Stephen Griesgraber might currently be better known as the electric guitarist in Slow Six but all that may change if more recordings like Vespers see the light of day. The fifty-minute collection (the follow-up to 2007's The Future According to Yesterday) makes Redhooker sound like anything but a side project when the classically trained guitarist unites bass clarinetest Peter Hess and violinists Andie Springer, Maxim Moston, and Ben Lively for a neo-classical set of four formally composed pieces and two improvisations. Given that vespers are evening prayers, the album title neatly captures the emotive tone of the chamber group's music and playing style. That the arrangements are scored for no more than five voices allows the music to not only breathe but allows its intimate and introspective qualities to assert themselves clearly throughout.
Arranged for two violins, bass clarinet, and electric guitar, Griesgraber's through-composed settings are especially striking. In the opening “Standing Still,” pizzicato violin and electric guitar picking pave the way for a gorgeous violin theme to emerge in tandem with the accompanying bass clarinet, all four instruments gracefully united in the lyrical lilt of clear-voiced polyphony. Here and elsewhere, one detects the influence of Reich and Glass but indirectly so, as Griesgraber and company don't ape their rhythmic and melodic strategies so much as perpetuate the elegant counterpoint the two NY composers work into their intricate, systems-based compositions. Listen carefully and one even hears Michael Nyman creeping in during the closing minutes in the strings' vocal-like melodies and the piece's abrupt end. Even more lyrical is “Bedside,” which—true to its title—suggests the moments before sleep when one's body relaxes and surrenders to imminent slumber. Again, Redhooker's sensitive handling of the material comes to the fore, with the guitar and bass clarinet acting as soothing support for the violins' serenading themes. The most propulsive of the album's six pieces, “Friction” gains momentum when an ostinato guitar figure is joined by the serpentine dance of the violin duo.
The first of two long-form improvisations, the thirteen-minute “Presence and Reflection,” is actually only partly improvised, as Griesgraber uses Max/MSP to capture the players' live sounds during the piece's opening section in order to have the musicians interact with each other in real-time later on while also responding to what they played minutes before. The quintet in this case—three violins, bass clarinet, and guitar—works towards a chorale-like section that begins two-thirds of the way into the piece; so while the material preceding this section is improvised, the musicians do reference particular themes and motifs that eventually are more precisely articulated in the closing minutes. There's no question, however, that the piece's most stirring moments come during the chorale. A lovely guitar episode signals its onset, which the violins and clarinet then take up in their own quietly rapturous manner, after which the computer presents a one-minute coda bearing traces of the improvised material. Slightly longer is “Black Light Poster Child,” which exudes a spacey character as it explores its open-ended pathways. As an improv, it's more in the tradition, so to speak, in that its loose structure eases the players' inhibitions and encourages them to push beyond the self-imposed boundaries of the fully composed pieces. Having said that, though it liberates the group from said structures and though there are satisfying moments (around the nine-minute mark in particular, when the players achieve their closest level of communion), the piece is ultimately less satisfying for lacking the taut melodicism that so distinguishes the four shorter settings. That lack comes into sharp relief when the final composed piece, “Trip and Fall,” appears after it, demonstrating perhaps most clearly the influence of minimalism on the group's playing during the first half. It's the elegiac closing minutes that prove the more affecting, however, as the four voices come together to give the recording a stately resolution that's truly lovely. Among other things, Vespers suggests just how splendid it would be (for the listener, obviously) if Redhooker and Slow Six were to head out on tour as a double-bill.