkbro and Sarah Davachi

Slow, barebones music engenders highly attentive listening. Each breath becomes a gesture and every compositional decision bears immense responsibility. In this music, details do not support a gesture: they are the gesture. So on Sunday December 17th, 2023, I was delighted to hear many of Los Angeles’ finest brass players perform a program of patiently glacial chamber works in just-intonation at Automata Theater in Chinatown.  

The program began with Ellen Arkbro’s clouds, originally premiered in 2022 by the tuba trio Microtub. The audience encircled an ensemble donning the slightly altered instrumentation of Mattie Barbier on euphonium, Luke Storm on tuba, and Mason Moy on tuba. From the first chord, the immense resonance of the two tubas and euphonium, amplified by Automata’s reverberant interior, shook my organs like Jell-O. The richness of the low brass amplified the quivering beating patterns of Arkbro’s precise overtone-derived harmonies to epic levels. For the duration of the work, it was as if I was inside of a colossal church organ. 

As compared to the pieces of Arkbro’s with which I am familiar, often based in sustenance of a single idea, clouds has a more dynamic narrative structure. Three blocky structures define the 20 minute performance: unison chords, layered harmonies with delayed entrances, and a concluding sustained drone with a shifting bassline. This coda is unique: in much of the piece, the upper two voices shift over a sustained bass pedal-point, while here, Arkbro reverses those roles. Barbier’s and Moy’s superb circular breathing brings this culminating drone to stillness, as Storm delicately places and replaces the bass. Here, Arkbro brings attention to the ability of a singular voice to recontextualize and reimagine a static harmony. A drone is perhaps less fixed than we might imagine. 

After a short break, we resituated our chairs into a multi-directional tangle to orient ourselves towards the spatially organized ensemble for Sarah Davachi’s Long Gradus (brass). Situated in the four corners of the room, the ensemble now surrounded the audience. Davachi offers some insights into the piece in her liner notes on Bandcamp. She originally composed Long Gradus for the microtonal string quartet specialists Quatuor Bozzini for the 2020 Gaudeamus Muziekweek in Utrecht. COVID delayed the premiere, which allowed Davachi the time to expand the work into its patient hour-long form. Although originally composed for string quartet, Davachi opens the instrumentation to any quartet of instruments with the ability to alter their intonation. This rendition of the piece was performed by the newly formed Diapason Brass Quartet of Nev Wendell on trumpet, Nick Ginsburg on horn, Mattie Barbier on trombone, and Mason Moy on tuba.

Throughout the work, the slowly pulsing lights in Automata cast a sequence of shifting shadows on the floor: a dynamic tapestry of ghostly limbs fading into and out of existence. This seemingly inconsequential detail serendipitously focused my listening towards shadows and patterns as an essential element of Davachi’s piece. The successive repetitions constituted a cubist rendering of a phrase’s shadow, until five minutes passed and I suddenly realized that I was no longer listening to the same shadow. Breath was equally vital. An undulating textural density of sustained tones created a pointillistic tessellation: fragmented, as if by four phantom asynchronous delay pedals. Unisions felt like a happy treat, as did silences. This allochronic meter allowed this brass-quartet version to differentiate itself from the sustained string quartet version beyond timbre (as I suppose bows do not need to breathe). The ensemble’s steadfast stability in their non-vibrato longtones over the course of the hour constituted a remarkable feat of musical/physical endurance. The resonance of the space allowed for the combination tones to tickle my eardrums, especially when Moy brought in a cavernous bass note. Davachi’s commitment to deliberate change did not lead my ear to a clear resting point, but rather demonstrated a devotion to metamorphosis. There is no “home” or V-I, but rather a diasporic wandering to elsewhere. A piece like this reminds me of one of my favorite literary quotes, from Octavia Butler’s’ Parable of the Sower: “God is Change.”

Davachi and Arkbro show us that work employing the harmonies of the overtone series need not to obsess with the harmonies themselves, but rather engage the altered processes of listening that such tunings beget. These are trans-temporal works: drawing from the non-metric monophony and hocketing polyphony of plainchant, Renaissance and Baroque temperament, and the stripped down non-expressive minimalism of Wandelweiser. The night’s expert brass performers brought out every detail from this ostensibly simple music, highlighting the underlying complexity of a long-tone. I am grateful that such investigative and patient art exists to grant me the curiosity to examine the details of our world. Maybe through such thorough investigation, can we begin to rearrange those details into something new and more just.