Squawk ‘n Splat ‘n Blat

The Strand Book Store on Broadway, two blocks south of Union Square in NYC is a book lover’s paradise, an amazing place for spending hours upon hours browsing. I’d almost forgotten the pleasure of actually going to a real store, holding a book that’s caught my attention, flipping through the pages, skimming a paragraph here and there, or picking up a CD, reading the back cover and deciding whether to take a chance on it. Staring at a computer screen to flip through books and CDs doesn’t have the same physical attributes. It’s convenient, but there’s nothing like getting the object of your interest squarely in your hands, feeling its shape, weight, texture. It must be instinctive. Think about the way toddlers reach out to grasp everything when they want to see.

After controlling myself from buying a stack of books that I have no room for on already overstuffed shelves, I allowed myself, or should I say risked, a glance at the CD department. Well, not quite a department, more like “here are the remainders before we do away with CDs altogether” corner. The compensation for the small selection—most are recent releases and all were under $10, many $5.99. I bought only five—this visit.

The first one I listened to is entirely solo saxophone. The thrust of the music is the exploration of the vast range of sounds the artist can force out of his old 1935 Conn Alto and 1933 Buescher Soprano. This recording treats the ears to nearly 60 minutes of multiphonics, squeaks, overtones, grunts, honks and squawks, sparsely mixed with conventional tones in short, loosely conceptualized pieces showing the obvious signs of improvisation. His schtick on this CD is to make the kinds of sounds that beginners on the saxophone struggle not to make. Ironically, producing these effects on purpose and with good control is very, very difficult. It’s a testament to the artist’s virtuosity, and I’ll admit, curiously entertaining—for about 15 minutes, after which it’s believable that this could be something demonic, or a form of alien music torture. Strike one on the new batch of CDs.

Next up was Light On, music by composer Stefan Poetzsch, an electro-acoustic venture. This is not casual listening music. It requires attention to appreciate it despite plenty of easy to grasp ostinato and repetitive motifs reminiscent of minimalism, yet not that incessant. His moments of inspiration are intermingled with stretches of tedium, leaving me on the fence between attraction and apathy. The music is sonically “interesting” and frequently rhythmic. Its force comes in the use of common instruments, violin, cello, piano, organ, harpsichord, drum set and percussion, contrasted against electronic sources, digital processing and prerecorded found sounds in a quizzical patchwork of the traditional juxtaposed with the experimental. Good one, but. . .

Bleet. . , blonk, clink-bo-n-n-n-g. . . Cabinet of Curiosities is the title piece of a collection of percussion music by Robert Moran. The works on this CD span almost 40 years of his graphic percussion scores written from 1962 to 2010. Moran uses this unconventional notation for a specific and manipulative reason. Most classically trained musicians are not schooled in, or comfortable with improvisation. Through the use of his graphic scoring technique, musicians still have the crutch of a ‘written’ score to follow, but without the rigid constrictions of ordinary notation on staves with strict key and time signatures. This unlocks (if not requires) a freer, more personal interpretation from the musicians. The tactic clearly works. These pieces sound spontaneous and no two performances will be exactly alike. He incorporates a vast range of percussion instruments overlaid with tonal instruments for color. The music is mostly arrhythmic, loosely organized, yet imbued with subtle mysteriousness. The random nature of most of his compositions gives the listener little to hang onto except for the last piece, an earlier work from 1966 entitled Bombardments. It develops patterns interspersed with regular beats which effectively infects the brain’s music centers. On the whole, each piece on this CD is intriguing and would be a welcomed part in a concert mixed with different styles from various composers, but seventy-one minutes of irregular clinks and clangs get a bit monotonous. Another good one, but. . .

By shear luck, I listened to the best of the bunch last. (I’m leaving out the fifth CD because it doesn’t fit musically.) Soundworlds by composer Barton McLean is a collection of his works traversing two decades. His specialty is avant-garde computer music. This disc presents us with a spectrum of electronic, computer, electro-acoustic, found and nature sounds all heavily processed with cutting edge digital audio tools. McLean leaves no stone unturned, no sonic source untapped. He generously uses the entire bandwidth of human hearing. (You could almost use this CD as a hearing test.) If you can listen to his music and not be captivated intellectually, emotionally, and aurally, you’re not giving the music or yourself a fair chance. The first piece is an unconventional piano concerto, performed by McLean and accompanied by a music sequencer (named the Petersburgh Electrophilharmonia) in place of an orchestra. Concerto: States of Being is three relatively short movements each expressing a state through the subtitles, Wonder, Attainment, Tranquility. Wonder, despite its atonality, pleases with shades of consonance. He manipulates comprehensible motifs to hang your hat on, one of which recurs to hook all three movements together. The second movement favors us with strongly tonal elements and ear tingling quarter tones. The third brings it to a tidy conclusion. Of the four CDs, this one is heads and shoulders the most interesting (not in quotes), creative (not monotonous) and expressive (not just weird noises). As with the other CDs, there is a common thread that unites all the music that says, “This is Barton’s,” but unlike the others, McLean draws from a much bigger bag of tricks which keeps his compositions for getting repetitive after the second piece. Strong thematic elements hold together the compositions with clearly formed structure. These bold elements explain why his music is so appealing. He treats the ear with novelty and spirits the mind with inquisitiveness. Barton McLean’s music is so much more than squawk ‘n splat ‘n blat. Triple A.

Music : A+ ║ Performance : A ║ Recording : A ║ Barton McLean, Soundworlds, Innova, 2010

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