Kyle Bruckmann: of rivers


Oboist Kyle Bruckmann, founding member of the wind quintet Splinter Reeds, releases of rivers, a collection of vanguard music for the instrument that highlights its integration with electronics, improvisational practices, extended techniques, and microtonality. The album features music by Jessie Cox, Hannah A. Barnes, Helen Grime, Linda Bouchard, Christopher Burns, and Bruckmann himself.


Kyle Bruckmann’s of rivers confronts the many expressive faces of the oboe and English horn head on. An instrument capable of sublime beauty alongside penetrating power, its contemporary repertoire as a solo voice has perhaps not yet eclipsed its prized role as the dark horse of the orchestral wind section. Bruckmann’s collection of newly commissioned acoustic and electro-acoustic works posits a way forward for those invested in the uncompromising avant-garde future for the instrument while carving out an individual artistic statement. In works by Jessie Cox, Hannah A. Barnes, Helen Grime, Linda Bouchard, Christopher Burns, and Bruckmann himself, we hear the clarion song of the oboe through dense, complex material that inhabits the vanguard of current compositional and performance practice.

Jessie Cox’s AT[ou]M functions like an introductory prelude to Bruckmann’s sonic journey; a quixotic soliloquy comprised of short phrases punctuated by brash multiphonics, pointillistic staccato utterances, and slowly bent sustained pitches. Throughout, the music returns to moments of poised silences, the meaning of the gesture preceding it echoing in the resonance left behind.

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Hannah A. Barnes’ Dis/inte/gration employs a phase vocoder to interact with the live oboe part, creating “inherently unstable gestures in crisis and collapse.” The electronic element appears stealth-like at the piece’s one minute mark, modulating the oboe’s tone through subtle oscillation. The dialogue between processing and live part evolves, as the instrumental part becomes more frenetic and emphatic. Barnes’ oboe writing occasionally evokes the cathartic sheets of sound of John Coltrane’s late soprano sax improvisations, articulating harmonic information through rapid alternating trills, fierce multiphonics, and virtuosic passagework.

Helen Grime’s Arachne is a wordless setting of the myth of the weaving challenge between the goddess Minerva and Arachne, a mortal but master weaver. The short work narrates the plot of the interaction through contrasting material, first depicting Arachne’s over confidence, then the contest that leads to violence, and finally Arachne’s transformation into a spider. Grime’s visually evocative writing is energized, driving up to a repeated arrival note in the oboe’s highest register, before a flittering coda captures the furtive movements of the wily insect.

Linda Bouchard has a series of thirteen works that explore the nature and properties of water and the relationship humans have with the precious resource. DROP is written in graphic notation with images that are derived from analysis of various water sounds. Bruckmann brings his own improvisatory language to the interpretation of Bouchard’s score, interacting with the evocative electronics in complementary ways, imitating the non-pitched sounds. Bruckmann’s range of vocabulary of sounds in this performance is remarkable, imitating the cracking of ice, the whistle of steam, and pressurized water forcing its way through pipes alongside beguiling microtonal melodies worthy of snake charming rituals.

Bruckmann’s Proximity, affect is a piece born from circumstance, specifically the restrictive musical situations that arose in the deepest months of the Covid lockdown. Invited by UC Berkeley’s CNMAT department to do a livestream in November 2020, Bruckmann constructed a piece that involved close-micing sounds made on deconstructed parts of the oboe, creating a sonic landscape reminiscent of an orchestra of early dial-up modems. For a piece conceived from imposed limitation, Proximity, affect transcends a compressed expressive range and traverses an impressive structural journey.

The final work on the album is by Christopher Burns, and features EKG – a duo with Bruckmann with his collaborator Ernst Karel on electronics. The Mutiny of Rivers reflects Burns’ interest in finding a middle ground between Burns’ preference for digital audio with EKG’s affinity for analog electronics, as well as a Luigi Nono influenced approach to improvisation with a wealth of given material, both in the instrumental and electronic parts. Despite the variability inherent in any realization of Burns’ score, the performance has a discrete sense of structure, navigating in and out of soloistic moments for the English horn, interactive halls of sonic mirrors with electronics, and dystopian electronics-alone environments. Achieving an identity for a work that is organized in variable, quasi-improvised sections is a challenge, but one that Burns and EKG have embraced and overcome handily.

With of rivers, Kyle Bruckmann has achieved something rare and prized in contemporary instrumental recordings. We hear Bruckmann’s voice as a composer, improviser, curator, and interpreter speak powerfully throughout the collection. In most other contemporary music genres, the “sound” of the artist and the album are paramount, while in contemporary concert music, we applaud the contribution a performer makes when releasing an album of varied pieces that can enter the repertoire, even if their artistic personality takes a secondary role. But when both missions are served at the same time, it is a special album indeed. of rivers is such a recording, an impeccable document of these compelling works, a landmark recording for the oboe/English horn repertoire, and a powerful artistic statement from a versatile artist who has cultivated a collection of pieces that strike an ideal balance between aesthetic focus and engaging variety.

– Dan Lippel

Recorded by:

Charlotte Han (with assistant engineers Mary Denney & Mark Loya), Owen Hall Recording Studio, University of the Pacific (Stockton, CA), Oct. & Dec. 2022 (tracks 1-4)

Kyle Bruckmann, FeuerFroschHaus (Oakland, CA), Nov. 2020 (track 5)

Scott R. Looney, Studio 1510 (Oakland, CA), July 2010 (track 6)

Mixed & Mastered by:
Myles Boisen, Headless Buddha Mastering Labs (Oakland, CA)

Cover photo by: Dill Pixels
Interior photos by: Christina Deravedisian / Joel Filipe / Maxim Berg

Layout by: BMoen, Etch Image Co.

Kyle Bruckmann

Oboist and electronic musician Kyle Bruckmann tramples genre boundaries in widely ranging work as a composer/performer, educator and New Music specialist. His creative output – extending from conservatory-trained foundations into gray areas encompassing free jazz, post-punk rock, and the noise underground – can be heard on more than 100 recordings. Three decades of chameleonic gigging have found him performing in settings including the Monterey Jazz Festival, the Venice Biennale, 924 Gilman, Berghain, a 12-foot diameter bomb shelter, and dangling 30 feet in the air by a harness from a crane.

Bruckmann is Assistant Professor of Practice and Program Director of Varied Ensembles at University of the Pacific. He free-lances throughout the San Francisco Bay Area’s Euro-classical music scene while actively producing experimental solo and collaborative work within an international community of improvisers and sound artists. Current ensemble affiliations include Splinter Reeds, San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, Quinteto Latino, Eco Ensemble, sfSound and the Stockton Symphony.



Avant Music News

A solo recording by oboe and English horn virtuoso Kyle Bruckmann is like a communique giving news of the latest stages in those instruments’ ongoing musical evolution. Like his colleague and sometime collaborator bassoonist Dana Jessen, Bruckmann has taken a leading role in inventing and developing new techniques for a venerable if sometimes overlooked orchestral instrument, and in the process adapting it to the high-tech environments of contemporary composition and improvisation.

Bruckmann’s latest, of rivers, contains one composition by Bruckmann in addition to five other works, some acoustic and some electroacoustic, by five other composers. What all have in common is a willingness to push Bruckmann’s instruments and instrumentalism to the limits of their musical possibilities. This is apparent from the very first piece, Jessie Cox’s AT[ou]M, an acoustic work that sets extreme leaps of register as well as a number of extended techniques – overblowing, multiphonics, pitch bending – within an open-textured, fragmentary structure. Hannah A. Barnes’ Dis/inte/gration matches oboe with live interactive phase vocoder in a work that, despite its title, gradually integrates both instruments into an evolving texture of increasing density that culminates in an assertive rush of electronics and oboe lines evoking a frenzied soprano saxophone improvisation. Helen Grime’s Arachne is a brief, thematically beautiful solo for oboe that brings out Bruckmann’s more conventionally expressive side. For the electroacoustic DROP, Linda Bouchard created a graphic score whose figures are based on the sounds of water in its various states. Bruckmann’s interpretation of Bourchard’s score, played out against an abstract electronic backdrop, affords him the opportunity to create a virtuoso performance drawing on his wide-ranging technical resources. Bruckmann’s own Proximity, affect, is a solo piece reflecting its origin in the isolation of the Covid lockdowns. For this electronic work Bruckmann recorded and manipulated sounds originating from different parts of the oboe. The instrument’s presence is largely submerged in the processing, but occasionally the sounds of key clicks or breath blowing through the tube make themselves known. The album closes with Christopher Burns’ Mutiny of Rivers, a long piece featuring electronics artist Ernst Karel interacting with Bruckmann. As on DROP, Bruckmann improvises an exciting solo line on the basis of suggestive compositional material. In duet with himself via Karel’s electronic manipulations, Bruckmann’s warm acoustic voice dramatically counterpoints its processed double.

— Daniel Barbiero, 3.14.2024



Composer, improviser, oboist, and longtime sfSoundGroup comrade Kyle Bruckmann’s gorgeous new album, of rivers, is now available on CD, digital, and streaming, via New Focus Recordings. The record unfolds a contemporary oboe recital, featuring solo and solo-plus-electronics pieces by Jessie Cox, Hannah A. Barnes, Helen Grime, and Linda Bouchard, alongside one of Kyle’s own compositions, and demonstrates the incredible breadth of Kyle’s interests and capabilities as a musician.

The album concludes with The Mutiny of Rivers, a piece I wrote for EKG - Kyle’s electroacoustic duo with Ernst Karel - in 2010. It’s a pleasure to share their brilliant recording with the world, and especially in the thoughtful and compelling context of Kyle’s disc.

In hindsight, The Mutiny of Rivers was a crucial piece in my development as a musician - opening up new ways of thinking about improvisation, and new modes of collaboration, that eventually led to the formation of ensembles like Minor Vices and Tanngrisnir. I’d be grateful if you gave it a listen, doubly so if you wanted to purchase of rivers and support Kyle’s work. And I’d like to spend a bit more space here reflecting on the piece and its creation.

A trip upriver

The composition of The Mutiny of Rivers began with an email invitation from Kyle. While EKG had existed from the late 1990s as an improvising group, with no need for scores or other compositional input, they were looking for new challenges, new ideas, and new provocations. Kyle wrote, “the ideal is pieces suitably idiosyncratic (eccentric?) to account for who we are as an ‘ensemble’; i.e., …things that somehow incorporate modularity, improvisation, interpretation, live electronics, sketchy and half-broken equipment, etc.” I don’t know if every composer would find that particular creative challenge to be catnip, but I was hooked.

In that email, Kyle also invoked my decade of experience performing Luigi Nono’s La Lontananza Nostalgica Utopica Futura, and in doing so set the The Mutiny of Rivers on a very specific path: “...the elegance and brilliance of Nono’s approach to composing for live electronics (the gist being that the part is crystal clear while not being hardware-specific, and while still retaining ample space for interpretation, musicality, PERFORMANCE: you know, as if it’s a “real” instrument or something....)”

With that encouragement and/or provocation, I began the piece using La Lontananza’s template: written music for Kyle to perform on English horn, plus a reservoir of pre-recorded “tape” material from which Ernst could select and mix specific elements. That said, I sought to increase the level of interpretive freedom beyond what Nono provided. I asked Ernst to process the pre-recorded material though his modular synthesis rig - license he used to shape and distort those recordings in ways that I never would have imagined, but found thrilling. I found other ways to provide latitude in the written music - unordered pages of material for Kyle to put into sequence, deliberately unspecified tempi, and the option to apply live-electronic manipulations at any point. And while some of the leaves of music used conventional notation, others provided instructions in prose, using the layout of the text to reinforce the ideas and constraints. Here’s one page:

That approach to material, specified via text-plus-graphic-design, would later become the sole basis of another piece written for Kyle. Alligator Char, embodied in a deck of 158 “playing cards,” eventually became the foundational text of Milwaukee-based ensemble Minor Vices, and that group’s activity led to a whole sequence of projects exploring unconventional types of scores (everything from flowcharts to computer-controlled lighting designs), and the spaces between traditionally “fixed” compositions and wholly “open” improvisations.

For all of the ways in which The Mutiny of Rivers represented something new and generative in my artistic trajectory, it also expressed one of my core aesthetic values: the idea that an overloaded, information-dense experience could invite a variety of interpretations from both performer and listener. The Mutiny of Rivers is designed such that there can’t be a singular “correct” way to perform the work, and I hope that same multiplicity extends to the act of listening. With so many details to observe and possible paths to consider, the listener is compelled to make choices, forming a unique experience by attending to whatever elements they find most interesting in the moment. Even as a fixed recording, the music strives to reward relistening.

— Christopher Burns, 3.15.2024


Bandcamp Daily

As someone who’s been listening to music of oboist Kyle Bruckmann for several decades, through different projects and styles, his mixture of rigor and humility have been constant. Although he’s a marvelous improviser, he’s been spending more and more time working with composed material, both in Dana Jessen’s Splinter Reeds and with solo work. Of rivers falls into this second category, with a variety of composers taking advantage of Bruckmann’s technical range and his willingness to aim for the impossible. The collection opens with Jessie Cox’s “AT[ou]M,” a knotty miniature in which creaky multiphonics; short, jagged phrases; and warped pitches are plotted within silence, which the composer calls “the way in which spaces make sound come to our ears. Composer Hannah Barnes uses electronic interventions to destabilize Bruckman’s playing on “Dis/inte/gration,” which cuts through viscous, slow-moving noise with phrasing both jaunty and harsh—the two elements make peace…sort of. “Arachne,” by Helen Grime, is built from the myth of the title character and Minerva, moving from nonchalant confidence to frenzied struggle before scampering away like the spider the titular character becomes. In “DROP” Linda Bouchard asks Bruckmann to interpret a graphic score made from different analysis of water sounds and, combined with the electronics, we can deduce crackling ice, sibilant blasts of steam, and more abstract sonified liquid. Bruckmann’s own “Proximity, affect” was inspired by the isolation of pandemic-era performance, with close-miked extended techniques and throbbing electronics reflecting the performer’s sensation of playing within “a psychosocial gerbil ball.” The final piece reunites the oboist with Ernst Karel, his electronics partner in EKG, as they navigate Christopher Burns’s “The Mutiny of Rivers,” an electroacoustic hornet’s nest inspired by Luigi Nono’s La Lontananza Nostalgica Utopica Futura.

— Peter Margasak, 4.03.2024

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