Ryan Streber: Concentric
New Focus Recordings

If I say that the best thing about Concentric is the performances by its musicians, that could be construed as a tactful way of downgrading Ryan Streber's abilities as a composer. Of course, such an interpretation would be inaccurate. Streber's a perfectly credible composer, and no better argument in support of the claim is needed than the recording itself, which features eight mixed chamber pieces, the earliest of them written in 2003.

Works by the Yonkers, NY-based Streber (b. 1979) have been performed by The American Composers Orchestra, The Lucerne Percussion Group, The Juilliard Orchestra, The New Juilliard Ensemble, and many others, and Streber's also produced scores for short films, designed sound for theatrical productions, and played electric guitar and percussion in bands. He also, it's worth noting, studied composition with Christopher Rouse and Milton Babbitt.

Performed by counter)induction (violinists Miranda Cuckson and Erik Carlson, violist Jessica Meyer, and cellist Karen Ouzounian), the simply titled String Quartet locates itself firmly within the string quartet tradition, advancing as it does through passages of dramatic contrast over the course of its twelve minutes. Despite its single-movement structure, the composition does enter into a hushed, quasi-improvised episode halfway through that in its quiet yet lyrical way proves to be the most memorable part of the piece. In contrast to the string-based opener, the percussion-only Cold Pastoral, an unhurried nine-minute exploration of subtle, dream-like character, is given a nuanced reading by the Line C3 Percussion Quartet (Haruka Fujii, Chris Thompson, John Ostrowski, and Sam Solomon).

The three-movement Shadow Etudes strips Streber's music down to clarinet (Ben Fingland) and viola (Jessica Meyer), an effective combination for not only the timbral contrast between the instruments but the clarity with which the interactions between them can be heard. At album's close, yMusic members Nadia Sirota (viola), Clarice Jensen (cello), and Alex Sopp (flute) tackle the three-movement Dust Shelter, which, like Shadow Etudes, satisfies for the musicians' stellar rendering of Streber's material.

Perhaps the most arresting of the album's six instrumental performances is Descent, an eleven-minute excursion executed by electric guitarist Daniel Lippel. Pastoral and delicate in its opening moments, the piece gradually broadens out when amplification and distortion boldly expand the sonorities of the instrument. Streber digs in himself on Compassinges, a richly coloured and emphatically pitched dialogue between seven interlocutors, on which his electric guitar's augmented by aggressive percussion playing, spectral wordless vocalizing, and electronically-manipulated strings.

At seventy-three minutes, Concentric provides a comprehensive portrait of the composer. Based on the evidence at hand, Streber comes across as no grand theorist or iconoclast but someone working within the music's traditions whilst also trying to impose an individual stamp upon it. As credible a composer as he is, however, it's the diversity of the performances that is Concentric's best selling point. His music benefits significantly when everything from a percussion quartet to an electric guitarist are involved in its presentation.

January 2015