International Contemporary Ensemble: On the Nature of Thingness

Daniel Lippel: Electric Counterpoint
New Focus Recordings

There's much to recommend this latest collection by the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE). First of all, it presents works by Phyllis Chen and Nathan Davis, gifted composers and long-time ICE members, she a pianist and toy pianist, he a percussionist. Secondly, the works themselves are an intriguing lot, Chen's in particular for the way in which three of her settings feature toy piano and music boxes, signature sounds within Chen's soundworld. But perhaps the CD's strongest selling-point is the way in which ICE with admirable deference supports the composer's vision.

Just as the ensemble did in spotlighting Anna Thorvaldsdóttir on 2015's In the Light of Air, so too does ICE on its follow-up put itself in service to the compositions of Chen and Davis. That's evident in the stellar playing but also in the instrumentation used in the individual settings. Of the seven pieces performed, Davis's ambitious, four-part title track is the only one performed by a large ensemble; all others are handled by smaller units, and in fact three of them feature a single musician only. It's hard not to notice such an approach when a musical outfit's personnel resources (thirty-five different instrumentalists, apparently) are so plentiful.

Davis's Ghostlight quickly establishes the project's unusual soundworld in a virtuosic performance by ICE pianist Jacob Greenberg, whose instrument was “prepared” for the recording when objects were placed on or between the strings of certain notes to produce microtonal beatings and gong-like noises. From such a description, one might expect that a rather alien-sounding piece would result, but in fact a plentiful amount of unaltered acoustic piano appears during Davis's dazzling rendering to counterbalance the somewhat gamelan-flavoured piano effects; it hardly surprises that the work's creator is a percussionist, given the emphasis on texture and rhythm. Also an ICE member, Rebekah Heller gives a bravura performance of On speaking a hundred names, written for her by Davis in 2010 and featuring the bassoonist's playing radically altered with live processing in a way that likens it to an experimental piece by Ingram Marshall.

Chen's Beneath A Trace of Vapor is a natural complement to On speaking a hundred names in featuring a tape-treated performance by flutist Eric Lamb, whose solo playing is augmented by recordings of his own unearthly wails, groans, inhales, and exhales. The child-like world evoked by the toy piano's twinkles also earmarks Hush as one of Chen's contributions. On this 2011 work, dedicated to her daughter Zoe, percussive effects point the material in the direction of Chinese Opera as well as Balinese gamelan, the treatments in this case created when Chen applied parts of a broken music box to the piano's strings. The sound universe expands markedly on Chimers (inspired by magic chimes used in The Magic Flute) when tuning forks are used to strike rods positioned upright on the toy piano and when clarinet (Joshua Rubin), violin (Erik Carlson), and toy glockenspiel (Rubin, Cory Smythe) are included in the arrangement.

Incorporating poetic and absurdist texts by Rimbaud, Italo Calvino, Zbigniew Herbert, and Hugo Ball, Davis's On the Nature of Thingness caps the recording with a nineteen-minute song cycle performed by soprano Tony Arnold and a dozen musicians, Davis himself (plus nine others) on jaw harp. As one might expect from a work that includes material from Ball's “DADA Manifesto,” first read publicly in Zurich in 1916, Davis's piece ranges widely and wildly—it's not often one encounters a piece coupling dada text and the twang of jaw harps—though not every part is as wild, “Vowels” and “An outside with an inside in it” functioning as delicate, dream-like counterparts to “DADA.”

Along with his contributions (classical and acoustic guitars, electric bass, jaw harp) to Davis's On the Nature of Thingness, Dan Lippel has a new release of his own, specifically an EP-length treatment of Steve Reich's Electric Counterpoint. Tackling the piece comes with some built-in challenges: not only does the guitarist have to contend with the precedent-setting premiere performance by Pat Metheny, he/she must find a way to imprint his/her personality upon it despite some inherent constraints. In contrast to Riley's In C and Glass's Two Pages, both of which are amenable to different choices of instrumentation (Glass's includes “a single unison line of music [that] can be played by any combination of instruments”), Reich's piece is scored for a particular instrument and comes with specific tempo markings.

Fortuitously, Lippel, an ICE member since 2005, discovered that his own burgeoning interest in traditional folkloric music from Africa coincided with his desire to produce a version of Reich's piece. As those familiar with the composer's background already know, Reich traveled to Africa as a young man to learn about African drumming and ultimately incorporated what he learned into his own rapidly developing composing style. In short, the approach that Lippel proposed for his version, one that would emphasize metric duality (specifically a musical passage simultaneously executed in both double and triple meter) and timbral diversity would be a natural fit for the piece as opposed to a contrived one grafted onto it. Aided in this endeavour by South African-born ethnomusicologist and composer Martin Scherzinger (whose work also has appeared on New Focus Recordings), Lippel proceeded to map out various ways by which the African roots of Reich's composition might be brought into even sharper relief. From Scherzinger, the guitarist learned, for example, that the canonic material in Reich's opening movement draws from a traditional piece associated with adolescent initiation rites by the Banda-Linda, a Central African people who number about 30,000 and live in a wooded savanna region.

On timbral grounds, Lippel made adjustments to the guitar's strings to bring it closer in sound to plucked string instruments such as the African lamellaphone, an instrument comprised of iron rods. The balancing act here, of course, is that one must find a way to individuate the performance of Reich's work without altering it so radically that the character of the original is lost in the process. This is something Lippel does ultimately succeed in doing: the performance may sound superficially similar to Metheny's, but were one to listen to them side-by-side differences would become subtly audible, those of timbre especially. Don't worry: those massed guitars and spidery single-line patterns are still present, the middle movement still exudes the harp-like elegance we've come to know and love, and Reich's signature pulsation, bass and otherwise, remains firmly in place. But differences arise, too, a case in point the percussive-like fluttering that emerges midway through the opening part.

Anyone with a musicological bent will find much to appreciate about the notes by Lippel and Scherzinger that accompany the release. In their in-depth texts, the two enlighten the listener with information about the rhythmic approach of Lippel's version and the work's African connections (Scherzinger notes, for instance, that “a single instrumental line in Electric Counterpoint performs the pattern made by three distinct hocketing horns in the African ensemble”). Their analyses make clear just how sophisticated Reich's composition truly is.

May 2016