Mikel Kuehn: Object/Shadow
New Focus Recordings

An encompassing portrait of American composer Mikel Kuehn (b. 1967) emerges from this varied collection, its seven pieces performed by a number of different instrumental configurations and its contents ranging from solo and ensemble works to electroacoustic settings. Kuehn's composing style isn't beholden to any one stylistic group or tradition, even if it emerged out of the considerable collective shadow of Schoenberg, Stockhausen, Ligeti, Lutoslawski, and others. In this case it would be more accurate to say that such influences have been so thoroughly absorbed into the 2014 Guggenheim Fellow's material that what appears on Object/Shadow sounds like Kuehn and no one else.

The release is enhanced by Harvey Sollberger's in-depth liner notes, which provide invaluable insight into the recording's selections and the composer himself. Sollberger succinctly describes, for example, a central dilemma faced by contemporary composers, specifically whether to adopt selective aspects of Modernism and ignore the rest (or reject it altogether, as some have attempted) or embrace and extend the tradition. Sollberger's contention is that Kuehn chose the latter route, obviously the more difficult choice of those available but an admirable one marked by integrity and courage. Sollberger also excels at identifying specific characteristics of Kuehn's composing style, noting, for instance, that while a typical piece might be carefully engineered and meticulously arranged, it never sounds laboured but instead unfolds organically. Kuehn's handling of pitch, rhythm, transitions, and timbre is also discussed, as is his propensity for dividing ensembles into sub-groupings within a composition and his music's tendency to proceed on several different layers at once, such that the distinct parts both operate independently and in accordance with one another. As a review can only scratch the surface of what's happening in a given Kuehn setting, anyone wanting a more comprehensive analysis need look no further than Sollberger's text.

No better piece illustrates such aspects than 2013's Undercurrents, an ambitious fifteen-minute setting that the Chicago-based Ensemble Dal Niente (conducted by Michael Lewanski) executes with poise. Though its opening flourishes might call to mind Alban Berg, the piece gradually establishes itself as a Kuehn portrait in microcosm and showcases in particular his talents as an orchestrator and mood sculptor. Melodic fragments flit rapidly from one instrument to the next, with woodwinds, guitar, strings, piano, harp, and percussion collectively marshaling the work into being, each instrument adding critical tone colour to the multi-layered design.

Composed in honour of Elliott Carter's 100th birthday, Devouring Time offers a perhaps slightly easier point of entry for Kuehn's music given that it features a single instrument, in this case marimba. Interestingly, too, the piece can be seen as symbolic of Kuehn's composing philosophy in that it draws from Carter's legacy (by transforming a technique associated with his 1994 solo piano work 90+) while also building upon it. In like manner, 2004's Unfoldings presents a solo guitar setting realized with exquisite attention to detail by Daniel Lippel, the work's title referencing a progressive unfolding involving a series of six chords and resonant voicings stemming from them. The most immediately accessible piece is arguably Color Fields (2006/2008), to some degree because its arrangement for tenor saxophone, vibraphone, guitar, and piano allows each voice to declare itself with maximum clarity. The rapid, rhythmically driven setting also adds a hint of jazz flavour to the album while at the same time suggesting allusions to Louis Andriessen and even Kurt Weill. The earliest work on the recording, 1994's Between the Lynes likewise offers an accessible sampling of Kuehn's music in featuring a trio arrangement for for flute, cello, and piano.

His embrace of electroacoustic music's possibilities are intimated by the inclusion of 2007's Chiaroscuro and 2008's Objet/Ombre, the first featuring cellist Craig Hultgren and the second the BGSU Saxophone Ensemble; both works derive from a larger cycle of electroacoustic pieces the composer has titled Hyperresonance, which focuses on combining live instruments with electronics in real-time. Admittedly no one will come away from Object/Shadow whistling Kuehn's melodies, but that's clearly not his primary concern. In demanding much from himself, he demands much from the listener, too, the expectation being that listeners must bring their fullest powers of concentration to the material to reap the greatest possible reward from it. Without question the seventy-one-minute collection flatters Kuehn as a composer but even more importantly as an artist of integrity intent on extending the Modernist tradition into the 21st century.

January 2017