Saturday, January 28, 2017

Bassoonist Dana Jessen Makes her Recording Debut on the Innova Label

I first encountered bassoonist Dana Jessen as a member of the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players (SFCMP), but I first started to pay attention to her when Splinter Reeds, a quintet of reed players that was basically an SFCMP “splinter group,” gave a recital at the Center for New Music in January of 2014. The group had two double-reed players, Jessen and Kyle Bruckmann, alternating between oboe and English horn. The single-reed members were Bill Kalinkos (clarinet), Jeff Anderle (bass clarinet), and Dave Wegehaupt (soprano and alto saxophones).

At the end of last week, Innova released Carve, Jessen’s debut solo album. The title is illustrated by the album’s cover photograph, an array of woodworking tools, all presumably involved in a bassoonist’s never-ending task of reed-making:

The album title is also the title of a series of four relatively brief improvisations, each of which has a subtitle that describes a different way of evoking sounds from the bassoon: without reed, with teeth, only reed, and postlude.

Alternating with these improvisations are debut recordings of works by four composers: Jessen’s Splinter Reeds colleague Bruckmann, Paula Matthusen, Sam Pluta, and Peter V. Swendsen. Each of these pieces involves a mix of fixed and reactive electronics that provides an environment for the bassoon to navigate and explore. The accompanying booklet provides nothing by way of notes about any of these four pieces. The titles (in the order of the composers listed above) are “Cadenza & Degradations,” “of an implacable subtraction,” “Points Against Fields, tombeau de Bernard Parmegiani,” and “Fireflies in Warsaw.”

These titles provide little support for the curious and attentive listener, but it is unclear that this matters very much. Jessen is clearly more interested in the sonorities of her instrument than in the conventions of “music theory.” The main difference between the “Carve” pieces and the four compositions seems to be that, in the former case, Jessen establishes her own “terrain” to be explored. In the works provided by others, on the other hand, it is the composer who defines that terrain, primarily through the sonorous qualities of the “equipment” (s)he engages in the composition.

One result is that the tracks are relatively brief in duration. The longest is Bruckmann’s piece, which is a little less than a quarter hour. Thus, it is not particularly demanding for a sympathetic listener to follow Jessen on her journeys with very little strain on attention span. Those who do so are likely to be impressed by many of the subtleties that her journeys encounter. In other words this is music that can make some very lasting impressions with its surface structures without requiring the listener to “dig” for “deeper values.” Those satisfied with these ground rules should find this album a delightfully engaging listening experience.

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