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Strange Imaginary Animals
Jennifer HIGDON
Zaka (2003) [12:50]

Gordon FITZELL (b.1968)
violence (2001) [9:46]
Indigenous Instruments (1989) [17:34]
Friction Systems (2002; rev. 2005) [14:37]
evanescence (2006) [11:18]
Dennis DESANTIS (b.1973)
strange imaginary remix (2006) [5:33]
eighth blackbird (Matt Albert (violin and viola); Molly Alicia Barth (flutes); Matthew Duvall (percussion); Lisa Kaplan (piano); Michael J. Maccaferri (clarinets); Nicholas Photinos (cello))
rec. Ball State University, 15-18 August 2005. DDD
CEDILLE CDR 90000 094 [72:00]

An exciting programme, the majority being world premiere recordings, and by an exceptional ensemble which specialises in contemporary music – what more do you want to get the juices flowing?
Jennifer Higdon is one of the US’s most performed living composers. Zaka, is a colourful, energetic and rhythmically stimulating work in its outer sections. The quieter central moments are expressed in flowing lines and open fifths in the piano part – always a good way to work out some counterpoint without losing your audience. Gentle percussion effects and some massaging of the piano strings add a mildly exotic flavour, but this is music which has a clean and direct effect, having its feet firmly on solid, technically adept ground.
With the title Violence, Gordon Fitzell “was interested in exploring the concept of aesthetic violence … What elements conspire to wage aesthetic war in a work of art?” The music is therefore not of a ‘violent’ nature, but engages the listener in an exploration of sonorities, sustained pedal tones, the tapping of strings – rhythm and harmonics at the same time – melodic gestures rather than recognisable lines. The mind is stimulated to ask questions. Mine told me that the conflicts were partially of instruments being asked to imitate or express things other than that which might be expected of them, or taking on or arguing against musical stereotype. You will probably make other conclusions, but in doing so will be proving the success of Fitzell’s idea.
Indigenous Instruments is Steven Mackey’s “vernacular music from a culture that doesn’t exist”. De-tuned instruments give the opening movement some interesting quarter-tone effects, the notes becoming declamatory and vocal – like a noisy crowd of “strange imaginary animals”. There is some humour in the writing, and some powerfully expressive moments as well. The piece is in three movements which run into each other, the first being animated – literally. The second movement is slow and atmospheric, solos rising above a bed of irregular sustained repeated or rocking notes from the piano. The other instruments eventually take over this organic cycle of resonance, allowing the piano to break free and embrace the now static notes of the ensemble in wreaths of wider intervals. It’s like a very slow chorale – a guaranteed hit with this reviewer. The third movement opens with grunting and fidgeting strings, who rut in the undergrowth while flute and piano occasionally fly overhead in haughty distaste. The conclusion is like gently bestial Tippett – beautiful, but remaining rhythmically unruly.
Of the cryptic programme notes in the booklet to this CD, David M. Gordon’s would seem to be the least informative – being a ‘wordsearch’ panel with the composer’s name and the title Friction Systems highlighted. In fact, you can have all kinds of fun spotting words which are relevant to the piece: ‘Prepared Piano’ being just two, and very much a central element in the colour of the piece. After a hard-hitting opening, quarter-tone dissonances from strings and winds and gamelan-like sounds from the piano enhance a mystical, exotic character. ‘Drama’ is another word which one can spot in the grid, and there is indeed a theatrical quality to this piece, with tense build-ups and heavy gestures in the bass line. The prepared piano has an extended cadenza towards the end of the piece, the intensity of which builds to a climax via a reprise of the repeated notes of the opening, using some quarter-tone writing which reminded me a little of some of Alain Louvrier’s music.
Gordon Fitzell’s other work on this disc, evanescence, introduces a nice electronic contrast with the other pieces, processing the sounds of the instruments to create an other-worldly, displaced feeling. The words ‘violence, metamorphosis, sublimation, evanescence’ are the sum total of the programme notes, but they do seem to illustrate what the piece is about in an ultra-compact fashion. It would have been nice to have been told how some of the effects were created – the impression being of a kind of ‘remix’ of violence. Nice vocorder nuances aside, the only thing I really missed was Ringo Starr’s voice repeating the words ‘number nine.’
Dennis DeSantis’s strange imaginary remix appropriately runs straight on from Fitzell’s electronic work, and with DeSantis’s groovy pedigree it is no real surprise to find this last track being a catchy and remarkably well put together assembly of edits from previous works on the disc. Fluty tongue-rams - sampled, otherwise the player would end up with a tongue the shape and size of a milk-bottle - serve as a pushy rhythmic basis along with some computer-generated but well balanced drum effects, and the open piano sounds in Jennifer Higdon’s central section wind through the latter stages in a slow, ever-evolving spiral. I shall be keeping this track handy for that silly dance I have to do when putting on formal dress for a gig – all sedentary musicians over forty will know what I’m talking about …
This imaginative and superbly produced CD has some top contemporary music played by a crack ensemble, and has the essential quality of not taking itself too seriously. I give it the modern-music ‘feel-good’ award, and shall be recommending it to anyone prepared to listen to the ramblings of a strange imaginary reviewer.
Dominy Clements

see also review by Rob Barnett 


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