Ambitious reed quintet Splinter Reeds presents a bracing program of new works written for the group by composers Sky Macklay, Matthew Shlomowitz, Cara Haxo, Eric Wubbels, Theresa Wong, and Yannis Kyriakides. All of the works display an envelope pushing impulse that stretches the boundaries of this traditional instrumental format, carving out new repertoire and provoking new aesthetic perspectives.
|01||Line and Length|
Line and Length
|04||Auditory Scene Analysis II|
Auditory Scene Analysis II
|05||Letters to a Friend|
Letters to a Friend
On their newest release, “Hypothetical Islands,” Splinter Reeds displays a remarkable command over extended techniques in precise ensemble performances. What distinguishes this collection above and beyond that is the maturity of the curation and the strength of the new works. Four of the pieces heard here were written for the group, Splinter Reeds gave the North American premiere performances of the other two, and all of the pieces are presented in their premiere recordings.
UK based Matthew Shlomowitz’ Line and Length opens with a jaunty gesture in the soprano saxophone that asserts itself throughout the piece in one form or another as a sort of idée fixe. The off-balance repetition and mechanical ensemble textures conjure a Fellini-esque circus scene.
The author Raymond Queneau provided inspiration for Massachusetts native Caro Haxo’s Exercices, specifically his Exercices de style (1947), which retells the same simple story in 99 different writing styles. While the actual content of Queneau’s story has little to do with Haxo’s short character pieces, the economy of material and subtle nuance within a tightly managed style evokes a narrative approach.Read More
Eric Wubbels wrote his work for large ensemble, Auditory Scene Analysis, in 2013, inspired by Albert Bregman’s research into “the perceptual organization of sound.” The high pitched opening of Auditory Scene Analysis II, written for Splinter Reeds in 2016, suggests a similar point of departure, stretching the range of audibility. Wubbels breaks the spell forcefully with a composite gesture of a slap tongue, a multiphonic, and a glissando that is gradually developed into irregular rhythmic cells. A sustained pitch is then passed around the ensemble as the other instruments articulate a percolating mechanism of trills, grunts, micro-scale bursts, and repeated staccato notes. The climax of the work finds some of the ensemble on insistent high trills as others intone a forceful horn-like call in the middle register leading to a frenzied saxophone cadenza. Elements from earlier in the piece are heard in the final closing seconds, deconstructed from their ensemble mechanism in a slightly tongue-in-cheek ending.
Theresa Wong’s playful Letters to a Friend sets up hockets between the ensemble that are initially based on pitches and devolve into various non-pitched percussive effects, wind sounds, and eventually interjections of sustained multiphonics. The work closes with a ghostlike version of itself, as a hollow tone accompanies a quiet, march-like unison rhythm and a quietly swooping figure in the clarinet.
The initial texture in Sky Macklay’s Choppy relies heavily on growling multiphonics as instruments take turns playing angular ascending figures. Skittering figures in the high register are punctuated by low accented notes in a call and response texture with sounds reminiscent of an underwater muted trumpet. Cascading figures lead into relative calm, a dystopian chorale texture with alternating microtonal inflections. Material of the opening reappears, with a multiphonic pedal point in the middle register, surrounded by ascending and descending flourishes, before a brief, punctuated ensemble ending.
Yannis Kyriakides describes Hypothetical Islands as “an acoustic atlas, a carto-sonic fantasy on the notion of remote desert spaces. The piece traces a journey from a pole to 12 islands and back again.” His integration of electronics adds a kind of environmental sound element to the composition, as they emerge and overtake the acoustic ensemble with a wash of pitched and unpitched sound. Much of the ensemble material is written in incantation-like phrases, occasionally with long tones that connect the exotic fragments. The subtle microtones color a relatively consonant pitch world, and there is a sense of unreality and mirage that pervades much of the piece.
Throughout this engaging collection of works, content defined by the expressive qualities of the extended technique language itself is integrated in structural ways into the compositions. The results are works, expertly performed, that build an aesthetic argument that is taut and rhetorically satisfying in addition to being sonically fresh and emotionally moving.
– D. Lippel
This project was funded in part by the Aaron Copland Fund for Music, Inc., the Alice Diston Fund, and the Amphion Foundation
Splinter Reeds is the West Coast’s first reed quintet, comprising five virtuosic musicians with a shared passion for new music: Kyle Bruckmann (oboe), Bill Kalinkos (clarinet), David Wegehaupt (saxophones), Dana Jessen (bassoon), and Jeff Anderle (bass clarinet). The ensemble is committed to presenting top tier performances of today’s best contemporary composition, showcasing the vast possibilities of the reed quintet, and commissioning new works through collaboration with fellow musicians and artists.
Splinter Reeds’ dynamic instrumentation is an evolutionary detour from the traditional woodwind quintet with the advantages of a more closely related instrument family. The ensemble formed in 2013 with the coming together of colleagues whose collective creative and professional experience spans worlds of post-punk rock, metal, electronica, free improvisation and avant-garde jazz in addition to their conservatory-trained foundations. Their past and ongoing ensemble performance credits also include the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, Alarm Will Sound, Sqwonk, Anubis Saxophone Quartet, Rushes Ensemble, sfSound, Eco Ensemble, and Ensemble Dal Niente, along with numerous other orchestral and classical chamber music engagements.
Distinguishing itself even within the small network roughly 20 professional reed quintets currently active worldwide, Splinter is explicitly committed to the cutting edge of contemporary composition, freely juxtaposing multiple styles and aesthetics in their programming in order to enthusiastically share adventurous new music with the widest possible audience. They have secured commissions thanks to sources including New Music USA, the Barlow Endowment, and Chamber Music America.
Based in Oakland, the ensemble maintains an active performing and teaching schedule at festivals, chamber music series, and educational institutions across the country. Highlights from recent seasons include engagements at Chicago’s Constellation, Festival of New American Music (Sacramento), Stanford University’s CCRMA, Switchboard Music Festival, Blue Sage Center for the Arts (Paonia, CO), Lawrence Conservatory of Music, Northwestern University, BAMPFA, Mondavi Center for Performing Arts, San Francisco Center for New Music, and the April in Santa Cruz Festival of Contemporary Music.
The ensemble’s debut album, Got Stung (2015), features two of their own commissions and four premiere recordings. The self-released album comprises new works for reed quintet by composers Marc Mellits, Erik DeLuca, Ryan Brown, Kyle Bruckmann, Ned McGowan and Jordan Glenn. Their second album, Hypothetical Islands, recorded at Tiny Telephone Oakland, features their commissions from Macklay, Wubbels, Haxo and Wong. Their current season is supported by the Amphion Foundation, the Copland Foundation, and the Ditson Fund, through fiscal sponsorship from InterMusic SF.
On their second album, this agile quintet of single and double reed instruments embrace a more challenging and rigorous set of pieces, including four that were commissioned by the group. These seven pieces draw upon Splinter Reeds’ technical skills in a way that eschews serious athletic display in favor of playful showiness. “Line and Length” by Matthew Shlomowitz suggests a circus-like attitude, with slashing lines at once whimsical and breathtaking, as a couple of key melodic phrases appear in one new permutation after another. A complementary sense of fancy turns up on Sky Macklay’s “Choppy,” which unleashes febrile, fast-moving multiphonic exercises amid a pull between stern low-end figures and upper register passages that makes me think of acrobats flipping inside a tent, their dazzling physical command delivering a sense of wonder rather than a dry workshop.
Cara Haxo’s “Exercices” are more serene and measured studies which clear the air for the onset of Eric Wubbels’s “Auditory Scene Analysis,” a blistering critique Albert Bregman’s writings on sonograms, that draws upon all manner of extended technique, but funnels them into a corkscrewing flow of fractured riffs, electronic-sounding trills, and upper register long tones at the threshold of audibility. It’s hard to think of another reed ensemble project that drives so relentlessly.
-Peter Margasak, 4.30.19, Bandcamp Daily
Some ensembles sound like they're never more fulfilled than when performing together. That's certainly the impression Splinter Reeds creates on its sophomore set, Hypothetical Islands, the five members demonstrating such deep engagement with the material the passion is well nigh palpable. Comprised of Kyle Bruckmann (oboe), Bill Kalinkos (clarinet), David Wegehaupt (saxophones), Dana Jessen (bassoon), and Jeff Anderle (bass clarinet), Splinter Reeds has the distinction of being the West Coast's first reed quintet, and their pride communicates loud and clear on this excellent new music collection.
The five are virtuosic, conservatory-trained players, but they also have experience playing in rock, electronica, improv, and jazz contexts and so are pretty much capable of tackling anything they set their collective mind to. The hour-long release presents premiere recordings of pieces by Sky Macklay, Matthew Shlomowitz, Cara Haxo, Eric Wubbels, Theresa Wong, and Yannis Kyriakides, four of which were written for the group. The works are ensemble pieces in the truest sense: while individual members do solo, it's common for the spotlight to be shared by multiple instruments. Soprano sax, for example, might lead the charge in Shlomowitz's Line and Length, but all five instruments soon assert themselves as equally integral parts of the design. The nine-minute opener, by turns jaunty and jittery, shows immediately how connected the musicians are as they navigate paths through the material's raucous, circus-like terrain; moments arise, in fact, where the playing seems to have as much to do with the exuberant wail of free jazz as formal classical composition.
“Ode,” the haunting second movement in Haxo's two-part Exercices, highlights the group's delicate side when minimal supporting figures provide a foundation for lead sax and oboe musings, the result ruminative and peaceful; even more than during uptempo passages, the ensemble's precision and control are evident during these restrained episodes. Wong's mercurial Letters to a Friend parts company from the other pieces when it weaves percussion effects into its hockets-oriented arrangement, as well as wind sounds and multiphonics. Wubbels' Auditory Scene Analysis II likewise distances itself from the others in having the musicians initially play in the high register, the whistle and creak of their expressions offset by interjections and honks. During one remarkable sequence, a sustained pitch is disrupted by a dizzying parade of grunts, squawks, trills, and bursts, a connection to jazz again intimated in the free-wheeling attack.
In contrast to the restrained pitch of “Ode,” Macklay's Choppy opts for aggressive tactics, with the bassoon providing an initial stable ground for the ascending wail of the other instruments. Strangeness follows in the form of high-pitched cries and warbling noises suggestive of an instrument played underwater. In the album's longer pieces (Choppy, for example, is an eleven-minute ride), the quintet powers through multiple connecting episodes, many of them agitated but some subdued, too. It's in these long-form performances that the group's commitment to the material is most evidenced.
Kyriakides' title work, which he characterizes as “an acoustic atlas, a carto-sonic fantasy on the notion of remote desert spaces,” also distinguishes itself from the other pieces, in this instance by integrating electronics into the sound design. In contrast to the at times frenetic playing elsewhere, Kyriakides' material bolsters the dream-like character of the ensemble's playing with the ambient hum of electronic washes; as a result, something akin to a mirage is evoked as opposed to a scene rife with agitation and violence. Here and elsewhere, the woodwind timbres lend the recording a contemporary sheen, and the listener derives as much pleasure from attending to the playing of the solo instruments as the interactions between the five. As key as the works on Hypothetical Islands are to its impact, the tight ensemble performances impress even more.
-Ron Schepper, 5.1.19, textura
Those who have been following this site for some time may recall that, a little over two years ago, I wrote an article about Carve, the debut solo album on Innova by bassoonist Dana Jessen. I took the liberty of introducing Jessen on the basis of how I already knew of her work, first as a member of the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players and then as one of the founding members of the Splinter Reeds quintet. As its name implies, the latter consists entirely of players of reed instruments, both double (Jessen and Kyle Bruckmann alternating between oboe and English horn) and single (Bill Kalinkos on clarinet, Jeff Anderle on bass clarinet, and Dave Wegehaupt on saxophones).
Around the middle of this month, New Focus Recordings released the latest album of performances by Splinter Reeds. I must “come clean” at the outset by observing that I welcomed this release for its ability to allow me to revisit several of the pieces I had enjoyed listening to Splinter Reeds play in concerts. Those occasions included a recital in Pamela Z’s 2017 ROOM Series followed by Anderle’s Faculty Artist Recital at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) in September of the same year. Indeed, the SFCM concert “primed the pump” of my interest, so to speak, by revisiting some of the ROOM Series selections. As a result, I was well prepared for the works of three of the composers on the new Splinter Reeds album, entitled Hypothetical Islands: Cara Haxo, Eric Wubbels, and Theresa Wong. According to my records, the title of the album is also the title of a composition by Yannis Kyriakides that was scheduled for SFCM but, unless I am mistaken, was not performed.
I should probably begin with the composition that turned out to provide a “guilty pleasure” experience. Auditory Scene Analysis II, composed by Wubbels, was given its San Francisco premiere at the ROOM Series recital. This event was a rather casual affair that found me talking back to the performers when they tried to explain the title, getting as far as saying that it was taken from the title of a book. I then chimed in with the name of the author, Albert S. Bregman. As I cited when I wrote about the ROOM Series concert, I had reviewed this book for Computer Music Journal; and my review was published in 1991.
When I look back on the experience of reading this book as a reviewer, I am reminded of a sentence from a lecture that Vladimir Nabokov gave on the subject of Fyodor Dostoevsky (whom he disliked intensely):
The mediocre … can at least afford a mischievous but very healthy pleasure, as you stamp and groan through a second-rate book which has been awarded a prize.
Bregman certainly won his share of prizes, but none of them would probably be recognizable to most readers. His big idea involved representations of sound that are called sonograms. These are basically shapes on graph paper whose horizontal axis represents the flow of time and whose vertical axis corresponds to frequencies in the range of audibility. “Scene Analysis” involved the process of describing sounds on the basis of describing regions on a sonogram, where they are placed and how they relate to one another. Bregman’s book was not only inconclusive but also very poorly written, including 100 pages of content that can be found (word-for-word) in two different sections.
Listening to Auditory Scene Analysis II left me with the impression that Wubbels was no more impressed by Bregman’s efforts than I was. However, while I opted for the Nabokov gambit, Wubbels took it out on Bregman by composing music. It would not surprise me if his intention was to create an auditory “signal” whose sonogram was so resistant to image processing (scene analysis) software as to lack any clue about what was “signal” and what was “noise.” One might call the result one of “frolicking” auditory content dancing on the ill-defined boundary between signal and noise; and, for my money at least, the result is a real hoot.
Wong’s Letters to a Friend also involves teasing signal out of the noise; but her technique is entirely different. Wong’s “friend” was Alessia Pugliatti, who died very young of a rare form of cancer. The “letters” of the title carry a double meaning. Wong chose to memorialize Pugliatti through the poem “O Pulsar” by Brazilian Augusto de Campos. However, rather than composing a song using these words as text, she translated every letter of the text into its representation as Morse code, endowing the entire poem with a rhythmic representation (the plural noun in the title) that is then deployed over the five Splinter Reeds instruments. As might be imagined, execution of this piece demands intense concentration and discipline; but the Splinter Reeds performance emerges as a highly compelling experience.
My previous Haxo encounter was with Ode, the second of two “exercises” that she composed for Splinter Reeds, the first being titled Inattendu (unexpected). Ode is the more lyrical, keenly attentive to subtle shifts in sonority through changes in instrumentation. Inattendu, on the other hand is pointillist in structure. However, while Georges Seurat could convey sophisticated shapes and lighting effects through his approach to pointillism, one gets the impression that Haxo is keeping her “points” as disjoined as possible, thus avoiding any sense of shape (or the expectation of such a sense of shape). Because these pieces are exercises, they can be taken for honing technical skills of execution. Splinter Reeds offers a well-honed execution that avoids any suggestion of tedious pedagogy.
Of the remaining compositions on the album, the title work is the one that will require more listening experiences than I have managed thus far. The piece itself incorporates electronics. However, given the broad diversity of sonorities arising from the Splinter Reeds players, one gets the impression that Kyriakides expects the listener to confuse the electronic and physical sources. Rhetorically, the result captures at least some of the sense of an island as isolated territory (and, if that island is only hypothetical, then it is probably even more isolated). This is the piece that most resists casual listening; but, on the basis of what I have experienced thus far, the more attention one engages, the more one is likely to come away with a satisfying achievement of sensemaking.
Matthew Shlomowitz’ Line and Length, which is the opening track, is far more explicit in its intentions. HIs “lines” tend to emerge as glissando patterns of different “lengths.” This is “fun music,” as is the one remaining selection on the album, Sky Macklay’s Choppy. However, while Shlomowitz romps his way through glissandos, Macklay goes for the brash sounds of multiphonic effects, always flirting with the delicate balance between playful eccentricity and stark-raving madness.
Taken as a whole, the content on this album is a bit on the modest side, slightly less than an hour of music. Nevertheless, each composition has its own distinctive way of seizing and holding listener attention. Both the individual piece and the album as a whole are likely to admit significant attention from any serious listener.
-Stephen Smoliar, 3.25.19, The Rehearsal Studio
Extended technique long ago lost its shock value, which is all to the good. For many composers as well as performers, extended technique is a resource that can be drawn on as a matter of course—as one musical device among many, rather than as novelty or anomaly. As their fine second album demonstrates, the music written for and performed by the extraordinary reed quintet Splinter Reeds—oboist Kyle Bruckmann, clarinetist Bill Kalinkos, saxophonist David Wegehaupt, bass clarinetist Jeff Anderle and bassoonist Dana Jessen—shows how artfully extended technique can serve as the organizing principle for stimulating works that are challenging to performer and listener alike.
An excellent example of this is composer Sky Mackley’s Choppy, which was written in 2017 for Splinter Reeds and premiered at the Berkeley Art Museum that November. The piece weaves together a dense tissue of multiphonics, microtonal detuning, overblowing and the non-musical sounds of disturbed water (a sonic allusion to the title’s evocation of windblown water, perhaps). It’s a piece that inhabits extremes of register and dynamics and might be something we could imagine the Furies listening to when not out pursuing transgressors.
Like Choppy, Eric Wubbels’ Auditory Scene Analysis II, written for the group in 2016, employs multiphonics as a significant element. Also like Choppy, it contains jarring dynamic contrasts as well as harsh, massed sound clusters. Some of the percussive effects in Wubbels’ piece find an amplified echo in Theresa Wong’s Letters to a Friend, which uses key clicks and slap-tongue to set up a complex set of rhythms and counterrhythms.
The title track, by Yannis Kyriakides, augments the sound of the acoustic winds with electronics. The piece begins with a wind-like background rumble that, rising and falling in prominence, runs as an undercurrent throughout. On top of it the reeds carve out dissonant islands of sound—short, discordant fragments of ensemble work that take the guise of tantalizing, because deliberately incomplete, hints of melody.
The album also includes the gleefully stuttering polyphony of Matthew Shlomowitz’s Lines and Length, and the Cara Haxo’s alternately pointillistic and movingly lyrical Exercices I and II.
-Daniel Barbiero, 4.8.19, Avant Music News
If you want or need to go out on a musical limb, this is the album for you. The “Splinter Reeds” play here a collection of out-there music designed to stimulate and, if nothing else, wake you up from your Chopin-Tchaikovsky-Rachmaninov pipe dreams.
We start out with Matthew Schlomowitz’ Line and Length, a piece consisting of jagged atonal figures butting their heads into each other. The liner notes (such as they are) tell you nothing about this or any of the music presented here, so you’re on your own. Eventually we encounter somewhat longer lines playing against the shorter ones and, later still, clarinet and alto saxophone smears as well. Ask Alexa to play this one for you at three in the morning sometime. I’m sure your pets will love it! Later still, pauses break up the musical flow and there are little stutter-figures played against the by-now somewhat diluted cacophonous lines, followed by long-held notes (mostly Gb) around which the higher reeds slither and slide. Crazy stuff, but clearly a fun piece.
Next up is Cara Haxo’s two-part Exercices—music in the same vein but using different capillaries. Here the contrapuntal figures are pretty much tones in or around the same pitch for each instrument involved, the texture is clearer and less dense, and by the 1:19 mark in the first movement the sax is playing a somewhat lyrical theme against the others’ counterpoint. There are some very interesting passages for the oboe and bass clarinet in particular that have more a thematic feel to them. The second part, titled simply “Ode,” is entirely lyrical, leading off with a quirky but attractive oboe melody while the clarinet and alto sax weave long-lined figures around it. A sudden key change at 2:18 moves us into another melodic line that feels more Middle Eastern in character as the sax and two clarinets continue to play around the solo oboe.
Eric Wubbels’ Auditory Scene Analysis II consists mostly of very high-pitched, almost whistle-tone sounds in the beginning, against which the lower reeds occasionally slam against them with loud, sharp chords, starting from a high note and sliding down. Eventually these abrasive chords dominate the soundscape like radio static on overdrive. (Follow up Line and Length with this one on your Alexa.) All that went through my mind when listening to this was a line from an old Harry “The Hipster” Gibson song: “Hey! Stop that dancin’ up there!” Eventually the noise becomes so abrasive that you actually need to turn the volume down (well, at least I did).
Theresa Wong’s Letters to a Friend begins with sharp cracking noises; I have no idea how they produced these; but eventually we get little notes burped out by the bassoon with equally little counter-chirps from the upper winds. Apparently, Wong writes letters to her friends on a virtual tonal typewriter somewhere inside her head. The clacking noises return, but this time they seem to be produced by slap-tonguing a couple of the reeds. The music becomes gradually louder and more complex, at least rhythmically—the cackled tones remain in virtually the same positions.
Sky Macklay’s Choppy occupies the same universe as Wubbels’ piece, with much the same result, except in this case I found the musical progression monotonous despite its edgy volume and rather uninteresting.
We end with Yannis Kyriakides’ Hypothetical Islands, which thankfully begins softly, albeit with a very low hum in the left channel over which the other reeds play a repeated but melodic line. Eventually we reach long, overlapping notes that create a “floating” effect, a welcome contrast to much of the more abrasive music that preceded it. What I liked about this piece was the way the lines converged to produce a very strange, almost alien tonal blend around the six-minute mark and sustain this for some time. Eventually, by 10:35, much of the abrasion and strangeness has melted away, and we are left with the background hum (which increases in volume) and somewhat melodic figures played softly by the other reeds. The music ends with softly-held long notes.
This is clearly not an album of Mozart wind quintets.
-Lynn René Bayley, 3.15.19, The Art Music Lounge
New Focus Recordings continues its support and curation of amazing contemporary classical music with Splinter Reeds's Hypothetical Islands, an incredible debut album. With the neck-breaking opener “Length and Line”, the album shows its vivid colours. Complex, multi-layered compositions, requiring extreme precision from the performers, are being displayed here, all penned by a different author. While the aforementioned track was a dizzying assault on the mind, the last on the album, the eponymous “Hypothetical Islands”, is much more atmospheric, almost ambient. Nonetheless, the brain juice keeps flowing, thanks to a myriad of compositional and instrumental techniques, advanced and tastefully arranged. Marvellous album, to say the least!
-Dæv Tremblay, 3.16.19, Can This Even Be Called Music?
A reed quintet with sensibilities that are over ridingly post punk as they delve into progressive jazz and classical realms, they fearlessly tread on shaky grounds without losing their footing. Untamed stuff for wild ears, when the wheel don't come off, you know you're in good hands and this journey is an easy bet for the sonically adventurous.
-Chris Spector, 3.27.19, Midwest Record
This quintet use oboe, clarinets, bassoon and saxophones, besides occasional other sound sources, to generate a rich and dynamic music not necessarily easy to listen to at all times, but certainly full of depth and colour. From the awkwardness of ‘Auditory Scene Analysis II’, with its tempestuous, almost free-jazz, approach to Eric Wubbels’ original piece to the distilled noise particles driving the title track of Yannis Kyriakides, this album playfully seems like it could tumble into a deep crevice of its own making at any point. Instead, everything remains carefully controlled, bridging the gap between taut interplay and something entirely more organic just perfectly. This might well add up to a deeply commanding listening experience, but it is one that likewise pays off each and every time it is indulged.
-Richard Johnson, 1.18.19, Adverse Effect Magazine