New Music from Michigan Composer David Colson
David Colson: Rise—Music in Times of Uncertainty Western Brass Quintet; Benjamin Kamins, bassoon., Matthew Strauss, percussion.; Clocks in Motion Percussion Capitol Quartet Navona 6416 Total Time: 68:51 Recording: ****/**** Performance: ****/****
Rise is the title of one of the four chamber works featured on this new Navona release of music by David Colson. He teaches music at Western Michigan University and also leads Birds on a Wire-a new music ensemble. Among his composition teachers were William Albright and William Bolcom. He is also a percussionist and that experience informs a couple of the works on this release featuring four unique pieces.
Written for the Western Brass Quintet, How We Change is a deeply-personal work. The piece features shifts from often dense, atonal writing, to more tonal explorations. The angular lyric writing can move into more traditional-sounding arrival points, but there is a great deal of intense dissonant passage work that work like musical outbursts against these more tonal reflections. The tempo seems to also shift rather abruptly which lends the work a stream-of-consciousness like feel.
The Wind is Rising, The Earth Lets Itself Be Inhaled is a strange and experimental work that explores different percussion equipment and bassoon techniques to create a rather eerie variety of sounds. The dramatic shape of the piece works well with the percussion and bassoon working in a sort of musical dance—one based more on pitch and timbre, the other based on non-pitched sounds and effects. The two work in an interesting blend of sounds serving as two coequal partners. It is equally fascinating to hear the shifts into pitched mallet percussion. There is also a general build up toward more virtuosic writing for bassoon as the piece progresses in intensity.
The album’s title comes from a work for piano and percussion. Set across five movements, Rise tackles incorporating pitched and non-pitched percussion with descriptive titles to guide the imagination. The second movement is for piano solo which is a nice momentary contrast to the other sounds and which adds a reflective, atonal meditation. Pitched percussion will then also return to accompany it in the penultimate movement which serves a similar function of contrast. Tone clusters create dense harmonic blocks that are pitted against a variety of percussion ideas moving rhythmically forward. The piece is a natural extension of the experiments of mid-20th Century composers with a bit of Bartok-ian harmonic material (which comes to the fore more in the third movement). Some of Asian percussion instruments and the rapid piano work recalls the work of Crumb. Colson creates a variety of soundscapes that flit across the textures. The music grows in intensity as it moves to an intense final movement.
The last work is a saxophone quartet written for the Capitol Quartet. Dionysian Mysteries does a fine job of exploring the intricate interactions of the four different registers with a bit of with that has some jazzier overtones. Colson’s wit also comes across throughout the work. It is on display in the opening “Madness is my specialty” where the lines seem to start spinning out of control only to go in an unexpected direction. Each sax does get time to pop out of the texture with the soprano sax saved to take over the final movement a bit more. In this work, Colson’s more contemporary style keeps things mostly atonal with flashes of jazzy, extended harmony. Humorous rhythmic and registral gestures also make the piece a bit interesting as if these are four characters all asserting their own personality without necessarily listening to the other.
Rise is a collection of some more experimental contemporary music, though that is primarily due to the forces being used here. Colson’s music can be filled with dense harmonic structures (clusters and blocks of sound) that can then spin out into longer lines and gestures that drive the music forward. That sense of motion and energy makes each work move toward often exhilarating conclusions. The album is a chance for listeners to experience different expressions of Colson’s chamber music and compositional approaches quite well in excellent performances. It is available digitally and as a physical release.