Sometimes bigger isn’t always better. While I’ve embraced the symphony as my primary medium — even expanding it with electronic sounds when I want to turn it up to 11 — I always enjoy returning to chamber music, which is the focus of a new CD out this month called Stereo Is King (available at iTunes, Innova, or Amazon).
Chamber music is, in fact, one of the more surprising things that my residency with the Chicago Symphony has kept in sharp focus. In the midst of performances of large symphonic works such as Alternative Energy and Liquid Interface, I’ve been given wide latitude to create deep relationships with many CSO musicians on a more intimate scale. The platform has been our MusicNOW series, immersive and eclectic new-music concerts at the Harris Theater. My two commissions for the MusicNOW series anchor this new disc from Innova Records.
The title track, the percussion trio Stereo Is King (excerpt), embodies a new electro-acoustic approach. This piece juxtaposes the indigenous and the electronica, two visceral worlds that have surprising similarities and differences. On the surface, they are quite disparate: the dry, mechanical pops and clicks of breakbeat hit your ears completely differently than the rich, resonant sonorities of Thai gongs and Tibetan prayer bowls. But there are interesting ways that, say, West African drumming organizes itself not unlike virtuosic breakbeat rhythms. The charm of jungle and drum ‘n bass is that they superimpose a hyper-rhythmic layer on top of larger, slower-moving structures, and that too can be heard in those UNESCO field recordings of Uruguay tribes. Informed by both of those worlds, Stereo Is King ends up somewhere in the middle.
The other CSO-commissioned work is Difficult Bamboo (excerpt), a sprawling work for Pierrot ensemble. The idea was to create a work inhabiting a peaceful, pastoral minimalism – a kind of idyllic landscape – that gets invaded by a post-serial maximalism, embodied by fast-replicating running bamboo. Musically that comes in the form of infectious motifs that jump from instrument to instrument insidiously, at one point even turning into a kind of theater between the players. Thank you, Harry Partch.
Also on the disc is a stellar, pitch-perfect recording by Chanticleer of Observer in the Magellanic Cloud (excerpt), which depicts a satellite catching a glimpse of an ancient Maori tribe. The chorus, split into two groups, dissolves into a kind of analogue versus digital. It is the third work I’ve composed for this astonishing orchestra of voices, a continuing collaboration I’m honored to have.
Finally, there are two homages : the IDM electronica track Terrycloth Troposphere (excerpt), doffing a hit to minimalist pioneer Terry Riley, and a piano homage to Alan Lomax in the form of White Lies for Lomax (excerpt). Those early blues musicians would have remained anonymous but for the tireless efforts of the ethnomusicologist Lomax, and this work conjures those early musicians dreamily.
Many thanks to Innova Records, the most composer-devoted label out there, and to the musicians of the Chicago Symphony and Chanticleer who made this possible. Check it out if you want to hear the lean and mean.