Metafagote, Rebekah Heller on Solo Bassoon (mostly)


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For this listener, traversing contemporary music concerts in the 1980s there appeared a trend to modify the traditional look of classical performers. The first striking example I can recall is the venerable Kronos Quartet performing all in tight black leather outfits. And there are performers who have an intentionally different look such as violinist Nigel Kennedy or Kathleen Supove whose look is decidedly unconventional. Focusing on attire could conceivably detract from a musical performance but the previously mentioned performers have in common with the performer on this disc both virtuosity and a distinctly different look which seems integral to their performance delivering decidedly unconventional music.  The photography by Corrie Schneider creates a striking and evocative cover image giving her a sort of superhero ambiance.  Why not?

Rebekah Heller, of course, is also one of the members of the wonderful ICE Ensemble, one of the finest working chamber groups focusing on contemporary music. ICE has in common with groups like Bang on a Can, Alarm Will Sound, ACME, and others the fact that they are populated by some of the finest young musicians who seem to be able to meet any challenge…er, commission thrown at them. In addition many of the musicians in these groups are also interesting composers.  The others have a profound interest in new music that match their skills and passions oh so well.

In Metafagote Rebekah Heller presents 4 works on 4 tracks.  Rand Steiger (1957- ) is a graduate of the Manhattan School of Music and Cal Arts.  Steiger has been at UC San Diego since He is a 2015 Guggenheim Award recipient and though his discography is adequate this writer sees his name, hears his music too infrequently.

Steiger’s work opens this disc with Concatenation (2012) for bassoon and live electronics.  Steiger is skilled in writing for both conventional instruments and for high tech electronics including spatialization, live processing.  Steiger’s work is assertive, pretty much freely atonal, and packs a punch emotionally if memory serves.  There was a vinyl record (this composer is younger than me by one year and I’m guessing still hoards at least a selection of LPs.  The work was Hexadecathlon: “A New Slain Knight” (1984), basically a horn concerto for horn with chamber ensemble.  It burns in my brain still, wonderful 6 minute cadenza at the end too.

Back to Concatenation, it is a sort of all consuming experience, a sound bath if you will.  The timbres achieved with the combination of bassoon with electronics creates some grand, almost orchestral textures.

The second work is by one Jason Eckhardt (1971- ), a name vaguely familiar but his work is new to me,  Eckhardt earned a B.A. from Berklee in 1992 followed by an M.A. (1994) and a D.M.A. (1998).  He has studied with James Dillon, Jonathan Kramer, Milton Babbitt, Brian Ferneyhough, and Karlheinz Stockhausen.  That provenance gives one an idea of what to expect…complexity.  And he dishes that out for solo bassoon.  Heller is up to the challenge in this piece, “Wild Ginger” (2014) from a series of pieces based on native plants in the Catskills.  Again, why not?

The third track contains, “Following” (2014) for solo bassoon from a composer whose inspiration also sometimes comes from plants.  Dai Fujikura (1977- ) is a prolific Japanese composer who also comes from a legacy of complexity having studied with the likes of Boulez, Taketmitsu, and Ligeti.  Fujikura’s music may be complex but his music tends to have a softer edge, more like Takemitsu than Boulez.  Again Heller demonstrates her technical skills that rise to meet the challenges posed here.

Last but not least is a piece as large and encompassing as the Steiger.  Felipe Lara (1979- ) is an accomplished Brazilian composer.  He is represented here  by, “Metafagote” (2015), the most recent of the compositions here.  It is scored for bassoon and 6 pre-recorded tracks.  One is naturally put in the mind of Steve Reich’s counterpoint series for soloist playing against multiple pre-recorded similar instruments.  The piece also can, and has been, performed by a soloist with 6 other bassoonists.

While the Reich notion is not the worst place to start, this piece is anything but minimalist.  Rather it is distinctively modernist.  It is a virtuosic exploration of some fascinating possibilities of the lowly bassoon.  Lara owes more to free jazz at times in this epic, almost a concerto, piece.

I don’t know how many bassoon fanciers are out there but if you like new and experimental music of a virtuosic nature this is a great bet.

ICE Debuts on Starkland: Music by Phyllis Chen and Nathan Davis


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Starkland is one of those labels whose releases seem to be so carefully chosen that one is pretty much guaranteed a great listening experience even if that experience might challenge the ears sometimes.  If one were to purchase their complete catalog (as I pretty much have over the years) one would have a really impressive and wide-ranging selection of new music.

I recently reviewed a very fine ICE (International Contemporary Ensemble) recording of music by Anna Thorvaldsdottir here. The present disc is the first appearance on Starkland of this ensemble whose performance skills and repertoire choices show the same depth of understanding as the producers of the label upon which they now appear.

ICE was founded in Chicago in 2001 by executive director and flautist extraordinaire Claire Chase.  The discography on their website now numbers 21 albums including the present release.  The group features some 30+ artists and musicians including a live sound engineer (like the Philip Glass Ensemble) and a lighting designer.  Do yourself a favor and check out the ICE Vimeo page to get some ideas about why having a lighting designer is a good idea.  Their performances are visually as well as musically compelling.  And who knows, perhaps there is a Starkland DVD release in their future.

About half their albums feature music by members of ICE and that is the case with this release.  One always has to wonder at the process that is involved in choosing repertoire to perform and/or record but there is no doubt that this group seems to have good instincts in regards to such decisions as evidenced by the already wild popularity of this disc on WQXR and the positive initial reviews so far.

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Phyllis Chen‘s biographical data is a bit sparse on both the ICE website and her own so I am going to assume that this talented young keyboard player likely began playing at an early age.  Like fellow pioneers Margaret Leng Tan and Jeanne Kirstein before her she has embraced toy pianos and, by extension I suppose, music boxes, and electronics into her performing arsenal.  In addition to being a composer she is one of the regular members of ICE.

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Nathan Davis is a regular percussionist with ICE as well as a composer.  His works range from opera to chamber and solo pieces for various instruments as well as electronics.

The tracks on this release pretty much alternate between these two featured composers.

The first track is Ghostlight (2013) by Nathan Davis, a sort of ragged moto perpetuo for “gently”prepared piano.  This is a good example of how these musicians (pianist Jacob Greenberg in this instance) have really fully integrated what were once exotic extended techniques into a comprehensive catalog of timbral options which are used to expand the palette of creative expression.  This is not a second rate John Cage clone but rather another generation’s incorporation of timbral exploration into their integral canon of sonic options.  This is an exciting and well-written tour de force deftly executed.

The next two tracks take us into the different but complimentary sound world of Phyllis Chen.  Hush (2011) for two pianos, toy pianos, bowls (presumably of the Tibetan singing variety) and music boxes is a playful gamelan-like piece played by the composer along with pianist Cory Smythe.

Chimers (2011) is a similarly playful work requiring the assistance of clarinetist Joshua Rubin, violinist Erik Carlson and Eric Lamb (on tuning forks) along with Chen and Smythe once again.  Again we hear these unusual instruments and timbres not as outliers in the musical soundscape but rather simply as artistic elements that are part of the composer’s vision.

Track number 4 features a work for bassoon and live processing.  Davis’ On Speaking a Hundred Names (2010) is played by Rebekah Heller and again the (to this listener) usually uncomfortable fit of acoustic and electronic are achieved very smoothly.  Music like this gives me hope that some day I will be able to drop the inevitable negative connotations I have associated with the term “electroacoustic”.  This is very convincing music and not just in the “golly gee, see what they’re doing” sense either.  The experimentation here (including the multiphonics) appears to have preceded the composition giving us an integrated and satisfying listening experience.

Chen comes back on track 5 with another successful integration of acoustic and electronic in her, Beneath a Trace of Vapor (2011).  Eric Lamb handles the flute here playing with (or against) the composer’s prepared tape.  This electroacoustic trend continues in the following track (also by Chen) called Mobius (201-) in which Chen, Smythe and Lamb are credited with playing “music boxes and electronics”.  Once again the integration of electric and acoustic speaks of a high level of music making.

The final four tracks are the big work here and the work that lends its name to this disc, On the Nature of Thingness (2011) by Nathan Davis.  Apparently taking its title from Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things (ca. 1B.C.) the work earlier also inspired Henry Brant in his spatial composition, On the Nature of Things (1956), but the work in this disc does not seem to make any direct reference to that Roman classic poem except perhaps metaphorically.

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Soprano Tony Arnold

The work here is an exploration of language, sound and expression.  This most eclectic and ponderous of the selections is a wonderful opportunity to hear the considerable skills of resident vocalist Tony Arnold who sense of pitch and articulation are incredibly well-suited to this work.  Her performance leaves nothing to be desired and is likely as authoritative as it gets.  The work seems to require a great deal of concentration and coordination on the parts of all involved and ICE takes the opportunity to demonstrate their well-honed skills as they clearly listen to each other and go all out in terms of achieving the subtlety of expression required in this demanding and complex work.

As usual the Starkland recording is clear and detailed without the sense of claustrophobia that such detail can take on and the liner notes are useful without extraneous detail.  This is an ensemble to watch/listen for both for the performers and for the music they choose to program.  You won’t be disappointed.