Composers Heather Stebbins and Christopher Chandler have powerfully unique voices, but they share a penchant for focusing on the granular components of sound and building larger structural arcs from this enhanced perspective. On this co-release of their works featuring the Switch Ensemble, we hear music for soloists and ensembles with electronics that revels in tactile features of instrumental and electronic sound and in complex, asymmetrical musical mechanisms.
Chandler’s these old roots for amplified bass drum and fixed media opens the program, and relies heavily on software he designed to manipulate percussive sounds into multiple permutations. Chandler focused on delicate sounds on the bass drum (subverting the expectation that we would hear torrential low percussion strikes). The bass drum and the electronics seem to exhale and inhale as one organism, passing through a middle section that features undulating pitch material in the electronics before settling on a chorus of friction sounds for the work’s close.
Stebbins’ Ursa Major for saxophone, percussion, piano, and electronics picks up where these old roots left off, opening with finely grained non pitched sounds. Most of the instrumental material of the first half of the piece obscures natural sound production — an accumulating gong roll fills the space with an overtone laden haze, shrouded multiphonic sustains on saxophone conjure a voice that has been muffled. When we hear the piano emerge with arpeggiated figures, it has been prepared, lending it a faint quality of a quiet gamelan.
Chandler’s Strata was written in close collaboration with members of Switch, using asynchronous recording sessions and telematic improvisations. Like a sculptor, Chandler then chiseled away at the recorded material to reveal this elemental work, a meditation of layers of sustained sonorities and the way they interact with one another.
Stebbins’ Among Arrows for flute, clarinet, violin, and cello, is the sole multi-movement work on the album, containing two main movements, or “arrows”, separated by an interlude, or “parenthesis.” “Arrow I” has an air of ritual to it, with the four instrumentalists playing plaintive figures that embellish a core sonority, while the electronics explore a series of scraping and rattling sounds. “A Parenthesis” features a repeated chordal sonority, played like a kind of mantra, around which gentle accents and fragile sonorities expand the harmonic and gestural implications outward. “Arrow II” features wavering sustained tones, closely spaced between the instrument to emphasize subtle timbral sand pitch discrepancies that emerge between them. At the end of the movement, we hear the material from “A Parenthesis” return, a lilting farewell march.
Chandler’s still life, for bass flute, bass clarinet, violin, and cello, is shaped by generative software he designed that produces unique combinations of pre-recorded material of the four instruments for each new performance. The notation for the instrumentalists is similarly variable, specifying the material but not necessarily the order in which it is heard, guaranteeing that the piece will never be the same twice. Perhaps even more than these roots, the boundary between live performer and electronics is blurred. In keeping with the meta-dialogue that underlies the curation of this album, still life shares the quiet, ritualistic intensity of Stebbins’ Among Arrows.
Like the opening track, the closing piece on the recording is an electro-acoustic work for a soloist — Stebbins’ Sub Rosa for bass clarinet and electronics. The granularity of these old roots has also returned, as Stebbins excavates the hidden stacks of a wondrous library of sounds on bass clarinet. As with the other pieces on the album, the drama and tension derives from an intense introversion inherent in the careful attention to detail in sound production and exploration. For both Stebbins and Chandler, the invitation to a profound musical experience lies in leaning in closer, examining more carefully, and opening up assumptions about instrumental sound and the nature of their interface with electronics. The musicians of the Switch Ensemble inhabit this rarefied music beautifully, creating a recorded document of these works that breathes with the animated wonder that the composers have injected into their conception.
- Dan Lippel
"Vibrant, elemental, intensely tactile, the music of Christopher Chandler and Heather Stebbins is grounded in the physical realities of each instrument and in the act of performance. The expressive power of intimate sonic gestures, often developed in collaboration with the performers, is at the heart of their music. The works here are replete with striking aural details: the palm sliding over the bass drum head, the fragile break of a multiphonic, the tenuousness of the string tremolo, the almost tangible rustling of the electronics.
For Christopher Chandler, the act of composition is centered on the natural world. In these old roots, for amplified bass drum and fixed media, Chandler uses software of his own devising to generate myriad combinations and permutations of percussion gestures he has composed and recorded. He imagines the recordings that emerge from this software as a kind of overgrown garden which he then trims, prunes, clips and shapes to reveal previously hidden aural structures. These recordings extend, expand and amplify the sound and gestures of the live bass drum. The result is an entrancing combination where it’s often impossible to hear a boundary between live performer and electronics.
Heather Stebbins’ Ursa Major, for saxophone, percussion, piano and electronics, begins with gentle rustlings of small grains – of dirt? small stones? rice? – being delicately dropped or poured in a slow, almost processional rhythm. Intensely physical, virtually tangible, you can almost feel the sound of the close mic’d recordings in your hand. In later passages, these granular murmurings are replaced by subtle electric buzzes, then later still with what might be bees, before finally returning at the close of the piece, to sound very much like the beginning. The electronics function differently here than they do in Chandler’s music, but play a similarly important role. Most of the time, the electronics are a kind complement to the instrumental texture; integral to the overall fabric, they are an independent but equal voice in a beautifully calibrated composite texture that grows and ebbs with a sense of organic inevitability.
If the compositional process for these old roots was imagined as the pruning of a garden, the process for Chandler’s Strata can be thought of as a kind of exploration or excavation of layers of rock or soil. As with a number of works on this album, Strata emerged through intense collaboration with the [Switch~ Ensemble]. Composed during the pandemic, the collaboration was by necessity separated by both time and physical distance. Asynchronous recording sessions and telematic group improvisations based on composed materials generated many layers of material - different manifestations of a small group of musical and timbral ideas. The final act of composition then turned into an excavation of these layers of recording and improvisations. A similar approach is evident in the sound of the piece itself. The work unfolds as a series of excavations to various depths, of harmonically rich, but fairly stable sonorities. I hear it as the aural equivalent of a core sample of the Earth - we focus by turn on different strata of the sonority, sometimes lingering on one timbral layer or another, at other times zooming out to see how the one layer contributes to the beautifully resonating whole.
Stebbins’ Among Arrows, for quartet of flute (doubling bass flute), clarinet (doubling contrabass clarinet), violin, cello and electronics was composed in 2021 for the [Switch~ Ensemble]. The piece, in two movements separated by what the composer describes as a “parenthetical interlude,” manifests a quiet intensity, rarely getting louder than mezzo forte. The material from that interlude is harmonically static, and like so much of Stebbins’ music, timbrally arresting. This passage has double stop harmonics in both strings with contrabass clarinet and bass flute multiphonics, and unlike the outer movements, no electronics. The stability and stasis of the interlude stand in marked contrast to the outer movements in which microtonal inflections, timbral fractures, and intense oscillations of various types predominate. The parenthetical material of the interlude, though, returns at the close of the piece, this time joined by the recorded irregular texture of tapped gongs and bells from the opening of the piece.
Chandler’s interest in exploring, in each new piece, a small body of musical ideas from a variety of angles and in varied combinations, finds its purest manifestation in still life. As with his other pieces on this album, Chandler worked closely with musicians to record material he composed. With this piece, though, the exact details of both the players’ and electronics parts vary with each performance. still life combines a notation system that specifies material and possible paths through that material, with generative software that creates new combinations of the previously recorded material in real time. The result is a piece whose details differ from performance to performance but whose core material, sonority and shape are retained. The aural result, to a greater extent than even his other works presented here, delightfully and elegantly erases the boundaries between live performers and electronics.
The album closes, as it began, with a captivating work for solo instrument and electronics – in this case, Stebbins’ Sub Rosa for contrabass clarinet and electronics. And like the album’s opener, Sub Rosa is very much of the instrument; that is, the musical material of the piece is inextricably rooted in the particularities of the specific instrument at hand. Both composers evince a deep understanding of the entire range of timbral and gestural capabilities of the instruments they are writing for – an understanding that derives in part from close collaboration with performers and in part from their prolonged investigations into the physical and expressive nature of sound. The result here is powerful and intense, with, like all of Stebbins pieces, such a strong and vivid presence that it feels like it almost takes corporeal form. But of course, it can’t; the sound slips away from us, leaving us with a powerful sonic afterimage that lingers in the ear long after the music has faded."
– Benjamin Broening, from the liner notes
released April 7, 2023
Producer and Mixing:
Tracks 1, 3, 7: Christopher Chandler
Tracks 2, 4, 5, 6 & 8: Heather Stebbins
Tracks 1-6: Ryan Streber
Track 7: Christopher Chandler
Track 8: Oliver Noack & Frank Schmidt
Tracks 1-6: Oktaven Audio, Mount Vernon, New York, October 8-9, 2021
Track 7: Emerson Auditorium, Union College, Schenectady, New York, May 24, 2022
Track 8: Temple Studio GbR, Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany, October 26, 2021
Edward Hamel at Identity Mastering
Tracks 2, 4, 5, 6, and 8 include sounds from the wonderful and unusual sound libraries by Tim Prebble at Hiss and a Roar. Track 6 includes sounds from the Experimental Flute Soundpack Vol. 1 by Rachel Beetz
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