Michael Harley: Come Closer

About

Bassoonist Mike Harley releases an album of premieres demonstrating the range of aesthetics present in the growing repertoire for the instrument. Including works by Carl Schimmel, John Fitz Rogers, Fang Man, Reginald Bain, and Caleb Burhans, the recording highlights Harley's versatility and instrumental command in solo, electro-acoustic, and layered settings, while reasserting the bassoon's presence in contemporary music as a featured instrument.

Audio

Bassoonist Michael Harley releases this eclectic collection of new works for bassoon that documents his work expanding the repertoire for his instrument and demonstrating its versatility in solo settings. Faculty at the music department at the University of South Carolina in Columbia (a fertile environment for new music), Harley established collaborations on new work with composition colleagues there, John Fitz Rogers, Fang Man, Reg Bain, and Jesse Jones. Also a longtime member of the critically acclaimed new music ensemble Alarm Will Sound, two of the works presented here are the result of intra-ensemble projects with his bandmates Stefan Freund and Caleb Burhans, and Harley’s work with Carl Schimmel was facilitated by a connection through Alarm as well.

“Come Closer” opens with the title track by John Fitz Rogers, a Reich-ian layered work for four bassoons, all played here by Harley. The piece opens with a precise hocketing texture at the 16th note, moving through a tonal chord progression with syncopated accents and short fluid runs. Reich’s influence is felt more strongly in the section that follows, with pulsing chords that fade in and out. At moments in the work, one of the bassoons emerges from the tightly constructed ensemble texture with a contoured melody.

Stefan Freund’s Miphadventures, with piano accompaniment, is a blues inspired work divided into sections — after the bassoon leads a scene setting introduction, the work settles into a lightly rocking texture in 9/8 meter. The second half of the piece is characterized by asymmetrical grooves with the piano alternating between imitation of the bassoon material and repetitive bass lines that drive the texture.

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As in much of his work, in Alarums and Excursions: A Puzzle-Burlesque in Four Polymythian Acts, Carl Schimmel paints vivid character pieces over the four sections of the composition. He brings dry wit to his deft sense of motivic development and structural pacing, playing with rhythmic figures as if they were puzzle pieces and connecting contrasting material within a longer narrative. A bassoon cadenza encompasses the diverse energies heard in the piece before an energetic ensemble close.

Inspired by a late Ming Dynasty novel, Jin Ping Mei, Fang Man’s Lament calls on a broad palette of extended techniques in a work that pushes the envelope of the bassoon’s expressive world. Harley proclaims Chinese fragments interspersed with dense multiphonics, flutter and slap tongue techniques, furious passagework, bent pitches, and other carefully chosen effects in this work of poignant anguish.

Reginald Bain’s Totality was inspired by the August 2017 total solar eclipse, and consists of four movements, each representing a different impression of select phases of the phenomenon. A lyrical introduction captures the mystery surrounding the event, and leads into a Phillip Glass-esque section of excited, driving music outlining major and minor triads. Haunting, sequenced chords characterize the next section, laying the ground for halting music in the bassoon. The bassoon plays muscular, virtuosic arpeggios in the subsequent section, before the texture zooms in to focus on delicate chords in the high register of the piano. The work closes with a return to the minimalist music heard earlier, balancing out the sense of patient wonder in the work with music of exuberance.

Caleb Burhans’ Harbinger of Sorrows (a reference to the Metallica song Harvester of Sorrow from their album “…And Justice for All”) is a lament, featuring Harley on beautiful, singing lines above a quasi-ostinato in the piano. The melancholy of the texture and harmonic colors speaks for itself, but programmatically, the composer has indicated that the work was written as a response to the election of the 45th president of the United States.

The opening of Jesse Jones’ Yonder for string trio and bassoon joyfully conjures the rhythmic world of old time music, declaiming in hymn-like fashion the imagined text, Yonder, yonder! Oh! Yonder, yonder! Over Yonder! Jones contrasts this folkloric association with a pitch language and motivic treatment that lives more squarely in a modernist context, citing Stravinsky as an influence. The interplay between these elements guides the piece forward, finding many points of common ground between the worlds of fiddle music and A Soldier’s Tale-era Stravinsky. Yonder is a fitting close to this Harley recording, focused as it is on contextualizing the bassoon within a wide range of compositional aesthetics. Throughout, Harley is a consummate advocate, bringing his fine instrumental command to interpretations that display great understanding of the different styles at work in the repertoire.

–D. Lippel

More on the repertoire from Mike Harley: https://www.michaelharleybassoon.com/come-closer

  • Recording Engineer, Editing, Mastering: Jeff Francis
  • Producer: Michael Harley
  • Graphic Design: Sara Winsted
  • Recorded at the University of South Carolina, School of Music Recital Hall, May and September, 2017
  • All works written for and commissioned by Michael Harley

 

Michael Harley

Michael Harley teaches bassoon, coaches chamber music, and is artistic director of the Southern Exposure New Music Series at the University of South Carolina. His performances have been called “spectacular” (Washington Post) and “exquisite” (Columbus Dispatch). A founding member of the contemporary music chamber orchestra Alarm Will Sound, called “one of the most vital and original ensembles on the American musical scene” by the New York Times, Harley has worked with and premiered pieces by many of today’s most distinguished composers, including John Adams, John Luther Adams, Michael Gordon, David Lang, Nico Muhly, Steve Reich, and Augusta Read Thomas. He has played on 5 continents and appears on more than 20 recordings. This is his first solo album.

Phillip Bush

Phillip Bush has established a performing career over the past three decades that is noted for its remarkable versatility and eclecticism. A devoted advocate for contemporary music, he performed worldwide for 20 years with both the Philip Glass Ensemble and Steve Reich and Musicians, in venues ranging from the Sydney Opera House to the Acropolis in Athens. Mr. Bush's efforts on behalf of new music have earned him grants and awards from the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust, the Aaron Copland Fund, ASCAP, Chamber Music America and the National Endowment for the Arts. A graduate of the Peabody Conservatory, where he studied with Leon Fleisher, Phillip Bush has been a member of the piano and chamber music faculty at the University of South Carolina School of Music since 2012.


Reviews

5

The WholeNote

If you play clarinet in an orchestra, the bassoon is your best friend. That rich and deeply grained sonority forgives a multitude of pitch variances; a well-supported bassoon sound is a perfect colour complement to the whingeing voice of its single-reed neighbour. So immediately I must declare a bias in this commentary on Come Closer, featuring American bassoonist Michael Harley playing the music of several of his colleagues from the University of South Carolina and beyond.

Listen to this album. Just go out and buy it and put it on and marvel at the title track by John Fitz Rogers. A quartet performed in multi-track by Harley, with definite echoes of Reich, Adams and Glass, it nourishes the ear, never tiresome, always delightful. Precision marries beauty. In the following piece, Miphadventures by Stefan Freund, we’re treated to a blues-infused dialogue between bassoon and piano (played with sympathy and guts by Phillip Bush). An introductory arioso sets the stage for a swinging dance in a stylish syncopated four to a bar. This is Americanism, not Americana. It’s never hackneyed, simply enjoyable. Harley allows just the barest hint of jazz inflection, which is good. Too many bends induce nausea.

If you begin to think this all sounds too like easy listening, stay tuned. The third track will satisfy your wish for tonal exploration. Alarums and Excursions by Carl Schimmel bills itself as a Puzzle-Burlesque, but really leave off the brain work and just gloat that here’s something very grabby that also avoids major and minor sonorities.

I could go on. You don’t need me to. You need to get this disc.

-Max Christie, 10.30.19, The WholeNote

5

Sequenza21

A longtime member of Alarm Will Sound, now on the faculty of University of South Carolina, Michael Harley makes his monograph CD debut with Come Closer on New Focus Recordings. The program features repertoire by living American composers in a variety of styles.

John Fitz Rogers uses overdubs on Come Closer to create a four-bassoon texture in a propulsive minimalist excursion replete with repeated notes. Pianist Phillip Bush joins Harley on several pieces, providing a Gershwin-esque theater jazz accompaniment on Stefan Freund’s Miphadventures and multifaceted textures and styles on Reginald Bain’s Totality. Harbinger of Sorrows by Caleb Burhans is achingly affecting and quite beautiful.The most successful duo is Carl Schimmel’s Alarum’s and Excursions, an energetic and often virtuosic tour-de-force.

The sole solo on the recording, Fang Man’s Lament, is an excellent extended work that involves overtones, vocalization, and microtonal inflections. Come Closer’s final piece, Yonder by Jesse Jones, is for bassoon, string trio, and piano. It combines post-minimal and alt-folk gestures in a finely wrought ensemble work that one hopes will gain wider currency.

Harley has done a double service with Come Closer, presenting music by some of the finest young and mid-career composers currently at work in the United States and substantially enlarging the repertoire for bassoon with his advocacy. Recommended.

- Christian Carey, 1.6.20, Sequenza21

5

The Art Music Lounge

Michael Harley teaches bassoon, coaches chamber music, and is artistic director of the Southern Exposure New Music Series at the University of South Carolina. He is also a founding member of the contemporary music chamber orchestra Alarm Will Sound., so he has a firm commitment to modern music, which I appreciate.

Part of this album’s aesthetic is described by Harley in the liner notes thus:

Classical music being written today lives in a post-genre world. It is not uncommon to hear the influences of, say, minimalist master Steve Reich, avant-garde icon John Cage, and Led Zeppelin converge on the same program or even within a single piece.

But this is where Harley and I have our strong differences of opinion. I, for one, don’t want to hear rock music influence in ANY music, classical or jazz, because it doesn’t fit. Both types of music are, or at least should be, music that develops, whether it be from the composer’s pen or the spontaneous improvisation of a jazz soloist, but rock music doesn’t develop at all, not even when one of their whiny electric guitarists start “jammin’” during a piece. The reason is, as jazz great Roy Eldridge pointed out in the 1960s, “The jazz beat goes somewhere. The rock beat stays somewhere,” thus within those parameters you simply can’t have it both ways. You either stagnate rhythmically and musically or you move forward and develop. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Yet liked some of the music on this album. John Fitz Rogers’ Come Closer is a case in point. Written for four bassoons, it is played here only by Harley, who multiple-tracked himself using a click track. This is very much a minimalist piece, and although I know that minimalism is really big with younger listeners nowadays, I tend to shy away from it for the same reason I shy away from rock: it doesn’t really develop, though it does change a little more often. This piece is a perfect example. It’s ebullient and fun to hear but doesn’t really “say” anything; it’s just a collection of staccato notes bouncing around in your ear. Nonetheless, it wasn’t a bad opening piece despite the fact that it went on too long (11:24).

By contrast, Stephan Freund’s Miphadventures is a more lyrical work with a tiny bit of a blues-jazz feel in the piano part. The piece is divided into two sections, titled “Longingly” and “Excited,” the second of these featuring some unusual time signatures such as 7/8 and 5/8. Yet this piece works in exactly the way that Come Closer does not, in that the music is well and interestingly developed. Incidentally, there haven’t been many players who could swing on the bassoon, so Harley is scarcely alone there. The only one I have heard make the bassoon swing were multi-reed player Adrian Rollini, who was also the only man who could make the bass saxophone and the “hot fountain pen” swing, as well as Frank Tiberi and Ray Pizzi. Fortunately, Harley has the assistance on this one of pianist Philip Bush, and he is excellent at what jazz musicians used to call the “slow drag” beat. I found this to be an exceptionally interesting piece, well written and with real development both thematically and rhythmically. Harley does a good job on it. This piece is over 13 minutes long, but there’s not a wasted second in it.

Next up is Carl Schimmel’s Alarums and Misadventures, which starts with a loud, ominous piano flourish before moving into slower, moodier music, in some of which the bassoon slithers around through chromatic glissandi. Again, pianist Bush helps to push bassoonist Harley through edgy syncopated passages with aplomb. This one sounds a little like the Loch Ness monster suddenly ingesting a wad of LSD and not knowing how to handle it. There are ups, downs, and even dead stops in the music. Some of it sounds organic and developed, some of it doesn’t, such as the serrated bassoon figures played at the 7:30 mark, but overall it’s a fascinating work.

Fang Man’s Lament is described as “The album’s most sonically adventurous work.” Adventurous it most certainly is, calling for the soloist to play buzzed chords through his reed in his entrance and other unusual effects, but effects are all you get in this piece. As Gertrude Stein once observed, “There’s no there there.” Or, as Charles Mingus once said, “You can’t improvise on nothing.” You also can’t hang a bunch of odd effects together and call them a composition.

Reginald Bain’s Totality for bassoon and piano combines the kind of modern music I refer to as “schlumph,” a string of edgy motifs, with minimalism. Some of it is interesting and works, but in several places I felt that Bain ran himself into the center of his own musical maze and couldn’t quite figure how to extricate himself except to move on to yet another theme or motif and hope for the best. Fortunately, pianist Bush’s excellent sense of linear playing helps to pull most of this together. This, then, was an instance of the performance succeeding where the actual notes on the paper did not. Divided into four sections, I felt that it was just a bit too episodic with no real affinity or continuity between the episodes. The occasional detours into minimalism didn’t really help.

Caleb Burhans’ Harbinger of Sorrows is a real piece with a genuine theme and real development. Indeed, as the piece went on, the sad, slow melodic line underwent some intriguing and ingenious permutations while the repeated piano chord sequence seemed to remain the same.

We end our excursion with Jesse Jones’ Yonder for bassoon, piano and string trio. This was clearly one of the most complex and well-developed pieces on the album. As the notes put it, it traverses “Sacred-Harp hymnody and balletic dance rhythms, across lugubrious pits of Stravinskian mud, to ecstatic major-chord vistas and back again.” Clearly a well-thought-out and well-developed piece in addition to having some genuinely exciting moments. I especially liked the section beginning around the five-minute mark, in which Jones wrote some genuinely inspired polyphony using the five instruments that weaves in and around itself. This is good stuff!

A mixed review, then, as is so often the case with modern music CDs, but the good pieces are clearly worth hearing, and hearing several times in order to examine their inner workings.

-Lynn René Bayley, 11.27.19, The Art Music Lounge

5

Midwest Record

There’s more to making outsider music than just being weird and if this bassoon player takes his inspiration of Steve Reich, we don’t accuse him of manqueing around a bit. Start at the top we say. Basically turning this into music for one musician, time, tide and technology allows him to go where no soloist has gone before. A real tour de force for any serious lefty, this ear opener just doesn’t know when to quit. Outside the margins and loving it.​

–Chris Spector, 9.21.19, Midwest Record

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