Listening List: Krauss, Muller, Wubbels, Zaldua

This week's selections live in a sound world of austere beauty, my favorite kind. I begin with Morgan Krauss's child of the mandrake for alto flute and voice. This piece is like a strange vapor of vocal fry and alto flute emanating from the mouth of a well. The approach to text setting, in which only bits of discernible language make it to the audible surface while the remaining words become enmeshed in the surrounding texture, is one of which I've always been fond. Here is a haunting performance by Frauke Aulbert and Shanna Gutierrez:

Next is Otto Muller's Violin and Nails (Sketch) which, as the title indicates, is scored for a traditional violin and an instrument the composer built that he refers to as a "nail fiddle." The resulting sounds are extraordinary. Otto and I attended Northwestern together years ago and, upon hearing this piece, I wrote to him to learn more about the nail fiddle. His response revealed a whole philosophy behind creating instruments from everyday materials:

"They (nail fiddles) are quite fickle and ephemeral in terms of intonation, which is kind of why I like them. I've also been making cigar box viols, garden hose trombones, etc. I started to feel like, if the sound world that I'm interested in is at the edge of the techniques and intended capacities of traditional instruments (and not necessarily the "cutting" edge, but just the edge), why not create instruments that yield these sounds (and only these sounds) in the hands of amateurs."

To that end, Otto, who teaches at Goddard College in Vermont, recently started a group called the Rural Noise Ensemble. They describe themselves as, "A collective of composers, musicians, and makers investigating uniquely rural sound worlds and musical practices." These practices include the use of invented instruments. I truly look forward to hearing more from both Otto and the Rural Noise Ensemble.

Before I get to the next recording, a quick related note of interest. Last weekend I had the pleasure of hearing the Mivos Quartet perform a reduced version of being time by Eric Wubbels.  To my knowledge, a recording of this work is not yet available. It is, however, a piece that should be on your radar. The full-scale version is scored for "string quartet and electronic sound" and is described on the EMPAC site as follows:

"Titled being time, the piece is an audio variation on the psychological experience of time. Extending nearly an hour, it moves from sections of extreme slowness and static sustains to high-energy plateaus of dense, saturated sound textures. In the final sequence, quadraphonic electronic sound pushes the performance into an altogether new dimension, creating vivid psychoacoustic illusions by using extremely high sine waves."

The version presented last weekend was much shorter (around 25 minutes) and did not include the electronic component. Even so, the temporal experience in this truncated arrangement was striking, leaving me with the sense that far less time had elapsed. I can't wait to hear the full-scale version. Check out images of Wubbels's beautiful hand-drawn score for being time on the EMPAC site.

As we await future performances and recordings of being time, let's revisit an older work, beata viscera for flute, clarinet, trumpet, piano, percussion, violin and cello (excerpt presented below). The composer's program notes about this work are quite interesting and end with the following:

"Fundamentally, this music grows from a refusal to acknowledge the apparent separateness of the individual instruments, or even the individual people playing them. Instead, they're related like the fingers of a hand, or the limbs and organs of a single body."

The idea of fusing multiple timbres into a singular entity relates to the last piece on the list, Alistair Zaldua's Contrajours for piano and electronics, about which the composer writes:

"The title refers to a technique in photography where the main image is almost totally obscured by having been photographed against the main source of light: 'against the day(light)'. My intention wasn't in hiding anything; the blind spots in this piece attempt to describe the proximities or disconnections between electronics and pianist whilst conceiving of both as a singular instrument."

Enjoy and be sure to check back next week for more suggested listening.