Mario Diaz de Leon: The Soul is the Arena
Denovali Records

Though Mario Diaz de Leon has become known in these parts for his releases under the Oneirogen (o-NI-ro-jen) alias, this latest work under his birth name is deserving of attention, too. In marked contrast to the metal-electronic tone of his 213 Oneirogen outing Kiasma, The Soul is the Arena presents de Leon's classical side, one he first explored in 2009 on the Tzadik release Enter Houses Of. He's no dabbler or dilettante: the Minnesota-born, NYC-based Diaz de Leon holds a doctorate in music composition from Columbia University and is well-versed in the music of 20th-century composers such as Ligeti and Xenakis. The challenging, forward-thinking approach associated with them is, not surprisingly, very much present in de Leon's The Soul is the Arena, too.

One of the most appealing aspects of the recording is that its three electro-acoustic pieces split into two camps: in the opening settings, ICE (International Contemporary Ensemble, which commissioned all three of the recording's works) members Claire Chase (flute) and Joshua Rubin (bass clarinet) solo against dynamic electronic backdrops; the third, on the other hand, is a long-form composition for sextet closer in spirit to a through-composed work that downplays individual soloing for ensemble playing. Chase and Rubin again appear, this time with Eric Lamb (alto flute), Cory Smythe (piano), Nathan Davis (percussion), and Diaz de Leon himself on synthesizer.

The dramatic contrast in timbre between the flute and electronic textures amplifies the arresting character of “Luciform.” The bright sonorities of Chase's virtuosic flute playing enables the instrument to separate itself clearly from the ominous electronic washes and aggressive patterns that accompany it, and the two elements weave in and around one another in unpredictable manner for the full measure of the setting's thirteen minutes. In the comparatively noisier “The Soul is the Arena,” Rubin's bass clarinet merges with the electronics to a greater degree than does the flute in the opening piece, but there's still enough contrast between the elements to allow Rubin's playing to assert itself. After an explosive opening, the piece gradually settles into something less cacophonous, with the bass clarinet and raw electronic flourishes first locked in an intense dialogue of staccato declamations and then operating fluidly in tandem. Chase and Rubin coax generous ranges of sounds from their instruments, but in that regard the electronic treatments have an edge, with everything from sub-bass rumblings and high-pitched warblings to stabbing squeals surfacing as the pieces unfold. Regardless, the pieces are never less than captivating and the results fascinating.

With the advent of “Portals Before Dawn,” the experimental, improv-like character of the opening pieces is replaced by a more controlled presentation that witnesses methodical interactions between the six participants. Ponderous, haunting, and elegant are but three of the words that spring to mind as the material patiently progresses through its twenty-minute journey. Textures are evenly distributed between the musicians, resulting in a rich, well-balanced example of ensemble playing and contemporary electro-acoustic composition that's as satisfying if slightly more conventional in makeup than the solo pieces preceding it. Ultimately, though, it's the cumulative impact the three settings achieve that recommends The Soul is the Arena above all else.

September 2015