Splinter Reeds: Hypothetical Islands


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.


# Audio Title/Composer(s) Time
Total Time 57:23
01Line and Length
Line and Length


Cara Haxo
02I. Inattendu
I. Inattendu
03II. Ode
II. Ode
04Auditory Scene Analysis II
Auditory Scene Analysis II
05Letters to a Friend
Letters to a Friend
07Hypothetical Islands
Hypothetical Islands

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.

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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

  • Recorded June 2018 at Tiny Telephone, Oakland, CA by James Riotta
  • Mixed and Mastered by Zach Miley
  • Produced by Eric Wubbels
  • Extended technique photography by Lenny Gonzalez
  • Cover Photo by Joao Ferreira
  • Inside Photos by John Westrock
  • Layout by BMoen@Etch Image Co.

This project was funded in part by the Aaron Copland Fund for Music, Inc., the Alice Diston Fund, and the Amphion Foundation

Splinter Reeds

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.


The Art Music Lounge

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

Can This Even Be Called Music?

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?

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