Daniel Lentz: Point Conception
Cold Blue

Chas Smith: Nakadai
Cold Blue

On this first of two Cold Blue re-issues, Daniel Lentz's Point Conception is realized in a bravura thirty-seven-minute performance by Arlene Dunlap. Composed in 1979 and recorded and released on Cold Blue five years later, the piece is scored for nine pianos, with each part—using a “cascading echo system,” Dunlap performs all nine—consisting only of individual octave figures, both harmonic and melodic. Those figures are introduced by the first piano, and the remaining eight pianos follow in “loose canon configurations.” Incessant showers of notes and patterns dance throughout, with billowing sprinkles in the upper register counterbalanced by rippling clusters in the lower. Despite being the product of a single instrument, Point Conception generates a kaleidoscopic effect, with the stately lockstep of the ivory army—all 792 keys of it—kept in remarkably tight formation by Dunlap throughout. There's a grandeur to its shimmering sparkle that might remind some listeners of John Adams' Grand Pianola Music (even if Adams' two pianos are no match for Lentz's nine) and a strong kinetic motion that makes its thirty seven minutes transpire quickly. That Dunlap's performance is so commanding doesn't wholly surprise, given that she's been a member of various Lentz ensembles since the early ‘70s and has recorded his music for seven albums. For this CD re-issue, the 1984 recording of Point Conception is joined by a 2008 recording of the previously unrecorded 1990 composition NightBreaker. Scored for four pianos, the ten-minute piece was performed by Los Angeles pianist Bryon Pezzone using overdubbing. Lyrical and ruminative at one moment, lunging forward in dazzling cascades and sweeping glissandi the next, NightBreaker is a compact tour-de-force that showcases Lentz's powers of invention and command of dynamics as much as it does Pezzone's jaw-dropping performance.

Though most of the shimmering drones on Chas Smith's Nakadai were laid down in the summer of 1987, the album sounds as if it could have been recorded yesterday, so simpatico in spirit is the Los Angeles-based composer's work to that of current electronic artists. Nakadai's first four tracks were issued on the original album and are joined on the CD re-issue by an elegiac 1991 piece, “Joaquin Murphey,” that pays tribute to the pedal steel guitarist of the same name, and the 2008 setting “The Ghosts on the Windows” which features Smith augmenting his steel guitar and pedal steel guitar with a customized instrument he calls “the Towers” (Smith, in the spirit of Harry Partch, is renowned for creating his own exotic instruments). The title piece begins the album with the instantly recognizable sound of Smith's pedal steel guitar which, multi-tracked, comes at the listener in waves and swells into grand tidal formations and blocks of reverberating sound. Spookier by comparison, “Hollister” finds Smith generating slow-motion wails, swoops, and rumbles whose multi-tones sometimes dissonantly rub against one another and sometimes corrode. At full volume, the effect is nightmarish, especially when the squealing mass achieves lift-off near the track's end. A percussion quartet joins Smith for the two-part “A Judas Within” but its contributions are subtly woven into the overall tapestry of his compositions; the vibraphone, marimba, and hammered dulcimer that join the pedal steel guitar on “Seduction,” for instance, thicken the tonal mass expansively without calling too much attention to themselves. Microtonal chimes and bowed rods do, on the other hand, add prominent gamelan-like colour to Smith's phantom washes during “Betrayal.” Twenty years removed from the preceding pieces, “The Ghosts on the Windows”—an apt title for a setting of such haunted character—doesn't depart radically in style though it does indicate Smith has expanded his style to accommodate an even greater amount of atmospheric texture; if anything, the new material brings the advanced character of Smith's earlier material into sharper relief. One of the most striking things about Nakadai is the remarkable patience and control Smith brings to the music's execution throughout. His slowly-evolving pieces unfold over fifteen-minute distances with absolute assurance, similar to how a high-wire artist incrementally makes her way across the wire at a death-defying height.

February 2009