Bassoonist Dana Jessen and composer Taylor Brook collaborate on an album length work, Set, that fuses through composed material, improvisation, and electronics to create an immersive musical experience that encapsulates several of the most topical concerns in contemporary music.
Bassoonist Dana Jessen and composer Taylor Brook team up for a collaborative album length electro-acoustic work, Set, that combines through composed (Songs) and improvised sections. Much attention in the composed sections is devoted to an exploration of a range of extended techniques on the bassoon that Jessen has cultivated. The improvised sections are framed by guidelines and rules that Brook provided and computer improvisation that accompanies the instrumental soloist. In these ways, the boundaries between composer and performer are blurred.
The opening Song begins with a series of clarion calls in the bassoon that are answered by a chorus of bassoons in the electronics supporting the soloist with blocks of sound. Brook and Jessen explore the myriad colors the bassoon has at its disposal on any given note, reveling in the transformation of sustained pitches. Steady drone textures provide context for Jessen’s expressive playing and the rich overtones embedded in the bassoon’s sound. The second half of the movement features more nuanced figuration in the solo part over a wider sonic palette in the electronics, including active, non-pitched breath sounds, before closing with a poignant passage for solo bassoon alone.Read More
In the improvised first interlude we hear responsive material in the computer part reacting to Jessen’s more punctuated material. Jessen develops a pointed repeated note idea for the movements opening minutes before long tones are shadowed by ghostly pitches in the electronics that form a harmonic halo around the solo line. The interlude elides smoothly into the timbral trills in the opening of the second piece (track three). A two note descending motive anchors exploration into some wonderfully rich multiphonic sonorities. Brook and Jessen allow these complex timbres to breathe and evolve, inviting the listener to focus their attention on different component pitches that emerge. Variable delays in the electronics reinforce the expansive context.
The second interlude establishes walls of sound through extended trills and forceful multiphonics. Brook’s electronics mirror Jessen’s lines with a harmonizer, tracking their contour and lending the texture a futuristic sheen. The interlude finishes with a passage where Jessen’s voice emerges from behind the bassoon, blurring yet another boundary. Similar walls of sound created by extended trills shape the third Song, merged with Morse code-like irregular tongued notes that are echoed in the electronics. Much of Jessen’s material in this improvisation is more linear and soloistic, featuring pitch bends and swooping passagework.
The final Song creates an unsettling, dystopian sound world, as Jessen plays quick, chromatic repeated figures that are answered by quick fire delay processing. The occasional quarter tone passage in the live part gives the sense that the delayed signal is subject to the Doppler effect, bending the pitch as the signal moves further “away.” After this activated passage, the piece seems like it will close with sustained unisons over a drone, but just before it ends, Jessen slides up one half step for a slightly brighter final sonority.
Set is a focused, contemplative piece that explores expressive contrasts within a relatively restricted set of musical materials. The symbiotic process of collaborative composition and responsive improvisation makes for a piece that feels very much as if it is a unique outgrowth of the relationship between these two artists and the specific moment of the recording.
– Dan Lippel
Recorded April 5, 2022 in Clonick Hall, Oberlin, OH
Recorded by Andrew Tripp
Mixed by Taylor Brook
Mastered by Murat Çolak at GERYON
Design by Ryan Sprowl
Taylor Brook has studied composition with Brian Cherney in Montreal, Luc Brewaeys in Brussels, and George Lewis, and Georg Haas in New York. Brook has also studied Hindustani musical performance in Kolkata, India, with Pandit Debashish Bhattacharya. His music is often concerned with finely-tuned microtonal sonorities and toying with multifarious musical references and styles.
Brook writes concert music, music for video, and music for theater and dance. His work has been performed around the world and has been described as “gripping” and “engrossing” by the New York Times. Brook has won numerous awards and prizes for his compositions, including the MIVOS/Kantor prize, the Lee Ettelson award, and several SOCAN young composers awards including the grand prize in 2016. Brook has been a finalist in the Gaudeamus prize and was awarded honorable mention for the Jules Leger prize two years in a row. His music has been performed by ensembles and soloists such as the Nouvel Ensemble Moderne, Quatour Bozzini, JACK Quartet, MIVOS quartet, Talea Ensemble, Ascolta Ensemble, and many others.
Brook's current projects include a new piece for New Thread Saxophone Quartet and a new string quartet for the JACK quartet. Brook holds a master’s degree in music composition from McGill University. He currently resides in New York City, where he is completing a doctorate in music composition at Columbia University and working as a freelance composer.
Hailed as a “bassoon virtuoso” (Chicago Reader), Dana Jessen tirelessly seeks to expand the boundaries of her instrument through original compositions, improvisations, and collaborative work with innovative artists. Over the past decade, she has presented dozens of world premiere performances throughout North America and Europe while maintaining equal footing in the creative music community as an improviser. Her solo performances are almost entirely grounded in electroacoustic composition that highlight her distinct musical language. As a chamber musician, Dana is the co-founder of the contemporary reed quintet Splinter Reeds, and has performed with Alarm Will Sound, Amsterdam’s DOEK Collective, the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, and the Tri-Centric Ensemble, among many others. A dedicated educator, Dana teaches at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and has presented masterclasses and workshops to a range of students from across the globe.
In 2019 composer Taylor Brook created a set of semi-improvised pieces for bassoonist Dana Jessen. The process was a collaborative one, with Brook crafting the pieces in light of specific techniques that Jessen, a virtuoso performer who for years has devoted herself to expanding the expressive range of her instrument, has developed. The result is Set, a suite of four Songs and three rules-constrained, semi-improvised Interludes for bassoon and electronics, with the composer supplying the latter.
The Songs appropriately enough are built around the songlike, vocal properties Jessen is able to coax from the bassoon: keening long-duration notes from the upper register, microtonal drifts up and down, sudden leaps into the lower register, unpitched bursts of breath. Brook augments Jessen’s performance with an electronic environment frequently featuring chords made up of layered bassoon notes—an ersatz wind ensemble. The Interludes have a looser, more spontaneous feel and play more directly with Brook’s electronic interventions: he alters the bassoon’s timbres, multiplies its voice into swarms of sound, loops it, turns it into a tamboura or a buzzsaw. Yet throughout it all the focus remains on the instrument and on Jessen’s ability to make it speak with a highly personal eloquence. Her playing is both forceful and controlled, her tone and intonation impeccable. And while the extensive technical vocabulary she’s developed is a point of interest, it never overshadows her essentially melodic and deeply musical sensibility.
— Daniel Barbiero, 8.03.2023
— Jeremy Shatan, 8.08.2023
— Seth Boustead, 9.30.2023
(Italian original below, English translation by Google translate)
In providing new combinations of musical parameters, the most attentive musicians cannot forget what happened in the second half of the twentieth century regarding timbre and the possibility of creating musical forms in correlational positions. If on the one hand the choices to delve into the strength of harmonics and resonances is an essential condition for testing the quality of particular approaches or extensive techniques, on the other hand it is advisable to never lose sight of the structure of the notes and melodic lines; usually in music it is difficult to find connections of this kind since musicians, leaving the contemporary aura, push on some parameters while leaving the others neutral. The question is always the one that spectralists taught us: is it possible to reconcile timbral nuances with writing? In reiterating the affirmative nature of the answer, we simultaneously evaluate the quantities and qualities combined.
On this point, bassoonist Dana Jessen and composer Taylor Brook seem to have clear ideas with the release of Set, a CD for New Focus Recordings. Jessen, in addition to being one of the best interpreters of her instrument in the world, is also an excellent improviser who participates in or prepares projects with a high specific weight (1); Brook, for his part, is an underrated composer from New York who in recent years has been increasingly pushing himself into experimental musical operations, where generative electronics, automaticity and even robotics have an obvious significance (2). The meeting between Jessen and Brook, however, takes place in a common area, which is that of microtonality and finalized sound integration by electronics: 4 written parts, interspersed with 3 improvisations, an immense exploration of the bassoon, with unconventional techniques that favor a plethora of timbral nuances (the equivalent of the gradations of a color in a painting) unknown even to experts and in the listening process the perception of structures, of a connection with the notes. The electronic part is of two types, live electronics for the written compositions (the 4 Songs), with interventions that tend towards completion on the basis of the criteria of "sustaining" and "doubling", something that Brook had already made felt in pieces like Lush in 2015 and Cube in 2018, also working on some dark instrumental timbres, while the electronics used for improvisations are automated and we talk about computer improvisation, i.e. the use of software that reacts in real time to the stresses of the bassoon. In both cases we understand the work of understanding between Jessen and Brook, a functional body of sound where the electronics never acquire harsh or, as happens today in much electroacoustic improvisation, caustically abstruse characteristics.
As for the improvised pieces, considered interludes only in form and not in substance (they are in fact long pieces), the two musicians have chosen a line of conduct that is not completely free since there are some binding instructions for improvisation and this with the aim of lower the ideological defenses of the composition and bring the boundaries and qualities of improvisation as close as possible.
Set is an incredible journey into the world of the bassoon, between articulations with vibratos, tremolos, tone smoothing and multiphonics, places in which Jessen shows proverbial skill. In the score Dana states that she took most of the multiphonics from Jamie Leigh Sampson's book (3), covering both monovalent and polyvalent multiphonics, explaining that “...the monovalent multiphonics provide a static combination of pitches, while the polyvalent multiphonics are capable of moving between a single pitch and a multiphonic...”; something also comes from the discoveries of Pascal Gallois (4), but it is enough to listen to the CD thoroughly to gain insight into the elaboration of an expressive, timbral-melodic world, strengthened in Max's patch. There is suspension, waiting, harmonic tension and l The darkness that usually envelops the timbre of the bassoon is barely a memory: here there is more adventure than solipsism, revelation of areas than simple drone pollutions. In short, another planet.
(1) I repeat what I wrote for her in one of my examinations of the actors of bassoon improvisation: "...another talented bassoonist is Dana Jessen, who immediately distinguished herself for having co-founded a quintet of wind instrument specialists available for the new composition, just as his contribution in one of the recent masterpieces written for the minimalist bassoon (the consortium of the 7 bassoons of Michael Gordon) is remarkable. In improvisation, Jessen was fascinated by the timbral properties of the sound, by the movement, by the spurious relationships with electronics and by the spaces that the composition can leave for improvisation (see here and here excerpts from confirmatory performances). With a tour of Europe and Holland, Jessen was also able to experiment with doubling the instrument with Katherine Young, thanks to a quartet with Anne Le Berge and Sam Pluta; in January last year he published his first CD of solo improvisations entitled Winter Chapel, played in the Fairchild Chapel of Oberlin College, attempts to set in motion a profound excursion of the resonance space and to enhance an arcane presence of the bassoon, lending aid even to the wheezing...” – here is the link to the full article.
(2) verify Brook's inclinations here, on the composition page in concert with the electronics.
(3) is Contemporary Techniques for the Bassoon: Multiphonics, ADJ-ective New Music, 2014.
(4) Gallois' book is The Techniques of Bassoon Playing, Barenreiter-Verlag, 2009. In the notes to the score Jessen points out when taken from Gallois: “...I have also used a few multiphonics that occur when playing notes in the third octave of the bassoon with weak lip pressure, as described in Gallois' The Techniques of Bassoon Playing in the section “12 stable multiphonics...”
Nel fornire nuove combinazioni dei parametri musicali, i musicisti più attenti non possono dimenticare quanto avvenuto nel secondo novecento riguardo al timbro e alla possibilità di creare forme musicali in posizioni di correlazione. Se da una parte le scelte di approfondire la forza di armonici e risonanze è una condizione essenziale per saggiare la qualità di approcci o tecniche estensive particolari, dall’altra è opportuno non perdere mai di vista l’impianto delle note e delle linee melodiche; solitamente in musica è difficile trovare raccordi di questo genere poiché i musicisti, uscendo dall’aurea contemporanea, spingono su alcuni parametri lasciando neutrali gli altri. La domanda è sempre quella che ci hanno insegnato gli spettralisti: è possibile conciliare le sfumature timbriche con la scrittura? Nel ribadire l’affermatività della risposta si valutano contemporanemente quali siano le quantità e le qualità accostate.
Su questo punto la fagottista Dana Jessen e il compositore Taylor Brook sembrano avere idee chiare con la pubblicazione di Set, un CD per New Focus Recordings. Jessen, oltre ad essere una delle migliori interpreti al mondo del suo strumento, è anche un’improvvisatrice eccellente che partecipa o prepara progetti dotati di un alto peso specifico (1); Brook, dal canto suo, è un sottovalutato compositore di New York che negli ultimi anni si sta sempre più spingendo in operazioni musicali sperimentali, dove l’elettronica generativa, le automaticità e persino la robotica hanno un’evidente significatività (2). L’incontro tra Jessen e Brook si svolge però in un’area comune, che è quella della microtonalità e dell’integrazione sonora finalizzata da parte dell’elettronica: 4 parti scritte, intervallate da 3 improvvisazioni, un’esplorazione del fagotto immensa, con tecniche non convenzionali che privilegiano una pletora di sfumature timbriche (l’equivalente delle gradazioni di un colore in un dipinto) sconosciute persino agli addetti ai lavori e nel percorso d’ascolto la percezione comunque di strutture, di un raccordo con le note. La parte elettronica è di due tipi, un live electronics per le composizioni scritte (le 4 Song), con interventi che tendono al completamento sulla base dei criteri del “sostenimento” e del “raddoppio”, qualcosa che Brook aveva già fatto sentire in pezzi come Lush del 2015 e Cube del 2018 lavorando anche su alcuni timbri strumentali scuri, mentre l’elettronica usata per le improvvisazioni è automatizzata e si parla di computer improvisation, ossia dell’ausilio di un software che reagisce in tempo reale alle sollecitazioni del fagotto. In tutti e due i casi si comprende il lavoro di intesa tra Jessen e Brook, un funzionale corpo sonoro dove l’elettronica non acquista mai caratteri aspri o, come succede oggi in molta improvvisazione elettroacustica, causticamente astrusi.
Quanto ai pezzi improvvisati, considerati interludi solo nella forma e non nella sostanza (si tratta infatti di lunghi brani), i due musicisti hanno scelto una linea di condotta non completamente libera poiché sono previste alcune istruzioni vincolanti per l’improvvisazione e ciò allo scopo di abbassare le difese ideologiche della composizione e avvicinare quanto più possibile i confini e le qualità dell’improvvisazione.
Set è un incredibile viaggio nel mondo del fagotto, tra articolazioni con vibrati, tremoli, smerigliature del tono e multifonici, posti in cui Jessen mostra una bravura proverbiale. Nella partitura Dana dichiara di aver tratto la maggior parte dei multifonici dal libro di Jamie Leigh Sampson (3), coprendo sia la multifonia monovalente che polivalente, spiegando che “...the monovalent multiphonics provide a static combination of pitches, while the polyvalent multiphonics are capable of moving between a single pitch and a multiphonic...”; qualcosa viene anche dalle scoperte di Pascal Gallois (4), ma basta ascoltare a fondo il CD per introitare l’elaborazione di un mondo espressivo, timbrico-melodico, rafforzato nella patch di Max. C’è sospensione, attesa, tensione armonica e l’oscurità che solitamente avvolge il timbro del fagotto è appena un ricordo: qui c’è più avventura che solipsismo, rivelazione di aree che semplici polluzioni dronistiche. In breve, un altro pianeta.
(1) riprendo quanto ho scritto per lei in una mia disamina sugli attori dell’improvvisazione al fagotto: “...un’altra talentuosa fagottista è Dana Jessen, la quale si è distinta subito per aver co-fondato a S. Francisco un quintetto di specialisti di strumenti a fiato disponibile per la nuova composizione, così come rimarchevole è il suo contributo in uno dei recenti capolavori scritti per il fagotto minimalista (il consorzio dei 7 fagotti di Michael Gordon). Nell’improvvisazione la Jessen è stata affascinata dalle tenute timbriche del suono, dal movimento, dalle relazioni spurie con l’elettronica e dagli spazi che la composizione può lasciare all’improvvisazione (vedi qui e qui estratti di esibizioni confermative): con un giro sull’Europa e stretto sull’Olanda, la Jessen ha potuto sperimentare anche il raddoppio dello strumento con Katherine Young, grazie ad un quartetto con Anne Le Berge e Sam Pluta; nel gennaio dello scorso anno ha pubblicato il suo primo cd di improvvisazioni in solo dal titolo Winter Chapel, suonato nella Fairchild Chapel del college di Oberlin, tentativi di mettere in moto una profonda escursione dello spazio di risonanza e di valorizzare una presenza arcana del fagotto, prestando aiuto persino ai sibili...” – qui il link dell’articolo completo.
(2) verificare qui, nella pagina compositiva di concerto con l’elettronica, le inclinazioni di Brook.
(3) si tratta di Contemporary Techniques for the Bassoon: Multiphonics, ADJ-ective New Music, 2014.
(4) Il libro di Gallois è The Techniques of Bassoon Playing, Barenreiter-Verlag, 2009. Nelle note alla partitura Jessen fa notare quando prelevato da Gallois: “...I have also used a few multiphonics that occur when playing notes in the third octave of the bassoon with weak lip pressure, as described in Gallois’ The Techniques of Bassoon Playing in the section “12 stable multiphonics...”
— Ettore Garzia, 9.22.2023