Mikel Kuehn - Entanglements
Entanglements, a new release by New Focus Recordings, is a portrait album of works by composer Mikel Kuehn containing four duo pieces and three pieces for soloists and electronics. The core concept of the album is an exploration of conversational possibilities between instruments, similar to what one might hear in the music of Elliott Carter or Mario Davidovsky. The album as a whole is quite impressive and showcases Kuehn’s adept talents as a composer, as well as the care and attention to detail exhibited by the performers in interpreting these compositions. As I’ve said with previous albums I’ve reviewed, this is one that not only demands repeated listenings but has me constantly coming back to each piece to hear things I might have missed. No matter how many times I come back to this album I hear something new, always drawing more substance from the music and taking away new aspects of the musical dialogs.
Kuehn’s particular voice fits within a modernist aesthetic with clear compositional/structural rigor that unfolds in a kaleidoscope of constantly shifting and developing materials. Though the pieces are meticulously structured, they all unfold organically, flowing seamlessly from one moment to the next. With each composition, Kuehn guides the listener through a tapestry of both similar and disparate ideas, layered and juxtaposed to create engaging and clear musical narratives. There is also abundant focus on timbre, texture and gesture, conjuring influences of Berio and Saariaho though still uniquely Mikel Kuehn.
There are two collections of works contained on Entanglements, the purely acoustic duos and the three electroacoustic works, all of which are centered around conversational approaches to music making. This can be heard most clearly in the duos, wherein instruments take on unique identities based on pitch language, gestural materials, and other components that make each voice unique. The two voices, be they guitar/harp, flute/piano, flute/marimba, or violin/viola, are in constant dialog. What I find most impressive is how Kuehn interweaves moments of guided improvisation, drawing on his background in jazz, wherein the performers are provided a collection of musical fragments and present them according to loosely guided rules. These moments are almost indistinguishable in terms from the fully composed sections in regard to the conversational nature of the music. Rather than sound like a cacophony of disparate ideas, the performers approach these sections with the utmost care and attention to detail, listening and responding to one another to continue the musical discourse and maintain the dialog, even though the conversation has changed.
The electroacoustic works present interactions between the chosen instrument (soprano voice, viola, bass clarinet) and the electronic sounds, much of which is generated and processed in real time based on the live input of the performer. The electronics for Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, however, are fixed playback and take on a role of supporting and enhancing the performer instead of reacting to and generating material in real time. In regard to Colored Shadows (viola/electronics) and Rite of Passage (bass clarinet/electronics), these pieces present an instrument/player in conversation with themselves, reacting alongside the electronic backdrop. Similar to the acoustic works, these pieces also involve a degree of loose improvisation. I find this to be particularly interesting from a listening standpoint because one is hearing the performer engaging with themselves and computer-generated reactions rather than to another performer with their own agency. And yet, the feeling of dialog, of connection between disparate elements, is maintained. It’s this kind of consistency of craft that makes Kuehn’s music so impressive and so engaging to listen to.
Overall I found this to be an incredibly impressive album, and one that I’ve already revisited numerous times. If you find yourself drawn to the music of Berio, Carter, Davidovsky, or Saariaho I think you’ll find this an enjoyable listen. If you’re already familiar with Kuehn’s music (previous New Focus Release can be found here) then Entanglements won’t let you down.
Also of note are the incredible performances by the following performers:
Deborah Norin-Kuehn, soprano (Track 1, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird)
Conor Nelson, flute (Track 2, Chimera)
Thomas Rosenkranz, piano (Track 2, Chimera)
Daniel Lippel, guitar (Track 3, Entanglements)
Nuiko Wadden, harp (Track 3, Entanglements)
Doyle Armbrust, viola (Track 4, Colored Shadows)
Kenneth J. Cox, flute (Track 5, Double Labyrinth)
Henrique Batista, marimba (Track 5 (Double Labyrithn)
Yu-Fang Chen, violin (Track 6, Table Talk)
Mei-Chun Chen, viola (Track 6, Table Talk)
Marianne Gythfeldt, bass clarinet (Track 7, Rite of Passage)
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