Scrooge, Saxes and Sonic Circuits: Four from Innova

Grant Chu Covell

[April 2001. Orginally appeared in La Folia 3:3.]

New music refuses to go away. Organizations like the American Composers Forum (ACF) (http://www.composersforum.org/) and the American Music Center (AMC) (http://www.amc.net/) are nurturing a thriving environment of composers, performers and educators, all of whom are dedicated to the creation, promulgation and performing of new music. The AMC does many cool things including running the wonderful webzine NewMusicBox (http://www.newmusicbox.org/), and among the many cool things the ACF does is run a CD label called Innova (http://www.innovarecordings.com/).

A fresh handful of new Innova releases demonstrates the American Composers Forum’s diversity and commitment in attending to new American music and performers.

“Sonic Circuits 8.” Preston WRIGHT: Carpenter Ant Blues; Philip MANTIONE: Sinusoidal Tendencies; John Von SEGGERN: Hyper Erhu; Katherine GORDON: Holding Patterns; Malte STEINER: Draht Welt; Antun BLAZINOVIC: Elements; Francis DHOMONT: En Cuerdas; Michael KOSCH: Colatudes; David JAGGARD: Mary & Ann. Innova 117 .

Over the past years, the American Composers Forum has curated a program of electroacoustic music (taped, live and visual material) by composers and sound-artists around the world for its Sonic Circuits International Electronic Music Festival (http://www.soniccircuits.com/). The works which are for tape alone (no live performers or video components) are put onto a CD and distributed to live venues all over, and are meant to provide an up-to-the-minute glimpse into current trends in electroacoustic music.

This year’s disc (2000-2001) is delightful, presenting nine works by established composers as well as students. I noticed immediately the very clean and present sound-quality of the disc, and the rich sound of these electroacoustic works.

Surprisingly, quite a few of the works are strongly rhythmic: Preston Wright’s perky and fast moving Carpenter Ant Blues combines the nature of musique concrète with rapid fire arrangement of small samples. John Von Seggern’s Hyper Erhu derives most of its content from a sample of an erhu, a traditional Chinese violin instrument. Michael Kosch’s Colatudes are three short works for dance, and Antun Blazinovic’s Elements is the closest work on the disc to a standard pop song.

Works like Malte Steiner’s Draht Welt, Katherine Gordon’s Holding Patterns and Francis Dhomont’s En Cuerdas have wonderful spreads of sounds and movements. Dhomont’s work is probably the most complicated of all with a gamut of electroacoustic sound production techniques and manipulation in this wonderful extended composition. Gordon explores a drone through layering and combining, including some very obscured processes speech sounds. Steiner work is much like a travelogue through sine wave manipulation where a fixed time spent on each variation yields a comprehensive whole.

Of the nine works, only the longest makes specific use of voice: David Jaggard’s Mary & Ann. The text is excerpted from Samuel Beckett’s Watt, a wonderful text almost needing no further accompaniment or elaboration, which Jaggard colors with a continuous and somewhat clever dadaist sound track of effects and gentle manipulation of the spoken voice.

“BROOKLYN SAX QUARTET: The Way of the Saxophone.” David BINDMAN: Climate Conditions; Pier Sketch; Fred HO: Hipster Harvey; Duke ELLINGTON: In a Sentimental Mood; Ghana (Eve)/BINDMAN: Gadzo; Fats WALLER: Jitterbug Waltz. David Bindman, Fred Ho, Sam Furnace, Chris Jonas, saxophones. Innova 549.

Here’s the debut disc of four guys doing what they like to do best. The Brooklyn Sax Quartet is a secure and balanced group, and here they’re playing original compositions and arrangements that cover the spectrum of sax quartet possibilities. I get the most out of the completely original compositions, David Bindman’s Pier Sketch and Climate Conditions and Fred Ho’s Hipster Harvey. This quartet is ages away from others who specialize in that odd genre of museum-lobby quality, thin-lipped and somewhat repressed 20th century French saxophone quartets (Rivier, Bozza, Françaix, etc.).

Right off the top, Bindman’s Climate Conditions is a humid, almost sultry work which reflects the summer of its composition: I can hear the musicians lolling on a fire escape working through this one. The arrangements of the Ellington and Waller take us through some enchanted and almost devious solos, elsewhere there are very tight duos which reflect deep listening between the players. In Gadzo, based on music from Ghana, the soprano sax is wondrously transformed into an indigenous and nasal reed instrument.

My only disappointment is that the disc sounds too much like it was done in one take and in sequential order. It’s probably an artifact of my listening equipment (and that in the stereo field I tend to hear low sounds at left and high sounds at right), but I would have liked to hear the instruments come from different places in different numbers.

Richard DIRLAM:”She Sings, She Screams.” Mark ENGEBRETSON: The Bear; She Sings, She Screams; Eric STOKES: Eldey Island; Edison DENISOV: Sonata; Jacques CHARPENTIER: Gavambodi 2; Christian LAUBA: Hard; Marius CONSTANT: Musique de Concert. Richard Dirlam, Mark Engebretson (saxophones); Laura Loewen (piano). Innova 543.

Here is as varied a recital disc as any, capturing the excitement and richness of the saxophone. Richard Dirlam, on alto sax (and baritone too), takes on a few standard rep pieces (Edison Denisov’s Sonata and the prolific Marius Constant’s Musique de Concert) alongside some recent pieces for saxophone ensemble and saxophone with tape.

Exploring the serious and pensive side of the sax, Dirlam is a very sensitive and agile player. A few fast and glittering moments in the Constant stand out especially, and make the accompanying piano seem like an immobile and lumbering elephant. But this is not a reflection on Loewen’s capabilities as pianist: she is steady and confident, providing intelligent accompaniments that do steal the limelight.

I return to on repeated hearings: Charpentier’s Gavambodi 2, imagining that this is what Messiaen for sax might have sounded like.

Jon DEAK: The Passion of Scrooge, or A Christmas Carol. 20th Century Consort, Christopher Kendall (dir.); David Salness and Marissa Regni (violins); Daniel Foster (viola); David Hardy (cello); Robert Oppelt (contrabass); Dotian Levalier (harp); Sara Stern (flute); Loren Kitt (clarinet); Edwin Thayer (horn); Thomas Jones (percussion). Innova 545.

A weird and wonderful disc. Jon Deak’s music is truly inspired, some might contend delirious. He is a composer of exquisitely wrought theatrical pieces, many pretending to be for children though the consummate detailing tells otherwise. Deak’s music glides between parody and pastiche, and is an enchanted land where phrases and gestures recalling other music flit by in small phrases. In this way Deak’s music is like the great cartoon scores of yesteryear (I’m thinking of Warner Bros. scores by Carl Stalling, as on the Carl Stalling Project: Music from Warner Bros. Cartoons).

I tend to think that performing Deak is not easy: tiny gestures are rapidly tossed from soloist to soloist. The 20th Century Consort under Christopher Kendall does an inspired and wonderful job. William Sharp is the sole and solo voice in this operatic miniature derived from Dickens’s classic. Sharp carries all the roles, and bounds through them clearly and nimbly (some live recording and amplification tricks do lend some spatialization).

This is also the first CD I’ve seen which has computer-created stereograms scattered throughout the booklet. You’re supposed to cross your eyes to see them.