Post-Modern Perspectives of Sound
Entanglements Deborah Norin-Kuehn, soprano. Conor Nelson, flute. Thomas Rosenkranz, piano. Daniel Lippel, guitar. Nuiko Wadden, harp. Doyle Armbrust, viola. Kenneth J. Cox, flute. Henrique Batista, marimba. Yu-Fang Chen, violin. Mei-Chun Chen, viola. Marianne Gythfeldt, bass clarinet. New Focus Recordings FCR 341 Total Time: 73:02 Recording: ****/**** Performance: ****/****
Entanglements is a new release featuring music by electro-acoustic composer Mikel Kuehn (1967-). His music incorporates a sense of abstraction that is organized around particular sets and sounds while also exploring interactions between instruments. He is also creator of the computer music application nGen. In the midst of the somewhat aleatoric feel of the music, there can be rather stunning sensuous phrasing. This lies in contrast to some of the pointillistic aspects of the music as well. The more improvisational qualities of his style can be heard in three of the pieces here where freenotation adds a unique variability to the music as well. It is this tension between a feeling of strict structures with a sense of freedom that marks his music and the pieces on this album.
Each of the seven pieces here are essentially duos. Three of them are also part of his approach using a systematic character matrix that pairs different musical states and then examines them from different angles compositionally and sonically. They have all been composed across a span from 1999-2022.
The newest of the works, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird (2022), opens the album. The piece for soprano and electronics is a bold start to introducing the aesthetic that is on display across the album. The Wallace Stevens’ poem is the basic for Kuehn’s exploration of vocal technique and styles. There is more dramatic singing, sprechstimme, and both narrow and wide intervallic writing all spread across the different viewpoints. Perhaps the connection of text here is the intended entry point to see the way we examine the written word as being a parallel to how one might compose an examination of that as well. This is one of three works using electronics. Colored Shadows (Hyperresonance IV; 2012) and Rite of Passage (Hyperresonance V; 2014) are both electroacoustic pieces blending live processing (or fixed electronic material) that can interact between the performer and the electronics. The first is for viola and here Kuehn structures the work around one of the open strings with material that also feels improvised. In the latter, a bass clarinet examines a famous excerpt from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. It is a unique take on quotation and variation.
The other four duos create a space to explore sounds between the respective instrumentation. In the flute work, Chimera (2017), Kuehn uses a more traditional combination and draws from Greek mythology to provide a structure to the variety of musical expression and technique here. There are some beautiful lyric moments interspersed with breathing and other finger-clicking on keys that adds to an interesting sound combination. The album’s title comes from a 2016 work for guitar and harp. Here it is a quite interesting blend of sounds that are from instruments that can create similar plucked and strummed sounds. The lines here intertwine as the piece progresses lending a sense of entanglement all its own. It would seem that this work would be even more effective visually as one sees the way raps and percussive sounds are created and mimicked between the two players. Double Labyrinth (1999) is a sort of beginning for where Kuehn’s style would thus depart. One can still hear the restricted harmonic and motivic elements that are then set loose to interact with one another as they wind about sometimes intersecting and seeming to fold in on one another. Table Talk (2018) is conceptually in line with the dialogue aspect of duo pieces. Here, the lines shift from one to the other instrument as they “discuss” different ideas. There are some ostinato-like moments that add to this sense of listening and interaction as well.
The performances here are all quite excellent demanding an expansive technique that can address the rhythmic complexities and unique sounds that Kuehn requires. Lyrical writing also comes often as a sudden textural shift that demands further nuance from the performer. This coupled with a bit of the free improvisational qualities in the notation provide an ample amount of challenge in these quite dramatic works.
The intellectual reasoning behind the construction of these pieces is quickly ascertained from the opening piece and one is then drawn into the various ways Kuehn then explores unique sonic qualities. It requires some close listening and concentration to hear the subtleties as well which will reward further listening.