F. Gerard Errante: Delicate Balance
Aucourant Records

Delicate Balance presents ten electroacoustic set-pieces created by composers with whom clarinetist F. Gerard Errante has collaborated over the years. The pieces pair his solo playing with electronic backings that are full and often symphonic in character, and as the woodsy character of the clarinet is preserved, a clear contrast emerges between its acoustic sound and the oft-shimmering backdrops. One of the things that stands out is the general unanimity of the recording's material in spite of the contributions of ten different composers to the project. Many of the composers are university music professors (Errante himself retired from Norfolk State University after thirty years of service as a music professor), but the compositions are anything but stuffy academic exercises; on the contrary, they're eminently accessible in spirit. Much of Delicate Balance exudes a serene and mystical quality, though there are occasional moments where dark clouds dot the horizon.

Alex Shapiro composed “Water Crossing” after Errante presented her with an image of his canoe tied to the dock at his home on the Virginia coastline, an image that in turn prompted Shapiro to envision a water journey that has the canoe morph into a sailboat chaperoned by dolphins as it glides through ocean waters. The adventurous composition finds Gerrante's clarinet fluidly weaving through passages alternating between peaceful splendour and dramatic portent. “Passage” drops Errante's playing into an ever-shifting sound-world of rich colour and texture crafted by Robert Scott Thompson. The clarinet blends into the mercurial context Thompson fashioned for it from percussion instruments (bamboo wind chimes, gongs, tam-tams) and environmental and “found” sounds (a nightingale's song also figures prominently during the piece's later sections). Douglas Quin's “A Little Night Music” uses treated field recordings of thrumming insects heard on a warm midsummer's night in rural North Carolina as an evocative sonic painting for Errante to emote against.

McGregor Boyle's “Midway Inlet” is one of the recording's loveliest pieces, in no small part because its stirring melodic dimension is derived from the early plainchant hymn “Veni Creator Spiritus.” Designed to simulate a boat journey through a tiny creek to the inlet and back, the piece shadows Errante's becalmed musings with a computer part that tracks the clarinet's playing and replicates it by sustaining certain notes; strip away the superfluous nature sounds (water, bird chirps) and the piece begins to sound very close in spirit to Ingram Marshall's Dark Waters, even if the latter is a work for English Horn, not clarinet. In a setting such as Joseph Harchanko's “Breath,” the way that Errante's clarinet weaves against the ebb and flow of a constantly shifting backdrop often calls to mind the compositional voice of Gavin Bryars.

Particular inspirations guided the creation of many pieces: a dreamlike vision from Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast of Belle running in slow motion down a long hallway inspired Peter Terry's “Echoes of the Invisible,” which offers a five-minute meditation that's soothing yet mysterious at the same time. Inspired by a moonlit night on a beach in Majorca, Robert Mackay's “Equanimity” integrates environmental elements into its evocative backing. A nocturnal stillness hangs in the air, with Errante's voice murmuring softly amongst chattering insects and animal noises, almost as if the fundamentally unlike creatures are communing with one another. The blending of the voices is enhanced by the use of live electronic processing, so that the clarinet is merged even more dissolubly into the whole. Inspired by a print of the same name made by the Japanese printmaker Hokusai, “Cherry Blossom and a Wrapped Thing” by Judith Shatin is more conspicuously electronic in nature, with the clarinet gently floating against an equally delicate and minimal backdrop. With opening chords that oddly evoke Cyndi Lauper's “Time After Time,” D. Gause's “Rain of the Heart, Reign of the Soul” ends the album on a soothing, melodic note that's not unappealing but whose smooth jazz style is obviously somewhat at odds with the more experimental compositional bent of the other pieces. Even so, there's ample evidence on hand to suggest that Errante's release is worth the attention of both clarinet and non-clarinet enthusiasts.

January 2011