Jim Fox: Descansos, Past
Cold Blue

Rick Cox: Fade
Cold Blue

Kyle Gann: Long Night
Cold Blue

Cold Blue is hardly the most prolific imprint and, in fact, its last seven releases (including the three reviewed here) have been CD Singles. But that strategy makes the LA-based label's meager output even more delectable; basking in the glorious beauty of its 'West Coast Minimalism' is like sipping the most alluring aperitif, each moment a treasure to be deliciously savoured. Two of these new releases present works by West Coast composers Rick Cox and Jim Fox, with the third bringing New Yorker Kyle Gann into the label fold.

Composed in memory of composer John Kuhlman, Fox's haunting Descansos, past is performed by Barry Newton on double-bass and four cellists (performing nine parts) though the work's tonal range finds the latter often sounding like a conventional string ensemble. Permeated by a tender sadness, the 15-minute elegy is reminiscent, not only in arrangement but in its meditative and pensive, even funereal, tone, of Gavin Bryars' “By the Vaar,” his own double bass and strings composition (performed by Charlie Haden on Bryars' Farewell to Philosophy); Newton is often featured solo and it's during these moments that his pizzicato playing most recalls Haden's, an association, however, that does nothing to diminish the poignancy of Fox's piece.

Merging the composer's electric guitar with Thomas Newman's piano and Peter Freeman's bass and electronics, Rick Cox's 25-minute Fade mesmerizes as it subtly evolves through three connecting sections. The musicians rarely state themes explicitly but rather tangentially allude to them, with their individual playing coalescing into dreamy masses of blurry sound. Accompanying info likens these series of harmonic 'moments' to elements in a mobile, a perfect analogy for the work's deft commingling of stasis and development. When Newman's minimal piano playing appears alongside hazy electronic washes, one might be reminded of the opening piece on Eno's Music For Airports (with Robert Wyatt in piano) but Fade eschews repetition for perpetual metamorphosis. Freeman's electronics add a shimmering ambiance to the work while Cox's 'prepared electric guitar' conveys a translucent, twilight quality.

Pianist Sarah Cahill performs the three looping parts of the drifting, 25-minute Long Night (for three pianos) by composer, author, and critic Kyle Gann with elegance and control. Ruminative and impressionistic, the pianos sometimes play independently and at other times synchronize with one another. Heavily influenced during the compositional process by German philosopher Martin Heidegger, specifically his rejection of the idea of personality as a unified, linear consciousness, Gann's work likewise presents a series of moods in 'overlapping discontinuity.' Occasionally the pianos cluster into dense pools while at other times singular lines briefly rise to the surface.

In both musical quality and packaging design, these releases are exquisite. And while they're clearly different from one another, each composer demonstrates through his work a penchant for controlled emotion, a desire to suffuse his music with a depth of feeling that never lapses into sentiment. Put simply, this remarkable music only bolsters Cold Blue's reputation as a superb resource for contemporary American music-making of the first rank.

May 2005