Robert Dick and Thomas Buckner
Flutes and Voices
I could never have predicted what Flutes and Voices sounded like because, before listening to Robert Dick and Thomas Buckner’s improvisations, I had been deprived of the instrumental and vocal sounds, noises and effects principally composing the sound world of this recording. It would be cheesy to label the album, “not for the faint of heart”, but I cannot deny the extreme abstraction one explores while listening to it. With that disclaimer out of the way, I must emphasize how incredibly delightful Mr. Dick and Mr. Buckner’s musical daring is to experience. Their style of improvisation removes the listener from any expectation or familiarity with either instrument and delivers one’s ears to a new expressive universe, spiraling out of control for much of the time.
There are no elegant flute passages or arias on this recording, nor words nor any discernible melodies except for a few points. A seasoned improvisatory vocalist, baritone Thomas Buckner uses the human voice in an anti-establishment manner hard to put into words. There is some humming and overtone singing, but the sounds he produces are too vibrant, too fleeting, and too multifaceted for a single moniker. He mixtures gasps and grunts, whispers and croaks and the sound of spit along with tongue clicking, snoring, daffy-duck noises and pretty much every unexpected oral sound you’ll hear from a baby’s nursery to a retirement home. The album’s fifth track, “The Bird Scene Says Yes” may be the tamest – at least vocally speaking – inasmuch as Mr. Buckner sings in a pseudo-language of vowel songs and follows a melody that is similarly reminiscent of folk music. Yet, his voice is constrained for the duration, seemingly coming from the back of his throat. This allows this track – the most tuneful of the album – to fit into the expressive palette of the rest of the works.
When I realized this, the careful structuring that must have been considered – subconsciously, at least – I became extremely impressed with Mr. Buckner and Mr. Dick’s musical insight. Upon discovering the CD contained a series of improvisations, I had ignorantly assumed I would regret not being witness to their creation, as if the energy of the performance would compensate for the music’s presumed lack of formal logic. The balance I’ve described in Mr. Buckner’s vocal performance suggests more of a musical structure than I had thought possible, simultaneously proving me wrong and making the music more fascinating.
Composer and flutist Robert Dick’s performance is equally wild and varied as Mr. Buckner, thanks in part to Mr. Dick’s invention, the Glissando Headjoint. This device allows Mr. Dick to produce extended glissandi and pitch bends unlike anything I had heard on a flute. The resultant microtonal/chromatic slides join a host of other flute extended techniques including key clicks, tongue pizzicato, tongue rams and many others. Mr. Dick also sings into his flute, and produces vocal sounds along the lines of Mr. Buckner’s performance, sometimes switching between those grunts and flute playing, so it seems like there is an extra performer in the booth. Like Mr. Buckner’s performance, Robert Dick’s flute playing includes some more traditional flute sounds, runs and the like, but these moments appear in such an unusual context – sandwiched between abundant bizarre sounds – there is no sense that track has been violated by the presence of a distinguishable flute note.
As alien as Flute and Voices becomes as a result of the unusual sounds produced by its creators, the limited post-production carries the music to an even more distant realm of expression. Once I noticed there was a lot of panning going on, I was curious about overdubbing, but – after listening to the CD multiple times – I am convinced the tracks are pretty raw. It is even possible they were recorded with a stereo microphone and the performers moved from one side to the other to create a “live” panning effect. Nevertheless, I am confident these improvisations are presented very close to how they would sound in concert, though I enjoyed being able to imagine the unearthly sources for the strange sounds I heard. Perhaps, being able to see Robert Dick and Thomas Buckner might spoil the wonderful foreignness of their improvisations’ sound world.
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Frozen Heat #FH1001
Houston-based Composer/Pianist Kris Becker’s recently released album Inventions presents an overwhelmingly wide spectrum of musical genres, it is hard to believe one mind is responsible for all of it. Within, listeners will find rock songs, jazz ballads, and finely crafted style studies of J.S. Bach surrounding the over-arching jazz-infused neo-romanticism that seems to be at the heart of Mr. Becker’s musical personality. Proudly fusing popular idioms with beloved sounds from art music’s past, Inventions is a daring cross-genre musical endeavor; and, though it may overload your ears with variety, Inventions is a pleasantly memorable, moving and successful achievement.
All the music on Inventions is expertly performed, elegantly produced and solidly composed, making is undeniably evident that Kris Becker is a uniquely talented musician. There is very little to criticize in terms of pure content: nearly every track, regardless of genre, succeeded both as a representative of its given style and an isolated musical object. The two rock songs, “Feel the Truth” and “Try”, were well done and absolutely convincing on a musical level: they sounded like rock songs written by rock musicians, not a composer’s vain attempt at rock music. More impressive were the two alternate recordings of the song “If Ever Two Were One”, the first of which was done in a sultry, slow jazz style and the second was totally transformed into an art song a la Ned Rorem. Both Mr. Becker and his vocalist Sarah Welch amazed me with their fully persuasive metamorphosis from one style to another, which made these two tracks among the hallmarks of the entire album.
The rest of the tracks on the CD are solo piano compositions performed by Mr. Becker. Though not highly chromatic or modernist in any way, these works reflect a variety of influences and allude to a deep love of 19th-Century classicism, all types of Jazz and niche popular styles, such as musical theater. To this end, these compositions almost act as a commentary on the rock and jazz songs that start the album, almost like Mr. Becker has chosen to distill and abstract those formalized styles through his virtuosity at the piano.
The first of these pieces is Fanfare for Life, a highly rhythmic, moto-perpetuo work with sweeping harmonies and a step-wise melody set against blurry pan-diatonic ostinati. Both in content and form, Fanfare for Life typifies the pseudo-improvisatory, neo-tonal style I think is very close to Mr. Becker’s heart. Though allusions to jazz and neo-classicism are strongly present themes on this album, it is undeniable after that the mood and character of Fanfare for Life are closely tied to Mr. Becker’s truest impulses. In fact, the next work on the CD, Four Curiosities, ‘composes out’ many of the musical ideas set forth in Fanfare for Life, whether a focus of poppy syncopated rhythms in the first and last movements Anticipation and Groovin’ or melding a love of Baroque and Jazz music in the bluesy second movement Passacaglia.
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It is apparent from the beginning of Composer Bruce Wolosoff’s new NAXOS recording with the Carpe Diem Quartet – Songs without Words – that Mr. Wolosoff’s music fits into the fringe of a larger trend in contemporary American music: the fusion of popular and traditional idioms. Whereas one player in this movement, Bang-On-A-Can, attempts to distill the visceral dynamism of punk rock with instrumental amplification and driving rhythms, Mr. Wolosoff is more transparent, and explicitly references jazz, blues and pop styles. What is also clear within the first couple tracks of this album is the genre of Songs without Words: divertimento. Mr. Wolosoff’s sentimental melodies, circular harmonic progressions and repetitive structures update a brand of crowd-pleasing music dating back to Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. Along these lines, the liner notes describe Songs without Words as “amiably crossing musical borders”, and there are two principal musical regions Mr. Wolosoff explores through the prism of the Carpe Diem Quartet: blues and classic pop rock.
The first of these allusions is communicated through pentatonic and blues-based melodies and the typifying inflections one would expect from a blues guitarist or bluegreass fiddle player. The movement “Dancing on my Grave” is probably the best example of this in the whole set, and is a traditional blues jam with a rocking bass line with improvisatory melodies above it, culminating with a classic blues bass progression. In contrast, “The Letter” is the purest rock ‘n’ roll movement, and uses the I – vi – IV – V harmonic progression common to 1950s bubblegum pop ballads to exemplify the other category of Mr. Wolosoff’s musical references.
The remaining 16 movements in Songs without Words are somewhere in between these stylistic extremes. For example, “Cat Scratch Fever” references 1970s hard rock with its title and its use of parallel fifth ‘power chords’ in the cello’s ostinato bass line. Similarly, “Creepalicious” has much more abstract musical material than the other movements of the set but employs the same simple phrase structures, maintaining a strong connection to Mr. Wolosoff’s popular influences while distinguishing the movement’s content from its neighbors.
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Consortium5, Recorder Quintet
Kathryn Corrigan, Inga Maria Klauke, Oonagh Lee, Gail Macleod, Roselyn Maynard, recorders
I’ll admit my initially skeptical reaction to receiving English recorder quintet Consortium5’s album Tangled Pipes was parochial. After all, is there a more stigmatized instrument in the American musical conscience than the recorder? Well before I listened to the CD, I was fearful of its tracks recalling horrifying memories of the ignorant squeaks that filled my elementary school music class. However, I was quickly rebuffed by Consortium5’s otherworldly sound. Listening to Tangled Pipes was one of the most pleasantly surprising audience experiences I’ve had in a long time. Not only did the new recorder quintet music on Tangled Pipes reveal an uncharted world of timbre wavering between acoustic and electronic sounds, but the inclusion of hip and well produced track remixes also made the album a unique musical object I’m happy to own.
It is really hard for me to describe the different sounds you’ll encounter when you listen to Tangled Pipes. True, the instruments are all recorders, just like you would hear on an authentically performed concert of baroque or renaissance music; however, Consortium5 uses them in ways I could have never imagined. Many of the tracks, such as Darren Bloom’s Consorts and Richard Lannoy’s Tangled Pipes use percussive sounds akin to tongue rams and concise over-blowing on a flute. Mr. Bloom’s piece also uses remarkable glissandi and double-tongued licks that transport these ostensibly humble instruments to a vibrant and relevant sound world. Along the same lines, Brian Inglis uses overblowing, multiphonics, key clicks and flutter-tonguing to create contrasting ritornellos against the traditional counterpoint and folksy chorale around which his work, Burmese Pictures, rotates.
The four remaining pieces I have to discuss seem less like they hoped to show off the well kept secret of the recorder’s flexibility in terms of extended techniques and timbre. Rather, they are artfully crafted musical works enlivened by their unique instrumentation. Kathryn Butler’s Chanterelle, Brooks Frederickson’s ironically titled Quintet for Fifteen Recorders and Kim Ashton’s Dots harkened to the sound mass trends of the late 1960s and 1970s. Yet, the distinctive and beautiful freshness of Consortium5’s sound prevented these three compositions from sounding cliché, which may have happened had they been written for strings or another more commonplace ensemble. The final original work of the album – Luke Styles’ Three Stages – was a perfect capstone to the commissioned music featured on Tangled Pipes. Elegantly through-composed, Three Stages unwittingly refers to all the sounds and textures of the preceding tracks in a long-form exploration of contrasting musical images.
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Timothy McAllister, saxophone
Lucia Unrau, piano; Robert Spring, clarinet
I knew Timothy McAllister’s recently released CD, Glint, was a hit when it grabbed me through my Jeep’s speakers as I drove down the highway. An athletic, delicate and powerful performance, Glint showcases Mr. McAllister’s command of the full sonic potential of his instrument. Along these lines, the works featured on the album cast a wide net over the landscape of contemporary music, making Glint a must-listen for any composer with plans of working with saxophone, regardless of aesthetic preferences.
The CD plays like a recital one would never forget, and samples a wide variety of instrumental combinations, soloistic colors and modern musical styles. For example, Caleb Burhans’ Escape Wisconsin (2006), Roshanne Etehazy’s Glint (2006) and Gregory Wanamaker’s Duo Sonata (2002) represent the kind of groove-oriented saxophone music I’ve observe to be very popular for saxophones, though, each of the three are very different. Escape Wisconsin is heavily rooted in repeated rhythms and melodic figures, as is the first movement of Mr. Wanamaker’s Duo Sonata, though this piece quickly departs to explore beautiful two-part counterpoint and – ultimately – the blues. Ms. Etehazy’s Glint is a tightly wound composing-out of an opening string of triplets, and presents – much like Mr. Wanamaker’s Duo Sonata – the nearly identical sounds of clarinet, played by Robert Spring, and saxophone in varied combinations.
Offering a more aggressive and abstract sound are Kristin Kuster’s Jellyfish (2004), Kati Agócs’ As Biddeth Thy Tongue (2006) and Daniel Asia’s The Alex Set (1995). Ms Agócs’ and Mr. Asia’s works are perfect large-scale solo works, particularly As Biddeth Thy Tongue which feels like a dramatic soliloquy and possesses a wide expressive range thanks to is juxtaposition of great lyricism and extended techniques. The Alex Set similarly opposes the saxophone’s sweetness and rhythmic facility within a more rigid structure of expository set pieces separated by contemplative interludes. Ms. Kuster’s Jellyfish is one of two works on the CD that pairs Mr. McAllister with piano, played by Lucia Urnau. The work flows smoothly through three movements, and the first – “medusa” – is compellingly indecisive, vacillating between capricious, fast gestures and slower, recitative-esque passages. This is followed by the sincere and elegiac aria, “blob” –some of the most profound music on the CD – and then closes with the piano and saxophone working almost as one line on the light and mecurial, “thimbles”.
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