What first caught my attention with this CD is the production quality. The mixing and editing is very clean throughout, and Honour (who also mixed and edited the CD in addition to performing) always maintains a good balance between the saxophone and the electronic component in each piece. More specifically, the saxophone is mixed and EQd so that the (often) troublesome mid-range of the instrument is never too murky and is always balanced well with the electronic component. In addition to sounding great, there is also a really nice selection of wildly versatile music. Stylistically, the pieces range from reflective/meditative nocturnes to excitingly fast barn burners. Dare I say there is a little bit of something for everyone. The pacing of the album is also nicely done in that each track presents something different compared to what came before, which helps to avoid getting bombarded with too much of the same thing over and over again - a problem that, admittedly, can be difficult to avoid when programming modern electroacoustic music.
The opening track, Apparitions by Ed Martin is possibly my favorite piece on the album. It’s a great opening track as it demonstrates Eric’s abilities as a virtuosic performer, but also sets a good tone for the over-arching use of electronics on the entire album. Apparitions utilizes a wide array of electronic sounds set against a fantasia-like saxophone part wherein the two elements are in constant dialogue, all of which creates interesting counterpoint and very effective compound gestures between the sound worlds. The electronic sounds range from ghostly atmospheric drones to aggressive and deliberate percussive attacks. The second track, Zachary Crockett’s Fight to Flow Between, features mostly the saxophone with the electronic playing more of a supporting role. The use of electronics are incredibly effective, but primarily act as a backdrop for the exciting flourishes coming from the saxophone.
Karlheinz Essl’s Sequiter VII was of particular interest to me when I saw it on the track listing, as I’ve assisted in the performance of three other of Essl’s "Sequiter" pieces. The concept behind the piece is that the saxophone essentially creates its own accompaniment through the use of canons produced by delay lines from the computer. This might seem simple in concept, but the execution of Essl’s "Sequiter" pieces is quite difficult and involves an incredible degree of focus and clarity on the part of the performer. The final result of the piece is a constantly evolving organic texture that blurs the line between what is being repeated as the electronic “canon” and what is being introduced as new material by the performer. Eric’s own piece Phantasm follows Essl’s composition, and it provides a nice contrast from the more gradual process-based textural music of Sequiter VII. What initially stood out to me with Phantasm (the piece) was the immediate introduction of pulsed electronics. This is the first piece that utilizes a very clearly recognizable pulse, which is very refreshing following the previous three pieces.
The piece that follows Honour’s is sugar baby by D. Edward Davis, another piece which utilizes a strong sense of pulse. Sugar Baby is really fun piece which plays with quotations of an Appalachian folk melody. The piece is scored for baritone saxophone with an accompaniment that consists of processed banjo creating a very stable rhythmic backdrop. Being from the foothills of the Appalachian mountains, this piece brought back a nice sense of nostalgia for me, and really it’s just a fun and quirky piece to listen to. I think the best description I can think of for Davis’ piece is Appalachian mountain music on acid. And I mean that in the absolute best way possible.
The piece that stood out to me the most was the last piece on the album, Neuromante by Luigi Ceccarelli. This piece involves a fantastically difficult saxophone part set against an equally impressive electronic component. The electronics are made up of sampled saxophone notes and extended techniques, some of which are processed and others that are presented with little to no processing. Ceccarelli says about the piece “Rather than compromising these two different worlds of techniques [acoustic and electronically edited sounds], the end result yields a true expansion of sonic events.” Ceccarelli’s own words are the best way to describe the affect of his piece. Upon first listening to the piece I couldn’t tell what was the live saxophone and what was processed or even pre-recorded saxophone. After looking at the score I still found it difficult at times to differentiate between the two. Not only is the piece impressive on a compositional level, it’s also very engaging and wildly exciting to listen to, making it a great choice for the closing piece of the CD.
My only complaint about Phantasm is that three of the piece - Lou Bunk’s Luna, Massimo Biasioni’s Il Cortile di Charlie and Scott McLaughlin’s Whitewater - while they were enjoyable pieces and very well-written, I felt that all three were a little long-winded for the material that was presented. Luna was a hauntingly beautiful nocturne that created a meditative and entrancing timbral and harmonic texture, but for as little as it developed it didn’t maintain my attention for the entire duration of the piece. A similar argument could be made for Biasioni’s Il Cortile… , and even though it had noticeably more variation between sections than Bunk’s piece, the pacing of sections felt a little too drawn out for my liking. That said, in the greater structure of the album as a whole, these are all three great pieces that I might change my tune with repeated listening. Furthermore, the length of these specific pieces did not at all detract from the album overall. If you’re a fan of new saxophone repertoire, pieces which utilize a virtuosic matching of instruments and electronics, or you just want to hear some great music you’ve most likely not heard before then I strongly recommend checking out Eric Honour’s "Phantasm." Check out the links below to listen to Ed Martin’s Apparitions (the opening track of the CD) and to go to the Ravello Records Phantasm page to see more content from the album and purchase a digital download.