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.
If you’re well aware of the work of the composer and improviser George E. Lewis, you might wonder whether you’ve already heard a substantial portion of his latest album, “The Recombinant Trilogy,” which focuses on pieces for solo players plus electronics. (The software used on all these works employs, according to the notes, “interactive digital delays, spatialization and timbre transformation” in response to each instrument.)
And it’s true, two of the pieces have been issued before, on albums by the same players represented here. “Emergent” appeared on the flutist Claire Chase’s album “Density 2036: Parts I and II.” And “Not Alone” was part of a 2016 recording by cellist Seth Parker Woods.
That Woods recording, which was pretty definitive, is simply duplicated (though remastered) on “The Recombinant Trilogy.” But Chase has taken another swing at “Emergent” here, and she’s found a newly lyrical approach to its whispery polyphony. While her earlier take was punchy and harsh — both in its electronic timbres and in the acoustic playing — this one sounds warmer.
The premiere recording on the album — “Seismologic,” for the bassoonist Dana Jessen — is a fitting close to the trilogy. Some of the piece’s early motifs, gloomy yet seductive, could have emerged from Wagnerian woods. But subsequent flights into extended technique bring the piece into a zone where the influence of Stockhausen and jaunty American jazz can both be felt.
— Seth Colter Walls, 3.02.2021
Composer and improviser George Lewis has spent decades exploring the convergence of acoustic and electronic sounds as a nexus for interactive improvisation, scored sounds, and more. His influential late ‘80s Voyager software developed a system that asked musicians to improvise with a virtual electronic orchestra, which in turn interacts with the performer. Since the ‘70s, he’s rigorously explored and advanced the possibilities for electro-acoustic music, perpetually rooted in improvisational practice.
The three solo pieces featured on this new collection are scored, with each musician applying extended techniques within software created by Damon Holzborn: a sonic hall of mirrors that refracts, distorts and pivots from their gestures and sounds. The electronic sounds around Claire Chase’s flute on “Emergent” generate a multi-layered array of flutters, trills, and swoops that place her as the featured member of a virtual ensemble. “Not Alone” is a visceral solo cello piece composed with the improviser Abdul Wadud in mind—his only solo album was titled By Myself—performed with athletic, virtuosic precision by Seth Parker Woods. Here the electronic element is less predictable, creating exciting dissonances and harmonies that veer in and out of focus. The album closes with “Seismologic,” a wild piece written for bassoonist Dana Jessen that explores a dizzying wide palette, summoning a virtual catalog of non-“musical” sounds, whether animal- or machine-made. The trilogy reveals the composer’s undiminished imagination with interactive computer music, applied by a new generation of sonic explorers.
— Peter Margasak, 3.04.2021
Composer, trombonist, historian and theorist George Lewis wrote the three compositions on this album between 2014-17. Each is performed by a solo instrumentalist and someone operating a Max software application written by Damon Holzborn. In the case of the second piece, the therefore ironically titled Not Alone, Seth Parker Woods performed both the cello and electronics parts.
The first piece, Emergent, was recorded in January 2020. It's clearly indebted to and derived from the work of Edgard Varese - Lewis acknowledges as much in the sleeve notes. The sound of Claire Chase's flute, and her breath as she plays it, is echoed, manipulated and played back at her, zipping across the stereo field and back in imitation of one of Varese's multi-speaker installations, but the short, bent notes also bring to mind tropical birds and other jungle creatures, filtered through the old school sensibility of mid-century university audio labs where humourless white men wore neckties and lab coats to work.
Not Alone, recorded in July 2018, is dedicated to the late cellist Abdul Wadud, who gave saxophonist Julius Hemphill's music much of its gutbucket rawness while also exploring the outer edges of the instrument's sonic abilities. Wells's instrument is transformed less radically than Chase's flute was - for much of the nearly 24 minute piece, it sounds like a cello duet, with one occasionally warped down into an impossibly low range, like the groan of a wooden ship's hull. But most of the sounds seem like the product of overdubbing rather than electronic manipulation, and they stay anchored, rarely panning back and forth or seeming to come out of nowhere.
The closing Seismologic, recorded in March 2019, features bassoonist Dana Jessen, who alternates between the instrument's upper and lower registers to startling effect. When the software (operated by Eli Stine) gets to work on the latter phrases, the result is even more howler monkey-ish than Emergent; at times, it's like listening to Diamanda Galás duet with a foghorn, or like Mats Gustafsson taking a baritone sax solo as angry ghosts whirl around his head. A passage of soft percussive hisses at the seven minute mark is particularly hypnotic.
— Phil Freeman, 3.14.2021
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
Professor of Music at Columbia University and a pioneer of interactive computer music, George Lewis made news recently with his well-considered VAN article ‘New Music Decolonization in Eight Difficult Steps’, which resonated in the broader post-BLM environment. ‘There is no reason why major music institutions that tout themselves as international should continue to present all-white programs’, he noted.
The psychedelic ‘Recombinant Trilogy’ comprises three recent works for solo instrument and electronics. Each explores ways in which Max electronics can exaggerate or transform the solo instrument. Works are structured as plateaus of interaction between instrument and electronics. This formal approach – sequential rather than developmental – ensures that there’s always something unforeseen around the corner, and that as listeners we stay engaged. A highlight is the virtuoso performance by Claire Chase, Seth Parker Woods and Dana Jessen, which rewards repeated listens.
Emergent for flute and electronics opens with Chase playing repeated high notes; soon the sounds begin multiplying, swirling, dipping and diving. We’re not sure of what’s the original flute and what its electronic copies, but we can pleasure in the sound. Disorientation is intentional, a pretext for adventures into new sound zones. Elsewhere there’s more straightforward contrapuntal dialogue between actual and virtual, and elements of dialogue, too, with tradition (echoes of Varèse). More strident, Not Alone for cello and electronics is dedicated to cellist Abdul Wadud of the Black Artists Group of St Louis. Its opening features long, weaving atonal lines high up the cello’s neck which eventually become a cascade, before transforming into staccato harmonics and col legno.
Seismologic for bassoon and electronics in places reminds me of the Boulez of Dialogue de l’ombre double, but more generous. Multiphonic tremolandos and fast up-and-down chromatic runs, repeated à la John Coltrane, are joined by ghostly pitch-shifted doppelgängers; soon, the doppelgängers are so altered that they don’t resemble the bassoon at all but rather babbling animal voices. Lewis has a keen sense for pacing, and contrast always arrives at the right moment.
— Liam Cagney, 6.12.2021
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
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.
— Dragoș Rusu & Victor Stutz, 3.04.2021
Emergent sits at the juncture of two projects; flautist Claire Chase’s Density 2036 and composer George Lewis’ The Recombinant Trilogy. Both projects seek to develop repertoire for solo instrument and electronics and the relationships between performer, composer, and technology.
As a work for flute and electronics, Emergent is an exciting and dynamic piece that requires a formidable technique—that, Chase has in spades. There exist two recordings of Emergent, the one under consideration here and the one included in Chase’s Density 2036 Part i & ii (2013–14). The experience of listening to them is vastly different. This is, in part, due to the way in which the electronics work with the flautist; live interactive digital delays, timbral transformations, and spatialisation make for a complex sound throughout the work. The live flute and the electronics are indistinguishable as each pans around you as you listen, creating a wash of chirping birds that shift and distort. From a recording perspective, the work by Chase’s long-time collaborator, percussionist/composer/electronic music guru, Levy Lorenzo is astounding. The sound is perfectly balanced throughout the performance and the various extended timbres are caught and manipulated with crystalline clarity.
The techniques and interactions between solo acoustic instruments and electronics are at the centre of the other works in the The Recombinant Trilogy: Not Alone (Cello), which simultaneously seemingly manages to reference both blues music and the cello works of Bach, and Seismologic (Bassoon) which alternates between the introspective and the violent. All three works on the album expertly juxtapose differing musical ideas as the performer and electronics engage in a dynamic entanglement.
From a performance perspective, Emergent asks a lot of the flautist, from crisp and steady articulation across a range of metric modulations, to expressive aeolian sounds and subtle tongue rams all with complex rhythms and passage work. A personal favourite moment lies at the centre of the work where chaotic ideas are repeated and intertwined with each other as the electronics shift around the live flute. To tackle this piece would be a significant undertaking, but if the right context for performance can be found it would be sure to be a highlight of any programme.
— Gavin Stewart, 7.10.2021
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
Anyone who follows the musical career of George Lewis should know his beginnings as an acclaimed improvising trombonist on the Avant Jazz scene--as a key AACM (Chicago's Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) member, notably making his mark in Anthony Braxton's group and on from there. In time his immersion in Electronic and New Music gave us a composer of great stature and innovative inventiveness.
I've covered gladly his music on my music blogs from the beginning of my blog posting some 14 years ago. (Type his name in the search box here and also on my Gapplegate Music Review and my Gapplegate Guitar and Bass Review. Before that I covered his releases on Cadence.)
I am glad to return with another interesting disk of his music, The Recombinant Trilogy (New Focus Recordings FCR 284). It is a further and effectively moving step toward realizing, refining and redefining the performance combination of live instrumentalists and live electronics. As the liner notes inform us, the live instrumental signal is subjected in real time to put forward "interactive digital delays, spatialization and timbre transformation" that remake the acoustic sounds of each instrument "into multiple digitally created sonic personalities that follow diverse yet intersecting spatial tragectories."
It is a matter of three pieces for virtuoso instrumentalist and electro-acoustic transforming operations Lewis appropriately and helpfully calls "recombinant electronics."
We begin the program with "Emergent" (2014), for the flute of Claire Chase and the electronic manipulation of Levy Lorenzo. The resultant music is infinitely flexible, plastic, singularly filled with human gesture yet as a magically charmed extension of the acoustic material world.
This is followed by "Not Alone" (2014-5) for Seth Parker Woods who plays cello and applies recombinant electronics to the signal himself. There is a great deal of spontaneously emergent cello in itself, a wonder to hear, but then a continual enveloping and burgeoning outward into something fascinatingly other.
Finally there is "Seismologic" 2017 for Dana Jessen on bassoon and Eli Stine on recombinant electronics. The very nature of the acoustics of the bassoon drives understandably the final electronic mélange in ways that unleash a more earthy, almost undergrounded deepness, and then a gradually rising up of emergency urgency. And in the end the synchrony and then the dis-synchrony of acoustic and electronic intertwinings stand out as the culmination of the three-pronged voyaging we travel through with interest and fascination.
In the end we get a convincing chamber tapestry of human gestural aesthetics which partake of the beautifully novel but does so with a conversational periodicity that reaffirms the personal quality of live music making while it expands the palette of possibilities for a great wealth of intention and artistry. Molto bravo. There is great spirit to these three works and so much to explore and appreciate. Recommended strongly.
— Grego Applegate Edwards, 3.11.2021
George E. Lewis is associated primarily as an improvising trombonist from the Chicago Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, who has collaborated with, for example, Gil Evans, Anthony Braxton, Frederik Rzewski, Laurie Anderson and John Zorn. But Lewis is also an improvisation theorist, lecturer dealing with, among others, decolonization of classical music, author of audiovisual installations and a composer interested in computer music. He started in the 1970s, and at the beginning of the next decade he joined IRCAM, where he developed software that could enter into a creative dialogue with improvisers, which resulted in Voyager. Last year, recordings from 1984 were released documenting the stage of this search, the work of the Rainbow Family.
The Recombinant Trilogy are three compositions from 2014–2017, in which the soloists play with software built on the Max platform by Lewis' permanent associate, Damon Holzborn. It reacts to the sounds of instruments, can transform them through various delays and pitch changes, as well as spatialization. Especially close to the aesthetics of improvised music is Not Alone for cello, dedicated to Abdul Wadud, whose experiments with expanding the sound of the instrument Lewis refers to. I don't hear the blues references he writes about in the commentary, but the color and articulation inventiveness is really impressive. Unfortunately, the other side of this coin is overexposure and messiness, luckily only at times. They are avoided in Seismologic for bassoon, although it is also a dense and dynamic piece, rushing at times without restraint. Far echoes of jazz phrasing are interesting in it. The opening album, 10 minutes shorter than the others, Emergent for flute works well as a prelude that calibrates attention to detail.
The form of these compositions is highly original. They follow their own logic. In one of the interviews, Lewis emphasized that for him the computer in music is not something isolated, but should be a partner for people in the creative process. This can also be heard in his works, which defended themselves from the frequent ailments of computer music, i.e. gimmickness.
(translation by Google Translate, original review in Polish below)
George E. Lewis kojarzony jest przede wszystkim jako improwizujący puzonista wywodzący się z chicagowskiego środowiska Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, który ma na koncie współpracę choćby z Gilem Evansem, Anthonym Braxtonem, Frederikiem Rzewskim, Laurie Anderson czy Johnem Zornem. Ale Lewis jest także teoretykiem improwizacji, wykładowcą zajmującym się między innymi dekolonizacją muzyki poważnej, autorem instalacji audiowizualnych i kompozytorem zainteresowanym muzyką komputerową. Zaczynał jeszcze w latach siedemdziesiątych, na początku kolejnej dekady trafił do IRCAM-u, gdzie rozwijał oprogramowanie mogące wchodzić w twórczy dialog z improwizatorami, czego efektem był Voyager. W zeszłym roku ukazały się nagrania z 1984 roku dokumentujące etap tych poszukiwań, pracę Rainbow Family.
The Recombinant Trilogy to trzy kompozycje z lat 2014–2017, w których soliści grają z oprogramowaniem zbudowanym w platformie Max przez stałego współpracownika Lewisa, Damona Holzborna. Reaguje ono na dźwięki instrumentów, może je przekształcać przez różnorodne delaye i zmianę wysokości, a także uprzestrzennienie.
Szczególnie blisko estetyki muzyki improwizowanej lokuje się Not Alone na wiolonczelę, dedykowany Abdulowi Wadudowi, na którego eksperymenty z rozszerzaniem brzmienia instrumentu Lewis się powołuje. Ja nie słyszę akurat bluesowych nawiązań, o których pisze on w komentarzu, ale faktycznie pomysłowość kolorystyczna i artykulacyjna robi wrażenie. Niestety drugą stroną tego medalu są przegadanie i bałaganiarstwo, na szczęście tylko momentami. Udaje się ich uniknąć w Seismologic na fagot, choć jest to również utwór gęsty i dynamiczny, chwilami pędzący bez opamiętania. Ciekawie wypadają w nim dalekie echa jazzowego frazowania. Otwierający album, krótszy o 10 minut od pozostałych, Emergent na flet dobrze działa jako preludium kalibrujące uwagę na detale.
Wysoce oryginalna jest forma tych kompozycji. Rządzą się one swoją własną logiką. W jednym z wywiadów Lewis podkreślał, że dla niego komputer w muzyce nie jest czymś wyizolowanym, ale ma być partnerem dla ludzi w procesie twórczym. To słychać także w jego utworach, które wybroniły się od częstej przypadłości muzyki komputerowej, czyli efekciarstwa.
— Piotr Tkacz „Glissando”, 7.07.2021
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.
The Recombinant Trilogy gathers three performances of electroacoustic George Lewis compositions for flute, cello, and bassoon that blur the boundaries of sound production and sound reproduction with a concern for space.
The three compositions are part of a series of recombinant music, presumably named for using pieces of the acoustic input for creating electronic output of varying originality, that began in 2014 with Emergent and has most recently produced Memory/Mutation for two violins (specifically String Noise) in 2019, the latter of which is not present here. The name makes me wonder if this is in communication with David Cope’s methods. Also interesting is that these compositions don’t utilize the signature Voyager software but other programming from Damon Holzborn, who I believe has since co-developed Voyager. Claire Chase, the flautist for which Emergent is composed for and performed by, commissioned the piece as part of her larger Density 2036 project for solo flute works and another recording can be heard on part ii, both with Levy Lorenzo on electronics. This recording of the 2014/2015 composition Not Alone appears to have been previously released on cellist Seth Parker Woods’ own asinglewordisnotenough, where he also covers electronics. And this is the first recording of the 2017 work Seismographic, commissioned and performed by bassoonist Dana Jessen, who is joined by Eli Stine on electronics here.
“Emergent” has three clear voices, which seem to be the acoustic, the electroacoustically manipulated, and the electronically generated. There’s a certain confidence that the ear can discern each, but this falls apart quickly when it realizes the flute might be copying the electronics, not the other way around, and it’s possible either could be manipulated for the third voice. Increased tempos and repetitive soundings can confuse the ear by closing the gap between similar-enough timbres to make voices practically indistinguishable but slower tempos, despite the increased time to interpret timbre and origin, can also confuse by shifting the order of voices. The chorus is birdlike in its flurry of notes, flighty, with key clicks and air notes. Likewise the array of bowing techniques on “Not Alone” is impressionistic, but only two clear lines - acoustic input, electronic output - usually distinct in timbre, though the delay, the material used for the output, and the order of who’s responding to who seems to vary. “Seismographic” uses fragmented quadraphonics to create a maelstrom of mimicked extended techniques. Beyond flip-flopping electric and acoustic copying, each piece uses timbre, volume, and delay to create the effect of spatiality or dimensionality by “throwing” sounds, but “Seismographic” does so most overtly with its several channels. Though not heard here, I have a hunch that Lewis composed Memory/Mutation for String Noise, after seeing them perform their Alvin Lucier repertoire (see the Quatuor Bozzini review in this issue), because of their comfort with compositions illuminating the spatiality or dimensionality of music. This kind of ambisonic translation is what really sets this music apart from other electroacoustic music that addresses origin, copy, liminality, and identity.
— Keith Prosk, 3.01.2021
For a contemporary composer such as George Lewis (born 1952) – especially one who himself performs on electronics – the mixture of acoustic wind instruments with electronic alteration seems to come naturally. New Focus Recordings has released an hour-long disc of three works that Lewis collects as The Recombinant Trilogy. Like much electronic music, this is a matter of taste: those who enjoy digitized sounds and modifications that change the inherent acoustic properties of instruments will become involved in the way Lewis alters the properties of flute, cello and bassoon, while those who are more interested in the instruments’ inherent capabilities will find what Lewis creates overdone and definitely overlong. Certainly these three pieces require considerable virtuosity on the part of the instrumentalists; the question is to what end. If Claire Chase’s flute is turned into something screechy, its sound often on the verge of unpleasantness (by design); if Seth Parker Woods, who both plays the cello and modifies it electronically, creates a sound world in which the instrument’s rich tone and wide range are implied mostly by their absence; if Dana Jessen’s bassoon offers the rumblings of something approximating an earthquake or incipient invasion of the surface world by creatures from below – if all these sounds and modifications occur again and again, in works that grow from a kind of organic conception but without giving listeners any particular themes, rhythms, harmonies or pacing to which they can attach their expectations, then only an audience that actively seeks immersion in an electronic world will experience this material as Lewis intends. Emergent dates to 2014, Not Alone to 2014-15, and Seismologic to 2017, but all use identical sound-manipulative techniques, or at least strongly overlapping ones. The instrumentalists heard here are the ones for whom the works were created, so it is fair to call their performances definitive. It is also fair to ask what Lewis and the performers are trying to communicate, if there is anything beyond the basic notion of manipulable aural elements. Parts of Emergent sound shrill, while others are hollow-sounding and gloomy. Not Alone is filled with escalations and alterations of cello-playing techniques of all sorts. Seismologic extends the solo instrument to an even greater degree, pulling bassoon sounds far lower than they can be when produced naturally, while also creating layering effects that make the instrument sound like various natural phenomena. There is much in The Recombinant Trilogy that is intellectually intriguing; but, as is often the case in contemporary music, there is nothing here that is emotionally gripping – or is intended to be.
George E. Lewis’ Recombinant Trilogy adds to the vocabulary of works for solo instrument and electronics – from Boulez and Nono to Lewis himself – in a series of works for solo flute, cello, and bassoon with electronics whose title suggests contemporary, cutting-edge genetic science: from the rDNA molecules on the cover art – combinations of genetic material from multiple sources, creating sequences not otherwise found in the genome – to genetic reshuffling – in which “novel sets of genetic information that can be passed from parents onto offspring” – to cosmological recombination, “the epoch at which charged electrons and protons first became bound to form electrically neutral hydrogen atoms ... about 370,000 years after the Big Bang.” For Lewis, we might suppose, these concerns are by no means separable from the political or the utopian, a kind of thinking exemplified in “Great Black Music, Ancient to Future.” Since the 1970s, Lewis has been concerned with the possibilities of technology, teaching himself computer programming in the late 1970s, premiering his first computer music piece in 1979, working at Paris’ IRCAM and Amsterdam’s STEIM, and developing “Voyager” – software that Paul Steinbeck suggests is both a “piece” and a musician. As he told Jeff Parker in 2005: “The main point for me was always using computers to create these alternate beings, a kind of animistic conception.” And, while all three works in The Recombinant Trilogy are through-composed, they evince what his liner notes call a “conversational aesthetic” and a concern for “non-linearity” and “uncertainty” that echoes improvisational virtues. Using software developed with Damon Holzborn, Lewis’ “recombinant” forms combine live, acoustic sounds with a virtual electronic ensemble whose hybrid sounds call to mind the work of improvisers and composers such as Lawrence Cassserley or Richard Barrett.
Opener “Emergent” is the shortest of the trilogy. Commissioned by flautist Claire Chase for her Density 2036 project, follows through on the doubleness of Varèse’s (acoustic) “Density 21.5” – which juxtaposes tonal and atonal melodic cells and registral contrasts in a kind of solo polyphony – turning solo instrument into virtual orchestra. Focusing in the main on high sounds – a chorus of twittering birds, with breath sounds in the mix reminding us that the flute is a tube filled with air – the most effective and surprising moments are those where the flute sounds least flute-like, instead like a winter’s wind or a chorus of barking, howling dogs. “Not Alone,”, saw previous release on the 2016 debut recording by cellist Seth Parker Woods. A dedication to Abdul Wadud, the title seems at once to invoke the eerie presence of extra-terrestrial life and spiritual comfort. Lewis envisages the electronics as mimicking Wadud’s ability to make the cello sound like any number of other acoustic instruments – from guitar to percussion – adopting New Music versions of Blues-based “worrying the line” practices, with the electronics worrying the acoustic cello line. Plucked figures around the 8:27 mark evoke Wadud’s characteristic bucolic pizzicato sound; other highlights include a passage of hovering harmonics around 16 minutes in, followed by a simple descending “sawing” figure put through various permutations in spiralling echo, a kind of endless descent. Commissioned by bassoonist Dan Jessen, Lewis places “Seismologic” in the tradition of American programme music – in which he includes Ives, Ellington, Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins, and the World Saxophone Quartet. The most straightforwardly dramatic of the trilogy, the piece opens with a repeating figure that Lewis transforms into an “ensemble” sound like something from German orchestral Romanticism, emphasizing the gloomy majesty of the instrument’s lower end before the bassoon soars into clean, high notes, and gnarly multiphonics. At the 7:30 mark, the electronics, combined with Jessen’s extended techniques, coax out sounds that have probably never been heard from a bassoon: insect swarms, synthesizers, or, as Lewis puts it, “alien geese”. Melodies at once galumphing, stomping, and melancholic alternate with grinding evocations of seismic forms, wheedling choirs of reversed and burbled sounds, and a beautiful conclusion whose slowly-dying echoes recall the hushed closing requiem of Homage to Charles Parker (1979).
When Lewis’ electronic experiments began, he was participating both in new, collective waves of Black improvised music and in the heady early days of personal computers and experiments with Artificial Intelligence. By the 1990s, he warned that the early possibilities of personal computers had been shoehorned by corporate interests in a discourse of false interactivity. Lewis’ argument is made all the more perspicacious than ever in Spring 2021, given the near-totalisation of such discourse, by the rise of social media, digital consumption, digital labour, and the digital replacement of social life during the moment of COVID-19 – not to mention the mass accumulation of private profit, data-hoarding, the digitally-driven gig economy, globalised exploitation in and beyond Foxconn factories, and all the rest. Work with advanced technology such as Lewis’ needs institutional support, but also risks being swallowed up by private or State interests, a dilemma that, of course, characterises the wider position of experimental position in general. Thus, if The Recombinant Trilogy’s references to genetic science and the Big Bang suggest expansive – even cosmic – possibilities, they are tempered by Lewis’ acute awareness of the politics behind such technology. In 1995, Lewis wrote: “artists are going to have to recreate any new technology for themselves, in an image that promulgates a freer, more open vision of human possibility ... I want to create my own fantasy, not be handed someone else’s to accept or reject. That’s what computers mean to me – the dream machine, the spirit catcher.” This new trilogy suggests something of what he might mean.
— David Grundy, 6.09.2021