[exhibit a], recently released by populist records, is the first CD to feature gnarwhallaby, a Los Angeles-based new music ensemble. With 16 tracks by 8 different composers, [exhibit a] is a noteworthy introduction to the versatility that gnarwhallaby brings to the performance of late 20th and early 21st century music. Consisting of Brian Walsh, clarinet, Matt Barbier, trombone, Derek Stein, cello and with Richard Valitutto on piano and melodica, gnarwhallaby delivers remarkable precision, energy and passion along with a studied and controlled sensitivity to the music of American and European contemporary composers.
[exhibit a] opens with Half a minute it’s all I’ve time for (1972) by Morton Feldman. Just 47 seconds in total, this track contains the sounding of just four mysterious chords dominated by the clarinet and piano, and separated by silence. We are definitely in Feldman territory, but It feels as if these chords have been lifted from a larger mosaic – a few fragments to be held up for closer examination. The ending track on the CD has the same title and the same short chord sequence, but you must listen to the entire 16 minute playing time – mostly silence – to appreciate the full intent.
D-S-C-H , by Edison Denisov is next and this opens with a high, sharply struck piano note followed by a series of jagged passages from the trombone, piano and cello. The piano sounds its note again and the process repeats. The playing here is very precise and appropriately animated and the feeling is like watching a pinball machine.. At about half-way, the pace slows with a series of longer phrases in the cello, trombone and clarinet; the piano now picks up the spiky theme. This piece finishes quietly with the piano continuing to sound short, rapid bursts of exclamation. The ensemble playing by gnarwhallaby here is agile and and focused and nicely negotiates the complex and often rapid-fire interplay between the parts.
[exhibit a] contains five tracks by Nicholas Deyoe, a Los Angeles-based composer from his series titled FLUFF (2012). These were written for gnarwhallaby and range from 20 seconds to a few minutes in length. FLUFF No. 5 is 22 seconds of upward scales in the trombone – almost practice like – that are surrounded by warm sounds in the cello and clarinet. FLUFF No. 7 features a high trill in the trombone with the clarinet and cello supporting with short passages and sustained tones that remind one of a mosquito-filled summer night. FLUFF No. 1 features a low trombone trill that could be a motorcycle racing away into the distance while screeching from the clarinet and cello combine to capture the classic urban moment of a changing traffic light. This theme continues in FLUFF No. 8 but now the trills and screeching produce that instant of sheer terror just before two vehicles collide. FLUFF No. 11 is the longest of the series at 2:42 and begins with a low creaky groan in the cello and trombone with clarinet notes that dart in and around the rumbling texture. This has a menacing feel, as if some malevolent force is gathering just out of sight. The five FLUFF tracks each encapsulate a moment in miniature, and are played with just the right combination of energy and attention to detail.
The three movements of Modernes Kaufhaus [1998/2010] by Marc Sabat are heard on tracks 4 to 6 and the first, Swabian Queen, is an impressive display of precision playing – the clarinet and piano simultaneously hitting a series of fast, staccato notes in an irregular melody. In the second movement, Rathaus, the notes become even more scattered, producing a somewhat tentative feel – like a bird pecking at seed on the ground. König X, the final movement, is built around a sharp beat rapped out on the wood of the piano. A stern, strident melody sounds from the clarinet and trombone, as if a tyrant king is approaching. There is a middle eastern flavor to this that comes from the carefully sustained stringendo in the high register and the syncopated rhythm. This recording of Modernes Kaufhaus is a monument to tight ensemble.
Pour Quatre , by Wlodzimierz Kotoński is on track 8 and this begins with a marvelously busy series of sounds that bubble along as short, single notes are heard individually from the piano, clarinet and trombone. More busyness follows from the cello while the trombone holds a steady, somber tone. Other sounds follow, most hard to categorize, but there is a sense of constant activity and bustle in the texture. The piece slows somewhat towards the end producing a slightly less intense feel before quietly concluding. This is complex music with a lot of independently moving parts that succeeds only through the discipline in the playing.
A less frenetic approach is heard in Polychrome  by Zygmunt Krauze. A series of dissonant sustained tones is heard from the cello, clarinet and muted trombone. Short, fast riffs are traded between the piano and clarinet that add to the tension. There is a feeling of uncertainty and anxiety that derives directly from the dissonance that is carefully maintained for maximum effect.
Steffen Schleiermacher’s Stau  is next and the title translates as ‘congestion’. Stau is the way Germans describe heavy congestion on their autobahn and this piece could be interpreted as a metaphor for stop and go traffic. A series of sforzando chords sound at the beginning, almost like the theme from a detective show on TV. The feeling of drama is heightened by the strong rapping of a series of beats, followed by another sudden sforzando chord. There is a halting feel to this as the pattern repeats. At 3:50 there is low sustained clarinet tone followed by the trombone and cello, producing a mysterious feeling. A loud piano chord sounds and drifts away with a long decay into silence. Now a return to the opening theme but with bright, animated passages in the clarinet, trombone and cello. A feeling of velocity and confusion is quickly attained but the slow theme suddenly returns. There is a sense of speeding up and then slamming on the brakes. The playing of all this was effectively realized and the tension in the sustained chords and sforzando passages never lessened.
The final pieces in [exhibit a] are by Henryk Górecki , his Muzyczka IV (koncert puzonowy), Op. 28 . This trombone concerto is a study in extreme contrasts and is brilliantly played by Matt Barbier. The first section, furioso, marcatissimo starts with a deep rumbling in the piano that is soon joined by fast, loud trills in the clarinet and trombone. There is a frenetic tempo to this and the explosive trombone playing dominates the texture. High screeching in the clarinet adds to the chaotic mixture of sounds – stopping abruptly to observe a few seconds of silence, only to start up again. The furioso entrances here are demanding but come across as clean and precise. There is the sense of unfolding catastrophe or of a pitched battle whose outcome is uncertain and the energy continues to build until a final piano crash leads directly to the tranquillissimo, ben tenuto section in the following track.
In the tranquillissimo section a series of soft piano chords ring out like cathedral bells in mourning. A slow dirge-like melody in the clarinet and trombone powerfully evoke a solemn sadness. At 1:50 a strong fortissimo passage on the same theme underscores the emotion before returning to the quietness of the opening. This is very powerful music that vividly portrays overwhelming loss. A sense of finality envelops the listener at the conclusion as the last piano chord slowly dies away. The playing here is acutely sensitive and perfectly matched to the intent of the music. A quick Google check turned up only one available CD and a single indifferently recorded YouTube video of this piece – by including Op. 28 on this new CD, gnarwhallaby has performed a real service for those who are drawn to the music of Henryk Górecki.
The sound engineering and recording of [exhibit a] has been carefully designed to capture the wide variations in dynamics and timbre – nothing is lost or noticeably distorted. The playing on this CD is remarkable for the precision and tight ensemble that gnarwhallaby brings to each piece in this diverse and challenging collection.
[exhibit a] is available from populist records.