Though gnarwhallaby's debut album [exhibit a] isn't a live recording (it actually was recorded at an LA studio in October 2013), its playlist conveys the impression of one, specifically of an evening's concert programme. In that regard, it would seem as if the Los Angeles-based quartet—clarinetest Brian Walsh, trombonist (alto and tenor) Matt Barbier, violincellist Derek Stein, and pianist Richard Valitutto—has devised an hour-long presentation designed to feature works of varying styles and by multiple composers, some of them, such as Henryk Górecki and Morton Feldman, well-known and others less so. That gnarwhallaby features instrument sounds of such distinct character allows each of the four members to make a strong impression and to separate his sound from the others.
These predominantly new works (the earliest were composed in 1968) make for an interesting lot, given their stark contrasts in style, dynamics, and duration. Many of the sixteen pieces are no more than a minute in length, and consequently such pieces act as effective transition points between the longer ones. The setlist is cheekily framed by Feldman's “Half a minute it's all I've time for,” and five brief “FLUFF” interludes by Populist Records artist Nicholas Deyoe are interspersed to provide breaks in the action (if at times, as in “FLUFF No. 1” and “FLUFF No. 8,” disruptive ones) as well as continuity.
The release's value not only lies in the presentation of the group's sterling rendering of the composers' works but the opportunity to hear many of them for the first time. While there are obviously differences, many are prickly settings of bold melodic and rhythmic design and unrestricted by traditional notions of harmony and tonality. Representative of the style is Edison Denisov's “D-S-C-H,” which is rendered memorable by the repeated accent of stark, high-pitched piano notes, around which the instruments cluster, their expressive lines reminiscent of early Schoenberg. Ponderous, too, is Steffen Schleiermacher's “Stau,” especially when it repeatedly punctuates its instruments' statements with a foreboding tapping motif.Feldman's piece is, well, Feldmanesque in its stripped-down design, while the pieces by Marc Sabat, Steffen Schleiermacher, and Górecki are the recording's longer works. Sabat's “Modernes Kaufhaus” is a three-part chamber work of accessible character whose concluding part stands out for its march-like vivacity, whereas Górecki's “Muzyczka IV (koncert puzonowy)” is arguably more reflective of the Polish composer's pre-Symphony of Sorrowful Songs style, especially when the two-part piece's opening half is characterized by agitation, even fury. A title such as [exhibit a] brings with it, of course, the notion of dusty museum pieces, but that's assuredly not the case here. Thanks to gnarwhallaby's inspired renderings, the recording's sixteen pieces constitute a robust whole that's got more than its share of life coursing through its veins.