Michael Harley: Come Closer


Bassoonist Mike Harley releases an album of premieres demonstrating the range of aesthetics present in the growing repertoire for the instrument. Including works by Carl Schimmel, John Fitz Rogers, Fang Man, Reginald Bain, and Caleb Burhans, the recording highlights Harley's versatility and instrumental command in solo, electro-acoustic, and layered settings, while reasserting the bassoon's presence in contemporary music as a featured instrument.


Bassoonist Michael Harley releases this eclectic collection of new works for bassoon that documents his work expanding the repertoire for his instrument and demonstrating its versatility in solo settings. Faculty at the music department at the University of South Carolina in Columbia (a fertile environment for new music), Harley established collaborations on new work with composition colleagues there, John Fitz Rogers, Fang Man, Reg Bain, and Jesse Jones. Also a longtime member of the critically acclaimed new music ensemble Alarm Will Sound, two of the works presented here are the result of intra-ensemble projects with his bandmates Stefan Freund and Caleb Burhans, and Harley’s work with Carl Schimmel was facilitated by a connection through Alarm as well.

“Come Closer” opens with the title track by John Fitz Rogers, a Reich-ian layered work for four bassoons, all played here by Harley. The piece opens with a precise hocketing texture at the 16th note, moving through a tonal chord progression with syncopated accents and short fluid runs. Reich’s influence is felt more strongly in the section that follows, with pulsing chords that fade in and out. At moments in the work, one of the bassoons emerges from the tightly constructed ensemble texture with a contoured melody.

Stefan Freund’s Miphadventures, with piano accompaniment, is a blues inspired work divided into sections — after the bassoon leads a scene setting introduction, the work settles into a lightly rocking texture in 9/8 meter. The second half of the piece is characterized by asymmetrical grooves with the piano alternating between imitation of the bassoon material and repetitive bass lines that drive the texture.

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As in much of his work, in Alarums and Excursions: A Puzzle-Burlesque in Four Polymythian Acts, Carl Schimmel paints vivid character pieces over the four sections of the composition. He brings dry wit to his deft sense of motivic development and structural pacing, playing with rhythmic figures as if they were puzzle pieces and connecting contrasting material within a longer narrative. A bassoon cadenza encompasses the diverse energies heard in the piece before an energetic ensemble close.

Inspired by a late Ming Dynasty novel, Jin Ping Mei, Fang Man’s Lament calls on a broad palette of extended techniques in a work that pushes the envelope of the bassoon’s expressive world. Harley proclaims Chinese fragments interspersed with dense multiphonics, flutter and slap tongue techniques, furious passagework, bent pitches, and other carefully chosen effects in this work of poignant anguish.

Reginald Bain’s Totality was inspired by the August 2017 total solar eclipse, and consists of four movements, each representing a different impression of select phases of the phenomenon. A lyrical introduction captures the mystery surrounding the event, and leads into a Phillip Glass-esque section of excited, driving music outlining major and minor triads. Haunting, sequenced chords characterize the next section, laying the ground for halting music in the bassoon. The bassoon plays muscular, virtuosic arpeggios in the subsequent section, before the texture zooms in to focus on delicate chords in the high register of the piano. The work closes with a return to the minimalist music heard earlier, balancing out the sense of patient wonder in the work with music of exuberance.

Caleb Burhans’ Harbinger of Sorrows (a reference to the Metallica song Harvester of Sorrow from their album “…And Justice for All”) is a lament, featuring Harley on beautiful, singing lines above a quasi-ostinato in the piano. The melancholy of the texture and harmonic colors speaks for itself, but programmatically, the composer has indicated that the work was written as a response to the election of the 45th president of the United States.

The opening of Jesse Jones’ Yonder for string trio and bassoon joyfully conjures the rhythmic world of old time music, declaiming in hymn-like fashion the imagined text, Yonder, yonder! Oh! Yonder, yonder! Over Yonder! Jones contrasts this folkloric association with a pitch language and motivic treatment that lives more squarely in a modernist context, citing Stravinsky as an influence. The interplay between these elements guides the piece forward, finding many points of common ground between the worlds of fiddle music and A Soldier’s Tale-era Stravinsky. Yonder is a fitting close to this Harley recording, focused as it is on contextualizing the bassoon within a wide range of compositional aesthetics. Throughout, Harley is a consummate advocate, bringing his fine instrumental command to interpretations that display great understanding of the different styles at work in the repertoire.

–D. Lippel

More on the repertoire from Mike Harley: https://www.michaelharleybassoon.com/come-closer

  • Recording Engineer, Editing, Mastering: Jeff Francis
  • Producer: Michael Harley
  • Graphic Design: Sara Winsted
  • Recorded at the University of South Carolina, School of Music Recital Hall, May and September, 2017
  • All works written for and commissioned by Michael Harley


Michael Harley

Michael Harley teaches bassoon, coaches chamber music, and is artistic director of the Southern Exposure New Music Series at the University of South Carolina. His performances have been called “spectacular” (Washington Post) and “exquisite” (Columbus Dispatch). A founding member of the contemporary music chamber orchestra Alarm Will Sound, called “one of the most vital and original ensembles on the American musical scene” by the New York Times, Harley has worked with and premiered pieces by many of today’s most distinguished composers, including John Adams, John Luther Adams, Michael Gordon, David Lang, Nico Muhly, Steve Reich, and Augusta Read Thomas. He has played on 5 continents and appears on more than 20 recordings. This is his first solo album.

Phillip Bush

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.


Midwest Record

There’s more to making outsider music than just being weird and if this bassoon player takes his inspiration of Steve Reich, we don’t accuse him of manqueing around a bit. Start at the top we say. Basically turning this into music for one musician, time, tide and technology allows him to go where no soloist has gone before. A real tour de force for any serious lefty, this ear opener just doesn’t know when to quit. Outside the margins and loving it.​

–Chris Spector, 9.21.19, Midwest Record

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