Ambitious reed quintet Splinter Reeds presents a bracing program of new works written for the group by composers Sky Macklay, Matthew Shlomowitz, Caro Haxo, Eric Wubbels, Theresa Wong, and Yannis Kyriakides. All of the works display an envelope pushing impulse that stretches the boundaries of this traditional instrumental format, carving out new repertoire and provoking new aesthetic perspectives.
On their newest release, “Hypothetical Islands,” Splinter Reeds displays a remarkable command over extended techniques in precise ensemble performances. What distinguishes this collection above and beyond that is the maturity of the curation and the strength of the new works. Four of the pieces heard here were written for the group, Splinter Reeds gave the North American premieres of the other two, and all of the pieces are presented in their premiere recordings.
UK based Matthew Shlomowitz’ Line and Length opens with a jaunty gesture in the soprano saxophone that asserts itself throughout the piece in one form or another as a sort of idée fixe. The off-balance repetition and mechanical ensemble textures conjure a Fellini-esque circus scene.
The author Raymond Queneau provided inspiration for Massachusetts native Caro Haxo’s Exercices, specifically his Exercices de style (1947), which retells the same simple story in 99 different writing styles. While the actual content of Queneau’s story has little to do with Haxo’s short character pieces, the economy of material and subtle nuance within a tightly managed style evokes a narrative approach.
Eric Wubbels wrote his work for large ensemble, Auditory Scene Analysis, in 2013, inspired by Albert Bregman’s research into “the perceptual organization of sound.” The high pitched opening of Auditory Scene Analysis II, written for Splinter Reeds in 2016, suggests a similar point of departure, stretching the range of audibility. Wubbels breaks the spell forcefully with a composite gesture of a slap tongue, a multiphonic, and a glissando that is gradually developed into irregular rhythmic cells. A sustained pitch is then passed around the ensemble as the other instruments articulate a percolating mechanism of trills, grunts, micro-scale bursts, and repeated staccato notes. The climax of the work finds some of the ensemble on insistent high trills as others intone a forceful horn-like call in the middle register leading to a frenzied saxophone cadenza. Elements from earlier in the piece are heard in the final closing seconds, deconstructed from their ensemble mechanism in a slightly tongue-in-cheek ending.
Theresa Wong’s playful Letters to a Friend sets up hockets between the ensemble that are initially based on pitches and devolve into various non-pitched percussive effects, wind sounds, and eventually interjections of sustained multiphonics. The work closes with a ghostlike version of itself, as a hollow tone accompanies a quiet, march-like unison rhythm and a quietly swooping figure in the clarinet.
The initial texture in Sky Macklay’s Choppy relies heavily on growling multiphonics as instruments take turns playing angular ascending figures. Skittering figures in the high register are punctuated by low accented notes in a call and response texture with sounds reminiscent of an underwater muted trumpet. Cascading figures lead into relative calm, a dystopian chorale texture with alternating microtonal inflections. Material of the opening reappears, with a multiphonic pedal point in the middle register, surrounded by ascending and descending flourishes, before a brief, punctuated ensemble ending.
Yannis Kyriakides describes Hypothetical Islands as “an acoustic atlas, a carto-sonic fantasy on the notion of remote desert spaces. The piece traces a journey from a pole to 12 islands and back again.” His integration of electronics adds a kind of environmental sound element to the composition, as they emerge and overtake the acoustic ensemble with a wash of pitched and unpitched sound. Much of the ensemble material is written in incantation-like phrases, occasionally with long tones that connect the exotic fragments. The subtle microtones color a relatively consonant pitch world, and there is a sense of unreality and mirage that pervades much of the piece.
Throughout this engaging collection of works, content defined by the expressive qualities of the extended technique language itself is integrated in structural ways into the compositions. The results are works, expertly performed, that build an aesthetic argument that is taut and rhetorically satisfying in addition to being sonically fresh and emotionally moving.
released March 15, 2019
Recorded June 2018 at Tiny Telephone, Oakland, CA by James Riotta
Mixed and Mastered by Zach Miley
Produced by Eric Wubbels
Extended technique photography by Lenny Gonzalez
Cover Photo by Joao Ferreira
Inside Photos by John Westrock
Layout by BMoen@Etch Image Co.
This project was funded in part by the Aaron Copland Fund for Music, Inc., the Alice Diston Fund, and the Amphion Foundation
New Focus Recordings is an artist led collective label featuring releases in contemporary music of many stripes, as well as
new approaches to older repertoire. The label was founded by guitarist Daniel Lippel (who is the current director), composer engineer Ryan Streber, and composer Peter Gilbert in 2003-4, and features releases from many of new music's most active performers and composers....more
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