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.

Perpetulum, a Double Album from Third Coast Percussion is a Triumph


perpetulum

Orange Mountain Music OMM 0132

Third Coast Percussion is one of Chicago’s finest musical exports along with groups like Eighth Blackbird and doubtless others with whom I have less familiarity.  Their deservedly Grammy winning album of music by Steve Reich was reviewed here.  All percussion ensembles are somewhat the rage these days judging by the amount of such albums that come my way.  Percussion instruments are common in eastern cultures but only really made its way into western ensembles in a big way in the last 100 years or so largely due to composers like John Cage and Lou Harrison studying music of other cultures and writing new music for both existing and newly invented percussion instruments.

Percussion is like the junk drawer of the orchestra in that any instrument which does not fit into the categories of strings, winds, or brass is handled by the percussionist.  The taxi horns in Gershwin’s American in Paris are a good example.  However what we have here is an ensemble entirely comprised of percussion instruments with some seriously virtuosic players here performing music written for them.

This two CD set from Orange Mountain Music contains five works by five composers.  The first CD is dedicated to the largest work on this release, “Aliens with Extraordinary Abilities” by ensemble member David Skidmore.  It is, at about 35 minutes, the longest piece in this collection and is virtually a symphony for percussion and electronics.  It is in seven movements, each with a cryptic title no doubt related to the musical content.  It is an engaging work of some complexity with fascinating writing for percussion instruments. Multiple close listens will reward you with details not immediately apparent and reveal some of the structure of this large work.

The second CD begins with a shorter work by ensemble member Peter Martin called “Bend”.  It has the characteristics of an orchestral work using largely pitched percussion.  It presents themes, develops them, and has a detectable harmonic structure.  It is a showpiece for the musicians but it does communicate with the listener.

Next up is Philip Glass in his first all percussion work, “Perpetulum” (2018) has four movements and clocks in at about 25 minutes.  This is music by a seasoned composer, not the experimental music of his earlier years (which hooked this listener) but rather a recognizable and comfortably familiar style with some really nice writing for percussion.  Glass has frequently used percussion of various sorts in his works but this is the first thing he has written entirely for percussion ensemble.  It is an audience pleaser and a challenge to the musicians.

This is followed by a work by another member of the group Robert Dillon.  “Ordering-Instincts” (2018) is cast in one movement it is a relatively brief (7min approx) piece which successfully challenges the players and entertains the audience.  It also seems to provide a nice segue to the final cut.

The disc concludes with a major percussion work by British minimalist Gavin Bryars.  “The Other Side of the River” (2018) is a commission by Third Coast Percussion and is a valuable addition to Bryars gentle, pensive oeuvre.  For this listener this piece is the highlight of this collection.  Bryars is at his best in his meditative mood.  Sinking of the Titanic and Farewell to Philosophy come to mind as similarly relaxing and thoughtful.  This is a big piece and well worth the journey of listening.

bryarsOM

Bryars at the Other Minds Festival in San Francisco, 2016 (Creative Commons license by Allan J. Cronin)

This CD set is a massive undertaking and a fine production illustrating the range of compositional interests of Third Coast Percussion as well as their own compositional chops.  It is also a great sounding recording.  Very well done.