Larry Polansky: freeHorn
Cold Blue

Two distinct yet related sides of composer Larry Polansky are presented on this thirty-two-minute release. A classic polymath, he's issued material on New World Records, Artifact, and Cold Blue, and as a performer premiered works by Christian Wolff, James Tenney, Lou Harrison, and others. Polansky's also worked at the Mills Center for Contemporary Music, recently produced a festival of American Sign Language (ASL) poetry at UC Santa Cruz (where he teaches), and has published articles in a host of journals devoted to contemporary music practice.

Two of the three settings are guitar pieces performed by Polansky and Giacomo Fiore, an Italian-born player whose PhD thesis explored the development of just-intonation guitars in 20th-century American music. The twenty-minute title piece, on the other hand, augments the guitarists with six other players, each participant a distinguished music scholar, performer, and composer in his/her own right. Pianist Amy Beal, for example, has published books about Carla Bley and Johanna Beyer, whereas Krystyna Bobrowski, credited with horn on the release, designs and builds her own instruments using natural materials (such as rocks, leaves, and seaweed) and everyday objects (rocking chairs, wine glasses, and motors). Fleshing out the ensemble are Tom Dambly (trumpet), David Dunn (electric violin), David Kant (tenor sax, computer), and Monica Scott (cello).

On the release's inner sleeve, Polansky describes freeHorn as consisting of “a continuous modulation between three different harmonic series” during which the musicians interact in real time with computer software written by the composer and Phil Burke. Opening softly, freeHorn slowly blossoms as individual instrument sounds contribute to the gradually swelling whole. An initial single tone is joined by sustained brass, strings, guitar, and piano flourishes until the whole assumes the form of a shimmering, drifting mass of mutating timbres, pitches, and sonorities. A tamboura-like drone provides a ground to fluctuating microtonal shadings throughout this electroacoustic chamber work, whose slow-motion flurries prove transfixing, especially when the instruments' unusual tonal contrasts and harmonic shifts are handled with such sensitivity by all involved.

Though the other settings are scored for guitars only, they're arresting in their own way. ii-v-i, we're informed, limits itself to “open strings, 2nd, 3rd and 4th harmonics, and notes stopped at the 7th and 12th frets” and involves the retuning of guitars from one part to another, but such details ultimately resonate less than how the piece simply sounds. Hearing Polansky (fretless electric) and Fiore (standard electric) interweave makes for a fascinating listen. As their spidery tendrils criss-cross and occasionally unite, it's hard not to think of Derek Bailey, though other moments suggest ties to country blues playing and one riff even vaguely echoes “Ramblin' Man,” of all things. Ending the release memorably is minmaj, a three-minute treatment of Carl Ruggles' 1921 work Angels that's rendered with exquisite care by the guitarists. Still, as compelling as the guitar settings are, it's freeHorn that most powerfully argues on the recording's behalf.

September 2017