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Joshua FINEBERG (b. 1969)
Sonic Fictions
L’abīme (2015-16) [16:36]
Just as much entangled with other matter (2013) [10:01]
La Quintina (2011-12) [18:58]
Objets trouvés (2008-09) [17:38]
Pascal Contet (solo accordion: Just as)
Arditti Quartet (Quintina)
Talea Ensemble/James Baker (L’abīme)
Argento Chamber Ensemble/ Michel Galante (Objets)
rec. 2016/17
MÉTIER MSV28564 [63:15]

This album is a million miles away from my regular diet of mid-to-late 20th century British music, largely conceived in tonal or serial terms. Yet I enjoyed this CD immensely – on my own terms. Let me explain.

The whole multifaceted compositional process is defined in the disc title – Sonic Fictions. The advertising blurb for this disc has distilled this process: “American composer Joshua Fineberg (See his Webpage)… has turned to [an] aspect of composition which he terms Sonic Fiction – a complex concept but which stresses…abstract music as creating its own ‘fiction’ story and world – perhaps the antithesis of impressionism and program music”. From this, I guess the listener can read into these pieces anything or nothing as they choose.

Robert Hasegawa has provided the liner notes for this CD. I feel overwhelmed by the underlying philosophical underpinning of Fineberg’s music. In fact, I do wonder if this intellectual structure is truly necessary to appreciate his music. The whole structural process does not seem very democratic and will hardly appeal to the typical music lover. According to the liner notes the listener needs to understand the literary concepts of James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov and Samuel Beckett (amongst many other things). I imagine few people will bother to try to engage with all this.

I guess that for lesser intellects, the secret to enjoying this music involves simply that – enjoying the sounds produced. At least that is what I did! Turning to the second work, Just as much entangled with other matter, I never knew that an accordion (assisted by electronic playback) could produce such an immense variety of noises – both beautiful and ugly. This is a fascinating piece that does not rely on an understanding of William James’s The Principles of Psychology (1890) to get to grips with the piece (cited in the liner notes). The title of this work gives the clue: sounds and playback are intermingled to a considerable extent. An interesting, if novel, concept is that “the electronic part is played back on synchronized smartphones hidden among the audience: diffuse and difficult to localize…”

The opening track L’Abīme, balances a group of soloists, an on-stage ensemble and an off-stage one at the back of the hall. The relationship between the three would seem to be that of master and servants, with the soloists generating much of the interest, which is then reflected: they “are projected, distorted, diffused and replicated in the mostly pitch-based ensemble parts, like images reflected again and again in a hall of mirrors”. I am not too sure what the title refers to. Despite an explanation in the text, there seems nothing of an ‘abyss’ about this music.

Now I am baffled by La Quintina. This piece for string quartet and live electronics is based on a unique style of Sardinian singing, performed at Holy Week and representing the Virgin Mary. This is a gorgeous piece to listen to, but I am not sure where the ethnomusicological elements appear. I think it is in the use of a particular harmonic overtone effect by the ‘singers’ that creates an illusion of the voice of a lady – Our Lady.

The electronic process takes ‘samples’ from the live quartet’s playing and is immediately processed before being played through speakers in the auditorium. The notes suggest that “The results vary from near verisimilitude (‘a string quartet wearing a string quartet costume’) to more abstract and phantasmagorical effects as the muted strings are overshadowed by their electronic doppelgangers, a transformed image broadcast from the speakers in the hall.” It is a good summary. Just sit back and listen to this superbly atmospheric and often gorgeous music and forget about the musicological and theological underpinnings.

The final work Objets trouvés takes ‘familiar’ musical ‘objects’ such as sustained chords, repeated-note melodies, flutter tongue/tremolo bursts – repeated cyclically and transformed over the span of the piece. I see this work as being a collage with these objects providing a constant change of relationship between what is familiar and what is strange. Once again this is a wonderful piece to hear, with a wide variety of ‘advanced’ musical effects.

I enjoyed listening to this disc. If one approaches it as a sound-world rather than a philosophical or sub-literary experiment, I think the listener will gain much from this CD. It is beautifully played, well-presented and superbly recorded. I feel that an idiots’ guide ought to have been provided for people to tackle this music without having to be a student of several different disciplines. In my opinion, just listen, dump the philosophy and enjoy.

John France

Recording details
21 February 2017 at Oktaven Audio, Yonkers, New York, USA (L’Abīme); 9 January 2016 at La Muse en Circuit, Alfortville, France (Just as…); 16 October 2016 and 4-6 October 2017 at the SWR Experimentalstudio, Freiburg, Germany (La Quintina); 20 May 2016 at Systems Two Recording Studio, Brooklyn, New York, USA (Objets trouvés)

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