Rebekah Heller’s Strange Bassoon Adventure

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METAFAGOTE / STEIGER: Concatenation. FUJIKURA: Following. ECKARDT: A Compendium of Catskill Native Botanicals, from Book 2: “Wild Ginger.” LARA: Metafagote / Rebekah Heller, bsn; electronics / New Focus/Tundra tun006

They say that if you live long enough, you’ll hear things you never imagined possible. This is one of them. Any preconceived notions you may have had about bassoon music are blown clear out the windows by this new release, for Rebekah Heller and her bad-ass bassoon (just look at her attitude on the cover!) are here to explode them.

The music is modern, challenging, and best of all, interesting. Four composers with a single directive, to write music for solo bassoon and electronics, all responded with different and very imaginative settings. I can’t say that any of this music is easy or accessible, for it is not. On the contrary, it’s rather forbidding; but it’s well constructed, interesting, and stretches the instrument to entirely new limits.

Rand Steiger’s Concatenation, which opens the recital, sets the bassoon in an echo chamber, occasionally using feedback, echo effects and distortion to propel his ideas. The composer has described this work as one where “a set of contrasting materials, any one of which could have been the subject of an etude, are laid out and interwoven into a continuous conversation. In this piece, there are seven different kinds of material,” and as each character is introduced the different kinds of material “begin an increasingly interwoven dialogue with each other.” My lone complaint was that, in the closing two minutes of the piece, it became so deconstructed that even I had some trouble following it.

Next up is Dai Fujikura’s Following. This is surprisingly lyrical, and in fact includes no electronics at all. It gives Heller a chance to show just how good she is on the bassoon; her tone is so pure here that most of the time it sounds like an alto saxophone, and a very fine one at that (think Johnny Hodges or Jimmy Dorsey). Although lyrical, the piece is also quite daring harmonically, but Fujikara never loses sight of the long line of the music and holds the listener’s interest from start to finish. There is also some real invention and development going on here, which makes the performance all the more interesting.

By contrast, Jason Eckardt’s A Compendium of Catskill Native Botanicals, Asarum canadense, “Wild Ginger” uses microtones and snippets of melody which simulate the feeling of ritual chanting. This, too, is played without any electronics or overdubs. In this piece, Heller’s tone surely does not resemble anything but a bassoon. The music also includes several surprising “dead stops” in which one assumes the music is over, yet it continues to go on and develop.

The last piece is perhaps the most complex. Felipe Lara layers seven bassoons in all, six of them pre-recorded, bookended by the sound of waves rushing up on the shore. Some of the pre-recorded bassoons are sped up in order to enhance the upper range of the instrument, and there are also some odd “knocking” sounds thrown in for good measure. Slithering, rising chromatics are heard just before the four-minute mark, enhancing an already strange musical experience. Later on, at about 6:30, a sort of reverb-echo effect is achieved by having the pre-recorded bassoons overlap sustained B-flats in almost a hocket style while the “live” bassoon plays stabbing figures in and around them. Later on the background bassoons play varying figures while the live one distorts tones and plays somewhat microtonally. Eventually the interaction becomes quite complex, the background bassoons almost sounding like a choir behind a vocal soloist. It’s a very odd piece, but also a very interesting one.

By and large, this is a fascinating release, and each piece is the world premiere recording. If nothing else, it should expand the minds of listeners and other composers as to the timbral and technical possibilities of the bassoon, and instrument that, too often, gets no respect.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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