Mike Harley Comes Closer With his Bassoon!

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COME CLOSER / FITZ ROGERS: Come Closer for 4 Bassoons. FREUND: Miphadventures. SCHIMMEL: Alarums and Excursions: A Puzzle-Burlesque in 4 Polymythian Acts. F. MAN: Lament . BAIN: Totality. BURHANS: Harbinger of Sorrows. J. JONES: Yonder / Michael Harley, bsn; Ari Streisfeld, vln; Daniel Sweaney, vla; Claire Bryant, cello; Philip Bush, pno / New Focus Recordings FCR240

Michael Harley teaches bassoon, coaches chamber music, and is artistic director of the Southern Exposure New Music Series at the University of South Carolina. He is also a founding member of the contemporary music chamber orchestra Alarm Will Sound., so he has a firm commitment to modern music, which I appreciate.

Part of this album’s aesthetic is described by Harley in the liner notes thus:

Classical music being written today lives in a post-genre world. It is not uncommon to hear the influences of, say, minimalist master Steve Reich, avant-garde icon John Cage, and Led Zeppelin converge on the same program or even within a single piece.

But this is where Harley and I have our strong differences of opinion. I, for one, don’t want to hear rock music influence in ANY music, classical or jazz, because it doesn’t fit. Both types of music are, or at least should be, music that develops, whether it be from the composer’s pen or the spontaneous improvisation of a jazz soloist, but rock music doesn’t develop at all, not even when one of their whiny electric guitarists start “jammin’” during a piece. The reason is, as jazz great Roy Eldridge pointed out in the 1960s, “The jazz beat goes somewhere. The rock beat stays somewhere,” thus within those parameters you simply can’t have it both ways. You either stagnate rhythmically and musically or you move forward and develop. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Yet liked some of the music on this album. John Fitz Rogers’ Come Closer is a case in point. Written for four bassoons, it is played here only by Harley, who multiple-tracked himself using a click track. This is very much a minimalist piece, and although I know that minimalism is really big with younger listeners nowadays, I tend to shy away from it for the same reason I shy away from rock: it doesn’t really develop, though it does change a little more often. This piece is a perfect example. It’s ebullient and fun to hear but doesn’t really “say” anything; it’s just a collection of staccato notes bouncing around in your ear. Nonetheless, it wasn’t a bad opening piece despite the fact that it went on too long (11:24).

By contrast, Stephan Freund’s Miphadventures is a more lyrical work with a tiny bit of a blues-jazz feel in the piano part. The piece is divided into two sections, titled “Longingly” and “Excited,” the second of these featuring some unusual time signatures such as 7/8 and 5/8. Yet this piece works in exactly the way that Come Closer does not, in that the music is well and interestingly developed. Incidentally, there haven’t been many players who could swing on the bassoon, so Harley is scarcely alone there. The only one I have heard make the bassoon swing were multi-reed player Adrian Rollini, who was also the only man who could make the bass saxophone and the “hot fountain pen” swing, as well as Frank Tiberi and Ray Pizzi. Fortunately, Harley has the assistance on this one of pianist Philip Bush, and he is excellent at what jazz musicians used to call the “slow drag” beat. I found this to be an exceptionally interesting piece, well written and with real development both thematically and rhythmically. Harley does a good job on it. This piece is over 13 minutes long, but there’s not a wasted second in it.

Next up is Carl Schimmel’s Alarums and Misadventures, which starts with a loud, ominous piano flourish before moving into slower, moodier music, in some of which the bassoon slithers around through chromatic glissandi. Again, pianist Bush helps to push bassoonist Harley through edgy syncopated passages with aplomb. This one sounds a little like the Loch Ness monster suddenly ingesting a wad of LSD and not knowing how to handle it. There are ups, downs, and even dead stops in the music. Some of it sounds organic and developed, some of it doesn’t, such as the serrated bassoon figures played at the 7:30 mark, but overall it’s a fascinating work.

Fang Man’s Lament is described as “The album’s most sonically adventurous work.” Adventurous it most certainly is, calling for the soloist to play buzzed chords through his reed in his entrance and other unusual effects, but effects are all you get in this piece. As Gertrude Stein once observed, “There’s no there there.” Or, as Charles Mingus once said, “You can’t improvise on nothing.” You also can’t hang a bunch of odd effects together and call them a composition.

Reginald Bain’s Totality for bassoon and piano combines the kind of modern music I refer to as “schlumph,” a string of edgy motifs, with minimalism. Some of it is interesting and works, but in several places I felt that Bain ran himself into the center of his own musical maze and couldn’t quite figure how to extricate himself except to move on to yet another theme or motif and hope for the best. Fortunately, pianist Bush’s excellent sense of linear playing helps to pull most of this together. This, then, was an instance of the performance succeeding where the actual notes on the paper did not. Divided into four sections, I felt that it was just a bit too episodic with no real affinity or continuity between the episodes. The occasional detours into minimalism didn’t really help.

Caleb Burhans’ Harbinger of Sorrows is a real piece with a genuine theme and real development. Indeed, as the piece went on, the sad, slow melodic line underwent some intriguing and ingenious permutations while the repeated piano chord sequence seemed to remain the same.

We end our excursion with Jesse Jones’ Yonder for bassoon, piano and string trio. This was clearly one of the most complex and well-developed pieces on the album. As the notes put it, it traverses “Sacred-Harp hymnody and balletic dance rhythms, across lugubrious pits of Stravinskian mud, to ecstatic major-chord vistas and back again.” Clearly a well-thought-out and well-developed piece in addition to having some genuinely exciting moments. I especially liked the section beginning around the five-minute mark, in which Jones wrote some genuinely inspired polyphony using the five instruments that weaves in and around itself. This is good stuff!

A mixed review, then, as is so often the case with modern music CDs, but the good pieces are clearly worth hearing, and hearing several times in order to examine their inner workings.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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