Almost New York
Pogus Productions P21057-2
Almost New York represents the latest chapter in Alvin Lucier’s migration away from the world of experimental electronic music, a move he began in the 1980s. Mr. Lucier chronicles the challenges he faced achieving working with acoustic instruments in the CD’s liner notes, ultimately discussing the microtonal impulses at the heart of the music featured on this album. The four works on the recordings two discs – Twonings, Almost New York, Broken Line and Coda Variations – are thoughtful explorations in extreme subtlety. The slow transformation typifying these pieces comes as no surprise reading the end of Mr. Lucier’s prose introduction to the CD: one of his principal inspirations was the natural out-of-tune-ness symptomatic to performances of Morton Feldman’s protracted String Quartet #2, “by the end…the instruments have drifted a little out of tune – there being now time to re-tune during a live performance – acquiring a patina that comes with age.”
Twonings, the CD’s first track, exemplifies the techniques Mr. Lucier applies in the album’s other compositions. The work is written for cello and piano and explores the slight discrepancies in pitch between the piano’s equal temperament and the assigned just intonation in the cello part. The notes for this work specifically site the, “acoustic phenomena” and “audible beating” that should result from the music’s attempted unisons. Indeed, the performance serves this goal with loyalty: cellist Charles Curtis and pianist Joseph Kubera deliver the music in a disciplined manner devoid of traditional expressivity, which makes the friction between the two instrument’s tunings more dramatic.
The album’s title track, Almost New York, sadly seems like the kind of piece I wish I could witness in a concert. Written for one flutist rotating between five flutes, this piece uses pure wave oscillators to create a kind of synthetic drone against which the flutist plays long tones. After each note, the performer is supposed to switch to a different type of flute, walking around the performance space as he or she cycles through instruments. Clearly, this is the kind of thing you want to be in the room for, but sound engineer Tom Hamilton simulates the spatial effects very well with panning. Like Twonings before it, Almost New York focuses on the microtonal differences between multiple voices, in this case the flute and slowly sliding up and down oscillators. Flutist Robert Dick delivers a performance similar in its sparse character to that of the previous track. As we have seen, of course, this style is important to Mr. Lucier’s compositions given the subtle ideas he transforms over the course of each work.
The third tack, Broken Line, is the most rhythmically active of the whole album and is scored for Vibraphone, piano and Flute. Rhetorically, however, the work is a duo inasmuch as Joseph Kubera’s piano and percussionist Danny Tunick‘s vibraphone are used in tandem as a fixed-pitch wall against which the extended glissandi Robert Dick’s modified flute constantly abrades. Broken Line essentially represents a role-reversal from Almost New York as the flute challenges the fixed intonation of the piano and vibraphone. The most concise work on the CD at 12:21, Broken Line’s instrumentation alludes to Morton Feldman’s Why Patterns?. Though it possesses a different process than Mr. Feldman’s work, Broken Line is a similarly persuasive advocate for moment-form music and – thanks to its rhythmic activity – is the most accessible representative of this compositional style on the album.
Mr. Lucier’s connection to Morton Feldman’s music and philosophy coalesces in Almost New York’s final track, Coda Variations, which is based on the solo tuba coda from Mr. Feldman’s Durations 3. Mr. Lucier’s Variations takes the eight notes and double fermata from Durations and, “[subjects them] to seven sets of permutations of sixty three notes each.” The variations incorporate special microtonal fingerings on the tuba developed by the performer, Robin Hayward, and composer Marc Sabat. As you can see, Coda Variations plays on the same subtle theme of intonation as the rest of the album, but presents the changes in a slowly unfolding melodic line, not in the vertical dissonances of the earlier tracks. This makes listening to Coda Variations an exercise in concentration, much like it must be performing a composition that develops so subtly over such a long period of time.