Ned McGOWAN (b. 1970)
The Art of the Contrabass Flute
Earthly Chants: The Singing Wall [5:55]
Benson Town [8:22]
Winter’s Breath [4:24]
Earthly Chants: Om to the Killer B’s [7:58]
Step on It Step by Step [3:14]
Earthly Chants: Don’t forget Everyday, Your Funky Prayers to Say [9:22]
Ned McGowan (contrabass flute)
B.C. Manjunath (mridangam: Benson Town)
Keiko Shichijo (piano: Winter’s Breath)
rec. various dates, Laya Digi, Bangalore, India (Benson Town), Splendor Amsterdam (Winter’s Breath), Room Service Music, Rotterdam.
KARNATIC LAB RECORDS KLR027 [44:17]
I’ve known Ned McGowan for many years now. When I first joined the Netherlands Flute Orchestra (NLFO) he was the contrabass flute player, working with one of flute maker Jelle Hogenhuis’s earlier models, ‘that blue thing’ as one of his successors dubbed it. After I acquired a subcontrabass flute and the NLFO ceased to exist we worked together in the BlowUp! flute octet until 2013, when he decided to focus more on composing and solo projects such as this CD. Our paths inevitably still cross, and I had the privilege of hearing him perform The Singing Wall live at the Dag in de Branding festival in The Hague in October this year.
The contrabass flute is a relatively recent development in historical terms, but increasing numbers of ensembles and soloists are exploring its potential. Where the subcontrabass flute occupies the range of a double bass, the contrabass has more of a cello range and character – being more flexible in terms of melodic expression as well as being able to reach satisfyingly low sonorities. The instruments themselves have also developed beyond ‘that blue thing’, and as the photos show, Hogenhuis now makes refined instruments with metal tubing as well as those original drainpipes which give his instruments a distinctive look, and indeed, quite an individual sound.
The Art of the Contrabass Flute is a cross-section of intriguing creations. There is no booklet for the CD but the music speaks for itself, the imagination being allowed to make up its own narratives and imagery. The thread of the programme is held together by the three Earthly Chants, written for six contrabass flutes and multi-track recorded by McGowan. The first of these, The Singing Wall, begins as a textured soundscape in which notes build on a single tonality, throughout which scales and fluttering create subtle animation. The wall then becomes more like a wall of mirrors, with the six instruments calling and answering with a variety of sonic gestures, the final section initiated by descending close harmonies and a low, brooding coda. Om to the Killer B’s is filled with the rich sonority of unison instruments suggesting something song-like, but carrying its own measured rhythmic impulse and rhetoric. McGowan has frequently travelled to India, working with musicians there and bringing back influences that result in pieces using non-Western or adapted scales such as can be heard here. Animated and rhythmic action builds in this piece, so that it becomes more virtuoso, dance-like and funkily syncopated – the B’s taking over by the end, singing out in a final victorious sheet of overtones, and returning to their underground lair in a final low statement. Don’t Forget Everyday, Your Funky Prayers to Say concludes the disc, a nice but complex track that sets up a gently swinging repeated accompaniment phrase over which more solistic multi-tracked parts build up, showing more of the expressive upper range of the contrabass flute. Spreading the three Earthly Chants through the programme is a good idea, providing structure and contrast with the other works, though programming these tracks to play sequentially also works very well.
Benson Town opens with a melodic shape straight out of The Carpenter’s Close to You, but soon moves into spectacular terrain, the flute and mridangam drum joined tightly in rhythmic patterns that are closely related to Indian music. Melody and drum divide for a while, but remain linked in a kind of improvisatory joyfulness. Winter’s Breath brings the contrabass flute closer to home in a romantically lyrical and quite impressionistic piece that has some of the hallmarks of ruminative film music. Wurgelguk is written for contrabass flute and live electronics, the first piece of which, Rurubabatoto takes us into improvisatory realms in which McGowan’s considerable player’s chops are much in evidence. The live electronics create canonic echo effects that broaden and enhance these resonance effects with dramatic results. Step on It Step by Step generates a loop accompaniment that becomes faster each time it returns, the solo part also growing in intensity and finally acquiring what sounds like an old East-European echo flange.
Low flutes have increasingly become ‘a thing’ in recent years, with ambassadors for the instrument such as Peter Sheridan raising awareness of their potential. Ned McGowan has also been active in this field for a long time, and it is marvellous to see his voice becoming more easily available through this medium. This music is consistently refined and expert at every level, and you can feel that each aspect of the performance is based on years of preparation and experience. These pieces are all highly accessible, being based in tonality while exploring and experimenting with exotic scales and often groovy rhythms to create an entirely personal alchemy. With its unique sonorities and superb recording quality this release has great attraction for anyone looking for something enduring and beyond the norm.