The Bright and Hollow Sky

Nathan Davis, International Contemporary Ensemble

Nathan Davis: The Bright and Hollow Sky

About

The architect Louis Kahn once stood before a group of students, held up a brick, and asked it what it wanted to be.

“I like an arch,” the brick responded.
“But Brick,” Kahn quipped, “arches are expensive, and I can use a concrete lintel over you. What do you think of that?”
“I like an arch,” the brick responded.

Kahn addressed the monumental extremes of modern architecture with an ancient Platonic appeal: let things be as they are, not as you want them to be.

When Nathan Davis sat down to write pneApnea, he picked up a flute for the first time in his life, blew into it, and listened to the sound it produced. He blew into it again, and listened again. He scribbled a few notes to himself. Another breath, another sound, another scribble… a compositional process borne out of an ethic of exploration, and a basic respect for what musical instruments want to do. Likewise, The Mechanics of Escapement was the product both of months learning the overtones and clackings of a particular toy piano (exploration quite evident to those of us who share studio space with Nathan), and an apprenticeship with a master woodworker to custom-build clock chimes by hand.

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There are no “concrete lintels” in this music: no synthesized electronics, no taming of unwieldy instruments. Where Nathan’s music sounds the most complex, it is in fact the most simple, as in the rich microtonal sonorities Like sweet bells jangled, created with a simple ring modulation of just intervals; or the rich bell-like overtone clusters in Dowser, which in their dense virtuosity elucidate the most basic acoustic properties of the bass clarinet.

Nathan is equally a composer and a performer, and for him those two worlds flow seamlessly into one another. Like so many percussionists, he bears the influence of Indonesian Gamelan and Indian Karnatic music; innately spiritual traditions in which percussion music plays a purifying role, making Earth inhabitable for spiritual beings. Likewise, the proud, spacious sonorities and the slow, irregular march procession of The Bright and Hollow Sky resound as a kind of invocation, initiating uncertain rituals.

There is a unity in Nathan’s craft: for him, the percussionist’s innate curiosity for new musical resources is equally the composer’s fascination with confronting sound on its own terms. There is also a collegiality. While each of the compositions on this album bears a deeply felt respect for the acoustic properties of instruments, these works were written for people, not devices. As a member of the International Contemporary Ensemble, Nathan has intimate musical relationships with each of the performers on this recording; idiomatic writing and these commanding performances—from Claire Chase’s tightly controlled pnea (breaths) and frenzied apnea (breathlessness) to Peter Evans’ virtuosic multiphonics in The Bright and Hollow Sky—are the fruit of close artistic friendships.

One cannot help but listen to this music. Not just hear, but listen. Each struck crotale sends a cloud of incense billowing through the room, each throbbing breath into the clarinet forces a collective exhalation of musty, distracted air. The acoustic space is changed, made sacred. In his fascination with acoustic purity, his reverence for the historic sacredness of resonant bodies, and his close relationships with his performers, Nathan is a 21st century Louis Kahn: an artist for whom the world of objects and the world of ideas are one and the same.

-Whit Bernard, from the liner notes

Track List

THE BRIGHT AND HOLLOW SKY
Compositions by Nathan Davis
Featuring the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE)

1. Like Sweet Bells Jangled (2009) 
Joshua Rubin, clarinet
Eric Lamb, piccolo
Claire Chase, flute
Nathan Davis, percussion
with ring modulation

2. pneApnea (2007) 
Claire Chase, alto flute
with live processing

3. The Mechanics of Escapement (2008)
Phyllis Chen, toy piano and clock chimes 

4. Dowser (2007) 
Joshua Rubin, bass clarinet
with delay

5. The Bright and Hollow Sky (2008)
Eric Lamb, flute and piccolo
Joshua Rubin, clarinets
Peter Evans, trumpets
Dan Lippel, guitar
Adam Sliwinski, percussion
Douglas Perkins, conductor
with ring modulation

all works heard in their premiere recording

Credits

Recorded and mastered by Ryan Streber

Recorded at EMPAC, Smith College, and Oktaven Audio
Editing and electronic processing by Nathan Davis
Analog ring modulator built by Joshua Rubin
Clock Chime instruments built by John Roche and Nathan Davis
Cd Layout design by Nathan Davis
All works written for the International Contemporary Ensemble
Produced by Nathan Davis

 

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Track Time Preview Cost +Add
1 Like Sweet Bells Jangled 10:37 $1.89
2 pneApnea 9:58 $1.89
3 The Mechanics of Escapement 15:32 $2.19
4 Dowser 9:30 $1.89
5 The Bright and Hollow Sky 19:32 $2.19

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Reviews

Audiophile Audition p. 1


Nathan Davis is a New York based composer and percussionist with a clear understanding of the blend between acoustical and electronic sounds sources and with some fascinating results. Davis has studied at Rice University and, while on a Fulbright Fellowship, at the Rottersdam Conservatorium. He has also explored a great deal of the philosophies and tonalities of Karnatic music and meditation. Davis has written pieces for many of the most influential performers of new music including the Calder Quartet and the Ethos percussion ensemble. His works have been featured at the Ojai Festival and at many performances of the International Contemporary Ensemble, featured on this recording.

Audiophile Audition p. 2

This disc illustrates the meditative, introspective quality of Davis’ work and showcases his ability to treat traditional sounds in very unusual ways quite well!  In many ways, I suggest starting with his “pneApnea” for alto flute and live processing (delays, decays, and so forth). This fascinating work takes its title from the Greek terms for breathing and the difficulty or absence of doing so (the term “apnea” is one most people have heard)  Soloist Claire Chase creates an almost “eastern” sound that seems to begin out of nothing and close into nothing. With the assistance of the processors, the net effect is almost like listening to a floating shakuhachi ensemble.  Davis’ “Like sweet bells jangled” begins in a similar trance-like way as a sole triangle blends with some odd, not quite triadic, harmonies between clarinets and flutes. Small hollow wood percussion “react” to the sonorities while the harmonies created by the winds are run through a ring modulator to heighten the effect and further blur the identity of the various sources of sound. Here, too, the effect is odd, eerie but not at all unpleasant.

I found “Dowser” for bass clarinet and delay to present an experience similar to that in “pneApnea”.  Bass clarinetist Josh Rubin does some truly amazing things to his instrument including singing while playing, pitch bending, some multiphonics all with the assistance of the electronics delays. At times, the sonorities are – again – barely definable and pitches slide in and out of clarity. The movement in this piece, like the others, is very gradual and deliberate. In this piece too, the instrument is almost transformed by the skills of the player; in the case I found it very reminiscent of a didgeridoo.

“The Mechanics of Escapement” for toy piano and clock chimes offers another beautiful but bizarre listening experience. The timbres between the small tuned rods of the toy piano and those within a mechanical clock are nearly seamless. Phylis Chen has made a career out of collecting toy pianos, writing music for them and performing works featuring them. As her own website admits, the results are frequently “quirky” but in my estimation oddly beautiful. Davis’ work takes advantage of the chosen timbres and the performer’s expertise to create a piece that sounds “artificial” but still very acoustical. Following pitches as they bounce around the composer’s landscape is fun and this piece is rewarding to listen to; almost like walking inside a toy piano and watching the tiny hammers as the pitch rods are struck.

 “The Bright and Hollow Sky” for a larger group of the ICE ensemble plus ring modulation presents a similarly other-worldly experience. The music is almost pushed along by a chugging, almost syncopated mallet line against wind pitches and utterances that seem wildly out of place at times, very syntactical at others. The blend of upper range timbres between the clarinets and the flutes is assisted in places electronically and the bizarre multiphonic bursts by trumpeter Peter Evans are fascinating and worth some kudos! This piece is a bit more restless, strident  and kinetic than the others on this disc but fascinating, none the less.

The package notes by Whit Bernard refer to Nathan Davis’ work as similar in their ethos to the work of architect Louis Kahn where “the world of objects (and) ideas are one and the same.” From what I can tell, I would agree. Davis’ music is certainly not for everyone and even in this collection, some pieces have a sound that most listeners would appreciate on some level with others might not. The ICE performers are all dedicated and Daniel Lippel and New Focus Recordings is to be commended for making a wide variety of new music and new performers available in very high quality recordings.

-- Daniel Coombs, July 25, 2011

Time Out New York

Long a tremendous asset to the International Contemporary Ensemble as both a brilliant percussionist and a resourceful composer, Nathan Davis finally documented five of his sonically beguiling works, with predictably rich results.

-- Top Ten Classical Albums of 2011, Steve Smith, December 11, 2011

Pop Matters

As a composer, Nathan Davis lets many variables dictate what it is he is writing before he puts his own personal thoughts and feelings into the piece. He is unusually attuned to the abstract wants and needs of particular instruments and is careful to consider who will be performing his works. The Bright and Hollow Sky is a collection of five extended works performed by the International Contemporary Ensemble, and each one is drastically different from the other. “Like Sweet Bells Jangled” is a chance for Davis himself to play with ring modulation while clarinet, piccolo and flute supply sharp dissonance. The effect would be considered dull and slow on other albums, but it’s something of a jolt here. “The Mechanics of Escapement”, an odd exercise in minimalism that is in turns soothing and frantic, is played on what sounds like my daughter’s toy piano coupled with clock chimes. “preApnea” and “Dowser” are haunting flute and bass clarinet solos respectively, but the bewildering title track is saved for last, corralling a chamber ensemble into the sound of a sky that can’t decide if it’s calm or raging.

- John Garratt, Aug. 23, 2011

 

Downtown Music Gallery

NATHAN DAVIS & INTERNATIONAL CONTEMPORARY ENSEMBLE [ICE] With JOSHUA RUBIN/ERIC LAMB/PETER EVANS et al - The Bright And Hollow Sky (' 120; USA) The Bright and Hollow Sky is a compilation of works that Nathan Davis has written for the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), of which he is also a current member as a percussionist. Long a tremendous asset to the International Contemporary Ensemble as both a brilliant percussionist and a resourceful composer, Nathan Davis finally documented five of his sonically beguiling works, with predictably rich results. Davis' music-making is inspired by many sources, beginning with a simple fascination for acoustic phenomena and embracing American experimentalism, Balinese Gamelan, and Karnatic music. These recordings benefit from the closest of collaborative circumstances with his ensemble mates, from the composition stage to the performance and recording phases of the works.

 

"This disc was picked by NY Times/Time Out journalist Steve Smith as one of his top ten picks for best modern composer discs of last year. It is easy to see why as this is one of the most creative, unique and challenging discs of the year. Each of the five pieces here were written for different instrumentation from solos for alto flute, toy piano & bass clarinet to a quartet & quintet pieces. "Like Sweet Bells Jangles" is for clarinet, piccolo, flute & percussion. The piece is sparse and mysterious with layers of carefully crafted drones. A selective amount of ring modulation was used to alter the instruments delicately. An eerie resonance has been added to the minimal percussion sounds making everything shimmer or hum cautiously, the effect is quite hypnotic. "pneApnea" is performed on solo flute by Claire Chase with live processing. Ms. Chase is a virtuosic flutist who is able to breathe life and add layers of nuance to the pieces she performs. This piece pushes her to use breathlike reverberations, bend notes and layer various parts simultaneously due to the use of processing. I am reminded of different ghost-spirits dancing around one another in a fascinating haze of patterns. "Dowser" is for solo bass clarinet with delay and the alteration adds a floating layer of echoes to the warm yet dry tone of that distinctive reed. "The Mechanics of Escapement" is for toy piano and is playful yet slightly twisted and it gets better as the tempo and ringing increases, similar to a clock spinning out of control. The title track is last and is performed by a quintet of members of ICE for flutes, clarinets, trumpets, guitar and percussion with more ring modulation utilized. I dig the way this piece builds with different bent drones sailing around one another over what becomes a hypnotic groove. Composer Lois V. Vierk does something similar with her work yet here the results are less predictable as certain instruments lay out and space is used in unexpected ways. There is compelling air of mystery the links all these pieces here together. With a little time and reflection, the mystery will be revealed." - Bruce Lee Gallanter, Downtown Music Gallery