Danny Clay & Joseph M. Colombo: Symmetry Series No. 1
Pinna Records

Featuring compelling works by contemporary composers Danny Clay and Joseph M. Colombo, this inaugural release in San Francisco-based Pinna Records' Symmetry Series certainly bodes well for the project. Housed within a deluxe full-cover sleeve (issued in a 500-copy limited edition), the ten-inch vinyl disc backs Clay's the first and the last, a sextet for guitars and strings performed by Mobius Trio and Friction Quartet, with Joseph's Ouroboros, scored for two pianos and eight hands, and performed by the piano outfit New Keys (in both cases, the works were written for the ensembles featured on the disc). Each release in the projected series is designed to pair new pieces in a similar split format by emerging San Francisco Bay Area composers and performed by local ensembles.

With his piece advancing through multiple episodes involving Mobius Trio's acoustic guitars and the Friction Quartet's strings, Clay packs a lot of activity into his work's eleven-minute running time. While the first and the last might be derivative in places—a pronounced Steve Reich influence is evident in the melodic patterns—it nevertheless dazzles the ear with its constant mutations and rhythmic propulsion. Shuddering strings aggressively kickstart the piece, after which the acoustic guitars briefly take over before being joined by the strings' stabbing attack. Adding to the compositional variety, the guitars and strings sometimes play together and at other moments separately; regardless of the changes in arrangement and design, the material largely surges forth with single-minded purpose, the lovely, languorous episode with which it closes a memorable exception. The instrument choices also are effective for bringing into the work respective associations, with the guitars adding a pastoral quality and the strings a pronounced classical minimalism character.

The more conceptually driven of the two works, Colombo's Ouroboros presents a piano-centric study constructed entirely from descending chromatic scales. During the opening part of the thirteen-minute piece, the notes descend slowly from the top of the keyboard to the bottom, with patterns overlapping such that another one begins just before its antecedent completes its downward trajectory (the composition's title is thus reflected in the way the descending piano line circles back upon itself). The effect achieved is reminiscent of clusters of snowflakes falling in slow motion, though that changes as the descents gradually increase in speed, volume, and density. Eventually the precision and control that characterizes the opening minutes gives way to a wildness and energy suggestive of mice or cats playfully scampering down the keyboard. Admittedly, of the two works, it's Clay's that leaves the more indelible mark, but both well reward one's time and attention. As strong an impression as the release makes, the best thing about it is the prospect of future volumes, which is cause for excitement all by itself.

January 2017