Posts Tagged “Keeril Makan”

Afterglow afterglow

music of Keeril Makan

performed by International Contemporary Ensemble

mode records

  • Mercury Songbirds for alto flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano and percussion
  • Husk for flute, oboe and harp
  • Afterglow for piano
  • Becoming Unknown for flute/bass flute, clarinet/bass clarinet, trumpet and double bass
  • Mu for violin
  • After Forgetting for clarinet, piano, percussion, violin, and cello

performed by ICE:

Eric Lamb, flutes; Joshua Rubin, clarinets, James Austin Smith, oboe; Gareth Flowers, trumpet; Erik Carlson, violin; Kivie Cahn-Lipman, cello; Randall Zigler, double bass; Nuiko Wadden, harp; Cory Smythe, piano; Nathan Davis, percussion; Erik Carlson and Adam Sliwinski, conductors

Some of the first music I heard by Keeril Makan was rough, aggressively dissonant, and full of tense and explosive energy. Afterglow, the new release of Makan’s music performed by International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) tones down the savagery and highlights Makan’s control of timbre, color, and gesture. The title track, a solo piano work, obsesses on sympathetic string reactions to simple repeated tones for almost four and a half minutes. As elegantly as Afterglow builds and adds material, part of me wishes that the piece kept that opening texture for the full 14 minute duration. Cory Smythe’s performance truly revels in the stillness and quietness of the resonant strings and the recording makes me yearn to hear the piece live.

Mu, the only other solo work on the disc, is for prepared violin and structured using an open form. Erik Carlson paces the glassy sounds and long notes well and assembles a coherent and engaging performance (although a brief one, only about 3 minutes). Husk, for flute, oboe, and harp, also emphasizes coloristic gestures and resonance over a short time frame. Again, the composition is full of poignant pauses and space to let the harp strings resonate. The woodwind writing is proto-melodic and mostly consists of long sustained tones which shift timbral space between the flute and oboe. As one would expect from ICE, the performance is vibrant.

Three longer chamber ensembles bookend and center this recording. Mercury Songbirds combines more aggressive and spikier arrivals against a subdued and omnipresent piano drone. Becoming Unknown is the most conventionally tuneful work but these melodies are fragmented, twisted, and just as soon as they build any strength they begin to decay away. I was especially drawn to the touches of trumpet in this otherwise woodwind-dominated texture. The final work on the disc, After Forgetting, has in some ways the most expected formal design on the disc which makes it rather unexpected. A constant droned pulse permeates and drives the piece forward while melodic gestures and arrivals fit in, around, and against it. The traditional harmonic touches soften the dissonance a bit and as the pulse fades out the work resumes the haunting beauty found on the rest of the disc. The abrupt final cutoff of the piece took me by surprise; I was convinced it was an error in the recording.  Overall, ICE plays with a spectacular affinity for shape, color, and gesture. Their sound is a perfect fit for Makan’s music.

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CD cover artTarget

music of Keeril Makan

performed by Either/Or, Alex Waterman, Laurie Rubin and the California E.A.R. Unit, and David Shively


Keeril Makan’s music grabs hold of you right away with musical language that is simultaneously straightforward yet highly nuanced. The quartet of pieces on Target serve as excellent examples of what makes Makan’s compositions approachable and mesmerizing. 2 for violin and percussion, performed by members of Either/Or (Jennifer Choi, violin and David Shively, percussion) bursts out with simple regular repeated notes played with ferocity and urgency. The blend of low violin and chimes in these opening seconds is compelling and draws me in as a listener. Percussion writing can get out of hand with performers using almost every possible instrument under the sun. Throughout 2 Makan shows tremendous restraint by leaving the percussion on metallophones and using the two players as one hybrid synthetic instrument. Timbral choices are carefully managed to keep the duo sounding as one driving hyperinstrument, whether the music is bombastic or restrained. The closing scratch tones and super-ball driven tam tam textures are creepy and luscious. Makan makes the sound organic and necessary where other composers would sprinkle them in a piece for sheer effect. Either/Or’s timbral virtuosity is particularly stunning and they bring a perfect melding of energies to this exciting performance.

The very next track on the disc, Zones d’accord for solo cello and recorded by Alex Waterman, showcases Makan’s ability to do a lot with a little. Long single tones are given amazing life by carefully controlled bow placement making the cello sound like a variety of bowed percussion instruments, a trautonium, a balloon being rubbed, and any other sounds you could think of on the “brittle glass to rich full cello tone” spectrum. The virtuosity of Waterman’s right hand is truly stunning. While few of the sounds found in these nine minutes seem traditionally associated with the cello, Waterman (who is also a member of Either/Or) really connects with and draws out Makan’s ecstatic emotional arc throughout the performance.

Target, the title track of the disc, is song cycle performed here by Laurie Rubin (mezzo-soprano) and the California E.A.R. Unit. The text for the set is pieced together from Jena Osman’s poetry as well as propaganda leaflets which were dropped over Afghanistan after 9/11. Makan’s deft hand with timbre and breeding hyperinstruments from seeming simple combinations is once again all over the piece. Far more than accompanied voice, Rubin is simultaneously featured yet absorbed into a singular musical fabric. The images are disturbing and harrowing and the music dives straight towards a strong emotional connection with the listener.

Last and certainly not least (especially since it is the longest work on the CD) is the solo percussion piece Resonance Alloy performed by David Shively. The music again uses only metal percussion sounds and the motivation of the narrative is more through abstract timbral changes than motivic or melodic material. All of the spectralmorphological moves done in the earlier pieces are concentrated and inflated over the course of 30 minutes. Makan seems to channel Alvin Lucier and Eliane Radigue with his slow unfolding of waves of sound within a wholly obsessive framework. Resonance Alley is very much like hearing a single cymbal roll in excruciatingly slow aural motion. Yet again, Makan makes what should be simple and mundane captivating and engrossing.


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