David Smooke: Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death

, composer


Composer David Smooke (Peabody Conservatory of Music faculty member) is a sonic tour guide, taking the listener on a journey that explores, in his own words, “alien topographies” and “unreal landscapes.”


Called “an impressive, eclectic composer” (Time Out New York) and possessing “some of the most uninhibited brain cells around” (Washington Post), composer David Smooke (Peabody Conservatory of Music faculty member) is a sonic tour guide, leading his listeners on a polystylistic and expressive journey. Smooke employs a wide range of compositional techniques to paint his individually unreal soundworld, including microtonality, a deft timbral and orchestrational brush stroke, and extended performance techniques. This release features his works across the instrumental spectrum, from the title track which is a toy piano concerto with wind ensemble to the eerie piano solo, Transgenic Fields, to the multi-track composition of layered bassoons, 21 Miles to Coolville. Smooke is the toy piano soloist with the Peabody Wind Ensemble in Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, a piece with a fascinating inspiration. The medical examiner’s office for the state of Maryland in Baltimore houses several doll-like structures that are used for forensic investigations. Smooke evokes the intersection between the childlike and the macabre by integrating the toy piano into twisted microtonal harmonies in the wind ensemble, and some wonderful cameo appearances of a microtonally tuned banjo. The instrumental colors in the work are striking and reminiscent of Messiaen, and the soundworld Smooke has created is simultaneously riveting and unsettling. Transgenic Fields, dusk is as introverted as Nutshell is chaotic, as steady left hand chords with uneven right hand figuration suggest microscopic changes that have macro-implications. A Baby Bigger Grows Than Up Was, based on a text by Michael Kimball, is written for the unconventional loadbang quartet (baritone voice, trombone, trumpet, and bass clarinet). Fragmented texts are repeated to the point where they lose semantic meaning and become pure sonic events, not unlike how children mindlessly repeat words as sounds in the process of learning them. Some Details of Hell engages with the other end of life, setting a text by Lucie Brock-Broido about a death bed scene in a hospital. down.stream and 21 Miles to Coolville are both innovative additions to two growing corners of the repertoire, works for instrument plus loop pedal, and works for multi-tracked layered of one instrument (a la Reich’s counterpoint series). down.stream mines a surprising new vocabulary of sound from the toy piano and reaches a cathartic climax, and 21 Miles finishes the recording off with an optimistic portrayal of a road trip in the Appalachian foothills.

Recording Engineer: Scott Metcalfe (except Track 6, Jeff Francis)
Recording Location: Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University (except Track 6, University of South Carolina)
Recording dates: Track 1 4/23/2014, Track 2 2/6/2014, Track 3 10/22/2013, Track 4 4/11/2014, Track 5 8/12/2014
CD design and layout: Alejandro Acierto http://alejandroacierto.com/

14 Dec, 2016

New Focus highlights composer portrait albums

From the first releases on the label, a core element of New Focus' mission has been to feature composers, particularly American composers who were deeply invested in building on a lineage of contemporary composition in our community. Several exciting recent releases continue this committment. Mikel Kuehn, a 2014 Guggenheim Fellow, released his Object/Shadow in November, featuring performances of …

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Gapplegate Classical-Modern Music Review

David Smooke exhibits his very personal approach via a new release that documents six of his compositions. Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death (New Focus Recordings 173) lets us dwell at length on his avant garde new music, which retains the joy of discovery that high modernism has always espoused, but moves it along in very personal directions, using abstract sound to convey the feeling of physical journeys via configurations from large ensembles to chamber music and solo.

The title work is scored as a concerto for toy piano (Smooke) and the Peabody Wind Ensemble under Harlan Parker. It translates into music a series of tiny sculpted figures used in the Office of the Medical Examiner of Maryland to train staff in forensic science. It is a work of genuine interest and drama.

"Transgenic Fields, dusk" for solo piano expresses a long, slowly unwinding melody to overarch a series of constantly modulatiing harmonies.

"A Baby Bigger Grows Than Up Was, Vol. 1: A to Breathing" and "Some Details of Hell" concentrate on solo vocals, small chamber ensembles and vivid text to portray language learning in the former and the sudden loss of a loved one in the latter.

"down.stream" concentrates on a solo toy piano and a looping pedal to realize kaleidoscopic landscapes of a vividly colorful nature.

"21 Miles to Coolville" was inspired by an actual sign the composer saw continually near his apartment in Ohio. The music depicts an imaginary journey to a cool place. Multiple bassoons bring the music to us.

The program takes us on a kind of whirlwind tour of the varied sonic possibilities Smooke realizes for our contemplation. It is a music of adventure, a future-in-the-present.


— Grego Applegate Edwards, Gapplegate Classical-Modern Music Review, 1/4/2017


San Francisco Chronicle

The evocative and unpredictable work of composer David Smooke fills an artistic niche I had no idea we were missing — he’s the Stephen King of contemporary music. All but one of the six chamber pieces on this wonderful new release cast an eerie, unsettling spell, with sounds that are as haunting and strange as they are beautiful. But there’s a humanist impulse underlying it all, as well as a quirky narrative vein that keeps a listener fully engaged. The title work, for wind ensemble and toy piano, shows Smooke’s horror-story chops at full tilt, as it conjures up the tiny forensic dioramas on display at the Office of the Medical Examiner in Baltimore. Smooke comes at similar emotional terrain in other ways too — in a long and unsteady solo for toy piano and electronics, in the haunted song cycle “Some Details of Hell” and most arrestingly in the extended piano fantasy “Transgenic Fields, Dusk,” whose gorgeous, rambling harmonies seem to conceal some deep unease. Topping it all off with a welcome shift of mode is “21 Miles to Coolville,” a multi-bassoon etude that is pure, funky joy. — Joshua Kosman, San Francisco Chronicle, 1.11.2017


New York Music Daily

A Hauntingly Allusive New Album and a National Sawdust Show From David Smooke

David Smooke explains the premise of his fantastic, eclectic new album, Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death – streaming at Bandcamp – as being an exploration of “unreal landscapes that sonic events can evoke.” Smooke takes his title from a series of grimly allusive training dioramas in the Maryland State Medical Examiner’s Office. As troubled, picturesque, cinematic music goes, it doesn’t get any better than this in 2017. As a demo reel, this album should score Smooke a long list of clients in film and video if he wants the commissions. He and several of the ensembles on the album – including the mighty Peabody Wind Ensemble, a stormy chamber group comprising brass, winds and percussion, are playing the album release at 7 PM on Jan 22 at National Sawdust. Advance tix are $25.

Smooke’s axe is the toy piano. He ranks with Phyllis Chen as one of the few people to get the absolute max out of that improbable instrument. The album opens with the title composition, a concerto for toy piano and the big ensemble. It’s a real showstopper: if you ever wondered what a toy piano sounds like while being tortured, this will open your eyes. Horrified Bernard Herrmann tritone cadenzas punctuate thunderous swells from the brass, unexpectedly dusky microtonal banjo, and the toy piano plinking and clicking mutedly under extreme duress.

The second number is Transgenic Fields, Dusk, played solo with characteristically detailed attention by pianist Karl Larson. It’s a mashup of Debussyesque clusters, understatedly kinetic Andriessen clock-chime phrases and long, stygian, tentatively stairstepping Messiaenic passages: a reflection on baby raptors turning into big ones someday, maybe?

The album’s most twisted moment is A Baby Bigger Grows Than Up Was, sung with deadpan Tourette glee by Jefffey Gavett against the marionettishly dancing winds of his indie chamber ensemble Loadbang. Some Details of Hell, an orchestration of a Lucie Brock-Broido poem, is delivered with knifes-edge stateliness by chamber group Lunar Ensemble with some dramatic flights to the upper registers by soprano Lisa Perry. As the epic Down Stream methodically unravels, Smooke becomes an increasingly dissociative one-man anvil choir, his toy piano over calm, distant drones. Michael Parker Harley’s multitracked bassoons build an increasingly bubbly, allusively nocturnal tableau in 21 Miles to Coolville, the album’s final cut. What a deliciously dark late-night playlist. - New York Music Daily, 1.16.2017


Baltimore Sun

One of the things that makes a composer notable is an ability to carve out a fresh path, one way or another. On that score, David Smooke registers way beyond notable. There's something almost John Cage-ish about the freedom and variety of his ideas, the richly varied explorations of sound, often spiced with a hip culture vibe.

A Peabody Conservatory faculty member and valued mentor to budding composers there, Smooke takes listeners on an absorbing journey in this recording, which features an assortment of solid musicians from Baltimore and beyond.

In the disorienting "Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death," Smooke plays the amplified toy piano solo, joined by the Peabody Wind Ensemble and conductor Harlan Parker. The rattle of the tiny, tinny keyboard is juxtaposed against massive outbursts or ominous rumblings from the other players; an occasional wail from a clarinet suggests an echo from Berlioz' "Symphonie Fantastique."

"A Baby Bigger Grows Than Up Was, Vol. 1: A to breathing" is inspired by a story by Michael Kimball (writing as Andy Devine) that uses much-repeated words in alphabetical order. The composer's riveting treatment of this linguistic frenzy is performed by loadbang with terrific technical assurance and expressive force.

"Transgenic Fields, dusk," an example of what Smooke describes as an "unreal landscape," has a fuzzy, unhurried, improvisatory feel.

Soprano Lisa Perry and the excellent Baltimore-based Lunar Ensemble, led by Gemma New, do admirable work in the technical and emotionally challenging "Some Details of Hell," which has an unsettling text by Lucie Brock-Broido that evokes a hospital room when it is "time to turn off the devices in the wing and listen to the rain."

The disc also offers the eerie "down.stream" for toy piano and looping pedal, and the outgoing "21 Miles to Coolville," featuring the excellent work of bassoonist Michael Parker Harley. — Tim Smith, Baltimore Sun, 2.11.2017

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