Longleash: Passage
New Focus Recordings

The chamber trio combination has its roots in music written by Haydn, Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Brahms, but the five daring compositions on Longleash's debut album collectively inhabit a wholly different soundworld than any associated with those figures. Violinist Pala Garcia, cellist John Popham, and pianist Renate Rohlfing might, in other words, play traditional instruments, but the contemporary material they perform is anything but. The group name, incidentally, derives from Operation Long Leash, a recently declassified CIA operation aimed at promoting the work of American avant-garde artists in Europe during the Cold War. Currently Brooklyn-based, Longleash likewise is committed to disseminating work, in this case recordings of material written by composers from the United States (Christopher Trapani), Mexico (Juan de Dios Magdaleno), Japan (Yukiko Watanabe), and Italy (Clara Iannotta, Francesco Filidei), none of it penned earlier than 2010.

It's worth noting that while Longleash eschews electronic treatments on Passage, the trio is very much committed to expanding on the tonal possibilities of each instrument using extended techniques. As Nils Vigeland observes in his introductory liner notes, techniques associated with strings such as muting, harmonics, pizzicato, ricochet, and col legno battuto are embraced not only by the two string players but Rohlfing too. In redefining the modes of playing, Longleash reinvigorates the trio tradition by thinking in new ways about the instruments' roles and the textural possibilities that naturally follow.

The unusual character of Passage's soundworld is signaled immediately by the glissandi effects and plucked cello phrases coursing through Trapani's Passing Through, Staying Put. Though the two-movement piece is but six minutes long, this arresting study, whose structure is derived from Jeff Dyer's novella “Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi,” effectively prepares the listener for the adventurous trio re-imaginings to come.

Iannotta's Il colore dell'ombra draws for inspiration and sources musical material from Ravel's Piano Trio in A minor, even if one would be hard pressed to make the connection when presented with a shadowy presentation that sees curdling, detuned string flourishes augmented by low piano notes and strums of the keyboard's insides. Innovative gestures of a similar kind surface during Magdaleno's Strange Attractors, when the strings play notes so high they almost transcend pitch, and in Filidei's Corde Vuote, where the musical possibilities afforded by open strings are explored. The latter's an especially fascinating study, including as it does moments where fingers mute the strings and thereby suffocate their resonance. In Garcia's own words, “As the strings' natural resonance is allowed to emerge, it is as if lungs fill with air, and voices open: our breath and movement respond in kind, finally stirring the pianist from her long silence.”

At seventeen minutes the album's longest setting, Watanabe's ver_flies_sen unfolds like an engrossing conversation between three parties, with the fragmented expression of one engendering similarly clipped responses in the others. Space and silence are integral to the work's design, with the piano, for example, playing single notes almost exclusively and Rohlfing as focused on exploiting the percussive potential of his instrument as playing standard notes.

On this fifty-five-minute collection, Garcia, Popham, and Rohlfing achieve something not only difficult but rather remarkable, too, in vividly maximizing the musicality and accessibility of uncompromisingly experimental pieces. To make such challenging material feel so inviting is a testament to Longleash's fully engaged performances of the works presented.

October 2017