Since first visiting China in 1988, Barry Schrader has been fascinated by the mythology of that country. On Monkey King (released on innova last autumn) he presents two substantial fruits of that fascination. Although Wu Xing deals with the abstract ‘cycle of desctruction’ of the five Chinese elements, metal, wood, earth, water and fire, and Monkey King with specific scenes from the ancient fable, both are programmatic and representative, taking the listener on a journey through a series of carefully prepared sonic images.
This makes the whole CD very approachable, and many of these images (particularly the ‘elemental’ sounds of Wu Xing) are extremely evocative. However, those who like to probe their musical experiences a little deeper may find it too unidirectional and unambiguous. You are shown a colourful world, but it remains behind glass, just out of reach: you aren’t invited to contribute further to it as a listener. Here’s what I mean. Schrader tends, for example, to dwell somewhat uncritically on each new sound. In particular, the disc is dominated by deep echo and reverb effects; these emphasise the hazy spiritual aroma of the subjects, but at the cost of definition and differentiation. I don’t object to reverb, but here its uniformity flattens everything onto the same plane. The world in which these sounds exist is uniform, consistent and, ultimately, predictable. Similar things might be said about the rhythmic language, which is dominated by regular, unvarying pulses. Overall this is a very attractive album that may serve as a valuable gateway into electroacoustic music, but that may also disappoint listeners used to grappling with the tougher questions asked in works by Stockhausen and Schaeffer.
Paul J. Abbott‘s Three Left Legacies (idiam) is, from the start, more problematic. Inside the first minute of ‘Ex-C’, after the opening electroacoustic babble has subsided to reveal a cute cor anglais melody, a ferocious electric guitar howl (of High Rise proportions) obliterates everything in sight. Some records sound like a cool drink of water after one another; this is like being punched in the throat, but more fun. The remaining 9 tracks are equally in your face. Abbott’s melodic language ranges from childishly banal to manically hyperactive; the sounds are often loud and aggressively shaped (when they’re not cartoonishly cheesy, as in ‘Pianola Electronica’ or ‘R E L I S H’); the rhythmic patterns crash over one another; every single parameter seems determined not to cooperate with any other. It’s the opposite of Monkey King in some respects. An utterly disorientating experience as a listener in which acquiescence is not an option.
Much more straightforward is Svet Stoyanov’s debut disc of modern works for solo percussion, Percussive Counterpoint (Concert Artists Guild). It opens with Stoyanov’s own arrangement for marimba of Reich’s Electric Counterpoint. This sounds pretty much as you’d expect – we’ve all heard Reich on a marimba – but there are plenty of subtleties in Stoyanov’s playing – such as the crisp, quick fades of the pulsing chords, which keeps them distinct from one another – that keep things fresh.
Despite inspiring the CD’s title the Reich piece isn’t representative of what follows in terms of compositional style. Stoyanov’s precise and delicate playing does remain, however. In James Wood’s Rogosanti, written for Bang on a Can virtuoso Steven Schick, this is in the service of great rhythmic complexity and a careful deployment of instrumental resources. In Alejandro’s Viñao’s Khan Variations the harmonic movements that underlay the dense melodic spools are brought out effectively. Eric Sammut’s Four Rotations (another work for marimba, of which there are possibly too many here) is less interesting, but Paul Lansky’s Hop, on which Stoyanov is joined by the violinist Moni Simeonov, is a lovely conclusion to the disc: quirky, sort of folky, quite eerie and continually surprising. A video MPEG of Thierry de Mey’s Musique de table (played by Stoyanov, Kevin Dufford and James Deltz) completes this introduction to a versatile percussionist.