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.
side by sideMichael Pisaro-Liu
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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
Music for a solo percussionist was a part of the legacy of 20th century uber Modernism. It was John Cage, Lou Harrison, Edgard Varese and Karlheinz Stockhausen we can thank, among a few others, and it has changed the idea of instrumentality to include now the extraordinary potential of the language of nonpitched sound color.
As if to fill us in for some of where the percussive New Music arts are now we have Subtractions (New Focus Recordings FCR 348) by Greg Stuart. It gives us some very intensively probing compositions, some two, that further define the possible sound universe in engaging ways.
The most satisfying is perhaps "Border Loss" (2021) by Sarah Hennies. The work concentrates on a recurring universe of combinatory logic from specific percussion objects and the manner in which they are struck, a kind of free falling, tumbling expressive panorama of testificatory fullness. Happily to it reminds of some exemplary early Free Jazz drumming, such as the classic duet by Sonny Morgan and Miford Graves, Percussion Ensemble (1966). There is like on that recording a barrage of recurring sound family identities. It then kicks into a higher intensity explosion that nicely takes it all into higher orbit in virtuoso post pitching that gives us the Space Age as we might dream of it. In the final thrust of the music we get an all over continuous smear of sound that we do not expect to hear in such a context, yet then it alerts us to how much sound a physical battery such as this might produce in imaginative compositional minds and ready-to-hand performatives. This is a real tour de force that anyone interested in the New Music percussion world should contemplate by deep listening.
From there we get a two-movement work entitled "Side By Side" ( 2021) as composed by Michael Pisaro-Liu. We revel in extended techniques of sounding a drum, in setting an initial set of tones in provocative ways, and then on to another continuous soundscape of rubbing drum sounds that gradually acquire exploratory pitch center drones that surprise and beguile in time. Mallet driven cymbal-gong sustains then enter into the wash and thicken the timbral construct even further.
From there the second movement starts with vibraphone long notes that refresh and set up another sonic micro-orchestration that is nice to hear of not exactly world shattering. Yet in does land us suitably after a height scaling percussion deluge.
But in the end the first half of the program makes it all worthwhile. So surely give this a listen and get a good feel for what can be happening in percussive advances. Bravo Greg Stuart for his brilliant performing self, and composers Sarah Hennies and Michael Pisaro-Liu for their often bold sorties into where we are. Recommended.
— Grego Applegate Edwards, 1.24.2023
The esteemed percussionist Greg Stuart brings along Sarah Hennies and Michael Pisaro-Liu for these solo pieces that embraces virtuosity, vulnerability and dialogue into the 3 meticulous works.
“Border Loss” leads the listen with Hennies handling many different percussive noisemakers that manipulates timbre, atypical rhythmic patterns and higher pitches amid the angular, sometimes dense and acutely irregular demeanor.
Pisaro-Liu handles both “Side By Side I” and “Side By Side II”, and it features bass drum on cymbals for the first half, where scraping and friction are implemented precisely, and the back half showcases vibraphone and glockenspiel for the more melodic gestures that ring in a meditative fashion.
A very exciting virtuosic anti-virtuoso affair, Stuart’s vision is one that’s experimental, sharply focused and occasionally subtly political in its creative expanse.
— Tom Haugen, 3.26.2023
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
The area of experimental music, which this percussion recital (enigmatically titled Subtractions) definitely belongs to, is by definition no holds barred. There is a welter of sounds here, and any overlap with traditional percussion is mostly incidental. In the first work, Sarah Hennies’s Border Loss, the program notes tell us that percussionist Greg Stuart, “navigates a rhythmic thicket: from drums to cymbals played with the feet, from cardboard boxes to hanging metal objects, from shakers to friction sounds.” The use of the word “border” in the title is intentionally political, although without an agenda, alongside a musical implication: There are 10 distinct sections, or “states,” that create borders between them while also merging into a whole.
In other respects Border Loss departs from conventional expectations. In part this is due to the fact that Stuart has suffered from focal dystonia for 15 years, a neuro-muscular condition that makes his left hand’s movements erratic. He has worked closely with Hennies for a long time, and for this piece they worked out a scheme where Stuart could present himself comfortably as a performer on stage (in the past his participation hasn’t always been visible, presumably involving taped material). Since maintaining a steady rhythm would be risky, Hennies “ultimately developed the idea of totally free rhythm through instructions that still cause rhythm.”
As a listening experience, Border Loss isn’t unstable, although it might strike the ear that way. Grasping for a meaningful description, I can’t improve upon the clear, informative program notes, which say, “Sometimes a new state emerges so slowly that we are not aware of it until much later; at others, we feel as if we are stuck within a particular state unable to get out; and at yet others, a new state explodes, shockingly, with a burst of seemingly senseless violence.” This sounds daunting, but inside these complex textures the ear picks up some familiar drumming, bell tones, snatches of rhythm, and the sound of objects struck with a mallet. “Senseless” isn’t the overall impression this 22-minute work creates. It is more like a modern-art installation that happens to be audio rather than visual. Once you settle in, the experience is absorbing and at times exciting.
Stuart, who is a professor of experimental music at the University of South Carolina’s music school, has also been a close collaborator with composer Michael Pisaro-Liu. His two-movement work, side by side, is freighted with a long political description of how performer and composer worked together, resulting in “a sonic analogue of radically-democratic consensus decision-making.” The central notion is that neither partner should know in advance what the music will eventually sound like. Part I of side by side is sparely scored for bass drum and cymbals. Through brushing, scraping, and other friction sounds, the aim is to convey “sensations on the skin,” as the composer puts it. Part II, just as sparely scored for vibraphone and glockenspiel, “explores ringing chords and brief melodic fragments, not unlike ‘two people walking together.’”
Since the mode for producing sounds and tones is so minimal, I can’t say that I know how to judge side by side. One has to accept, as with conceptual art, that the ideas at work are just as important as the finished product, and sometimes more important when the finished product is too minimal to grasp. I wouldn’t say that Pisaro-Liu goes that far, but the listener must be prepared in Part I for pure pitchless friction (some of which sounds amplified to me), and in Part II for isolated pitches whose chief effect is to overlap by lingering in the air. Whether this is sufficient to hold your interest for half an hour is moot.
Stuart’s performances are intense, vivid, and virtuosic, insofar as I am able to judge, and the recorded sound is exemplary. Percussion buffs will be fascinated by the “states” being created. A general listener with adventurous ears will also be rewarded. This is one case, however, where I’d want to see the performer and have the live experience—the air of a happening is inescapable even on disc. To be fully sympathetic to experimental music, it helps to get involved in the many questions posed in the booklet, beginning with “What is a percussionist?” and extending to “What will the stateless world feel and sound like?” These are idealistic questions without fixed answers, as befits any experiment.
— Huntley Dent, 1.26.2023