Monday, March 25, 2019

An Imaginative New Album from Splinter Reeds

courtesy of Naxos of America

Those who have been following this site for some time may recall that, a little over two years ago, I wrote an article about Carve, the debut solo album on Innova by bassoonist Dana Jessen. I took the liberty of introducing Jessen on the basis of how I already knew of her work, first as a member of the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players and then as one of the founding members of the Splinter Reeds quintet. As its name implies, the latter consists entirely of players of reed instruments, both double (Jessen and Kyle Bruckmann alternating between oboe and English horn) and single (Bill Kalinkos on clarinet, Jeff Anderle on bass clarinet, and Dave Wegehaupt on saxophones).

Around the middle of this month, New Focus Recordings released the latest album of performances by Splinter Reeds. I must “come clean” at the outset by observing that I welcomed this release for its ability to allow me to revisit several of the pieces I had enjoyed listening to Splinter Reeds play in concerts. Those occasions included a recital in Pamela Z’s 2017 ROOM Series followed by Anderle’s Faculty Artist Recital at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) in September of the same year. Indeed, the SFCM concert “primed the pump” of my interest, so to speak, by revisiting some of the ROOM Series selections. As a result, I was well prepared for the works of three of the composers on the new Splinter Reeds album, entitled Hypothetical Islands: Cara Haxo, Eric Wubbels, and Theresa Wong. According to my records, the title of the album is also the title of a composition by Yannis Kyriakides that was scheduled for SFCM but, unless I am mistaken, was not performed.

I should probably begin with the composition that turned out to provide a “guilty pleasure” experience. “Auditory Scene Analysis II,” composed by Wubbels, was given its San Francisco premiere at the ROOM Series recital. This event was a rather casual affair that found me talking back to the performers when they tried to explain the title, getting as far as saying that it was taken from the title of a book. I then chimed in with the name of the author, Albert S. Bregman. As I cited when I wrote about the ROOM Series concert, I had reviewed this book for Computer Music Journal; and my review was published in 1991.

When I look back on the experience of reading this book as a reviewer, I am reminded of a sentence from a lecture that Vladimir Nabokov gave on the subject of Fyodor Dostoevsky (whom he disliked intensely):
The mediocre … can at least afford a mischievous but very healthy pleasure, as you stamp and groan through a second-rate book which has been awarded a prize.
Bregman certainly won his share of prizes, but none of them would probably be recognizable to most readers. His big idea involved representations of sound that are called sonograms. These are basically shapes on graph paper whose horizontal axis represents the flow of time and whose vertical axis corresponds to frequencies in the range of audibility. “Scene Analysis” involved the process of describing sounds on the basis of describing regions on a sonogram, where they are placed and how they relate to one another. Bregman’s book was not only inconclusive but also very poorly written, including 100 pages of content that can be found (word-for-word) in two different sections.

Listening to “Auditory Scene Analysis II” left me with the impression that Wubbels was no more impressed by Bregman’s efforts than I was. However, while I opted for the Nabokov gambit, Wubbels took it out on Bregman by composing music. It would not surprise me if his intention was to create an auditory “signal” whose sonogram was so resistant to image processing (scene analysis) software as to lack any clue about what was “signal” and what was “noise.” One might call the result one of “frolicking” auditory content dancing on the ill-defined boundary between signal and noise; and, for my money at least, the result is a real hoot.

Wong’s “Letters to a Friend” also involves teasing signal out of the noise; but her technique is entirely different. Wong’s “friend” was Alessia Pugliatti, who died very young of a rare form of cancer. The “letters” of the title carry a double meaning. Wong chose to memorialize Pugliatti through the poem “O Pulsar” by Brazilian Augusto de Campos. However, rather than composing a song using these words as text, she translated every letter of the text into its representation as Morse code, endowing the entire poem with a rhythmic representation (the plural noun in the title) that is then deployed over the five Splinter Reeds instruments. As might be imagined, execution of this piece demands intense concentration and discipline; but the Splinter Reeds performance emerges as a highly compelling experience.

My previous Haxo encounter was with “Ode,” the second of two “exercises” that she composed for Splinter Reeds, the first being titled “Inattendu” (unexpected). “Ode” is the more lyrical, keenly attentive to subtle shifts in sonority through changes in instrumentation. “Inattendu,” on the other hand is pointillist in structure. However, while Georges Seurat could convey sophisticated shapes and lighting effects through his approach to pointillism, one gets the impression that Haxo is keeping her “points” as disjoined as possible, thus avoiding any sense of shape (or the expectation of such a sense of shape). Because these pieces are exercises, they can be taken for honing technical skills of execution. Splinter Reeds offers a well-honed execution that avoids any suggestion of tedious pedagogy.

Of the remaining compositions on the album, the title work is the one that will require more listening experiences than I have managed thus far. The piece itself incorporates electronics. However, given the broad diversity of sonorities arising from the Splinter Reeds players, one gets the impression that Kyriakides expects the listener to confuse the electronic and physical sources. Rhetorically, the result captures at least some of the sense of an island as isolated territory (and, if that island is only hypothetical, then it is probably even more isolated). This is the piece that most resists casual listening; but, on the basis of what I have experienced thus far, the more attention one engages, the more one is likely to come away with a satisfying achievement of sensemaking.

Matthew Shlomowitz’ “Line and Length,” which is the opening track, is far more explicit in its intentions. HIs “lines” tend to emerge as glissando patterns of different “lengths.” This is “fun music,” as is the one remaining selection on the album, Sky Macklay’s “Choppy.” However, while Shlomowitz romps his way through glissandos, Macklay goes for the brash sounds of multiphonic effects, always flirting with the delicate balance between playful eccentricity and stark-raving madness.

Taken as a whole, the content on this album is a bit on the modest side, slightly less than an hour of music. Nevertheless, each composition has its own distinctive way of seizing and holding listener attention. Both the individual piece and the album as a whole are likely to admit significant attention from any serious listener.

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