Animating Degree Zero
New World Records
Animating Degree Zero; Bonaroo Breaks (Street Funeral Music); 12 Centers Breathing; The Lute in the Attic; Solemn Acts in Rain; In Memoriam J.C. Higginbottom
Performed by The Barton Workshop
For me, this was the right music at the right time. I didn’t know I needed to hear this music and, lo and behold! it arrived. James Mulcro Drew’s music has an honesty and sensitivity that make it seem like a natural spirit instead of the construct of an individual. Each work exudes purity of essence and unwavering commitment to the musical/emotional goals quickly set at the start of the piece. Animating Degree Zero, for a large mixed chamber group, colorfully drifts along the ether while a single, un-transposed motive arrives periodically to ground us to reality. The piece could go on forever with its tranquil and slow breathing pace.
Bonaroo Breaks (Street Funeral Music), on the other hand, has more of a sense of drive and direction. The two trombones play through a modular improvisational framework that perfectly captures the sense of a New Orleans street processional. The percussion is thin, simple, and extremely effective. As in Animating Degree Zero, there is a purity of the compositional idea that oozes through the piece. Not a note or gesture is out of place in the performance.
Twelve Centers Breathing for viola and percussion sounds like a template for the serene and expansive gestural language of Animating Degree Zero. Long, slow, sustained sounds with expansive pauses play out over the duration of the piece, never seeming to disturb the surrounding silences. The flow of time is set at a hypnotically slow pace and it is hard for me to listen to the music and do anything else.
The biggest surprise on the disc is The Lute in the Attic from 1963. Approximately 40 years the senior of any other work on the disc, this more expressionistic composition hints at the serene style that dominates the disc. There are some shockingly aggressive vocal moments at times that made me think of Eight Songs for a Mad King. Drew’s piece, though, was written 6 years earlier. Baritone Charles van Tassel does a great job balancing the smooth lyrical motion with the more harsh shouting eruptions.
The last two works, Solemn Acts in Rain and In Memoriam J. C. Higginbottom, return to the tender and blissful music found earlier on the recording. Solemn Acts in Rain drifts along without much trajectory but it drifts along nonetheless. The music floats around as if it were part of the ether. The pitch language is somber, as you might expect from the title, with a mixture of contemplation and disquiet throughout. In Memoriam J. C. Higginbottom follows up with the more mournful soundworld of a solo trombone in caverns of delay. The long tones become a smearing, shifting, oozing chorale that, like so many other works on this disc, simply sit timelessly until the sound stops. I think that even had I heard In Memoriam in a concert hall, I would still feel as alone as the trombonist.