Pioneering composer George Lewis releases The Recombinant Trilogy, an album consisting of three works for solo instrument and electronics that use interactive digital delays, spatialization and timbre transformation to transform the acoustic sounds of the instrument into multiple digitally created sonic personalities that follow diverse yet intersecting spatial trajectories. Featuring virtuosic soloists flutist Claire Chase, cellist Seth Parker Woods, and bassoonist Dana Jessen, doppelgängers are created that blur the boundaries between original and copy, while shrouding their origin in processes of repetition.
Composer, pioneer in computer music, scholar, improviser, and iconic member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), George Lewis has had an enormous influence on the musical avant-garde. On February 5, he releases The Recombinant Trilogy, an album of three works for solo instrument and electro-acoustic forces, featuring flutist Claire Chase, cellist Seth Parker Woods, and bassoonist Dana Jessen.
The Recombinant Trilogy consists of three works for solo instrument and electronics that use interactive digital delays, spatialization, and timbre transformation to transform the acoustic sounds of the instrument into multiple digitally created sonic personalities that follow diverse yet intersecting spatial trajectories. Advancing a conversational aesthetic, albeit in nonimprovised music, in these works foreground and background deliberately conflate. Doppelgängers are created that blur the boundaries between original and copy, while shrouding their origin in processes of repetition. The software for all three works was created by Damon Holzborn in the Max programming platform.Read More
Emergent (2013), the first work composed in the series, begins the album. This twelve-minute work was commissioned by and written for flutist Claire Chase for Density 2036, her long-term project to exponentially expand the contemporary flute repertoire. As the piece evolves, Lewis shapes its trajectory through varied timbres and spatialization, in response to Edgard Varèse’s 1936 introduction of a fourth dimension — "sound projection” — to music. The insistent, shrill percolation establishes a sonic ecosystem in which multiple flutes emerge to converse among each other, like a forest of bird twitter. Near the work’s midpoint, long swooping lines snake around each other, passing in and out of foreground and background, creating an undulating cascade, before we hear a recapitulation of the insistent opening motives. The piece subsequently travels through several contrasting sonic worlds, from guttural non-pitched extended techniques, to airy, hollow tones that recall blowing over an empty bottle, to poignant, lamenting descending gestures, like whale songs emerging and receding from the sea.
Not Alone (2014) was written for cellist Seth Parker Woods, and dedicated to cellist Abdul Wadud, a leading member of the Black Artists Group of St. Louis, whose 1977 solo album By Myself represents a landmark in the expansion of the expressive quality of the cello. Less depictive than Emergent, Not Alone revels in the joys of digital transformation; every sound provokes a digitized response that is sometimes only tangentially related to its acoustic origin, and multiple celli appear that sometimes produce a conversational quality. Near the ten-minute mark of this twenty-four minute work, ricochet bowings, glissandi, sul ponticello, and tremolos blur the lines between live instrument and processing, before still more extended electronic manipulation of the cello produces a cyborg’s understanding of what is human and what is machine. Register plays an important structural role, as the texture migrates to the upper regions of the cello’s range, or growls far below the normal compass of the instrument. The spatialization in Not Alone, animated by contour and repetition, produces an illusion of three-dimensional space inside the stereo image. A passage of swelling harmonics and a wryly humorous section of pizzicati and cartoon-like glissandi offer ethereal repose and comic relief in turn, culminating in a serene coda to the restless intensity of the piece.
The last and most recently written work in the collection, Seismologic, was written for bassoonist Dana Jessen in 2017, inspired by a seismologist colleague of Lewis at Columbia University. Of the three works on the album, Seismologic obscures the conventional sound production of the live instrument the most, relying on digital processing of a rich and exotic set of extended techniques that Jessen has cultivated to create an ultra-contrabassoon, a brass instrument, primordial fog horn-like sounds, wind effects that crash like waves in a storm, a flock of alien geese, or a bassoon/drum duo. Layered trills create swarm textures akin to a torrent of insects, while breath sounds processed by delays mimic the sound of several pistons firing in an industrial mechanism. Even in some of the most conventionally performed passages of the work, Jessen’s searing lines are immediately twisted into a house of mirrors of sound, swirling and circling around the primary voice. The landscapes evoked by the piece are often pensive and introspective, sometimes arid, but also exuberant or even violent, like the seismic movement of massive faults. At the end of the work, we hear mournful sighs and hissing interjections, perhaps a magnification of the glacial movements of seismic activity.
– Dan Lippel/George Lewis
Emergent was recorded in Accord, New York on 11/10/2020, engineered by Claire Chase; electronics performance and post-production by Levy Lorenzo
Not Alone was recorded at University of Huddersfield, UK on 7/14/2016, engineered by Pierre Alexandre Tremblay, with assistants Frederic Dufeu, Dave Jones and Sebastien Lavoie; electronics performed by Seth Parker Woods, original mixing and mastering by Christopher Botta at Staple Chest Audio, Brooklyn, NY
Seismologic was recorded at Clonick Hall, Oberlin Ohio on 3/13/2019, engineered by Andrew Tripp; electronics performed by Eli Stine, and mixed by Andrew Tripp
Mastering: Ryan Streber, oktavenaudio.com
Design and layout: Marc Wolf, marcjwolf.com
Software by Damon Holzborn, damonholzborn.com
This project was made possible through generous support from the Edwin H. Case Chair in American Music, Columbia University
The recording of Seismologic was supported by a Grant-in-Aid from Oberlin College
George E. Lewis has been a member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) since 1971, Lewis's work in electronic and computer music, computer-based multimedia installations, and notated and improvisative forms is documented on more than 140 recordings. His work has been presented by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, London Philharmonia Orchestra, Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart, Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Talea Ensemble, Dinosaur Annex, Ensemble Pamplemousse, Wet Ink, Ensemble Erik Satie, Eco Ensemble, and others, with commissions from American Composers Orchestra, International Contemporary Ensemble, Harvestworks, Ensemble Either/Or, Orkestra Futura, Turning Point Ensemble, San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, 2010 Vancouver Cultural Olympiad, IRCAM, Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra, and others. Lewis has served as Ernest Bloch Visiting Professor of Music, University of California, Berkeley; Paul Fromm Composer in Residence, American Academy in Rome; Resident Scholar, Center for Disciplinary Innovation, University of Chicago; and CAC Fitt Artist In Residence, Brown University.
Lewis received the 2012 SEAMUS Award from the Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States, and his book, A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (University of Chicago Press, 2008) received the American Book Award and the American Musicological Society’s Music in American Culture Award. Lewis is co-editor of the two-volume Oxford Handbook of Critical Improvisation Studies (2016), and his opera Afterword, commissioned by the Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry at the University of Chicago, premiered at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago in October 2015 and has been performed in the United States, United Kingdom, and the Czech Republic.
Professor Lewis is the Edwin H. Case Professor of American Music at Columbia University. A 2015 Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy, Lewis has received a MacArthur Fellowship (2002), a Guggenheim Fellowship (2015), a United States Artists Walker Fellowship (2011), an Alpert Award in the Arts (1999), and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts. In 2015, Lewis received the degree of Doctor of Music (DMus, honoris causa) from the University of Edinburgh. He came to Columbia in 2004, having previously taught at the University of California, San Diego, Mills College, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Koninklijke Conservatorium Den Haag, and Simon Fraser University's Contemporary Arts Summer Institute. Lewis studied composition with Muhal Richard Abrams at the AACM School of Music, and trombone with Dean Hey.
Flutist Claire Chase, a 2012 MacArthur Fellow, is a soloist, collaborative artist, and activist for new music. Over the past decade she has given the world premieres of over 100 new works for flute, many of them tailor-made for her. In 2014 she began Density 2036, a project to commission, premiere and record an entirely new program of pieces for flute every year until 2036, the 100th anniversary of the eponymous and seminal piece by Varese. Also in the 2014-15 season, Chase is music directing and playing as soloist in a series of performances of Salvatore Sciarrino's Il cerchio tagliato dei suoni for 4 flute soloists and 100 flute “migranti”.
Chase has performed throughout the Americas, Europe and Asia, including debuts last season in Berlin, Frankfurt, Vienna, Paris, London, São Paolo and Guangzhou. She has released three solo albums, Aliento (2010), Terrestre (2012) and Density (2013). In 2014, she was selected as an inaugural Fellow of Project&, with which she will several new works exploring the relationship between language, music and social interaction over the next several years.
Chase was First Prize Winner in the 2008 Concert Artists Guild International Competition. She co-founded the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) in 2001 and serves as the organization’s Artistic Director and CEO in addition to playing over fifty concerts a year as an ensemble member. ICE has premiered more than 600 works since its inception and pioneered a new artist-driven organizational model that earned the company a Trailblazer Award from the American Music Center in 2010. Chase was also honored with Crain’s Business “40 under 40” Award in 2013.
In 2013, Chase founded The Pnea Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the advancement of the flute and its repertoire in the 21st century through commissions, community engagement, cross-cultural and interdisciplinary collaborations and advocacy. She lives in Brooklyn.http://www.clairechase.net
Hailed by The Guardian as “a cellist of power and grace”, Seth Parker Woods has established himself as an in-demand soloist and chamber musician both stateside in the USA and throughout Europe and Asia. A fierce advocate for contemporary music and interdisciplinary arts, his collaborators have included: Seattle Symphony, Basel Ballet, Berlin Staatsballet, Ictus Ensemble, Lucerne Festival, Orchestra of St. Luke’s, Tate Modern, Vanessa Beecroft, and Adam Pendleton. Former Artist in Residence with the Seattle Symphony, Woods is the new AiR with the Kaufman Music Center and on the performance and chamber music faculty at the University of Chicago.
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.
A renowned member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) since 1971, legendary composer, illustrious scholar, and improviser George Lewis has had a lasting influence on the realm of avant-garde. His most recent release, The Recombinant Trilogy (New Focus Recordings), is no exception, contributing to his expansive body of work that includes multimedia installations, computer music, text works, and more. During a time where the state of art and music in the United States is increasingly precarious, this album serves as a beacon for the future of experimental music, lit by today’s vanguard.
Featuring performances by powerhouses Claire Chase, Seth Parker Woods, and Dana Jessen, The Recombinant Trilogy is comprised of three works for solo instrument and electronics via software created by Damon Holzborn. In these pieces, interactive digital delays, spatialization, and timbral manipulation transform acoustic sound material, creating multitudes of sonic hybrids masquerading behind layers of repetition.
Emergent (2013), performed by Claire Chase (flute) and Levy Lorenzo (electronics), was commissioned for Chase’s Density 2036 project, a 23-year marathon to create a new body of work for solo flute. Here, the timbral versatility of the flute family and Chase’s complete command of this centuries-old instrument shine. A persistent opening motif shimmers in Chase’s effervescent high register; jet whistles and whimsical runs soon become fodder for the invisible beast–software. Lewis’ “doppelgängers,” electronic imitations of Chase, spring to life creating a dizzying funhouse effect.
Not Alone (2014), written for and performed by Seth Parker Woods (cello and electronics), is dedicated to Abdul Wadud, an American cellist and leading member of the Black Artists Group of St. Louis, whose 1977 solo album By Myself demonstrated an expanded expressiveness of the cello. Pushing this expansion to the nth degree in Not Alone, each remark from Woods’ cello incites a fervent response from its digital counterpart; the blurring effect that spawns is equal parts delicious and disorienting. What Lewis brings to this work in ingenuity, Woods matches with sheer tenacity, wielding both the brute musculature and delicate tenderness of this hand-carved instrument to transform its utterances into uncanny, bionic sound.
Seismologic (2017), performed by Dana Jessen (bassoon) and Eli Stine (electronics), was inspired by Lewis’ seismologist colleague at Columbia University. In this final work, transformation heavily catalyzes at the site of the instrument itself. Jessen utilizes an impressive arsenal of extended techniques to metamorphize the bassoon’s usual rich, earthy tone into extraterrestrial quivers and buzzes; ancient, primeval hisses and hums; and mechanical whooshes and clamors. Digital processing further tesselates Jessen’s transfigurations into quaking, seismic landscapes.
This trilogy is compelling, not simply for its inventive, virtuosic convergence between acoustic and electronic, but because these heavyweight performers are champions for new music, actively disrupting the status quo. Claire Chase is a performer redefining what it means to be a virtuoso, entirely transforming flute-playing and its repertoire in a single lifetime. Seth Parker Woods’ innovative performances–including “ICED BODIES: Ice Music for Chicago” in which Woods (in collaboration with Spencer Topel) performed for two hours on a melting obsidian ice cello–have left indelible marks on the eclectic Chicago music scene. Dana Jessen’s commitment to expanding the bassoon repertoire has cultivated newly-commissioned solo, chamber, and electroacoustic works for the instrument, including an hour-long piece for seven bassoons by composer Michael Gordon.
And of course, George Lewis’ contributions to the music world–a pioneer of computer music, a member of the AACM, a scholar, musician, educator, improviser, and historian–are admirable and indisputable. With the start of a new decade (and beneath the weight of a worldwide pandemic), musicians and artists must reckon with the future of their craft. The Recombinant Trilogy serves as a reminder of the possibilities for art and sound when boundaries are not merely pushed, but reimagined entirely.
— Jillian Degroot, 2.22.2021
Nick Zanca: Let’s address two elephants in the room: the first is the fact that this release marks my first encounter with this pioneer of improv and computer music—we all have our blind spots as listeners—and the other is that sinking feeling that half the hopefuls who self-identify as composers of capital-e Electroacoustic music at present hardly possess an understanding of what said idiom should entail. To them, I might offer this trilogy as a masterclass—to say the least, these pieces display an equanimous equality between performer and programming; then (and only then) can the two converge and become indistinguishable, alien, truly captivating in the act of listening.
The vivid mental imagery this stirred in me on first playback speaks to the strength of the balancing act: Claire Chase’s stilted respirations collide with displaced digital delay and leave behind that same pointillist blood spatter that makes the hairs on the back of my next stand up in the opening moments of Plux Quba; when the strained timbres of Seth Parker Woods’s cello are digitally mangled, the effect called up an octopus performing Rădulescu; Dana Jenssen’s bassoon is transfigured into that sort of shrill aviary I associate with Hitchcock’s most memorable title sequence. It should go without saying that this was an inspiring listening experience, that I want more where this comes from, and the moment I file this blurb, a deep dive will be in order.
Vanessa Ague: Composer George Lewis has long been a pioneering figure in the avant-garde. His music is the kind of music that makes you constantly think, constantly question, constantly listen deeper. The Recombinant Trilogy is no different. From its first moments, it provides us with a listening exercise: what’s a performer playing an acoustic instrument, and what’s an electronic simulation? Each track opens with acoustic extended techniques, like a flute’s echoey trills, a cello’s raucous glissandi, or a bassoon’s dark grumbles. But from there, the sound gets murky.
The most enticing tracks on the album are “Emergent,” performed by MacArthur Fellow and flutist Claire Chase, and “Not Alone,” performed by cellist Seth Parker Woods. Chase’s flute flutters, punches, bursts, and tingles with electricity, as if it’s made of shooting stars that leap across an endless black sky; Woods’s cello squeals between prickly, harrowing strokes and spooky harmonies, jumping between sporadic mayhem and ethereal sparsity. Each piece feels like six vignettes in one, smashed together by spontaneity. The Recombinant Trilogy is a resting place that makes us dig deeper to uncover what’s hiding underneath its hazy surface, to challenge us to stop and really listen. Eventually, it envelops us into its swarm of mysterious sound.
Gil Sansón: Lewis is one of the links between Black music and the European avant-garde. His work is quite varied in scope to be represented by one recording, but this one is a good introduction to his work. Lewis belongs to a generation that didn’t have the luxury to work with personal computers for his electronic explorations and only his standing in academia enabled him to work at electronic studios. On the surface, this sounds like typical fare from the post-WWII avant-garde: solo instruments with electronics, the classical “solo flute in a room full of distorted mirrors” trope being featured here for cynics to dismiss the music as hopelessly academic and square. Naturally, concentrated listening pays many rewards, and signs of identity appear as the listener gets deeper into the music.
One thing that comes out quite clear is that Lewis has benefitted from historical perspective, and he’s aware that some of those signature sounds of earlier decades have not aged well. Nothing here will remind the listener of Subotnick, for example. In fact, occasionally the ear will detect nods to free jazz (the second piece for solo cello and electronics did remind me at times of the guitar blasts of Sonny Sharrock), and there’s a melodic ear for much of the material that hints at that other side of Lewis, the improviser side.
The first two pieces are quite engaging, but the third is the one that really grabbed me and captured my attention in full. The contrasts are much more marked in this piece and the piece breathes deeper and also more menacing. The level of transformation and complexity of the brass part make for a very eventful experience, with many moments to savor. It’s a cliche to say that The Recombinant Trilogy shows a mature master in great form, but this is one instance in which the truism applies in full. This may win you over where Berio’s Sequenzas left you cold.
Jesse Dorris: The Recombinant Trilogy arrives in a field of text about doppelgängers and Varèse blurring telephones and teleportation (at which, in the depths of quarantine loneliness, I won’t pretend I didn’t ache) which (from the depths of my quarantine fog) I sort of distilled into a situating of this work as dub. This is the sound and this is the echo of the sound. This is a replication of the echo of the sound and this is a transformation of that echo. A flute swoops, waves hello to itself, ruffles its timbre and grows breathier, reminds you of lips involved, squelches. The wind from a wind instrument must come from somewhere. Cellos double and triple and compute themselves into spatters, these harsh smears which then curdle between speakers. There is no map but there are patterns, and patterns imply travel—or maybe just movement. A bassoon or its outputs crunch. They ululate like Diamanda Galás, which I’m grateful to know a bassoon can do but nonetheless makes me itch to flee. The unpredictability of Lewis’s repetitions forgoes dub’s eternal familiarity and abandons the possibility for recognition. It’s less ruminative than argumentative and, trapped for months alone or online, sounds like now to me.
Sunik Kim: The stark ‘scratchiness’ of the opening piece is a sound I’m often a bit allergic to: with a few exceptions, I often find it extremely difficult to sit through solo instrument performances or improvisations, digitally manipulated or not. More often than not, I hear what is lacking; I can’t help but wonder what other elements could intervene, raise, gather and cohere the meanderings and wanderings of the instrumentalist into a focused wave. Too often, solo works in this vein remain a stagnant pool filled with snippets, fragments of compositional or timbral ideas that are quickly dropped and rarely ever carried to their conclusions.
“Emergent” does coalesce near its end with the introduction of intense panned breathing sounds, and the following two pieces do pick up a bit; whenever things dip into the lower frequencies, my ears suddenly perk up, seeking some kind of grounding. There are compelling moments in “Not Alone” that are reminiscent of Nono’s late string works, complete with jagged real-time audio manipulation. But even the most relatively thrilling moments here (the screeching swarming on “Seismologic” being one example) feel staid and familiar, in a way that contradicts the overtly ‘experimental’ approach and methodology at play. I wonder how it would sound if all three pieces were pasted on top of one another, played simultaneously—but that might be bordering on blasphemy.
Jinhyung Kim: George Lewis’s computer music puts human and AI musicians in dialogue with each other. The latter aren’t subservient to the former, nor do the two form an indivisible performing unit; each comprises individual members on a playing field that Lewis, over the past few decades, has tried to make as even as possible. The solo works that make up this trilogy, however, incorporate live electronics to help the player manifest inner worlds of possibility. Programmed by Damon Holzborn, the software used spawns spectral performers that trace potential gestural paths and populate the soundscape with a diversity of mirror images. There’s still dialogue going on, but of a more internal and psychological sort.
The second piece, “Not Alone” (for cellist Seth Parker Woods), feels least adventurous in its probings of a purportedly wider sonic palette—possibly because the cello is already such a versatile instrument, even without extension by electroacoustic means, that it’s hard to find novel ways to extend it. Live electronics bring more to the table on “Emergent,” where they augment the dynamism of Claire Chase’s flute playing with fiery contrails of varying length and other patterns that cut through the air. On “Seismologic,” they intensify the fission bassoonist Dana Jessen generates as she smashes through the registral and timbral boundaries that normally define the instrument: we hear everything from guttural, earth-undulating rumblings (which point to the piece’s title) to strained, piquant squeals, insectile buzzing and swarming to brassy walls of sound; not a minute goes by without some kind of rupture, and the sum of these ruptures produces an undeniably electric rush.
Nevertheless, while listening to these pieces, I get the general impression that they’re test tube-ish compositions with clearly prescribed limits, lab theories let loose in an ideal vacuum or petri dish. There’s occasional awkwardness and cliché in Lewis’s earlier computer music, but it possesses an element of unpredictability that reminds me that what I’m hearing is praxis, ideas and moves being negotiated in real time. Plenty of moments on The Recombinant Trilogy feel visceral—few of them are actually surprising.
Samuel McLemore: For decades now, composers and performers have been attempting to combine solo instruments with electronic playback and manipulation. In art music the goal has varied from using technology to explore old compositional forms to mining the possibilities that were newly opened to performers. George Lewis has been using similar techniques in his music since shortly after he started his professional career. The technology has changed dramatically since the ’70s, from tape machines and banks of elaborately synchronized quadraphonic speakers to carefully programmed Max/MSP software, but Lewis’s new set of compositions, The Recombinant Trilogy, all seem to fit neatly into this nearly forgotten compositional mold.
Perhaps that explains how little new ground Lewis seems to be covering here, or how remarkably similar all three compositions wind up seeming when you play them back to back. The instruments methodically cover their entire dynamic range while ghostly copies play mirrored and distorted versions of the same. It sounds thrilling and satisfying to play, and all of the compositional pieces “fit” into each other in a way that must have been pleasing to the composer, but the audience is mostly just left to gawk at the extravagant style that’s on display. When you pause to consider just how much similar ground has already been covered by composers new and old it all seems much less interesting or thrilling.
Mark Cutler: However it is adorned, the solo-instrumental piece is quite often taxing for both the performer and listener. Even the most versatile instruments, in the hands of the most virtuoso players, can only go so far in ‘filling’ the sonic spectrum. The performer generally finds themselves venturing into stranger and more difficult territory in order to hold the attention of the audience, who in turn find their own concentration exercised by such prolonged engagement with a single source of sound. This might be partly why solo instrumental records have often found warmer reception in noise and drone circles than they have among aficionados of more conventional jazz and classical music.
George Lewis, of course, is recognized as a master by all of the aforementioned. By his mid-twenties, he had already played extensively with Anthony Braxton, and would soon go on to play on record with Gil Evans, David Murray, Roscoe Mitchell, and a stack of other jazz luminaries, as well as genre-straddling composers like Rhys Chatham and Laurie Anderson. Since then, like many of New York’s most celebrated jazz figures in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, Lewis has veered increasingly towards the kind of cerebral composition which feels more at home in an uptown recital hall than a downtown jazz club. Yet these three pieces, each written for a single instrument and unspecified digital manipulation, also call to mind Lewis’s 1977 debut, a so-called Solo Trombone Record which nevertheless employed, on its first side, extensive overdubbing to generate complexity and self-interaction.
In this way, The Recombinant Trilogy can be seen as a direct extension of some of Lewis’s lifelong concerns. On these pieces, thanks to seamless, realtime digital processing, the relationship between performer and electronics is never quite fixed. Often, the electronics seem merely to echo or pitch-shift or pan the performer’s playing, like a table of malfunctioning effects pedals. Yet when flautist Claire Chase lets her playing on “Emergent” lapse to a few, sporadic notes, digitized, pitch-shifted artefacts take over, skittering between the left and right audio channels. On “Not Alone,” the playback seems to run ahead of the player, causing us to wonder if anything we’re hearing is being performed ‘live’, or if it has all already been digested and regurgitated by some unseen machine.
As a single, hourlong listen, The Recombinant Trilogy doesn’t quite escape the pitfalls accompanying all but the pinnacles of the solo-instrument canon. Each performer strains admirably against the capacities of their respective instrument, aided by digital manipulations which occasionally warp their material into beeping, buzzing abstractions. However, played consecutively, the three pieces don’t sufficiently distinguish themselves from one another to convey to the listener a feeling of progression. It is not clear, despite its three-year composition, whether or how this ‘trilogy’ develops its central concerns. Each piece offers numerous moments of virtuosic performance and sonic delight, but I cannot say that they collectively reward listening in a single session. Rather, I’d advise picking your favourite of the three instruments, and diving in from there.
Joshua Minsoo Kim: In the liner notes to George Lewis’s landmark album Voyager, the composer writes, “What the work is about is what improvisation is about: interaction and behavior as carriers for meaning. On this view, notes, timbres, melodies, durations, and the like are not ends in themselves.” The idea is to think of music that’s aided by this sort of software—be it Voyager or what Damon Holzborn’s made for The Recombinant Trilogy—as something beyond its mere sonic qualities. I’m reminded of a quote that appears near the end of Lewis’s A Power Stronger than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music:
Really, Great Black Music is an aspect of the Holy Ghost, for us as a people […] it’s the music that brought us into existence. Great Black Music is one of the blessings that came with us standing up to a white world and saying, we’re going to do what we want to do, despite what you try to do to us. Great Black Music is a result of us having the courage to use our Great Blackness, and realizing that this is our only power.
Of course, the people who partook in this record aren’t all Black, but it’s hard to listen to something with Lewis’s name—especially something that also involves AI software—and not approach it with ideas about one’s own infinitude. When I listen to the tracks on The Recombinant Trilogy, I find myself tracing melodies, trying to determine which bits are performed in the moment and which are a result of the software. At times, it’s easy to do—we may just hear a simple delay effect—but there are moments where the borders are unclear. And it’s at these borders where I feel relinquished from any such deciphering, letting myself become enmeshed in these networks of constantly-expanding sounds.
As with Lewis’s best work, The Recombinant Trilogy features a subtle but addictive sense of playful movement, one that points to newness, to a broadened identity—something further hinted at by the album’s title and the nucleotides that adorn the cover. The music itself isn’t particularly new-sounding, but one must think of the idea of music-as-Holy Ghost: it’s a familiar portal to a sense of invigoration. If you allow yourself to get lost in the breathy wheezes of “Seismologic” or the intersecting textures of “Not Alone,” there’s a marveling with which one approaches its expansive nature. To me, these pieces don’t feel like they have a discernible narrative thrust as much as they periodically bob and burst, and that’s what I like most about music like this: its unpredictability is a signpost for endless capability. Which is to say, “notes, timbres, melodies, durations” may not be “ends in themselves,” but the “ends” aren’t even what’s important; when one can feel the beauty of software-generated music as being extensions of one’s own playing, or when one can get lost in these vast and dense pieces, one is reminded of their own ongoing, limitless potential.
— Nick Zanca, Vanessa Ague, Gil Sansón, Jesse Dorris, Sunik Kim, Jinhyung Kim, Samuel McLemore, Mark Cutler, Joshua Minsoo Kim, 2.10.2021
George Lewis’ Recombinant Trilogy is a triptych of recent compositions for solo acoustic instruments and interactive electronics. As the title implies, the electronic component, a software program written by Damon Holzborn, combines with the sound of the acoustic instrument to double its voice, alter its timbre, pitch, and apparent location in space, and otherwise fragment and recombine it into what Lewis describes as “multiple digitally created sonic personalities.” The Recombinant Trilogy represents the most recent stage in a long history of evolution; Lewis’ experiments with interactive electroacoustic systems reach at least as far back as his work at IRCAM in Paris in 1984, which included a performance featuring Lewis’ computer-generated improvisations in combination with improvisations by Joelle Leandre, Steve Lacy and others.
The current album encompasses three duets, each of which features an outstanding instrumentalist conversant in both contemporary composed and improvised music. Flutist Claire Chase, accompanied by Levy Lorenzo on electronics is first with Emergent (2014), followed by Seth Parker Woods, on electronics as well as cello, on Not Alone (2014-2015), and then bassoonist Dana Jessen, with Eli Stine on electronics, on Seismologic (2017), which Jessen commissioned. Holzborn’s program takes the instruments’ sounds and pans them from side to side and top to bottom; breaks them into fragments and then chunks them into quanta of repetition and layering; warps their timbres and shifts their pitches; and in the process synthesizes a global continuity out of multiple local discontinuities. One of the fascinating points of comparison is the very different timbral signature each instrument carries; while all three pieces are similar in their general processes of sonic interface, dilapidation, and rearrangement, they differ greatly in the details of color, density, and plasticity. In all three meetings of electronics and acoustics, the voices of the instruments come through even while undergoing the metamorphoses they’re subjected to: the flute’s pure, nearly disembodied soprano in Emergent, the dark friction of the cello in Not Alone, the earth-shaking low tones of the bassoon in the aptly titled Seismologic. And all of it is built on the foundation of Lewis’ concept and compositions, the solid ground on which these meetings take place.
— Daniel Barbiero, 2.04.2021
The esteemed composer George Lewis brings us 3 works for solo instrument here, where electronics and timbre transformation help illuminate the acoustic sounds of each instrument into a sonic experience that spends an hour enlightening us with its very unique execution.
“Emergent” starts the listen with mesmerizing flute from Claire Chase, where initially bare and nearly sci-fi sounds manipulate space well, and this later evolves into multiple flutes dancing around a playful, unpredictable, exciting 12 minutes.
In the middle, “Not Alone” allows cellist Seth Parker Woods to enthrall us with fascinating string acrobatics as ricochet bowings, glissandi, sul ponticello and tremolos unfold with a texturing that’s so precise and technical it hardly seems human.
The last track, “Seismologic”, displays bassoonist Dana Jessen’s very atypical approach, where the brass instrument sounds like a fog horn, a flock of geese and even wind as both the sounds of insects and mechanical noises are mimicked with much skill and attention to layering.
A truly unclassifiable journey, Lewis blends chamber ideas, electroacoustic song craft and much innovation into these lengthy compositions that never out welcome their stay.