Percussionist Greg Stuart releases Subtractions, featuring solo works by Sarah Hennies and Michael Pisaro-Liu that reframe virtuosity, inviting vulnerability and dialogue into the context of brilliant performative display. Through his collaboration with both composers, Stuart draws analogies with the politics of agency and democracy in how their dialogue was established, embedding respect for the performer's body and preferred modes of expression into the compositional process.
On Subtractions, percussionist Greg Stuart presents an album that documents a current arrival point along his journey of examination into the nature of solo percussion repertoire. Stuart has long cultivated an anti-virtuosic stance that was shaped by his unease with how virtuosity is defined and who gets to define it. His struggles with focal dystonia limited his motor function in one hand but also forced him to forge an alternative path as a solo percussionist. As he has evolved along that path, he has developed meaningful collaborations with several composers including the two featured on this recording, Sarah Hennies and Michael Pisaro-Liu. Subtractions reflects Stuart’s forays into a new, personalized virtuosity borne out of close work with these two artists and his own qualities of seeking and exploration.
Hennies’ work Border Loss is organized into ten “states,” each mining a different sonic profile from various combinations of percussion instruments. Border Loss favors tactile, granular sounds over sharp, angular, and discrete sounds, and ends up moving in swarms of sound, gradually migrating from one timbral area to another. Hennies describes her notational approach as “totally free rhythm through instructions that still cause rhythm.” Subtle political undertones spin out from the title of the work — the diffuse crossing of boundaries from one section to the next is akin to how borders often actually function. Despite the formalized official border, one often sees influences of adjacent cultures influencing the social climate on either side of the line, sometimes creating a hybrid paradigm.Read More
Border Loss opens with dry, irregular sounds, reminiscent of kindling crackling in a fire. While there aren’t discernible repeating rhythmic patterns, Hennies facilitates a realm of rhythmic activity, an ecosystem for these sounds to evoke and eventually shift. High pitched chimes enter near the five minute mark, adding a pitch element to the texture, albeit one that is irregular. The piece increases in density and intensity near the nine minute mark, with clangoring gestures across several contrasting instruments. The remaining eight minutes of the piece return to more finely granulated textures and draw the listener into waves of activity that occur inside of sonic continuity.
The process of composing and creating side by side was decidedly democratic, with Pisaro-Liu and Stuart consulting closely on the content every step of the way. Once again, the virtuosity at play in this piece is defined by what the performer does as opposed to what they should be able to do. side by side is divided into two parts: Part I is scored for bass drum and cymbals, and Part II for vibraphone and glockenspiel. Static textures are punctuated by tolling hits on the skin of the bass drum in Part I, as register becomes a structural stand-in for more discrete pitch. Friction and scraping sounds exist in conjunction with more articulated struck sounds. A slow building crescendo on a rolled cymbal frames the dramatic final minutes of the movement. Pitch becomes a more salient parameter in Part II, as Pisaro-Liu weaves melodic fragments and over-ringing verticalities into a meditation. Silence also plays a major role in the piece, dividing up the prayer-like phrases with contemplative consideration.
Subtractions then is Greg Stuart’s virtuosic anti-virtuoso statement — the assertion that the path to arriving at a meaningful level of instrumental and musical demands in a new collaborative work runs through the individual performer’s unique personality on the instrument. Sarah Hennies and Michael Pisaro-Liu prove to be the perfect partners in Stuart’s journey, open to a liberated vision of the commissioning process and hungry to nevertheless find their way to a substantial and compelling final product.
– Dan Lippel
Recorded December 14 & 17, 2021 at the University of South Carolina School of Music, Columbia, South Carolina
Production: Greg Stuart
Recording, mixing, and mastering: Jeff Francis
Design: Marc Wolf (marcjwolf.com)
Wall images: Dan Wayman (unsplash.com)
Greg Stuart photo: Forrest Clonts
Liner notes: Marianna Ritchey
Subtractions is dedicated to Audrey Stuart
Greg Stuart is a percussionist whose work draws upon a mix-ture of music from the experimental tradition, Wandelweiser, improvisation, and electronics. His performances have been described as “a ghostly, gorgeous lesson in how close, concentrated listening can alter and enhance perception” (The New York Times). Since 2006, he has collaborated extensively with the composer Michael Pisaro-Liu, producing a large body of new music for percussion, often in combination with field recordings and/ or electronic sound. In February of 2020—with La Jolla Symphony Orchestra conducted by Steven Schick—Stuart premiered Pisaro-Liu’s Umbra & Penumbra for amplified percussion and orchestra. Alongside fellow percussionists and sound-makers Tim Feeney and Sarah Hennies, Stuart is a member of the trio, Meridian, whose performances and recordings explore unstable acoustic and rhythmic phenomena.
Recent work by Stuart includes: a trio of recordings with violinist Erik Carlson, performing music by Jürg Frey (Edition Wandelweiser), Clara de Asís (Elsewhere) and Eva-Maria Houben (self-released); Sarah Hennies’ Reservoir 1: Preservation (Black Truffle) composed for Meridian and pianist Phillip Bush; Terra Incognita, an installation co-created with visual artist Naomi J. Falk presented at 701 Center for Contemporary Art comprised of 2x4s, textiles, and 6-channel sound; collaboration with the experimental hip-hop group clipping. for their album Visions of Bodies Being Burned (Sub Pop), which features Stuart’s distinctive approach to percussion on the track “Invocation (Interlude);” and Stuart’s installation, Swales & Sloughs, exhibited at the Harry Hampton Visitor Center at Congaree National Park as part of the traveling Smithsonian exhibit “Water/Ways,” which dynamically combines fifty location recordings with hundreds of photographs, all made/taken throughout the park by Stuart.http://www.greg-stuart.com/
American percussionist Greg Stuart’s practice embraces improvisation, electronics and the classical experimental music tradition. At the same time he actively bucks conventional solo percussionism by cultivating an anti-virtuoso performance mission, a stance related to his focal dystonia which limits his motor function in one hand.
This seeming limitation has, however, served as a springboard, inspiring Stuart to explore alternative soloist paths, specifically in developing meaningful collaborations with several composers.
Subtractions reflects Stuart’s personalized mastery of the contemporary percussion idiom in works by composers Pisaro-Liu (side by side) and Sarah Hennies (Border Loss). The album highlights a particular sonic focus: the magnification of intimate sounds through layered recording. Electronic sounds and field recordings also make appearances.
Hennies’ 22-minute Border Loss explores irregular percussive textures, granular, swarm-like sounds and slowly shifting arrays of timbral categories. Sometimes the music evokes the crackling of a fire. Other times high-pitched bells and wind chimes add pitch elements, though waves of sonic continuity are always the focus here.
Pisaro-Liu’s side by side is in two parts, the first scored for bass drum and cymbals, the second for vibraphone and glockenspiel. There is a kind of aural alchemy at work here. Part I is characterized by the sounds coaxed from the skin of the bass drum and a deliciously slow crescendo on a rolled cymbal, morphing into rich near-orchestral static textures. To this listener, Part II’s aphoristic melodic phrases on the two sustaining metallophones conjure a peacefully contemplative atmosphere. It’s a welcome respite during these challenging early days of winter.
— Andrew Timar, 12.13.2022
Greg Stuart performs two liminal compositions for solo percussion from Sarah Hennies and Michael Pisaro-Liu on the 52’ subtractions.
Sarah Hennies’ “Border Loss” is a multi-movement suite but, unlike the hard lines of something like Spectral Malsconcities or Clock Dies, diffuse transitions between movements blend them. Many-limbed nervous polyrhythms subtly shift materials and techniques by keeping some parameters the same while others change. Small dense soundings like shakers question bucketing individual sounds into larger gestures. The interdependency of limb-independent rhythms comes not just from shared time or a shared body but shared material for a feeling of sound, and the sociopolitical contexts it could signify, as spectrum.
“side by side” is a two part piece for bass drum & cymbals and vibraphone & glockenspiel. The composing and performance practice occurred side by side and the sound follows. The twinned instruments of the first part juxtapose polar play, parallel strokes and perpendicular strikes, the action curve of the former’s periodicity and the line of the latter’s and the inverse of that behavior in their dynamics, high and low registers, organic and inorganic materials, discrete hits and sustain, silence and sound, the low moan roar of skin and shrill yell of metal. Part two contrasts the first in pitched material that appears to blur the poles. A music box melody with singing decay cultivates harmony and illuminates the notion of silence as only rest and similarly the instruments’ registers, attacks, and textures often overlap so as to become closer to a shared spectrum of sound than anything discrete.
— Keith Prosk, 11.01.2022
As a collaborator with some of the most distinctive composers of our age, such Sarah Hennies and Michael Pisaro-Liu, both of whom have works premiered on this album, Stuart has more than staked a claim for himself on the landscape of avant garde percussion. Throw in work with Clipping, the radical hip hop group, and the picture broadens to a musician of uncommon depth. No surprise that he tosses off the nervous assemblage of Hennies' Border Loss (2021) as if he thought of it on the spot. His lightness of touch astonishes even more when you learn of his focal dystonia, a condition which leaves his left hand unpredictable and even uncontrollable. But any difficulty he might have is rendered completely invisible here and in Pisaro-Liu's Side By Side (2021). The first movement, for bass drum and cymbals, is exquisitely tactile, a study in texture and almost a deliberate avoidance of rhythm. Part two, for vibraphone and glockenspiel, exploits the attack and sustain of each instrument beautifully, gleaming streaks of sound hanging in the air. Let them decorate the space around you.
— Jeremy Shatan, 11.07.2022
Percussionist Greg Stuart is afflicted with focal dystonia, a neurological disorder which limits the motor function of one hand. Despite that physical challenge, Stuart has undertaken a sweeping and ambitious percussion album which goes beyond the traditional drum kit. He has co-led more than a dozen recordings including an impressive debut with bassist Barre Phillips. Subtractions is his first unaccompanied outing although it tests the parameters of a "solo" recording.
Stuart offers three compositions, one from percussionist Sarah Hennies and two from experimental musician Michael Pisaro-Liu. Stuart has recorded a number of albums with both artists. The twenty-two-minute "Border Loss" is segmented into ten episodes which layer bells, drums, metallic and grainy effects, stirring about in clusters of sound, slowly wandering through various tonal qualities. "Side by Side: Part I" electrifies conventional beats, sweeping passages out to sea and back. Stuart adds scraping, rattling, and a raspiness, generating curious textures. The toms are used for dramatic effect as Stuart ushers in new dynamics throughout the sixteen-minute opus. "Side by Side: Part II" takes a meditative turn as Stuart introduces rolled cymbal frames to introduce melodic trappings. As in the previous pieces, he expertly utilizes the stillness between sections, leaving space for anticipation.
Stuart springs away from convention and creates a dense tapestry from an arsenal of percussion. It can fairly be argued that a project such as Subtractions is too embellished and electronically manipulated to be considered a solo recording. However, Stuart becomes the sole vessel carrying these disparate parts to singular, organic content. His experimentation results in an animated canvas, a portal into an imaginative, abstract repertoire which exists in its unique dimension. Subtractions exudes a surprising warmth, given the characteristic absence of color and emotion in percussion. It is an impressive achievement.
— Karl Ackermann, 11.14.2022
...another New Focus Recordings offering, featuring percussionist Greg Stuart, contains only three, and they are very long ones. And that is not the only strong contrast between the discs. Instead of seeking a new tuning system to create a different kind of sound world, Stuart has collaborated with two composers to create pieces for solo percussion that, despite using conventional notation, establish a series of aural profiles that are quite different from each other and from what audiences may expect from percussionists. Border Loss by Sarah Hennies (born 1979) lasts 22 minutes and presents a series of 10 different soundscapes, delineated through differing use of percussion instruments and differing methods of playing the ones employed. The borders are not 100% distinct, tending to blend into one another – hence reflecting the work’s title – and are intended to have some real-world political overtones through the notion of official borders being less than meaningful since, as one approaches them, differing cultures become blended. The political element is not particularly clear or important to the work, however: its interest lies in the way Hennies creates and Stuart reproduces a series of differing aural environments, using irregularity here, comparatively rhythmic sections there, stroked instruments in one place, struck ones elsewhere, individuated sounds in some places, massed ones in others. The piece is interesting rather than compelling: certainly it is a tour de force for Stuart and will be of considerable interest to other percussionists, but the sheer extent of its reach for and use of percussion sounds of all types becomes, after a while, rather wearisome. Michael Pisaro-Liu’s side by side (one of those modern pieces with the affectation of a no-capital-letters title) is even longer than Hennies’ work, running half an hour, but is divided into two parts labeled, logically enough, “Part I” and “Part II.” The two parts are differently scored, so the subdivision does make sense: the first is for cymbals and bass drum, the second for vibraphone and glockenspiel. This means the first is for instruments usually used for purposes of accompaniment or emphasis, while the second is for ones designed more to handle melodies and rhythmic subtleties. This is not, however, indicative of the way Pisaro-Liu (born 1961) uses the instruments. Like many contemporary composers who seem to prefer sounds that instruments produce “against type,” Pisaro-Liu determinedly looks for ways to create rhythmic (if not melodic) flow in “Part I,” followed by percussively struck sounds separated by periods of silence in “Part II.” This work has an overall feeling of elaborate design, but the execution is comparatively straightforward from an audience’s point of view: there is little surprising in the basic sound of the instruments in either part, even though they tend to be used in counterintuitive or at least less-frequently-heard ways. Once again, this is a piece for connoisseurs – which in this case definitely encompasses percussionists above all – rather than one likely to attract and hold the interest of a wider audience. But as in so many other attempts to create new and unusual sonic environments, the point seems to be to showcase the composer’s capabilities and the implementation – that is, performance – abilities of the musicians who bring these sound worlds to life. There is less concern with immersing a wider audience in these experiences and still less interest in connecting on a visceral rather than intellectual level with whatever listeners may find the material worth hearing.
— Mark Estren, 12.01.2022
Greg Stuart is a percussionist "whose work explores various alternative percussion techniques, including sustained friction, gravity-based sounds via small grains, sympathetic vibration and electronic instruments". This release has two pieces that explore all of the above but for the electronics. Solo percussion is always a problematic field, as the original percussive role is in the rhythm section, whilst the sounds are more akin to everyday objects than musical instruments and not always so interesting. So it is hard to keep an audience's attention over an entire release.
Stuart works with two composers here, Sarah Hennies and Michael Pisaro(-Liu), with whom he has already worked—and seeing that he has quite an impressive back catalogue over the past approx. Fifteen years, you can expect well-thought-out compositions. Hennies' piece Border Loss opens the release with a light, irregular rhythm of a snare drum, as if someone was shuffling along, maybe crossing borders. Metal sounds and bells are added and subside until things erupt into chaos of all kinds of percussive (metal) sounds. Again this gives way to relative quiet, and the piece moves through sparser cymbal sounds, then something that could be rain, then a coast-like atmosphere, where the journey ends.
Pisaro's work is divided into two movements. In contrast to Hennies, it relies on very much reduced instrumentation, the first part using drum and cymbal sounds, though seldom struck, mostly scraping, interspersed with a lot of silence - all at a very low level, like a distant thunderstorm, listening to which keeps you sitting on the edge of your sofa. Towards the end, there is more cymbal mayhem and the brass-like sound of vibrating membranes, reminding me of early symphonic industrialists such as In Slaughter Natives. Part 2 is far more outspoken, using vibraphone and glockenspiel. Obviously, the purity of sounds now becomes a primary element of the music, single notes interspaced with silence, the overtones and interferences ringing across the intervals between notes. This piece rolls along very steadily with little development, meditatively relying on the pu
— Robert Steinberger, 1.10.2023