Neil Leonard: For Kounellis
Gasp Records

Pennsylvania-born Neil Leonard took up the saxophone at age twelve and by sixteen was experimenting with electronics and making tapes of synthetic and processed sound for use as live accompaniment. After graduating from the New England Conservatory of Music, where he studied with Jaki Byard and George Russell, the pioneering Leonard began playing concerts for saxophone and live electronics while also collaborating with artists such as Bill Frisell, Leroy Jenkins, Van Dyke Parks, and Robin Rimbaud. The saxophonist-composer draws upon the full range of his experiences for the meditative electroacoustic work For Kounellis, which Leonard created for a performance on Mount Vesuvius, Naples.

Though at first blush it might appear so, For Kounellis isn't titled in dedication to a romantic partner. Instead, the individual in question is Jannis Kounellis, whose untitled sculpture of twenty-three large church bells, facing heavenward and installed at an environmental sculpture park in Italy, provided Leonard with a key part of the sound material used in the musical setting. Samples of the bells are not the only sounds featured, however: Leonard's soprano saxophone and live electronics are present, as is local Vesuvian singer Alessia de Capua, whose voice the composer processed and threaded into the luminous, thirty-eight-minute tapestry.

If the material as recorded sounds fully realized, that may have something to do with the fact that trial runs took place in China, France, and Cuba prior to the in-studio realization. It's an extraordinary work that takes little time to captivate the listener, opening as it does with the huge reverberations of processed bells before de Capua's mournful voice makes its first supplicating appearance at the seven-minute mark and its second twenty minutes later. In like manner, the saxophone enters seventeen minutes along, with its serpentine cry immediately altering the sonic character of the piece when it does so (similar to de Capua's voice, saxophone episodes appear twice, the second during the closing section). The searing solo that extends through the middle part of For Kounellis provides one of the recording's more striking moments, though it's hardly the only one. Leonard allows the material to develop organically and unfold at an unhurried pace—an approach that pays off in the way it enables each episode to resolve itself before the next one arrives.

Though a wealth of electronic and processing treatments figures into the work's construction, there's a timeless quality to For Kounellis that's reinforced powerfully by the haunting vocal performance and bell sounds. As Leonard rightly notes, “Her voice became the sound of her native Vesuvian landscape.” In fact, the composer blends acoustic and electronic sonorities so seamlessly in this mesmerizing long-form piece, the material at times invites comparison to the work of Ingram Marshall, which is high praise indeed.

November 2014