A short while ago, the lovely people at Innova sent me a package – four CDs and one DVD – which I said I would review here. In the end, I’m very pleased with my side of things – there’s something to enjoy in all five items, and two or three of them will doubtless find their way into regular rotation. But then from a label of Innova’s quality you wouldn’t expect much less.
Here are the first three of those five reviews, with two more to come next week.
Mark Applebaum: Asylum (Innova 666) [info]
A jazz pianist and a builder of junkyard electro-acoustic instruments as well as a former composition pupil of Brian Ferneyhough, Mark Applebaum brings out the carnival beneath complexity’s surfaces. The excellent opening track, The Blue Cloak, demonstrates precisely this bi-polarity. It was inspired by Breughel’s ‘teaming figure’ painting Netherlandish Proverbs, a typical partly comic, partly disturbing tableaux of characters who illustrate in their bizarre daily rituals a total of 100 proverbs and sayings. The music, led by a substantial partly-improvised part for Applebaum’s found object sound sculpture the ‘mouseketier’, scurries and scatters itself about the room, sounding just like the Tom and Jerry score Ferneyhough himself may yet write.
A serious-comic schizophrenia animates other works on this CD. DNA explores the notion of ‘neuromuscular economy’, whereby the virtuosity of a densely notated guitar solo is undermined as essentially the same four lines of music are looped round and round, detuning as they go. The percussion duet Go, Dog. Go! follows an uexpected route to rich rhythmic complexity, using rock and pop grooves (Led Zeppelin, James Brown, the Spice Girls) played at their original speeds, but stripped of all timbre, pitch and lyrics. It takes a keen ear to hear most of these for what they are, but the rhythmic diversity that results quashes any expectation of 4/4 monotony.
The record’s title work turns such contradictory characteristics to more serious intent. It is scored for instrumental nonet and a theatrical percussion soloist, who is the subject of 22 mental disorders that play out in the piece’s 5 movements, the surrounding ensemble functioning periodically as the superego or a council of elders sitting in judgement. As with the rest of the CD, it is musically convincing, but for such a theatrical work (in the third movement, for example, the percussionist enacts a detailed series of Dadaist rituals that culminate in the bursting of a ballon in which is concealed the triangle beater to be used to begin the fourth movement) it is of course not possible to gauge fully the work’s effect. However, with the aid of sleevenotes, enough of the assorted manias comes through; overall this is another fine record from a consistently interesting composer.
Judy Dunaway: Mother of Balloon Music (Innova, 648) [info]
As the world’s first balloon virtuoso, Judy Dunaway has certainly found herself a niche. But from her wide-ranging sleevenotes, which take in the oppressive power structures of the West, the Church’s repression of women, Fluxus and the avant garde, instrumental fetishism, and environmental catastrophe, it is clear that this is a niche she finds extremely powerful and rich in broader associations: “Have we inadvertently turned global blood into a party favour?” she asks. Although the comic leeches in slightly around the edges (“The balloon does not lend itself to tonal music,” she notes at one point), this is intensely serious music, focussing lengthy stretches to the exploration of restricted aspects of balloon sound production – balloon as orb-shaped string, balloon as resonator, balloon as reed instrument.
On first listen the range of sounds is remarkable, and fully vindicates Dunaway’s devotion to her medium. However, rather a lot of this CD is etude-like – even those pieces that aren’t Etudes – and this diminishes the sustained effect of the album. In the two Etudes for balloon and violin, and the pieces For Balloon And String Quartet and For Bass Koto With Balloons, the instrumental parts are closely tied to Dunaway’s balloons – either closely mirroring them in sound and line, or succumbing to their influence as disruptive obstacle to performance (in the koto piece, balloons are wedged under the strings as unreliable substitutes for bridges). On repeated listenings I longed for a greater diversity of sounds and musical gestures; as they are, individual tracks fade into a smartly conceived, brilliantly executed monochrome.
The two works involving electronics – The Balloon Factory and The Rubber Forest – are the most successful, and also the two in which the will of the balloon is least exerted upon its companion instruments. In these, balloon improvisations are used as a sound source that is then electronically processed in real time. The processing allows for sounds and textures to emerge that although rooted in rubber take on their own sonic lives. The two are the most recent tracks, which promises well for the future: Dunaway has here introduced us to her unique and potentially powerful voice; now we wait to see where it takes her.
UPDATE: Judy Dunaway has written to me to let me know that this isn’t in fact her first album – Balloon Music came out on CRI in 1998, and Shar was released on Outer Realm in 2002.
Alexandra Gardner: Luminoso (Innova, 662) [info]
Made up of works composed during a two-year spell as visiting composer at the IUA/Phonos Foundation in Barcelona, Alexandra Gardner’s Lumínoso is an album of warm light and cool evening breezes. All six tracks are for soloists and electronics, and several of the performers here were Gardner’s Spanish colleagues. From the sensitivity with which their performances have been balanced against the electronic aspects of the pieces, one can guess that their playing was no small inspiration for the composer.
The six tracks are characterised overall by a fluid dynamic between solo line and rich electro-acoustic texture. In some tracks the electronics might first provide a sonic penumbra around the soloist, then work with it closely, sampling and layering multi-track polyphonies. Transitions are treated so seamlessly it becomes impossible to tell where one mode begins and the other ends; untangling this becomes your way into glittering spaces within the music. In other tracks, rather than teasing out contrasts from a single material source, acoustic instrument and electronics operate in open, confrontational dialogue.
The strength of Gardner’s often spellbinding music on this CD is its thoughtful composition. You sense at each turn that everything has been considered and weighed before proceeding, and that soloist and electronics are ultimately in the service of a compositional form, rather than a loosely-imagined concept.
Trusting in these frameworks, Gardner can allow her soloists – who all play with considerable generosity of expression – the space to interpret; more mysteriously, she draws similarly arresting performances from her software and samplers too. Throughout, the electronics have a hands-on-the-controls live performance feel to them, and it is this tactility that makes this such a convincing album.