Saturday, August 18, 2018

Phillip Bimstein’s Refreshing Imagination

composer Phillip Bimstein (courtesy of Other Minds)

The title of the third of the four new digital-only albums recently released by Other Minds Records in its Modern Hits series is Angels, Cats & Shackles. Each of these plural nouns refers to one of the compositions by Phillip Bimstein on the album, although not in that “order of appearance.” Like most of the composers that have been associated with Other Minds over the course of that organization’s history, Bimstein is highly imaginative. However, where many composers venture into experimental territory with intense seriousness, Bimstein is one of those composers whose music, even when it is serious, seems to be consistently tinged with signs of what John Cage called a “sunny disposition.”

The “nuts and bolts” of Bimstein’s path to becoming a composer is summarized in a single paragraph in the text of the accompanying booklet:
Bimstein was born in Chicago and is a graduate of Chicago Conservatory of Music, where he majored in theory & composition. In the 1980s he led the new wave band Phil ‘n’ the Blanks, whose three albums and six videos were college radio and MTV hits. After further studies at UCLA in composition, orchestration and conducting, Bimstein took a hiking trip to southern Utah and never left.
What emerged was an approach to composition that tended to reflect the world around Bimstein, rather than just the ideas knocking around in his head. The environment of southern Utah (which I have visited and relished, along with others far greater than I, such as Olivier Messiaen) seems to have triggered and refined Bimstein’s skills as a listener, skills that would then initiate his efforts in composition. The most straightforward example of this approach is the piece associated with the first noun in the album title, “Angels in the Cracks.” This is a “sound poem,” based on recording sounds in the natural environment and then fashioning musique concrète through processing techniques, editing, and mixing.

Ironically, the sources for “Angels in the Cracks” did not come from Utah. Instead, the piece was based on sounds recorded during a visit Bimstein made to Great Britain in 1995 to meet his girlfriend’s relatives. The result amounts to a “tour” of the British Isles that is initially based in London but extends as far as the Isle of Skye. Those wishing a “guide” for this tour will find it in the notes that Bimstein contributed to the accompanying booklet.

The other two compositions, on the other hand, are based solidly on Bimstein’s “home turf.” The “shackles” part of the title refers to “Lockdown,” which he describes as a “techno tome poem” and composed in 2005. In this case his source material consists of sounds and voices made at the Washington County Youth Crisis Center in St. George. The recordings were made over a series of visits between 1997 and 1999. This is clearly a political effort, and the composition has been used to promote dialogue over the state’s approach to both youth detention and crime prevention. However, the piece has also been given concert performances, and Bimstein prepared a score for his quartet blue haiku to play in synchronization with the concrete sounds. The quartet consists of oboe, violin, guitar, and bass; but Bimstein allows the score to be transcribed for other instrumentation.

Bimstein is clearly serious about his politics. Indeed, he is serious enough to have served two terms as mayor of his home town, Springdale. This led Outside magazine to declare him “America’s only all-natural politician-composer.” He would reflect back on his political service in his 2017 TEDx Talk “How to Practice Politics with Music in Mind.”

Far less political is the most recent (2007) composition on the album, a three-movement suite entitled Cats in the Kitchen. Bimstein describes this piece as follows:
Cats in the Kitchen was originally scored for flute, oboe, meows, purrs, cracked eggs, sliced onions, buttered toast, sizzling skillets, spoons, knives, pepper grinder, toaster oven, pots, pans, draining dishwater, and pretty much everything else in the kitchen “sync.” The sound score also features feline duets and trios, cat food crunches, waterdrums, and my partner Charlotte Bell speaking to her beloved cat, Fiona McGee, who sadly passed on shortly after this piece was composed. The flute and oboe playfully dance and weave with the sounds and each other, sometimes in imitation or dialogue with the cats, and at other times cooking up their own fanciful filigree.
As may be guessed, there is no shortage of wit in this suite. The instrumentalists are oboist Michele Fiala and flutist Heidi Pintner; and the piece was commissioned for them by Western Kentucky University, through its Provost’s Initiatives for Excellence Fund and the Potter College of Arts and Letters. This is the first piece on the album, and it definitely draws the listener into Bimstein’s world in which awareness of ordinary sounds affords a magic unto itself. By providing this playful introduction, the album then prepares the listener for the other exercises in listening that unfold over the remaining two compositions.

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