Wednesday, August 1, 2007

pulsoptional – debut cd

On this CD pulsoptional is:

marc faris: composer, electric guitar
Jennifer Fitzgerald: composer, piano
Todd Hershberger: composer, bassoon, alto sax
Thom Limbert: percussion
Caroline Mallonée: composer, violin
John Mayrose: composer, acoustic and electric guitars, electric bass
Carrie Shull: english horn

The Durham-based “band of composers” released this finely recorded album of six all-original compositions in early spring of 2007. The overall musical style (which I would roughly and playfully describe as asymmetrically funky, groovy chamber art-music) remains remarkably coherent throughout the entire album despite the fact that there are five distinct compositional personalities. The unique instrumentation quite well lends itself to taut rhythmic gestures and pattern-driven textures, which we hear in delightfully diverse contexts in each work. I am also very happy to hear, finally, some more attention given to crafty and insistent counterpoint from these young American composers. Many of the up-and-coming composers here in the US write in an overly prettified and “safe” tonal style, which usually can be too easily digested. It always leaves me hungry for something with a little more edge.

pulsoptional delivers that edgy counterpoint with gusto and frenetic energy, and each composer relishes the bright sounds of their instrumental choices. Though the band’s name implies freedom of choice when it comes to tempo regimentation, “pulse” is a fairly constant topic in this album’s music. It is a good thing, too, because these folks know how to lay down a groove.

John Mayrose’s opening piece, What Hath God Wrought (2003), introduces the listener to the funky, terse licks that are a hallmark of the musical style throughout the CD. Based on a Morse code “theme”, the music is appropriately syncopated and jazzy. I hear a little melodic influence from Steve Reich in the guitar, vibraphone, and piano accompaniments. The dots and dashes of the Morse code language are gradually layered into a barrage of intense rhythmic interaction which closes the piece in dramatic fashion.

I Heart Rosa Luxemburg (2005) by marc faris comes next (he prefers his name to be presented without capitalization). It continues to explore increasingly dissonant counterpoint and asymmetric rhythms in its opening section, but the journey veers into unexpected territory when the pulse suddenly stops and the tense silence is broken by the gentle clanging of Tibetan prayer bowls. In this little moment of “West meets East”, the listener can sense a profound juxtaposition of musico-cultural values: ancient tradition vs. modern innovation, density vs. space, cerebral palpitations vs. meditative poise. In such carefully designed transitions arises an unavoidable sense of the political, via purely musical phenomena. This is one of the most interesting sides to faris’s more recent works. Since he has been a good friend for many years, I have been able to witness the gradual incorporation of the abstract reflection of political discourse in his music. It gives his music other layers of meaning. Now would be a good time to reveal the piece’s surrealist-inspired subtitle: Why Embracing Socialism Should Result in the Irrevocable, Systematic Rejection of the Major Principles of the EuroAmerican Art Music Tradition (But Seldom Does). (!)

If the prayer-bowl moment represents rejection of Western ideals, the music just following unmasks the impossibility of maintaining such a stance (“but seldom does”). To my ears, a Hegelian synthesis is the result: The burbling liquidity of background electronica melded with quiet marimba pulsations and mellow melodic guitar fuses the distinct values of “East” and “West”. It is one of the most beautiful passages on this album, not in the least due to the nicely balanced softness in the orchestration of this ending section. To read more about faris’s political influences and thoughts during the compositional process of this piece, click on the piece's title here.

I really enjoy the combination of marimba and piano (so wonderfully utilized in Reich’s modern classic
Music for 18 Musicians) and it is the color that opens Todd Hershberger’s wildly fun piece Kid Sparkle and the Parliament Prince (2003). I cannot do better than the composer’s own description of this work:

Kid Sparkle and the Parliament Prince introduces two contrasting musical characters - one: sweet, playful, and quite amiable - the other: hard-edged and chaotically funky. What results is a highly volatile musical play-space where lyricism and groove are matched by organized disorder.

And what a disorder it becomes: honky bassoon, whining violin slides, punchy piano clusters and blustery marimba tremolos all coexist in the playground of this brief and splashy work.

The centerpiece of the album, in more ways than one, is Jennifer Fitzgerald’s tour-de-force How Terrible Orange (2005). For me, this is the most challenging and difficult piece on the album. It is not for the faint-of-heart! After the “misleading” tranquility of the opening, the instruments are used to create terrorizing blocks of alternating harmonic fields that pummel the listener into sublime submission. I do admire the formal properties of this piece. After its gradual build-up of intensity, a much-welcomed contrasting middle section of worn-down emotionality ensues. Fitzgerald patiently weaves in a recap of the chordal material from the opening over the course of a nice long accelerando. At this point in the album, it is refreshing to hear a continuous tempo change. The work reminds me a little of the music of Louis Andriessen (especially his piece Workers Union).

Caroline Mallonée’s contribution, ‘stain (2002) offers a nice contrast to Fitzgerald’s head-crushing sound colossus. It features the leanest instrumental line-up of all the pieces: just bassoon, two electric guitars, marimba, and piano. The title is an abbreviated, slang-ish treatment of the word “sustain”; the work features a predominance of sustained gestures and harmonies. The title is also an obvious double-entendre in its reference to the word stain. The piece develops layers of color, staining the musical texture, in Mallonée’s words, “like a deep batik pattern”. Jumpy, extroverted gestures collide with the medium-groove ostinatos. But my favorite moment in the piece is towards the end: just quiet, yearning piano notes with gentle guitar note-slides. It is the most delicate passage on the CD, and one of the most beautiful. Moments like this really stand out because of the pervasiveness of attack-heavy instrumentation. I would like to hear more of these delicate moments. Perhaps that will be pursued in future recordings.

The CD ends with another offering by faris, What Chaos Received Bounds (2004), which is a great finale to such a satisfying collection of new pieces. If pulsoptional’s work can be considered as chamber music in some ways, this piece gleefully throws off any association with classical music tradition. pulsoptional becomes the ultimate stadium-friendly heavy metal band in this “piece”, a real rocker that ends the show on an upbeat note. Guitar distortion and drum set take us out of the concert hall and straight into the garage. Even if he didn’t mean it, faris pays tribute here to technically solid hard-rock groups like Led Zeppelin, King Crimson, and Don Caballero. Hear it to believe it.

Now that I have tried to offer some of my personal reactions to these six pieces, go to this page and give a listen to some of the samples. Their CD is also available from that page.

Please also read my previous post that explores how pulsoptional’s performance events can help reorient our concepts of the “chamber music ensemble”.