counter)induction’s Modern Works


D. BOYCE: The Hunt By Night. K. BARTLETT: Before. SINGLETON: Eine Kleine Volkslied.* J. MEYER: Forgiveness. STREBER: Piano Quartet. TEDESCO: Scherzo / counter)induction: Miranda Cuckson, vln; Jessica Meyer, vla; Caleb van der Swaagh, cello; Benjamin Fingland, cl; Daniel Lippel, gtr; Ning Yu, pno; *Jeffrey Irving, vib; *Renate Rohfling, pno; *Randall Zigler, bs / New Focus Recordings FCR278

The propensity of modern chamber groups to play and record music that is not only from the same school of composition but sounds so much like other composers’ works continues to grow. Although I enjoy some of these pieces, and some of them very much, the point remains that too many modern composers are writing in the exact same style. I’ve wondered why they just don’t pool their talents and call themselves “Conglomerate” or “Legion” and publish their music under that group name.

Douglas Boyce’s cute little piece for clarinet, piano and cello opens the program, and I really liked this one although both its “edgy” opening and ostinato rhythm make it sound like nearly two dozen other pieces I’ve heard by two dozen other composers. The music is playful and develops well, although it seemed to me that the cello just popped in now and then for color. Most of the time it is inaudible, meaning that it is either not playing or not well recorded if it is, but in the slow section of this piece the cellist does indeed play some curious and somewhat humorous figures. Apparently, this is background music for one of Elmer Fudd’s hunts by night.

Kyle Bartlett’s Before is described in the booklet as having a “contingency on action and physicality.” but according to the classic definition of the word, a contingency is an event that may occur but is not likely to happen. Thus this is not the appropriate word choice to describe this piece because “action and physicality” actually DO happen. There’s your free English lesson for the day. It opens with rhythmic raps on something (the piano?) while a bass clarinet plays softly in the background. The opening is all off-rhythms, scratchy sounds and the like, nothing really approaching music in the conventional sense of the word. Then, at about 2:08, a clarinet plays a series of odd, atonal, almost comical licks, sounding like a circus clown on LSD. Eventually, these odd licks become a little more focused as music, while the cello divebombs into electronic noise. Puh-leeze, Kyle, spare me your “genius.”

Alvin Singleton’s Eine Kleine Volkslied also start out with edgy cello figures and a bass clarinet, to which a guitar is added, but this piece has a bit more form and shape to it and although the music develops in somewhat awkward movement, it does develop and thus I found it quite interesting. The rest of the group falls away to allow the vibraphonist to play a neat little series of figures, into which the piano and guitar interject comments of its own. Then the vibes become much more animated while the guitar remains calm, but eventually the piano (and cello) get in on the act. This is one of those pieces in which themes and variants are juxtaposed rather than developing along classic lines, but at least it’s interesting and not entirely the conventional type of modern music I mentioned earlier.

Jessica Meyer’s Forgiveness opens with what sounds like someone breathing into an open tube, possibly the bass clarinet, although an instrument called a “loop pedal” is also used on this track. Eventually, a second breather—or, more accurately, a sniffer—comes into the picture, with the “loop pedal,” which sounds like a Chinese flute that can play chords, droning in the background. I found the piece interesting because of its oddness, though for the life of me I haven’t a clue what the bass clarinet was sniffing throughout this piece. Maybe a dog looking for its food dish. Around the four-minute mark, the loop pedal begins playing a drone, sounding very much like a foghorn. Eventually, the bass clarinet begins to wax rhapsodic in a surprisingly melodic figure that is woven into this strangeness.

If, by this point, you thought that Ryan Streber’s Piano Quartet would sound a bit more conventional, you’ve been deluding yourself. It, too, is a strange, edgy piece, albeit a quiet one in which the violin whimpers while the viola plays strange, distorted figures, although the music does coalesce a bit once the piano and cello enter. This strange, atonal melody goes along for a while before the tempo picks up and things do get rather edgy. Steber says in the notes that this piece is “based on a melodic idea that came to me while driving on a winding country road” which he could not get out of his head. I can understand his not getting it out of its head; it’s why such an odd, atonal tune would pop up in the first place that puzzles me. But yes, eventually the music moves into that fast-edgy-stiff-rhythm format so beloved by dozens of modern composers nowadays. It’s an interesting piece in which, again, neither the style nor the format are very original.

We end with Diego Tedesco’s Scherzo, described by the composer as “a written-out joke for guitar, clarinet, violin, viola and cello.” The core material of this piece is a descending chromatic scale which Tedesco has a lot of fun with; the strings pluck and plunk their way along as the guitar tosses in a few chords and the clarinet plays around. Again, the style is borrowed, but at least in this piece the results are original. The middle section is nothing more that a series of scratching sounds before the music picks up again. I really liked it, particularly as a closing number, though I did feel that eight and a half minutes dragged the “joke” out a bit too long.

One small complaint: Do the liner notes really have to start with the words “OK, so”? I detest it when I hear people speak like this, which they do all the time on NPR. If this is what written liner notes, let alone everyday conversation, has devolved into, I’m just going to shoot myself now.

counter)induction is clearly comprised of excellent musicians who are dedicated to playing modern works, and for that I applaud them. I only wish that the program presented here was more consistently musical and a bit less aimed at effect.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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