November 09, 2023


Music for Tubax by Pat Posey, Shelley Washington, Philip Glass, and J.S. Bach. Pat Posey, solo tubax. AVIE. $17.99.

Christopher Whyte: A Cold Stability; Toshio Hosokawa: Reminiscence; Sarah Hennies: Psalm 1; Lou Harrison: Solo to Anthony Cirone. New Focus Recordings. $16.99.

Doug Bielmeier: Wells, ME; Corporate Responsibility Pledge; Burning Old Man Summer; Throwaway Culture; Widows Mite; Slowdance84; CRP (West Coast Remix). New Focus Recordings. $16.99.

Sacha Mullin: Songs. Dog & Pony Records. $15.

     The place where noise ends and music begins is not always clear, and the intersection of the two forms  of sound has led to some highly intriguing works, from Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber’s Battalia of 1673 to Edgard Varèse’s identification of his aesthetic as “organized sound” and his statement that “anything new in music has always been called noise.” While some insist that there is no inherent difference between music and (other forms of ) sound, the fact is that some people enjoy creating and/or experiencing performances in which the sound – the noise, if you prefer – is the whole purpose of engagement, or at least a major part of it. Recordings in which sound is, in and of itself, the reason for being, are ones that will never have wide appeal but that can certainly intrigue small audiences that are dedicated to hearing specific sounds/noises without much regard to the specific works being performed. Pat Posey’s new AVIE disc, for instance, is a kind of sonic spectacular of works performed on the tubax – a modified contrabass/subcontrabass saxophone (tuba + saxophone = tubax) invented in 1999 and capable of extremely deep tones as well as highly screechy ones. Posey (born 1978) likes both sonic extremes, as is clear in his work Hymn (2021-2022), which includes everything from electronic-sounding screams to a section with a titular reference to Mussorsgky (Cum mortuis in lingua mortua). Posey’s is the only work on the disc that was specifically written for the tubax. The CD also includes Posey’s arrangement of Melodies for Saxophone (1995) by Philip Glass (born 1937). Some of these 13 short pieces fit the super-low instrument surprisingly well, along the lines of elephants dancing in Saint-Saëns – but deeper. The Glass work in this guise is a curiosity – worthwhile for those curious about the capabilities of the depths to which the tubax can go. Also here is MO’INGUS (2016-2019) by Shelley Washington (born 1991). This is sort of a mashup of Charles Mingus and J.S. Bach, which sounds about as expected in Posey’s arrangement, from its opening sonic flutter akin to foghorn screams through portions that sound like lyrical train derailments and a few that almost become jazz riffs before degenerating into growls. The Bach elements are less than apparent – but they are the entire point of the strangest thing here, Posey’s arrangement of Bach’s Cello Suite No. 3, BWV 1009. It has often been said that Bach’s works are so purely musical that they can be played on any instrument – hence, for example, all the piano versions of Bach’s harpsichord and clavichord pieces – but the statement is really put to the test in, say, the Courante of this suite. If some of the Glass work’s elements are reminiscent of dancing elephants, here the elephants are lame and off-balance. It is easy to regard what Posey does here as a parody of bad Bach performance – the final Gigue certainly sounds that way – but Posey appears to be completely serious in advocating for Bach to be experienced this way. And that is fine, really, for listeners who are far more interested in the sheer sound that Posey brings forth from his instrument than in any of the qualities that make Bach’s works so special and that lead so many people to want to hear them as music. Here they, like the other pieces on the disc, simply sound like…sound.

     Just as Posey includes a work by one famed composer on his recording, percussionist Christopher Whyte (born 1983) places a piece by someone of some musical standing on a New Focus Recordings CD.  This is Solo to Anthony Cirone by Lou Harrison (1917-2003). It is the final and shortest work on the disc – a delicate piece for tuned pipes in which the sound of the pipes rather than any inherently musical elements of rhythm or harmony is the piece’s reason for being, creating a kind of trancelike state in listeners who focus on Harrison’s aural world. Harrison’s brief work (six minutes) follows one by Whyte himself that is far more extended (23 minutes, nearly half the total length of the disc). Called A Cold Stability, Whyte’s piece has an extramusical reference, to stages of winemaking. But knowing that is not necessary for listeners to appreciate the sounds-for-their-own-sake elements of the four-section work. Drums and steel drums, vibraphone and glockenspiel, woodblocks and marimba, all have their places within this sound world, and all can – and really should – simply be heard as aural elements to which listeners can tune in and from which they can tune out, according to their mood. As a structured work, Whyte’s piece goes on much too long; but as an immersive sonic experience, it is effective as long as one does not try too hard to follow its underlying narrative purpose. Also on this CD are Reminiscence by Toshio Hosokawa (born 1955) and Psalm 1 by Sarah Hennies (born 1979). Hosokawa’s work is for solo marimba and is a journey through the instrument’s sound-generating capabilities, especially those involving its lower register. It can be thought of as mood music, background music, or simply a kind of sonic canopy whose resemblance to music is largely irrelevant. Hennies’ piece, for vibraphone, offers an interesting aural contrast to Hosokawa’s while sharing some of its aesthetic: the instrument’s sound is the whole point here, its swells and near-constant repetition serving to lull the ear into accepting its world as the world, which it becomes for its 10-minute time span.

     Another composer/performer with a New Focus Recordings release, Doug Bielmeier (born 1979), also has a strong “the sound’s the thing” orientation. Wells, ME is somewhat similar in its curtain-of-sound approach to the works by Hosokawa and Hennies. Corporate Responsibility Pledge – for electronics plus clarinet, violin, cello and piano – is at the opposite extreme, with an ostinato rhythm and near-constant repetition that make the work seem much longer than its six-and-a-half minutes. Burning Old Man Summer, for saxophone, electric guitar, piano and percussion, goes back to a sonic-focus approach, with occasional accented elements penetrating a generalized wash of sound before subsiding into the background. Throwaway Culture, for electronics, is another for-sound’s-sake piece that swells and diminishes repetitively throughout. Widows Mite mixes electronics with processed vocals to produce a soundscape that fades in and out repeatedly in its bid to immerse listeners in a rather mundane aural experience. Slowdance84 offers an aural world with more drama – still highly repetitive, still with a shimmering curtain of sound as its primary presence, but incorporating occasional bits of guitar and cymbal sounds that momentarily emerge before disappearing. The disc ends with CRP (West Coast Remix), which uses parts of Corporate Responsibility Pledge – including the near-constant repetition – and mixes in bits of a pop-music dance track, producing an uncertain aural environment that is best experienced without analyzing it too closely.

     Still another composer/performer, Sacha Mullin, goes pretty much all the way into pop-music territory in a Dog & Pony Records recording that is clearly intended as more than a sound-only experience – but that is in many ways more effective if heard simply as audio immersion rather than an attempt to communicate comparatively straightforward feelings and emotions through lyrics. Certainly Mullin offers plenty of emoting in his delivery, but as in so much pop or genre-blurring music, there is a portentousness to the words that makes it clear they are supposed to carry weight and meaning – while at the same time the underlying instrumental beat and the words of the backup singers are determinedly ordinary. Mullin’s voice is smooth, as are the instrumentals; together, words and music produce a kind of silken-jazz-with-rock/pop-inflections environment that is more attractive as an aural generality than in any of its specifics. The drum set is actually the most notable element of the sound, seeming to take over the foreground from Mullin’s voice a great deal of the time, thanks to often-insistent rhythms that are often at odds with the accentuation of the lyrics rather than in support of them. There is some differentiation among the tracks: the repetitive single-note opening of Neptune in the Snow stands out even after it merges into the background, only to re-emerge periodically; and the insistent underlying rhythm of Fiberglass provides effective forward motion. But the words being sung are, by and large, ordinary (“I don’t know where my head has been lately”) when they are not actively seeking poetic sensibilities (“Swim the bluest atmosphere of a diamond rain”). Mullin delivers the verbal material sensitively and as meaningfully as it is possible to put lyrics like these across – but all in all, the songs have insufficient meaning, in and of themselves, to make this a fully satisfying disc from the point of view of its content. On the other hand, it sounds good and is well put-together. So listeners who will simply sit back and let the music wash over them may find themselves transported more effectively to Mullin’s world than will those who seek to enter that world by listening to the feelings expressed by the words to the songs.

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