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Mark APPLEBAUM (b. 1967)
Three Unlikely Corporate Sponsorships (2016) [15:56]
Skeletons in the Closet (2009) [6:21]
Speed Dating (2014) [14:29]
The Plate of Transition Nourishes the Chameleon Appetite (1992/1994) [5:17]
Clicktrack (2015) [14:26]
Mark Applebaum (voice and synthesizers: Sponsorships, Skeletons)
Stony Brook Contemporary Chamber Players / Eduardo Leandro (Speed)
Takao Hyakutome (violin: Plate)
Southern Oregon University Percussion Ensemble / Terry Longshore (Clicktrack)
rec. 2011-2016, Staller Center for the Arts, Stony Brook University, USA; TR Studios, Warsaw, Poland; BrokenWorks Productions, Ashland, USA
INNOVA 996 [56:32]

Mark Applebaum is professor of music composition and theory at Stanford University, his work widely performed and largely in the sphere of chamber music, though he has worked in theatrical and other larger formats, as well as electronic music and improvisation. Several innova releases have presented recordings of his work, including ‘Sock Monkey’ (review).

Applebaum’s credentials as a skilled composer who doesn’t take himself too seriously are immediately confirmed with Three Unlikely Corporate Sponsorships. These use only the composer’s own voice in “a work of sound poetry”, the words in which are played with and thrown around rhythmically – edited, overdubbed and moved around between the stereo channels but further unfiltered. The first, Nestlé, begins with chocolate bar names and has a bouncy rhythmic feel from the start. General Motors grows from car-part words, and the final Halliburton takes us into more overtly political regions. There is clever use of word association going on here, and Applebaum plays with our expectations of meaning, beginning for instance with “This is mine… mine…” which becomes “This is mine… land-mine…” This is all very thought-provoking and must have taken many hours of concentrated work in the digital domain. The piece does come with a mild ‘parental guidance’ warning as Applebaum doesn’t pull his linguistic punches in places.

Applebaum’s Skeletons in the Closet turn out to be a collection of 1980s keyboards, dusty and neglected, that were resurrected for a project involving recordings made for sample libraries. The composer describes the content of the piece as “simply a series of arbitrary ensemble explosions” with a few rules attached. For those of us who were mucking around with such things back then this will be something of a journey down memory lane, the sounds reminding me of things we used to hear from computer games and the like. These have been turned into a Webernesque exploration of atonal and aphoristic but timbre-rich moments in sound.

Speed Dating is written for flute, clarinet, trombone, percussion, piano, cello and double-bass. “The piece is made up exclusively of duos – instrumental couples who pair off and re-pair in a polyamorous orgy of spasmodic rhythms, questionable ‘key’ parties, and vocal chirrups...” The notation performed by the players appears on custom-made wristwatches, but the result is something that sounds free and improvisatory, at least for the first five minutes or so. Unison string playing disperses this impression further along, but throughout there is a witty suggestiveness about the musical goings-on that keeps everything light and intriguing. “Listeners can safely enjoy this hygienic mating spectacle: the love is only aural.”

The Plate of Transition Nourishes the Chameleon Appetite for solo violin is a piece taken from Applebaum’s first string quartet, making it “a monophonic stratum extracted from a polyphonic source.” The premise for the work involves contrasting sections: “a hectic, mercurial ‘kaleidoscope,’ and a pensive, laconic ‘monolith.’” Aside from the last minute or so the emphasis seems to be on the ‘kaleidoscope’ aspect, with virtuoso playing from Takao Hyakutome. The recording is a bit odd, the violin sounding a little as if it’s being heard through an acoustic tunnel of some kind, but this is certainly a spectacular tour-de-force for any player.

Clicktrack involves 12 percussionists divided into three quartets, the players’ actions directed by ‘click tracks’ followed on headphones. This technique has its own involved nature, the click tracks being made up from recordings made in advance in which each player recites a poem. “When various words in the poem are heard, the players execute quiet musical articulations at the corresponding moment.” Even with audio only the effect of all this is quite theatrical, especially since whispered voices make up a significant part of the performance, giving it an urgent and intense quality. Bell and gong sounds contrast with more abstract noises such as scratching and clicking, and regions with more conventional drum and gong sounds are also given added layers of sound with bird calls and restless tapping of stones, paper rustling and the like. As a musical landscape for stimulating the imagination this is indeed a highly effective quarter-hour.

Colourfully produced and very entertaining, this is contemporary music that creates its own open door to sound, and indeed to the ways we think about creative processes and means of expression in any art form. Even where the music appears to have a quality of randomness it is soon apparent that the skilled hand of a confident craftsman is guiding each musical narrative, so that we don’t end up feeling confused or short-changed. This is not ‘easy listening’, but its rewards are more than equal to the effort demanded of the listener – so, go listen!

Dominy Clements




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