Bass Clarinet Goes Rogue: Alicia Lee’s “Conversations with Myself”


New Focus FCR 302

OK, I admit that using the term “rogue” is a stretch. But titles of reviews should help draw the reader to it. And “clickbait” is the new “catchy”. But, in another sense one doesn’t generally think of the bass clarinet as a standalone recital instrument, even with electronics. Increasingly, it seems, new music purveyors are liberating instruments once unthinkable outside an orchestra or chamber ensemble. Jazz players have long used the bass clarinet as a solo instrument alongside the ubiquitous family of saxophones and the flute as the woodwinds that comprise most jazz ensembles,

Classical music has been slow to accept the bass clarinet until relatively recently. I don’t know when the first use of a bass clarinet either as a standalone solo or as part of a chamber ensemble occurred but certainly post 1950. Without getting in to the “whys” of this one can simply embrace the increasing presence of this instrument and its fascinating players.

Here, we get another of the subgenre of “COVID Isolation music”, itself a category worth further exploration.

There are five selections with composition dates ranging from 1983 to 2020 and composers from the still underappreciated Isang Yun to a new name, Hidiaki Aomori, a composer and friend of the soloist. And the remainder are risen and rising stars including the late conductor/composer Pierre Boulez, Grawmeyer Award winner Unsuk Chin, and the prolific Japanese composer Dai Fujikura.

The Fujikura work opens this isolated recital with a melancholy piece which appears to be a set of variations and has the character of a cadenza calling upon both technical and interpretive skills of the performer. And do I hear a nod to minimalism at the end? “Contour” (2020) is a fine opener where Lee displays her technical skills and insight to the composer’s vision.

Then its back to 1985 with one of the technical peaks of Boulez’ work at IRCAM, “Dialogue de L’Ombre Double” for bass clarinet with inscrutably complex electronics. This once leading edge example of the avant garde in its day actually sounds a bit dated but the soloist here seems to humanize the piece with her warm interpretation. And, despite what you may hear in the other tracks here, it is the only one using electronics on this disc.

Isang Yun (1917-1995), the late prolific Korean master is beginning to get more of a reckoning, and this 1983 piece, “Monolog for Bass Clarinet” is a fine entry to the expanding recorded oeuvre of this mid/late-twentieth century embattled and neglected genius. This piece speaks deeply of alone-ness.

Unsuk Chin (1961- ), a rising star and Grawmeyer Award winner is represented by a bass clarinet solo from her much lauded opera “Alice in Wonderland”. This stand alone solo, titled “Advice from a Caterpillar” is a maze of hallucinatory nods to Gershwin, Carl Stalling, and perhaps Prokofiev (in a “Peter and the Wolf” sense) using multiphonics and seems to expand the possibilities of this instrument to limits which might only be transcended with electronic assistance.

Hideaki Aomori‘s “Split” is a rather personal addition, a submission from one friend to another, a gift from one alone to another alone. It is another fine solo work which sits stylistically somewhere between the technical extremes of Boulez and Unsuk Chin and the more melodic work of Fujikura and Yun.

This is a very personal disc on many levels and it is a fine calling card by which to introduce listeners to this fine musician.

BMOP: Music of American Composer Gail Kubik


BMOP/sound 1085

Gail Thompson Kubik (1914-1984) was born in Oklahoma, educated at the Eastman School of Music, Chicago’s American Conservatory (where he studied with Leo Sowerby), and Harvard (where he studied with Walter Piston). He is also among the long list of composers who studied with Nadia Boulanger.

Gail Kubik

Kubik joined NBC radio in 1940 and was music director for the Office of War Information where he composed and conducted music for their Motion Picture Bureau. He taught at Monmouth College, Columbia Teacher’s College (now Columbia University), and Scripps College.

To this writer’s ears his style is similar to that of Aaron Copland (14 years his senior) and contemporaries who included jazz influences in a mid-century post romantic tonal fabric. The pieces recorded here are roughly contemporary with Stravinsky’s neoclassical era and similar gestures can be heard in them. Carl Stalling’s music is also a likely influence.

Doubtless Kubik’s film work for the war department helped contribute to his success in a basically populist style which served him well. And also like Copland, he wrote for the concert hall producing 3 Symphonies, Violin Concertos for Jascha Heifetz and Ruggiero Ricci along with other orchestral works, chamber music, and two operas.

The present recording is focused on his post war concert music. Four works are presented here, from his Dr. Seuss collaboration of 1950 for narrator, orchestra, and percussion, “Gerald Mc Boing Boing” (possibly the only example from this era in which the music preceded the cartoon film), his two Divertimenti for diverse chamber groups (1958 and 1959), to his best known work, the Symphony Concertante for Piano, Trumpet, and Viola which won him the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1952. (Without doing any research I would venture to say that this is a unique combination of solo instruments). Soloists Vivian Choi (piano), Terry Everson (trumpet), and Jing Peng (viola) handle the challenging solo parts with confidence and skill. This new realization alone is a reason to purchase this disc.

Like Copland and other film composers Kubik repurposed some of his film music as a source for his concert music. Without getting too much into the musicological analysis, the composer himself has related that the Symphony Concertante was repurposing of the music he wrote for the low budget noir film, “C-Man” (1949) which starred Dean Jagger and John Carradine, among others.

The two divertimenti for diverse chamber ensembles are like baroque suites consisting of brief pithy movements. They are analogous to works like Copland’s too seldom heard Music for the Theater (1925) with jazzy rhythms and harmonies throughout. Their unusual groupings of instruments likely limit the occasions on which they might be performed live so these recordings are very welcome.

The “Gerald Mc Boing Boing” cartoon took on a life of its own following its concert presentation, spawning a series of shorts furthering the myth of the title character. And during the research for this review I was fascinated to learn that the famed film sound designer, Walter Murch, once revealed that he was sometimes known by the nickname of that character due to an analogous childhood affectation. In addition, many actors voiced the narrator in the the many recordings that have been made of the purely audio recording as heard here. The demands of the narration are similar to those of the soloists in the concertante work. Narrator Frank Kelley delivers a performance that makes this very much his own, using it as a springboard to which he applies his skills as a voice actor. He really seems to enjoy himself here.

Much of Kubik’s music has been recorded before but not for some time, so this release by masterful curator and conductor Gil Rose and his incredibly talented ensemble, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project is a very welcome revival of this very talented and technically skilled composer. The four works on this recording may be a reasonable sampling of some of Kubik’s best work but it would be hard to say that it is a complete portrait without hearing some of the composer’s other large concert works. Mr. Rose and his musicians have shown a tendency to release more than one disc of one of these nearly forgotten composers so listeners charmed by these may anticipate more such gems in, the future, that is, if other ensembles don’t beat them to the punch. Either way this is a very welcome installment in BMOP’s ongoing survey of music that simply deserves to be heard because it’s good.

The Biggest Sound, Paul Dolden’s Eclectic Musical Visions


This new Starkland release (due out on July 29th) is actually the second time that Paul Dolden‘s music has appeared on the label.  The groundbreaking Dolby 5.1 surround audio DVD with images,  Immersion (2001) contains his Twilight’s Dance (2000).

Paul Dolden is a multi-instrumentalist born in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada in 1956.  He has worked as a musician since age 16 playing violin, cello and electric guitar. His work has been described as post-modern, the new complexity, electroacoustic and ambient but none of these descriptors can give you a clue as to how his music actually sounds.  In addition to his instruments he makes extensive use of recording technology and sampling techniques.  But Dolden is not a tinkerer with a laptop and Garage Band software.  His music appears to stem from a variety of influences and ideas which embrace acoustic instruments, tape techniques, digital editing, alternate tunings, rock, classical, jazz and perhaps other influences as well. His album L’ivresse de la Vitesse (1994) was listed in Wire Magazines list of “100 Records That Set the World on Fire”.

L'ivresse

 

This was indeed his breakout release.  Two previous albums are essentially retrospectives of his work.  ‘Threshold of Deafening Silence’ (1990) contains works from 1983-1989.  And ‘Seuil de Silences’ (2003) contains works from 1986 to 1996.

Seuil de Silences (2003)

Seuil de Silences (2003)

Threshold of Deafening Silence (1990)

Threshold of Deafening Silence (1990)

 

 

 

 

He followed L’Ivresse with ‘Delires de Plaisirs’ (2005).  Both his biographical sketch on electrocd.com and his Wikipedia page were both created by Jean-François Denis, the Montreal based producer of the empreintes DIGITALes label which released most of Dolden’s recordings along with a treasure trove of music by mostly Canadian electroacoustic composers.  There is a great deal more to Canada than hockey.  There is a rich musical culture which inscrutably is very little known in the United States.  This new release would be welcome if only for its making some of the best of that culture better known.

Delires de Plaisirs (2005)

Delires de Plaisirs (2005)

Dolden has written over 30 commissioned works for various ensembles from chamber groups to symphony orchestras.  His works have been played by the Espirit Orchestra (Canada), Phoenix Orchestra (Switzerland), the Stockholm Saxophone Quartet and the Bang on a Can All Stars.  He has been most favorably profiled in The Village Voice and Wire Magazine.

So this Starkland release is the fifth CD devoted entirely to Dolden’s work.  His work appears in several collections, most notably the sadly out of print  Sombient Trilogy (1995) which places Dolden’s work in context with many of his peers including Maggi Payne, Dennis Smalley, Stuart Dempster, Elliott Sharp, Ellen Fullman, Maryanne Amacher and Francis Dhomont among many others.  Perhaps the San Francisco based Asphodel records will re-release this set or it could even wind up on one of those treasure troves of the avant-garde like Ubuweb or the Internet Archive.  It is worth seeking out.

Dolden’s work is pretty consistently electroacoustic, meaning it contains live musicians along with tape or electronics.  And while this is still true on the disc at hand ‘Who Has the Biggest Sound?’ would be difficult to stage in a live setting.  Its dense complexities would require very large forces.  The specter of Glenn Gould and his ultimate reliance on studio recordings rather than the unpredictable nature of live performance looms here.

The album is very competently composed, produced, mixed and mastered by Paul Dolden.  The recording is consistent with the high sonic standards by which Starkland is known.  Executive producer Tom Steenland contributes the appropriately enigmatic cover art.  Starkland’s genius here is in promoting this amazing artist.

Back cover

Back cover

This disc contains two very different works, each in several sections. ‘ Who Has the Biggest Sound?’ (2005-2008) is the major work here.  Dolden’s intricate methods are put to very effective use in this sort of virtual electronic oratorio describing the search for the sonic Holy Grail with mysterious poetic titles to each of the 15 different sections.  In my notes taken during multiple listenings (this is not a piece I think most listeners will fully grasp the first time through, I certainly did not) I struggled to describe this music.

In it I heard some of the collage-like elements of John Cage’s Roaratorio and Alvin Curran’s Animal Behavior.  Certainly there are elements of free jazz and the sort of channel changing style of music by the likes of Carl Stalling and John Zorn.  I flashed back to the overwhelming complexity of a live electronic performance I once heard by Salvatore Martirano and felt nostalgic for the sounds of Robert Ashley’s similarly electroacoustic operas.

Repeated listenings revealed more depth and coherence.  Dolden reportedly spent hundreds of hours in the studio mixing this magnum opus so I didn’t feel badly that it initially eluded my intellectual grasp.

The second work ‘The Un-Tempered Orchestra’ (2010) is described in the liner notes as owing a debt to Harry Partch and while that’s certainly true I would suggest that it owes a debt to other masters of microtones such as  Ben Johnston, Alois Haba, Ivan Wyschnegradsky and perhaps even La Monte Young, Tony Conrad, James Tenney and John Schneider among many others.  It is cast in six sections which, curiously, do not have the poetic titles accorded to the sections of the previous work and which are generally ubiquitous in Dolden’s output.

That being said, Un-Tempered Orchestra in its six brief sections shares much of the same sound world as the former work.  It is more intimate in style and is similarly difficult to anchor in any specific tradition.  It is in part an homage to Bach whose Well-Tempered Clavier celebrated the introduction of equal temperament tuning which would become the standard tuning system for the next 200+ years.  This is a deconstruction, if you will, of that system and explores some of the endless possibilities of alternate tunings.

This is a fascinating and intriguing release which will spend many more hours in my CD player.  It is a great new addition to the quirky but ever interesting catalog of Starkland Records and a welcome example of a composer at his peak.  It is available though the Starkland Records website as well as through Amazon.  Highly recommended.