PRISM Quartet: Color Theory
XAS Records

Ask any graphic design or fine arts graduate about colour theory and a discussion about colour contrast will invariably follow, so fundamental is it to the topic. Contrasts of hue, value, saturation, and temperature are routinely exploited in a visual context, but they're hardly exclusive to it, as PRISM Quartet's aptly titled Color Theory indicates; if anything, the album, which presents commissioned works built around the idea of musical colour, reveals how incredibly rich and plentiful a recording can be with respect to contrast. For starters, the quartet itself exemplifies colour contrast: though saxophone's the shared hue, value contrasts (light-dark) naturally emerge when the four play different kinds of saxophones, with Timothy McAllister on soprano, Zachary Shemon on alto, Matthew Levy on tenor, and Taimur Sullivan baritone (additional colour emerges during Ken Ueno's Future Lilacs when Shemon adds “hookah” saxophone to the performance).

PRISM isn't alone on the recording, however, and it's here where other key contrasts apply: on Steven Mackey's Blue Notes and Other Clashes, the group's joined by the New York-based quartet So Percussion, whose members supplement PRISM's palette with an incredibly rich spectrum of their own; in addition to conventional instruments such as vibraphone, gongs, marimba, triangle, and bass drum, the group adds sounds of tin cans, vibraslap, steel drums, flexatone, and singing bowl to Mackey's piece. And yet as unusual as So Percussion's sound world is, the one the other ensemble, PARTCH, contributes to the recording's other settings is even more unusual; dedicated to performing and recording the work of Harry Partch (1901-1974), the seven-member, California-based ensemble plays instruments such as cloud chamber bowls, chromelodeon, diamond marimba, and kithara on two of the recording's three works (apparently, only three sets of Harry Partch instruments exist). Deepening the unconventional character of Partch's soundworld is the application of a forty-two-note-to-the-octave tuning system to his compositions; not surprisingly, contrasts of timbre, sonority, and pitch are in plentiful supply in these Partch pieces. Also appearing on the release are Derek Johnson, who plays adapted electric guitar on Ueno's Future Lilacs, and Stratis Minakakis, who conducted Ueno's piece and his own Skiagrafies, the third work featured.

Such bold ventures are nothing new to a group who gives new meaning to the word intrepid. Every recording, it seems, finds PRISM exploring inspired ideas and adventurous territory; recent releases, for example, have seen the quartet partnering with the ensemble Music From China to play material by Chinese-born American composers (The Singing Gobi Desert) and collaborating with contemporary jazz artists Steve Lehman, Greg Osby, Miguel Zenón, and Dave Liebman on Heritage/Evolution, Volume 1. Issued on the group's recently launched XAS record label and recorded in June 2016, Color Theory is very much in line with the path the group's carved out for itself since its founding at the University of Michigan in 1984.

Significantly more than an extended riff on the blues, Mackey's 2016 work Blue Notes and Other Clashes presents eight movements that in their titles pair adjectives usually used to describe colour with nouns denoting musical forms. At thirty-three minutes, it's arguably the dominant work of the three, though the arresting sound design of Ueno's Future Lilacs definitely puts it in the running. Mackey's suite is, predictably, bluesy at times, but as intimated by the track titles, contrasts of style and mood are generous in number. Inaugurating the recording on a crepuscular and rather subdued note, “Deep Hymn” derives much of its haunting character from the coupling of soprano sax, steel pans, and marimba, the tonal contrasts striking yet complementary for all that. Rambunctious by comparison is “Rustic Ballad,” which sees drums, marimba, steel drums, and saxes in constant motion as the two quartets spar, while Stravinsky-ites will take delight in hearing snippets of the “March” from L'Histoire du Soldat wend their way into the intricate goings-on of “Mottled March.” One final contrast involves length: whereas the first seven parts are modest in duration, the eighth, “Prismatic Fantasy,” ventures far and wide during its eleven action-packed minutes.

Ueno's Future Lilacs lunges into action with an unaccompanied Johnson playing an electrified version of Partch's adapted guitar, the instrument rich in heavy metal-like distortion and functioning as a tonal center around which the other instruments gradually gather. A high-energy and oft-fractious dialogue ensues between the guitar, percussion, and saxophones until the storm lifts midway through and Shemon's “hookah” sax (which replaces the alto's brass neck with seven feet of rubber hose) replaces Johnson's guitar as the focal point. Arriving as it does after the frenetic pitch of the first half, the spacious, gamelan-like second feels all the more meditative and peaceful as a result. Overshadowed by the other two, Stratis Minakakis's Skiagrafies (Greek for ‘shadow etchings') is the least memorable of the three compositions, even if the PARTCH ensemble's sonorities are as ear-catching here as they are in Ueno's. Though there's a rather sickly quality to the material, due in part to the lurch with which it advances and the unsettling clash of the tunings, the sound design can't help but fascinate when its arrangement includes adapted viola, bass and diamond marimbas, and cloud chamber bowls.

Among the many things to recommend about Color Theory is PRISM's willingness to share the stage with others. Never does the recording feel like a group recording featuring guests but instead fully integrated ensemble performances wherein PRISM and its collaborators blend magnificently. The quartet always performs in service to the music in play, yet distinguishes itself all the more for realizing its diverse projects with humility.

July 2017