This Friday Cold Blue Music will release freeHorn an album of three compositions by Larry Polansky; and, as is usually the case, Amazon.com is currently taking pre-orders. Where “new music” is concerned, it is rarely (if ever) the case that I encounter a new recording all of whose selections I have previously experienced, either in concert or on another recording. These are always pleasurable occasions, because they almost always reaffirm my conviction that there is more than one way to approach any composition worthy of listening at all; and, while I often feel that the number of recordings of Beethoven is ℵ0 (infinite but countable), encountering more than one recording of anything composed in this century tends to be quite a find.
Bearing that in mind, I would like to enumerate the selections on this new recording in the order in which I first listened them. The earliest of these is “minmax” (as in “minor” and “major”). Polansky calls this a “translation,” scored for two electric guitars, of “Angels,” a piece composed by Carl Ruggles for six muted trumpets. I heard this at a recital given by Giacomo Fiore in the Old First Concerts series in March of 2013. He played it with Polansky, along with another “translation,” this time of a hymn by William Billings. Both of these would subsequently show up in the publication of 3 Translations for Electric Guitar. On the freeHorn album, the guitarists are again Fiore and Polansky.
About a year and a half later Fiore released his self produced album iv: american electric guitars. This provided my “first contact” with “freeHorn,” the composition for which the new album is named. Polansky composed this piece in 2004 “for any instrument and electronics;” and Fiore played it as a solo. However, on the freeHorn album, Polansky presented this as an ensemble piece. Fiore again played electric guitar, Polansky played his fretless electric guitar, and they were joined by a diversity of other instruments performed by David Kant (tenor saxophone), Krystyna Bobrowski (horn), Tom Dambly (trumpet), Amy Beal (piano), David Dunn (electric violin), and Monica Scott (cello).
Finally, in March of 2016, Polansky and Fiore performed in the second of the three concerts of that year’s Other Minds festival. That was my first encounter with “ii-v-i,” the remaining selection on the new album. This also saw Polansky playing his fretless electric guitar.
Both “freeHorn” and “ii-v-i” involve Polansky working with natural harmonics, rather than scale systems. The title “ii-v-i” suggests a familiar chord progression; but in both of these pieces Polansky is interested in what he calls “continuous modulation.” Since the frets on one of the two guitars involved in the performance are not designed to capture the pitches of the overtone series, the performers are required to retune their instruments as part of the performance itself. In “freeHorn,” on the other hand, the necessary overtones can be readily synthesized by the electronics; so Polansky’s approach to continuous modulation arises from the interplay of instrument sounds and synthesized tones.
The title “freeHorn” also suggests a free-form approach to structuring that interplay. On Fiore’s recording the duration is about twelve minutes. On the new album it is closer to twenty minutes. Presumably the additional time involves exploring how each of the contributing instruments engages with the synthesized natural harmonics in its own particular way. In other words both performing and listening are matters of ongoing discovery; and, on the new album, there is definitely enough to discover in that twenty-minute track to warrant listening to it on several occasions over an extended period of time.
“minmax,” on the other hand, seems to take its point of departure by recognizing that Ruggles conceived it as a brief study in the ambiguity of dissonance. For Ruggles that meant deliberately avoiding establishing whether the prevailing mode was minor or major, which explains Polansky’s choice of title. However, what is interesting is that, by playing on a fretless instrument, Polansky could extend that capacity for ambiguity much further than Ruggles was able to express with six trumpeters who, by virtue of training and experience, were locked into the intonation of the equal-tempered chromatic scale. This would explain why Polansky called the piece a “translation,” rather than a “transcription.” I would be willing to guess that Polansky saw his “translation” as a way in which to situate “Angels” in a “domain of intonation” more conducive to what Ruggles may have actually had in mind.