Transient Canvas, a bass clarinet and marimba duo made up of performers Amy Advocat and Matt Sharrock, recently released their debut album sift on New Focus Recordings. As you might expect, the album consists entirely of new works, all of which were commissioned by the duo. I had the pleasure of listening through this album and find it one of the more refreshing things I’ve heard in recent years. The following is a review of this album, taking each piece into account with some final words on my overall feelings about the album.
The CD opens with its title track, sift by Daniel Lewis, and I feel it is a very effective opening piece. It is centered around the “struggle to accomplish something, and a final and inevitable collapse,” as outlined in the program note (the title being a reference to a line from a Kay Ryan poem). The piece uses limited pitch material which draws the listener into the gestural characteristics of the two voices (bass clarinet and marimba, obviously). The instruments also focus initially on the low range of their respective registers, and over time introduce new pitches contained in the overtones series as the piece evolves. Lewis also refers to a “drawing up of energy” in his programs notes. This is created through a gradual buildup and introduction of ideas, as well as the density of material, expanding registers and rate of rhythmic activity. However, this entire process is extremely gradual, t the point that I barely noticed it was happening until I found myself in the middle of a barrage of activity at 7:00 into the piece. This is followed by an initial decline, and an immediate ramp-up to the climactic explosive arival at 8:45, the highest point in the piece in terms of energy and density of melodic/gestural material. My initial listening hears this as nearing achievement of the goal, that being a symbiotic relationship between the two voices, rhythmically, harmonically and gesturally. This is nearly achieved when the two voices are playing in near unison in the final minute of the piece. However, this doesn’t feel as much like an arrival as it does a final attempt at the goal and realization that the goal will never truly be accomplished; the final gestural moments being the sift left from nearly 10 minutes of straining toward an unachiev able objective.
Tinal Tallon’s dirty water follows sift as the second track, and again, I feel it was a good choice of track order on the part of Transient Canvas. Tallon describes her piece as being inspired by the Standell’s 1966 song of the same name, and the “quirky, grungy, playful ubiquity of [the song] and the city that [she] love[s].” Again, I think the composer’s own words on the piece are an incredibly accurate depiction of what one can expect from listening to it. Dirty water involves a great deal of contrapuntal interplay between the instruments which begin as brief gestural moments, interjections, interruptions or residue from one another. Around 2:20 the individual moments and gestural ideas become longer and more substantial and really bring the listener into the individual character of each instrument’s timbre and gestural/motivic content. The second half of the piece (starting around 3:30) seems to begin the process over, with both instruments presenting short snippets of material, some in total rhythmic unison, all of which leads to a series of tremolo figures in both instruments, again punctuated and interrupted by sharp marcato and slap tongue attacks. It is as if the piece almost starts the entire process over, but changed as a result of everything that came before. The high point of Tallon’s piece, for me, was the final 40 seconds of the piece, wherein both instruments are again playing longer contrapuntal phrases with more sustained playful energy. This plays out to the final moment of the piece, which is honestly my only issue. I felt the end of the first section wraps up very nicely and restarts at 3:30, but the very end of the piece seems to just cut off mid-phrase. Perhaps this is a nod to the Standells song referenced in the program note, which also fades very abruptly at the end of the recording in the middle of a phrase during the repetition of the chorus.
Vestibule III by Curtis Hughes follows dirty water as the third track. I think this is an appropriate title for the piece as it evokes the imagery of beginning, just as one might enter a building through the vestibule (with numerous options of where to go next), this piece, to me, sounds like a series of beginnings and departures. To quote the Linklater film Waking Life, it felt as if I was in a state of constant departure while always arriving. Hughes creates moments that are stylistically and aesthetically different from one another through texture, energy, motivic character, use of repetition or lack thereof, etc. The piece is always moving in some direction, though I never quite knew where it was going or how material would develop, and all the while I was fine with that. It was nice to be taken on a journey that had no clear end in sight where I could really just enjoy each stop along the way. The pulsing rhythmic introduction is a very effective set-up for the piece, and that kind of rhytmic energy comes back throughout the piece, interspersed with what Hughes refers to as “lyrical tenderness,” which I feel is appropriate. The opening material returns at the end, which is nice in terms of creating a clearly wrapped up musical form, but I wonder if it’s necessary. This is not a comment on Hughes’ pieces alone, but more something that I’ve always wondered about musical form in the 21st century. Is it necessary to return to previous material to create a unified formal plan or convincing musical discourse? In the case of Vestibule III I think the preparation of the return was handled very well and I was surprised by the return of opening material, I just wonder if continuing the perpetual shifting of textures and moments would have been equally satisfying.
Relatively light and playful, John Murphree’s Purge is centered primarily around a small collection of motives and a single whole-tone gesture that appears numerous times throughout the piece. The entire work is presented in four primary sections with the whole-tone flourish (most often as a shared unison figure) serves to start and/or close each section. The piece is overall enjoyable, easily digestible and gets a lot of mileage out of relatively limited materials. Murphree rewrites and reuses similar rhythmic cells in each section to create contrapuntal interplay between the instruments, or to establish an almost ostinato groove pattern in the either the marimba or bass clarinet, with the other instrument acting as the soloist. I found the title and program note interesting and perplexing at the same time. I was almost expecting a very clear presentation of materials with the overall narrative of the piece being to either destroy those materials into something unrecognizable or very far removed (purging the original material from any surface-level recognition), or I thought it might be a piece that was centered around both long-term variation of ideas with aperiodic outbursts (purging of emotional anger). One could make the argument that the latter of these did happen, in that there was variation of introductory material throughout each section, and there were some outbursts, particularly the repeated whole-tone figure, though it goes through very little change throughout the piece. Perhaps the fact that the whole-tone motive remains unchanged helped to solidify it as a recognizable outburst motive, and any deviation from the figure could cause it to be less noticeable as the purging of anger through an aggressive outburst. In all, I think any piece that causes me to think about it this much is deserving of multiple listenings and discussion, and I’m sure I’ll be revisiting it much more in the future.
Nostalgia Variations by Adam Roberts is the capstone work of the album, clocking in at just a little over 20 minutes. The opening material serves as the theme (the Nostalgia theme, as suggested by the program notes) and throughout the 20 minute journey the composer explores (seemingly) every possible variation of the introductory material. On my first listen through I tried to trace the development of the Nostalgia theme throughout the piece, and I honestly would not recommend that for a first-time listen. I say that only because I feel like there is so much subtlety and nuance in Roberts’ piece that is beautifully presented by Transient Canvas, and my laser focus on tracing the development of a melody really took me out of the mental headspace that makes their playing and Roberts piece so enjoyable. While the syntactical trajectory of development is probably interesting to analyze, what makes this piece so enjoyable is how Roberts transitions from one section to the next - for example moving seemlessly from long phrases of intricate counterpoint dominated by gestural activity to very straight-forward repetition of a simple rhythmic device to some kind of distorted and irregular groove (what Roberst sometimes refers to as “strange loops” in another work) to the slow meditative/reflective ending. In all, there is more to discuss in Nostalgia Visions than can be covered in a single review, so in short I would just like to say that this piece has something for anyone and everyone to take away. Roberts crafted a wonderfully elaborate piece based on a simple idea and Transient Canvas did a masterful job executing that vision, and it is a perfect choice as the closing piece for the album.
Again, I am very impressed by this album, not only with the compositions on an individual basis, but also with the overall playing and dedication by Transient Canvas and the care that they took in crafting this album. Too often I have sat down to listen to albums of some of my favorite performers and I get 5-7 tracks of the same aesthetic and/or genre, which can become old even if it's something I love. Transient Canvas provides the listener with a wide array of styles and aesthetics and with 5 pieces wherein the composers provide their own unique take on how to handle the relationship of the instruments’ timbres and abilities. I strongly urge you to check out this album, especially if you are a clarinetist or percussionist looking for new rep., or if you are a composer looking for some new and captivating 21st century music.
Reverberations is a catch-all page for everything that doesn't fit into a neat and tidy box of blog posts and interviews. Enjoy!