Adventures in the sound spectrum from Starkland

Three new CDs from Boulders adventurous recording label

By Peter Alexander

Boulder’s Starkland recording label has issued thee CDs over the past eight months that are very, very different. Yet, all three have one thing in common: an intensive exploration of pure sound.

That exploration takes the various composers far from the familiar paths of most concert music. If your musical tastes lean more to bracing adventure than the comfort of the familiar, all three are recommended for your consideration.

Boreal CoverElliott Sharp: The Boreal. Music of Elliott Sharp: The Boreal, performed by the JACK Quartet; Oligosono, performed by Jenny Lin, piano; Proof of Erdös, performed by Orchestra Carbon, David Bloom, conductor; On Corlear’s Hook, performed by the Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra, Peter Rundel, conductor. Starkland ST-222.

The name may not be familiar in Colorado, but Elliott Sharp is well known on the experimental music scene in New York. According to his Web bio, his 85 recordings include work in “blues, jazz, noise, no-wave rock and techno music.” As an instrumentalist, he has worked with many experimental performers in New York and has had work performed by Kronos, the FLUX Quartet, Ensemble Modern, and other stars of the new-music world.

In the four works compiled on this album, Sharp’s music is atomized and the separate elements—particularly sonority and rhythm—are examined in isolation and in collisions with one another.

The first piece on the album is the title track, The Boreal. Performed by the ever adventurous JACK Quartet, the score calls for what are described as “bows made from ball chains and metal springs,” making sounds utterly unlike the warm and cushiony sounds of conventional bows on stringed instruments.

With startling control of these unconventional bows, the JACK Quartet produces vibrating, shattered and edgy sonorities. The four movements of The Boreal feature rhythmic patterns on often static pitches. Musical interest resides largely in the utterly unexpected and unique sounds being produced by the instruments.

Oligosono was composed for the Taiwanese-born American virtuoso pianist Jenny Lin, who is heard on this recording. The title, derived from Greek, means “few sounds,” and the score is again an intense exploration of a limited, specific set of sonorities. Steady, motoric, repeated-note rhythms predominate; long passages on a single pitch and its octaves suddenly break into little explosions that extend across the range of the keyboard. Lin gives a virtuoso performance, apparently undaunted by Sharp’s extensive demands

Proof of Erdös, an homage to the late mathematician Paul Erdös, is ably played by the Orchestra Carbon, directed by David Bloom. With a larger variety of instruments, Sharp wields a correspondingly greater variety of sounds. Here, one whole sound world succeeds another, suggesting distant planets, or perhaps the abstract world of mathematics.

You do not feel that these worlds are pretty places. But that is the point: the conventional laws of beauty do not apply in these distant worlds, just as the conventional laws of physics seem to be suspended in the far reaches of the universe.

On Corlear’s Hook, performed by the Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra of Ostrava, Czech Republic, and conductor Peter Rundel, is the most conventionally approachable work on the disc. It is named for a district on the lower east side of Manhattan where Sharp once lived, a place of old tenement buildings and a sordid history. But the music is not really of that mundane place, “neither programmatic nor pictorial,” Sharp writes.

Instead, Sharp takes the listener deep into his own fantastic imagination. The sounds he creates through the orchestra seem to collide in some vast, cosmic drama. The score is by turns delicate, mysterious, evocative: an aural expression of Sharp’s adventurous spirit. The score is performed with great precision and élan.

Nature of thingnessOn The Nature of Thingness. Music by Phyllis Chen and Nathan Davis, performed by the International Contemporary Ensemble. Starkland ST-223

The Music of Phyllis Chen and Nathan Davis inhabits a very different soundworld than that of Elliott Sharp. Rather than a realm of aggressive experimentation, theirs is a world just beyond the familiar, filled with bright and tinkly sounds. Prepared pianos, toy pianos, music boxes, tuning forks, jaw harps and electronic effects are combined with conventional classical instruments, including piano, clarinet, flute, bassoon and violin.

These works were created through ICElab, a commissioning program of the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) notable for the close collaboration between composers and performers. Invoking the idea of “divine play,” ICE’s co-artistic director Claire Chase refers to ICElab as the ensemble’s “in-house playground,” and indeed the spirit of play pervades the CD.

Of the CD’s 10 tracks, one of the most striking is the very first, Davis’s Ghostlight for prepared piano. There is a delightful, teasing variety of sounds from the prepared piano that keep the listener slightly off balance. These sounds are evocative of the idea of a “mischievous spirit” possessing the instrument, or, as the composer suggests, a performance when a mechanical breakdown affects the piano so that notes fail to sound correctly.

The title refers to the bare light bulb left on in otherwise dark theaters to frighten away the ghosts that every theater possesses (or more prosaically, to keep workers coming into theater at night from falling into the pit). Ghostlight was written for pianist Jacob Greenberg, who here delivers an enchanting performance.

Phyllis Chen’s Hush is dedicated to her first child, who inspired the sounds that seem to come from a slightly off-kilter nursery. As performed by the composer, the cheerful, jaunty sounds of the prepared piano, toy pianos and music boxes have only the slightest hint of a haunting spirit.

Chen’s Chimers inhabits a similar world of shimmery, twittering sounds. Inspired by the magic chimes played by Papageno in Mozart’s Magic Flute, the sore combines clarinet and violin with toy piano, toy glockenspiel and tuning forks.

Mobius for music box and electronics, credited to Chen and Robert Dietz, evokes rustling insects, delicate chiming and distant fairy bells, suggesting scenes of tiny creatures who come out at night on the forest floor. It is an utterly engaging piece, and utterly unlike anything I have heard before.

The title work, which concludes the disc, goes in a slightly different direction, into what the liner notes describe as the “hysterical fury of the ‘Dada’ movement.” Written for soprano and small ensemble, with each player also doubling on jaw harp, Davis’s On the Nature of Thingness combines a consonant-heavy Polish text best appreciated for its sound with a word-centric “Dada manifesto.”

The most haunting of the four remarkable movements is the third, titled “Vowels.” Delicate, chiming chords create an aura of harmony and reflection against which the vowel sounds, vocalized on a single pitch, seem to float, like clouds over a distant, misty landscape. Like the rest of the CD, it’s an intriguing and enchanting aural experience.

IoH coverInstruments of Happiness. Music by Tim Brady, Rainer Wiens and Antoine Berthiaume, performed by the electric guitar quartet Instruments of Happiness. Starkland ST-224.

Once in a great while, I come across music that is so unexpected, so strikingly original that I cannot quite find the words to describe it. Hearing this album was one of those occasions.

Instruments of Happiness calls itself an “electric guitar collective” and offers performances by their basic quartet—Tim Brady, Gary Schwartz, Antoine Berthiuame, Michel Héroux—as well as a 20-piece orchestra and a 100-piece ensemble. This album represents the CD debut of the quartet.

There are a handful of electric guitar quartets in the world today, several based on the east coast. This is not a scene that I am familiar with, but I was happy to be introduced to this thriving sub-genre of music.

In this recording, Instruments of Happiness (IoH) draws heavily on art-rock influences reaching back several years. I can’t identify all of those sources, but fortunately, you don’t have to know the influences to enjoy the music. Otherwise, most older music would be beyond our appreciation, since so much of it draws on sources now forgotten.

The largest portion of the recording is given over to two works—or if you prefer, two versions of the same work—by IoH member Tim Brady. Titled The Same River Twice: Symphony #5.0 and The Same River Twice: Symphony #5.Solo, they can easily be appreciated as two separate pieces, one for the quartet and one for solo guitar with much use of pedals and electronic enhancements.

But as the title suggests, the two versions sprang from a shared well of inspiration. As Brady explains in his liner notes, the solo version “takes many of the same ideas but explores them with solo guitar.” On the surface, they seem to be separate pieces: the movement structure is different, and the common ideas go in different directions. But deep listening for the shared elements returns rewards, too.

Brady says he started with the question, “What kind of music can a composer actually make with four electric guitars?” He clearly came up with lots of answers. The very first track, a movement of Symphony 5.0 titled “Riff,” starts with ponderous chords that seem to say “Pay attention now!” It quickly moves into an ear-capturing riff that grows and spreads through the ensemble, into a mesmerizing blur of sound that is part minimalist trance, part rock solo explosion, and all original.

Other movements sure to capture the attention are “Solo 2,” a whirlwind blend of bits and pieces that keep coming together in unexpected ways, and “A somewhat eccentric waltz,” which ends with an ironic voiceover challenging, “Is this the best you can do?” And who can resist the final movement of Symphony #5.0, “Count,” with the irregularities—and some regularities, too—literally counted out by the players.

Since I can’t quite describe this CD, I will just say: Find it. Buy it. Listen to it. I can promise that you will find it full of surprises. And if you don’t like it, you certainly know someone who will.


All Starkland recordings may be purchased through the label’s Webpage.

One thought on “Adventures in the sound spectrum from Starkland

  1. Pingback: Starkland’s latest adventurous releases: diverse, fascinating excursions in sound | Sharps & Flatirons

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