Steven Ricks: Assemblage Chamber Aubrey Woods, violin; Alex Woods, viola; Jason Hardink, harpsichord. counter)induction NOVA Chamber Players New Focus Recordings FCR 328 Total Time: 45:53 Recording: ****/**** Performance: ****/****
Steven Ricks (b. 1969) is a composer who experiments with electroacoustic composition techniques while exploring ancient musical gestures in this new release, Assemblage Chamber. He is a professor at BYU where he teaches theory and composition. Ricks music is widely-performed and is often connected to wider theatrical and narrative influences. The works on this new album focus on juxtaposing aspects of Baroque musical construction with contemporary musical approaches.
The opening piece, Heavy With Sonata (2021), uses aspects of the French Baroque overture and is set for violin, viola, and harpsichord. The focus here is the dotted rhythm that is part of that style and which opens the first movement. While there is certainly some chromatic writing, it moves far beyond the earlier period’s application though there are certainly moments of tonal harmony and triadic writing. The churning motion of spinning melodic material is at the heart of a moto perpetuo central movement. This gives way to a starker and more experimental deconstruction of sound and effects where the strings at one point are assigned percussive effects. While the harpsichord attempts a fairly traditional type of musical material, the strings sort of flirt about with dissonant ideas and effects seemingly frustrating the keyboardist. It is sort of like two radio stations trying to come across the same bandwidth.
Reconstructing the Lost Improvisations of Aldo Pilestri (1683-1727)  is a work for guitar, string trio, and bass clarinet. This opens up the opportunity for interesting blends of sound. A specific musical motivic affect is used as an introductory idea that is then expanded upon and spun into its own unique directions as different instruments pick it up. The guitar tends to have the more improvisatory material. Some will also recognize a Vivaldi quotation that tries to assert itself. An almost jazzy clarinet moment seems to mock the string insistence at wanting to remain in the earlier era. As in the opening work, there is a sort of gradual dissolution or deconstruction that occurs as the piece moves along. Overall, it is a strong piece of contemporary chamber music with excellent dramatic shape and energy.
With an echo-like call and response that one might here in a Baroque concerto, coupled with some smaller ritornello-like segments used to separate sections, Ricks’ Piece for Mixed Quartet (2011) presents one of his earlier attempts at this Baroque/Contemporary melding. The unusual motivic ideas are separated by smaller moments of solo writing that all feels a bit like a collage technique applied to the period style. Granted incorporating a harpsichord as the keyboard instrument also lends itself to add to this affect that has a dialogue-like style in the first movement.
The album takes its title from the final work that is an example of Rick’s stereo electroacoustic music. In this 2022 piece, Ricks samples material from the earlier pieces with these disparate fragments now processed and manipulated into a new soundworld. It serves as a sort of summary coda that reflects on the musical material experienced in the other three pieces. It is a rather interesting artistic approach to thus think of the pieces, their general placement on the album, and the musical material itself as a larger concept album with the final work now reviewing all of this in new sound. The music here now takes on a far more avantgarde approach as these disparate ideas are woven into a new tapestry of sounds.
Assemblage Chamber is an interesting chamber album of music that engages the listener with its initially tonal accessibility and then draws them in to the seeming dissolution of notes to rhythms and sound gestures. The experimental nature of the music is more apparent towards the end of each of the pieces but this tends to grow organically out of what has just occurred. That actually allows the audience to hear these ideas in relation to what has come before. The Baroque-like components of this music create a sort of ancient/modern juxtaposition that works with the way Ricks adds dramatic shape and unique sounds into the music.