Octet Ensemble: William Susman: Scatter My Ashes
Belarca Records

Thoughts of minimalism come to mind as one listens to Octet Ensemble's Scatter My Ashes, the outfit's debut album featuring works by Octet founder William Susman, though perhaps not in the way one might expect. First of all, Susman would seem to be part of a post-minimalism generation of composers whose music suggests the influence of figures such as Reich and Glass without being overly constrained by or beholden to it; stated otherwise, echoes of minimalism reverberate within Susman's music without holding it hostage. Though rambunctious syncopations pulsing through “Only Clear Space Inside” do lend it a Michael Nyman-esque quality, one comes away from Scatter My Ashes thinking of Susman as a composer in his own right rather than someone overly derivative of others.

Secondly, the Octet Ensemble project is minimalistic in a more literal sense in its instrumental makeup, given that it functions as an orchestra but in miniature form with each multi-member orchestra section represented by a single player. In that regard, trumpeter Mike Gurfield and trombonist Alan Ferber are the group's brass section, while saxophonist Demetrius Spaneas fills the woodwinds role. Filling out the Octet's sound are soprano Mellissa Hughes, pianist Elaine Kwon, double bassist Eleonore Oppenheim, percussionist Greg Zuber, and Susman on electric piano. A configuration of such modest design allows for both density and clarity in the music's presentation.

The opening three-part piece, Camille, bookends the sober “Tranquility,” whose elegant arrangement grants the individual sounds—wordless vocalizing, piano, muted trumpet, and saxophone—maximum separation, with the energized opening part “Vitality” and robust “Triumph” (it's in the latter's repeating patterns that traces of minimalism audibly emerge though not off-puttingly). In ruminating on the self's dissolution and communing with nature, the lyrical content (by William's sister, Sue Susman) of Scatter My Ashes (“Scatter my ashes before I die…”) is complemented by an understated instrumental arrangement that supports Hughes' delicate vocalizing. A different kind of dissolution is captured in Moving In To An Empty Space's “Hot Time” where Ms. Susman recounts the experience of big city alienation and its citizens' insatiable appetite for sensory stimulation. Unlike many a piano concerto, Susman's doesn't relegate the accompanying musicians to the background. Yes, Kwon's playing is the primary focal point, but the Piano Concerto is as much an Octet Ensemble performance as it is the pianist's.

There's a great deal to like about Scatter My Ashes. It's refreshingly concise at forty-five minutes, and the album also appeals in featuring four works of contrasting design. Two are vocal-based song cycles (one composed in 2009 and the other in 1992, though arranged for the ensemble in 2010) and the others instrumental works, one the aforementioned piano concerto. In keeping with the album length, Susman's pieces are typically short, with most in the two- to three-minute range (though the piano concerto checks in at twelve minutes, it's comprised of multiple parts). Of course none of that would amount to much if his music weren't appealing, but there's no cause for concern on that count. Generally speaking, the material on Scatter My Ashes is resplendent and melodious, and easy to embrace when its fresh blend of neo-classical, jazz, and popular song-based forms sparkles so effervescently.

October 2014