My first solo album, Come Closer, will be released October 11, 2019 on New Focus Recordings (NF240). I hope you have a listen! The record is comprised entirely of new music I’ve commissioned over the past several years, by some of the finest composers working today, all of whom happen to be friends and colleagues. I could not be more excited about these beautiful new pieces — I really do not know other works for the instrument quite like them — and the significant and accessible additions they make to the bassoon repertoire.
I’m joined on the recording by four UofSC colleagues, whose musicianship I can only hope to approach on occasion: pianist Phillip Bush, who plays on 5 of the 7 pieces; and violinist Ari Streisfeld (formerly of the JACK quartet), violist Dan Sweaney, and cellist Claire Bryant (DeCoda), who play on the album’s final track, Yonder.
Below is some information about each piece, including program notes by each composer and links to their respective websites / bios (hover over their names); following that are short bios for the other performers and sound engineer on the album. Please shoot me an email if you enjoy these works. Bassoonists, I’d be glad to put you in touch with any of the composers, and encourage you to contact them yourselves — these pieces deserve to be heard and played!
Come Closer, by John Fitz Rogers
John is a close friend, a wonderful composer, and the founder of the Southern Exposure New Music Series, which I now direct. Come Closer, for four bassoons, was originally written for Dark in the Song. It’s extremely difficult to pull off in live performance, requiring each player to be on his or her own separate click track — separated from each other player temporally by a sixteenth note! While the parts themselves are relatively straightforward, the composite resembles a giant “super bassoon,” with streams of incredibly rapid interlocking pitches and joyous, poppy melodies that arise from the constantly bubbling, oscillating texture (moments of which, incidentally, remind me a bit of Michael Gordon’s Rushes). I realized pretty quickly that, while Come Closer can be incredibly exciting and affective in live performance, a consistently precise version of this piece might only be obtainable in the studio — at least until some group comes along and conquers it (bassoonists, I invite you to try … and the work is also available for sax!) This recording is my attempt to do just that. I recorded each of the four parts separately, and we then overlaid them on top of each other. The composer’s notes follow:
“Come Closer is based on a simple premise: four performers play similar music at a fairly fast tempo, but they seldom play together. Individually, each performer must execute fairly straightforward rhythms with great precision, and to help, each listens to a “click track” (i.e., electronic pulses not heard by the audience supplied by computer playback over headphones). However, what the computer plays back are four different click tracks, one for each performer. Though all the click tracks proceed at the same tempo, they each stay a fixed distance from one another. When the individual rhythms are then combined in performance, the resulting mosaic (called hocketing) is both very fast and quite complex—something that sounds more like one or two super- human performers than four individual lines.
Of course, the conceptual and stamina challenge for the performers is tremendous, even if the rhythms themselves are not overly difficult. Musicians are trained to communicate and to play together, yet in some ways this work (like my previous related work Once Removed for two marimbas) demands that the performers not listen to each other. Though the technology of multiple click tracks creates new possibilities for texture and ensemble precision, the trade-off in Come Closer is that each player remains somewhat isolated from the instrument he or she plays, and more importantly, musically separated from the other performers, like people trying to reach each other, yet separated by a thin glass pane.
Come Closer was commissioned and premiered by the bassoon super-group, Dark in the Song. My deepest thanks to Mike Harley for his dedication and incredible musicianship (not to mention stamina) in making this multitrack recording, and to Jeff Francis for his usual engineering miracles.”
Miphadventures, by Stefan Freund
Stefan teaches composition at the University of Missouri and plays cello in Alarm Will Sound, so we’ve been friends and made made music together for nearly 20 years. His music is extremely well-crafted and lots of fun to play, influenced by a diverse cast of groups and composers, from Stravinsky to Rush, the Canadian rock band. This piece is full of bluesy lyricism (portions of the first section of this work remind me of Gershwin), funky virtuousity, and big asymmetrical-meter grooves. Its title is a play on my AWS nickname, “MiPHy” (from Michael Parker-Harley), and there are allusions throughout to some of our shared adventures.
The composer writes: “Miphadventures begins with a lament that cries out, but is unheard. Frustration, represented by a growling figure, grows. Sweeping phrases eventually yield to virtuosic runs in order to gain attention, but the movement ends with a feeling of resignation.
A faster second movement presents motives from the first in mixed meter. A funk section seems to grow momentum, but eventually it returns to more relaxed material reminiscent of the first movement. After more lamentations, an ostinato-driven solo section takes over where the bassoon is truly allowed to shine before a triumphant coda finishes the piece.”
Miphadventure’s two movements, played attacca, begin with the following character indications:
“Longingly, as if incredibly close to something unobtainable”
“Excited, as if visiting a new place for the first time” (starts at 6:10 on the recording)
Alarums and Excursions: A Puzzle-Burlesque in Four Polymythian Acts, by Carl Schimmel
I met Carl, one of the most intelligent and creative composers writing today, through his work with Alarm Will Sound — he created a very compelling and ambitious Chamber Symphony for us, which included all sorts of craziness, including many of our concert debuts as a kazoo players. Carl’s music is BIG, often almost Straussian in its scope, and often quite difficult. It has a luscious, modern / Romantic harmonic vocabulary, distinctive melodies and themes, and a sense of organic growth and narrative throughout. (I also enjoy the imaginative titles of his pieces, my personal favorite being a percussion work called Serving Size 4 Bunnies).
The composer writes: “In Alarums & Excursions, there are ten characters and ten scenes. The characters, which are representational of emotional states such as anger, joy, and despair, interact and are referenced according to a combinatorial pattern. A narrative inevitably emerges.”
This work is a tremendous challenge for the performer. We are well below some of Carl’s marked tempos (I believe some are “aspirational” rather than achievable!), and the agility and flexibility required from both players is formidable. The range is tough, too, as the piece ascends to a number of high Es and a couple Fs (bassoonists will know what this means!). But Alarums, as you will hear, is gorgeous and completely engaging — totally worth the effort!
For the listener: Alarums and Excursions’ larger musical sections (called Acts and Scenes, and generally played attacca, without breaks) begin in the following spots on my recording:
Act II (1:32)
Act III, Scene 1 (3:02)
Act III, Scene 2 (4:31)
Act III, Scene 3 (5:25)
Act III, Scene 4 (5:50)
Act III, Scene 5 (6:35)
Act IV, Scene 1 (8:42)
Act IV, Scene 2 (9:38)
Act IV, Scene 3 (10:34)
Lament, by Fang Man
My good friend and colleague Mandy Fang’s (Fang Man’s) Lament represents one of the things I love most about playing contemporary music and working with composers. In this case, I felt like I was able to be a real part of the creative process from the beginning. Mandy and I experimented with numerous techniques — some of which, like singing while playing, I’d never been asked to do before. I tried many multiphonics to achieve the wide variety of sounds, from guttural and noisy to ethereal and melodic, that she was after, while attempting to also adhere to some pretty specific pitch content. The work itself underwent several revisions, and I’m still not convinced I’m able to pull off everything Mandy was hearing in her head as she wrote it! But she says she’s happy with the results, so I’m going with that.
To understand the piece, and the way the more exotic sounds function, one needs to the know the context. Lament is based on a poem from the anonymous, late Ming Dynasty Novel Jin Ping Mei. Here, a character named Dalang’s ghost relives his terrifying murder — poisoned by his wife, the novel’s central character, Golden Lily. In addition to the effects mentioned above (I feel like the singing-while-playing passages sound like an agonized someone, perhaps Dalang, trapped inside the bassoon!) the performer is asked to sing in Chinese, flutter-tongue, slap tongue, and perform glissandos and very wide tremolos. At times, several of these techniques, such as glissando, flutter tonguing, and singing, occur simultaneously. All of the effects serve admirably to capture the anguish and excruciating pain of the sung text, reproduced here (Mandy really coached me up on the pronunciation).
Dalang’s Lament 悲歌
Adapted from a poem from the anonymous late Ming novel Jin Ping Mei, translated by Jie Guo
肺腑油煎， My heart and lungs, fried.
肝肠⽕燎。 My liver and guts, scorched.
千把霜⼑， A thousand icy knives,
万把钢刃， Ten thousand iron blades,
⼑⼑相侵， Cut by cut,
腹中乱搅。 Chopped up my entrails.
油煎， Fried in oil,
⽕燎， Scorched by fire,
⼑乱搅！ Chopped up by knives!
痛！ What pain!
痛煞俺！ Oh what pain I suffered!
Totality, by Reginald Bain
My friend and colleague Reg Bain is a true polymath. In addition to music, he has degrees in math and computer science, and teaches composition, music theory, and computer music. Reg lives, breathes, and creates in the heady realm where music, science, and math converge. To give but one example: along with a colleague on the biology faculty, he was recently awarded a substantial grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for a proposal titled “Mutational variance of the transcriptome and the origins of phenotypic plasticity.” The project includes a component called "Mutational Music," in which the authors will develop an app that allows users to mutate music based on the properties of genetic mutations. Essentially, they are building a computer simulation of mutation and evolution that uses music as the output.
One of the fantastic things about Reg’s music, at times derived in part from complex algorithms and mathematical constructs, is that this underlying complexity does not make it difficult to listen to or relate to on an emotional level. It is invariably beautiful, clear, and refined. (Of course, a great deal of this beauty derives from the crystalline mathematical structures that sustain it).
Totality musically imagines the phases of the August 2017 total solar eclipse, the path of which ran directly through Columbia, SC. Reg has not divulged to me any specific mathematical or non-musical structural underpinnings in the work — but the dramatic, otherworldly pitch clusters and triadic progressions the piece cycles through, at times in Philip Glassian arpeggiated textures, are always compelling and inexorably give the work its momentum. The composer writes:
“On August 21, 2017, a total solar eclipse was visible from the continental United States for the first time since 1979. The composer lives within the extremely narrow path of Totality (2016). Inspired by his anticipation of this rare astronomical event, he created a set of imagined musical impressions of selected phases of an eclipse – exploring the triadic universe along the way.”
The work is played in the following four attacca movements (their start times on my recording are included):
II. Bite - Baily's Beads - Diamond Ring (begins 0:47)
III. Corona (6:09)
IV. Reappearance (9:04)
Harbinger of Sorrows, by Caleb Burhans
Caleb Burhans is one of the most spectacularly versatile musicians I know. Based in Brooklyn, he has been called “New York’s mohawked Mozart” (Time Out New York) and, like the legendary 18th-century composer, Caleb makes a living as a performer — violin, viola, electric guitar, voice — conductor, and composer. He is also a founding member of Alarm Will Sound, along with a number of other NY-based chamber groups. Caleb’s music is as influenced by the experimental rock collective Godspeed You! Black Emperor or electronica wizard Aphex Twin as it is by classical composers such as Reich and Glass. While it may sound outwardly simple at times, deceptively clever rhythmic devices and deeply satisfying harmonic motions, small- and large-scale, abound.
I asked Caleb to do what he does — to write something beautiful — and couldn’t be more thrilled with the result. Harbinger of Sorrows, as one might anticipate from its title, is dark and melancholy. After a slow introduction, the piano begins to loop an agonizingly slow, chill groove; the bassoon unwinds sinuous. lengthy melodic lines over the top. You can clearly hear the influence here of some of Caleb’s predilections as a performer: at times he plays live with looping pedals, establishing a repeating progression or idea and then improvising over the top.
About the inspiration for Harbinger of Sorrows, Caleb writes: “While the title is both an homage to Metallica and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the piece is my response to the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States.”
Yonder, by Jesse Jones
Jesse Jones, now a professor at Oberlin College, taught composition at the University of South Carolina only briefly, from 2014-2016. Nevertheless, his extraordinary musicianship (in addition to composing, he is an accomplished mandolinist and excellent pianist) and kind, humble attitude made a big impression. And his music. Its “melodic earthiness” has been compared to Britten, one of my favorite composers, and while one might hear echos of others, from Stravinsky to John Adams, Jesse’s eclectic, engaging style, permeated by striking culminating moments of epiphany, is very much his own.
I wanted a substantial chamber piece — something for bassoon and strings — to round out the album, and Jesse seemed the ideal person for it. In fact, he talked me into making the work bigger still, adding piano to the mix! Jesse’s program notes describe Yonder’s main themes and narrative arc:
“The quasi-hymnal strains that open this piece play joyfully in the rhythm of Yonder, yonder! Oh! Yonder, yonder! Over yonder! This lighthearted music, presented first by the violin and viola, is answered by four notes (B-A-D-Ab) in the low register of the cello and piano. These notes are derived from the last name of the piece’s commissioner, bassoonist Michael Harley: B (in German) translates to H, then A, then R (from Re, or D), and finally LE, which in solfège translates to Ab. I chose to leave silent the remaining Y, which conveniently is in the word “Yonder” itself. The joyous yonder music and the more insidious sounding “Harley Motive” interact with and influence each other over the course of the piece. Traversing through Sacred-Harp hymnody and balletic dance rhythms, across lugubrious pits of Stravinskian mud, to ecstatic major-chord vistas and back again, the piece ends somewhere in the distance, with one final Harley motive in the cello and the dim refrains of yonder, yonder in the background.”
PERFORMER and SOUND ENGINEER BIOS
Pianist Phillip Bush has established a performing career over the past three decades that is noted for its remarkable versatility and eclecticism. A devoted advocate for contemporary music, he performed worldwide for 20 years with both the Philip Glass Ensemble and Steve Reich and Musicians, in venues ranging from the Sydney Opera House to the Acropolis in Athens. Mr. Bush's efforts on behalf of new music have earned him grants and awards from the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust, the Aaron Copland Fund, ASCAP, Chamber Music America and the National Endowment for the Arts. A graduate of the Peabody Conservatory, where he studied with Leon Fleisher, Phillip Bush has been a member of the piano and chamber music faculty at the University of South Carolina School of Music since 2012.
Violist Daniel Sweaney has performed and recorded in the United States, Europe, and Asia. He has taught at the University of Alabama, the Orford Arts Centre, the Rocky Ridge Music Center, and the Interlochen Viola Institute, and the Green Mountain Chamber Music Festival. He is currently on the faculty at the University of South Carolina.