FEATHER & STONE
With so much of new music coming out of smaller groups it is refreshing to hear the new CD from populist records FEATHER & STONE by wild Up, a 40 member Los Angeles-based ensemble directed by Christopher Rountree. With 8 tracks totaling some 66 minutes, this CD is an important example of what a larger sound can bring to the new music scene. According to the liner notes “These live recordings spanning a year of Los Angeles-born music exemplify our ethos of exploration. … Sometimes brutal, sometimes serene – but always as grass roots grow: earthy, communal and deep.” FEATHER & STONE is aptly named and contains a powerful mixture of tranquility and intensity painted in bright colors on a big canvas.
The first track, stand still like the hummingbird dives right into the big band sound with a wonderfully bluesy opening that features a nicely doubled voice and bass line. Brian Walsh on alto sax delivers a convincingly agile bebop solo amid a swelling horn section that evolves into a series of lush brass chords. A strong percussive beat is added as this section rolls rapidly along. A trombone passage announces the start a sweet, lingering sax solo that is eventually accompanied by a lovely wash of horns. Stand still like the hummingbird darts about, changing direction and speed, much like a hummingbird in flight – always in motion, even when stationary. As the alto sax slowly trails off, the entire group suddenly breaks into the Charlie Parker tune Ornithology. This develops a nice groove with wild Up in full voice. The playing here is a satisfyingly tight ensemble, nicely navigating a cloud of rapidly moving notes at the end of the section. The alto sax emerges again and is joined by high, sketchy violin sounds that combine with a final zen-like vocal chord at the finish.
Written by artistic director and conductor Christopher Rountree, stand still like the hummingbird fully engages the big sound of wild Up and showcases the virtuosity of the players, especially Brian Walsh. The often-familiar musical materials add to the accessibility of this piece and, as the title suggests, this opening track clearly belongs to the FEATHER theme of this album.
A new anxiety, written by Nicholas Deyoe, is on track 2 and surely this represents the STONE portion of the CD title. Opening with a quiet combination of cymbals and strings, a sudden crash of instruments in full cry quickly ratchet up the tension to something between surprise and panic. This continues like a long scream, with pounding percussion followed by a jarring drone that ultimately predominates. More chord crashes and a sawing sound in the lower strings carry the tide of foreboding relentlessly forward. A new anxiety proceeds in this manner – shifting and changing in direction with unsettling textures and disquietude, often when least expected. Now there is the sound like an air raid siren, now more intense tutti chords. Something like an industrial jig saw is heard and a riotous percussion passage accompanies this brutally gnawing sound. The deep voice of a bass clarinet adds a touch of mystery, and there is the gradual emergence of a series of broad chords in the winds that provide some relief. The trombones pick up the theme but are soon replaced by the menacing snort of some unseen beast. The snorting slowly fades – then suddenly stops – concluding the piece.
This is high energy music that takes dead aim at your serenity and succeeds, aided and abetted by the intense and precise playing of wild Up. With a new anxiety, Nicholas Deyoe continues to add to his sharply drawn vision of urban dynamism and insecurity.
The reference piece for this CD is track 3, Oiseaux exotiques by Oliver Messiaen and this is the perfect choice for extending the feather theme. Birdsong was a powerful influence on Messiaen and, according to Peter Hill of the University of Sheffield, “…Messiaen continued to regard birdsong as music – and divinely inspired music at that – a belief that led for a time to an obsession with truth-to-nature. Against this background, Oiseaux exotiques proves to be a landmark, the work in which Messiaen the musician began to regain the upper hand over Messiaen the ornithologist.” The short, rapid runs of notes by woodwind, brass and percussion are carefully observed by wild Up, the twittering of the bird-like passages are precisely realized with an almost conversational feel. Richard Valitutto, with an accurate but light touch on piano, acts as an intermediary as the woodwinds, percussion and brass swirl about in an intricate flurry of notes. The balance between all the dazzling musical forces is well struck here and this is a real credit to recording engineer Nick Tipp, who must have had quite a lot to deal with given the many parts and textures of this piece and the necessity of recording it in a concert venue. Oiseaux exotiques by wild Up is a lively and finely realized performance of a complex and historically important work.
Mothlight by Archie Carey is next and this is a short piece, just over three minutes . It begins with a series of slowly varying glissandos in the upper strings that produce a lazy, siren-like sound that is joined by swelling tones in the bass. This gives way to light drumming and breathy whooshes of air through a flute that evoke the feathery wings of a large moth knocking about the porch light. A drone in the low strings adds to the picture. Perhaps this is too much of a metaphorical interpretation, but mothlight is convincing nonetheless, and a creative use of extended techniques to project a vivid image.
Track 5 is dante quartet by Odeya Nini and this begins with light, mysterious sounds in the upper strings, soon joined by flute trills and the braking sound of a subway car, complete with squeals and screeching. Silence for a few moments and then the woodwinds return, this time in a series of rapid bird-like arpeggios. More subway sounds and a disquieting sequence of chords from the piano and cello follow. The piece proceeds in this way; silence, industrial sounds and then the occasional tranquil phrase or organic bird call. Now come long, soft chords joined by the distant squawking of gulls and the soft rattle of gravel and machinery. The piano enters with a lovely flowing melody, soon picked up by the oboe, flutes and cello, bringing a welcome respite. As this continues it is interrupted with a series of lightning fast riffs by horns, percussion and woodwinds until the piece quietly ends as it began. Dante quartet seems undecided as to its point of view, oscillating back and forth between nature and industry, in a series of mixed passages separated by silences. More stone than feather, this piece is nevertheless effective in the portrayal of contrasting moods.
Still not a place to build monuments or cathedrals by Andrew Tholl follows and this starts out with a strong, distorted and discordant entrance by two guitars. The percussion joins in with a loud boom, pounding away like the sound of canon fire. Intense, chaotic and seemingly out of control, the guitars proceed wildly until a series of strong declarative chords in the brass restore order. The guitars – Andrew Tholl and Chris Kallmyer – fight back with a furious reply but are again overwhelmed by the brass; barbarians subdued by the forces of empire. The battle continues with a tremendous volley of drums that ends suddenly with soft guitar notes floating quietly out into the silence. This truce is only temporary, however, as the guitars decompose into more chaos accompanied once more by loud drumming. As before, this is subdued by intimidating – but orderly – brass chords. Just as the forces of reason seem to prevail, disorder wells up from below, putting the outcome into doubt once more. The brass again shout out, this time at maximum volume, finally deciding the issue as a slow trail of quiet guitar notes slowly fade away at the finish. Still not a place to build monuments or cathedrals vividly captures the elemental struggle between the forces of reason and chaos, the battle flowing back and forth with furious energy and intensity. The resilience of the forces of chaos and the thin margin of victory by the voices of reason as described in this piece are themselves a telling comment on our present condition.
Perhaps the most feathery piece on the CD is this nest, swift passerine by Chris Kallmyer. Opening with the sounds of squawking geese and song birds calling over the lapping waters of a quiet lake, there is the immediate feeling of the tranquility and peace that only nature can provide. A lovely cello drone creeps in, and this is soon accompanied by smooth, repeating chords in the horns and bass. A light chiming is heard, adding a transcendental dimension that completes the sense of pure serenity. More drone-like tones appear in the lower strings and by about midway through the piece a series of beautiful soft trumpet and cello solos are heard. The pace accelerates somewhat and the higher strings add just a bit of tension – also reflected in the more agitated sound of the birds in the background. This builds in the woodwinds but at the end there is just the sound of the chirping birds. The long, lush tones of this nest, swift passerine are perfectly fitted to its intended sense of pastoral peacefulness and the playing here is appropriately quiet and restrained. This track makes a fine contrast to the excitement present in the other pieces on this CD.
The final track on this CD is bird of paradise in paradise by Archie Carey. This begins with a sexy alto solo that has a definite jazzy feel. This is soon joined by the clarinet, trumpets and trombones playing long, sustained chords. A continuous, high violin note that adds a bright sparkle to the polished sound coming from the brass. Some nice work in the trumpets and trombones give these passages just the right relaxed feel. The name ‘Ellington’ crossed my mind. Sedate, almost languid, this continues along until the sax solo returns and the background wash morphs to a more insistent and questioning tone. This eventually devolves into a high drone in the strings that slowly fades at the finish. Bird of paradise in paradise is a warm and elegant piece that exploits the full color palette of the brass and woodwinds.
FEATHER & STONE is an important album if only because it brings together a critical mass of talented Los Angeles-based musicians to provide a prominent platform for music written for the larger ensemble. The playing here is extraordinary and the music well-matched to the capabilities of wild Up. Chris Rountree and populist records have done a remarkable job in making all of this happen with such impressive results.
FEATHER & STONE is available from populist records, here.