Mikel Kuehn: Entanglements

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About

Composer Mikel Kuehn releases his second recording on New Focus, Entanglements, featuring three electro-acoustic works alongside ensemble music that highlights his cultivated approach to character, structure, and alternative notation. Featuring performances by Deborah Norin-Kuehn, Conor Nelson, Thomas Rosenkranz, Daniel Lippel, Nuiko Wadden, Marianne Gythfeldt, Doyle Armbrust, Kenneth Cox, Henrique Batista, Yu-Fang Chen, and Mei-Chun Chen, this album of Kuehn's work zeroes in on his powerful ability to examine dynamic sonic relationships from many angles.

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Mikel Kuehn’s music possesses a finely cultivated balance between systematic rigor and variable freedom in the realization of a score. Carefully curated structures and aleatoric structured improvisation passages (a byproduct of Kuehn’s background in jazz) ultimately explore possibilities revealed by an instrumental texture, expressive context, or dialogic relationship. The seven works on this album are all duos, either between two live instruments or between instrument and electroacoustics. Across three works on this recording, Mikel Kuehn establishes a systematic character matrix — an organization around a collection of paired musical states. Kuehn’s strategy represents an interest in considering musical relationships exhaustively, from many angles. In this way, Kuehn seems to take an obliquely post-modernist stance — there is always another way of seeing.

In his program note for Entanglements, Mikel Kuehn cites Einstein’s “spooky action at a distance” concept from quantum mechanics as one of his sources of inspiration for the work. All of the various permutations of character pairings combine and collide in the course of the piece, as the instruments and their expressive states act upon each other. The other source of inspiration for Entanglements is more tactile — the instrumentation of harp and guitar conjured an image in Kuehn’s mind of an entanglement of wires, from headphones or other audio cables.

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Table Talk for violin and viola (2018) explores Kuehn’s matrix from a more explicitly programmatic perspective — it depicts a conversation between two strangers at a dinner table, investigating the myriad poses two people can take in dialogue with each other. For much of the piece the “conversation” flows fairly smoothly, with one line expanding on an idea as the other supports it with a quasi ostinato or interlocking rhythmic figure. Texture changes often, as if this is a couple who is trying out several different ways of interacting to see what works.

Chimera (2017) is the longest of the “spooky action at a distance” trilogy and features the most contrasting pair of instruments, flute and piano. This time Kuehn’s character matrix is mapped onto the Greek mythological creature of the title, a fire breathing female monster made up of a combination of a lion, goat, and serpent.

While it is not structured within this character matrix, Kuehn’s electroacoustic setting for soprano of Wallace Stevens’ Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird would seem to be an apt elucidation of this quasi-Cubist component of Kuehn’s aesthetic. Stevens’ poem about seeing a subject from thirteen distinct angles is appropriately episodic in Kuehn’s rendition— each new short “way” of looking at the blackbird triggers a new texture and relationship between the singer and the spatialized, fixed media component. Soprano Deborah Norin-Kuehn beautifully navigates a vocal line that migrates from standard singing to sprechstimme, and from nearly monochromatic chanting to dramatic intervallic leaps.

While the remaining three works on the album are not organized around this character permutation technique, they share Kuehn’s penchant for a presentation of discrete textures and ideas. Colored Shadows and Rite of Passage are both part of Kuehn’s series of electroacoustic works with live processing (and optional fixed electronics versions) titled Hyperresonance. In both, he includes sections that feature structured improvisation as a way to balance the through composed material and create a unique space for the interaction between performer and electronics in the moment. In Colored Shadows, Kuehn carves out four improvised sections that anchor the piece, each focused on one of the viola’s open strings. Rite of Passage (2014) for bass clarinet and electronics directly tackles the well known excerpt from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Stasis and animated forward motion stand in relation to each other, balancing the impulses of direction and suspended time.

Double Labyrinth (1999) is the oldest work on the album and embodies a different point in the evolution of Kuehn’s style. He establishes a set path for each instrument, framed by a series of recurring harmonic and motivic collections. The two instruments are set loose within this “labyrinth,” occasionally converging along their paths; midway through, they switch routes of navigation.

Mikel Kuehn’s works on this album demonstrate a composer who curates rich musical worlds through systems and sonic environments. The character matrix works share a structural conceit but each is guided by its own unique programmatic concepts and the intricate details of the relationship between instruments. Notational freedom and variability are powerful tools used in three of the pieces that open up a kaleidoscope of outcomes shaped by the given material and context. In this way, Kuehn places himself firmly in the 21st century, an era where certainties of monolithic truths and careening directionalities are challenged at every turn by an awareness of contrasting ideas.

– Dan Lippel

Executive producers: Mikel Kuehn and Daniel Lippel
Edit production: Mikel Kuehn
Mixing and mastering: Ryan Streber, Oktaven Audio, oktavenaudio.com
Liner notes: Daniel Lippel, danlippel.com
Cover art: Zoë Kuehn, instagram.com/zozzle.art
Graphic design: Marc Wolf, marcjwolf.com
Kuehn photo: Jon Ashley, jonashleyphoto.com

Recording credits:

Paul Eachus, engineer (Clonick Hall, Oberlin Conservatory, Oberlin, Ohio): Chimera (May 14, 2018), Colored Shadows (August 18, 2019), Double Labyrinth (May 12, 2018)

Mikel Kuehn, engineer (Studio 2358, Sylvania, Ohio): Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird (November 12 & 13, 2021)

Ryan Streber, engineer (Oktaven Audio, Mt. Vernon, New York): Entanglements (June 4, 2017), Rite of Passage (June 24, 2017)

Cristoph Thompson, engineer (Music Media Production Studios, Ball State University, Muncie, Indiana): Table Talk (February 6, 2019)

Session producers: Mikel Kuehn and Daniel Lippel (Rite of Passage), Mikel Kuehn (all others)

This recording was made possible in part by generous funding from the Alice M. Ditson Fund at Columbia University and the Ohio Arts Council. Chimera was made possible by a grant from the Fromm Music Foundation. Entanglements was made possible through a commission from the International Contemporary Ensemble

Mikel Kuehn

The music of American composer Mikel Kuehn (b. 1967) has been described as having “sensuous phrases... producing an effect of high abstraction turning into decadence,” by New York Times critic Paul Griffiths. A 2014 Guggenheim Fellow, he has received awards, grants, and residencies from ASCAP and BMI (Student Composer Awards), the Banff Centre, the Barlow Endowment, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (First Hearing Prizes), Composers, Inc. (Lee Ettelson Award), the Copland House, the International Destellos Competition on Electroacoustic Music, the Alice M. Ditson Fund at Columbia University, the Flute New Music Consortium, the Fromm Music Foundation at Harvard, the League of Composers/ISCM, the MacDowell Colony, the Ohio Arts Council, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and Yaddo. His works have been commissioned by the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, Ensemble 21, Ensemble Dal Niente, Flexible Music, the International Contemporary Ensemble, violist John Graham, clarinetist Marianne Gythfeldt, cellist Craig Hultgren, guitarist Daniel Lippel, Perspectives of New Music, pianist Marilyn Nonken, Selmer Paris, and the Spektral Quartet, among others. Kuehn received degrees from the Eastman School of Music (PhD, MA) and the University of North Texas (BM). His music can be heard on his previous New Focus Recordings portrait album, Object/Shadow (2016), as well as on ACA Digital, Centaur, Erol, ICMA, MSR Classics, and Perspectives of New Music/Open Space labels. He is the author of the computer music application nGen.

http://www.mikelkuehn.com

Reviews

5

Klang New Music

Entanglements, a new release by New Focus Recordings, is a portrait album of works by composer Mikel Kuehn containing four duo pieces and three pieces for soloists and electronics. The core concept of the album is an exploration of conversational possibilities between instruments, similar to what one might hear in the music of Elliott Carter or Mario Davidovsky. The album as a whole is quite impressive and showcases Kuehn’s adept talents as a composer, as well as the care and attention to detail exhibited by the performers in interpreting these compositions. As I’ve said with previous albums I’ve reviewed, this is one that not only demands repeated listenings but has me constantly coming back to each piece to hear things I might have missed. No matter how many times I come back to this album I hear something new, always drawing more substance from the music and taking away new aspects of the musical dialogs.

Kuehn’s particular voice fits within a modernist aesthetic with clear compositional/structural rigor that unfolds in a kaleidoscope of constantly shifting and developing materials. Though the pieces are meticulously structured, they all unfold organically, flowing seamlessly from one moment to the next. With each composition, Kuehn guides the listener through a tapestry of both similar and disparate ideas, layered and juxtaposed to create engaging and clear musical narratives. There is also abundant focus on timbre, texture and gesture, conjuring influences of Berio and Saariaho though still uniquely Mikel Kuehn.

There are two collections of works contained on Entanglements, the purely acoustic duos and the three electroacoustic works, all of which are centered around conversational approaches to music making. This can be heard most clearly in the duos, wherein instruments take on unique identities based on pitch language, gestural materials, and other components that make each voice unique. The two voices, be they guitar/harp, flute/piano, flute/marimba, or violin/viola, are in constant dialog. What I find most impressive is how Kuehn interweaves moments of guided improvisation, drawing on his background in jazz, wherein the performers are provided a collection of musical fragments and present them according to loosely guided rules. These moments are almost indistinguishable in terms from the fully composed sections in regard to the conversational nature of the music. Rather than sound like a cacophony of disparate ideas, the performers approach these sections with the utmost care and attention to detail, listening and responding to one another to continue the musical discourse and maintain the dialog, even though the conversation has changed.

The electroacoustic works present interactions between the chosen instrument (soprano voice, viola, bass clarinet) and the electronic sounds, much of which is generated and processed in real time based on the live input of the performer. The electronics for Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, however, are fixed playback and take on a role of supporting and enhancing the performer instead of reacting to and generating material in real time. In regard to Colored Shadows (viola/electronics) and Rite of Passage (bass clarinet/electronics), these pieces present an instrument/player in conversation with themselves, reacting alongside the electronic backdrop. Similar to the acoustic works, these pieces also involve a degree of loose improvisation. I find this to be particularly interesting from a listening standpoint because one is hearing the performer engaging with themselves and computer-generated reactions rather than to another performer with their own agency. And yet, the feeling of dialog, of connection between disparate elements, is maintained. It’s this kind of consistency of craft that makes Kuehn’s music so impressive and so engaging to listen to.

Overall I found this to be an incredibly impressive album, and one that I’ve already revisited numerous times. If you find yourself drawn to the music of Berio, Carter, Davidovsky, or Saariaho I think you’ll find this an enjoyable listen. If you’re already familiar with Kuehn’s music (previous New Focus Release can be found here) then Entanglements won’t let you down.

Also of note are the incredible performances by the following performers:

Deborah Norin-Kuehn, soprano (Track 1, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird)

Conor Nelson, flute (Track 2, Chimera)

Thomas Rosenkranz, piano (Track 2, Chimera)

Daniel Lippel, guitar (Track 3, Entanglements)

Nuiko Wadden, harp (Track 3, Entanglements)

Doyle Armbrust, viola (Track 4, Colored Shadows)

Kenneth J. Cox, flute (Track 5, Double Labyrinth)

Henrique Batista, marimba (Track 5 (Double Labyrithn)

Yu-Fang Chen, violin (Track 6, Table Talk)

Mei-Chun Chen, viola (Track 6, Table Talk)

Marianne Gythfeldt, bass clarinet (Track 7, Rite of Passage)

— Jon Fielder, 10.13.2022

5

Fanfare

By choosing Entanglements as the title for this collection of vocal and chamber works, Mikel Kuehn brings associations to mind that are evocative and provocative at the same time. In physics entanglement is inescapable—it binds everything in spacetime together—and the same holds good in contemporary music. The traditional opposites of consonance and dissonance are enmeshed with each other in an entangled play that fascinates as much as it bewilders. Yet in many ways the ultimate question for a composer is the tangled relationship between structure and expression.

I think this is a fruitful approach to these seven works, particularly because Kuehn has a background in jazz, which values freedom of expression above all. A hazy sonic cloud of electronics offers no solid footing as the sole vocal work on the program, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, begins. Wallace Stevens’s 13 short stanzas are about how reality changes according to your viewpoint. Sometimes the poetry is about a figure against a background: “The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds. / It was a small part of the pantomime.” Musically, this is like a single note inside the entire piece. Sometimes the verse is about ambiguity, where the application to contemporary music is easy to grasp: “I was of three minds, / Like a tree / In which there are three blackbirds.”

Kuehn frames his piece within Stevens’s poetic shiftiness, providing a different miniature soundscape for each verse, even including the electronic equivalent of flapping birds’ wings, twittering, whistling, water running, and the wind whispering. (I take it that some of the sources are real-life recordings.) Soprano Deborah Norin-Kuehn, the composer’s wife, sings with remarkable precision, particularly in her ability to define musical pitches against a background that rarely provides them. The vocal line was radically liberated in Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire, and Kuehn’s piece is a direct descendent. Norin-Kuehn blends with these electronic sound poems not in the notes she sings but in a shared mood—the floating vocal line can suddenly become eerie and haunted. For me, Kuehn’s settings expand Stevens’s poetry quite strikingly, often beautifully, and Norin-Kuehn is the ideal performer.

The expressive use of electronica is clearly one of Kuehn’s strengths, and we get two further examples from his Hyperresonance series. Both are duos, replacing the singer with a viola in Colored Shadows and a bass clarinet in Rite of Passage. The genre of electroacoustic music employs some familiar gestures that Kuehn avails himself of. First, only some of the music is through-composed while leaving room for improvisation (Kuehn’s electronics are live). The timbre of the viola and bass clarinet swing in and out of resonance with the electronics (exhibiting entanglement, one might say). Consonance is used as a gesture in a harmonic free zone.

Within this framework Kuehn’s sensitivity to Stevens’s words is translated into an abstract idiom that isn’t rooted in defined moods. In other hands the result will sound like an exercise in random sonic Jabberwocky. Yet Kuehn’s imagination isn’t unmoored—immediately in Colored Shadows you hear how he revolves everything around the viola. Violist Doyle Armbrust is given a collage of sounds, including traditional melodic bowing, that deconstructs his instrument into gestures (plucking, tapping, trills, scraping, etc.) that speak on their own. There’s a mood behind every gesture underlined by the electronics in a true duet, and the result is quite engaging and accessible. The same holds true, with a change of characters, in Rite of Passage, where the bass clarinet is given a semi-vocal role, in keeping with the instrument’s well-known ability to cry, whine, shriek, grunt, and sing like the human voice. It’s a tribute to Kuehn’s vivid musical inspiration that none of the three works with electronica sounds remotely similar.

Limited space confines me to briefer responses to the four chamber works without electronics: Chimera for flute and piano, Entanglements for guitar and harp, Table Talk for violin and viola, and Double Labyrinth for flute and marimba. The fact that the harp and guitar are both plucked instruments often makes the two indistinguishable here, therefore, perfect choices for calling a piece Entanglements—some moments are like the musical equivalent of an optical illusion. The same is true for the violin and viola in Table Talk, although here their contrasting personalities are more on display. The two works with flute exploit its airy timbre against a percussion instrument, either piano or marimba. In all three works, however, Kuehn proves himself a master of color. His music feels driven forward by timbre more than melody or predictable harmonic modulations.

Besides color, there is an emphasis on the zone between inward silence and gentle lyrical expression. Kuehn avoids the fallback of most electronics composers in particular, which is to deliver shocks and alarums. Born in 1967 and attaining a master’s and doctorate degrees at the Eastman School, Kuehn is a conductor, composer, and teacher at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Teaching positions often have the unfortunate tendency of coaxing artists to conform and fit into an approved idiom. I’m impressed that Kuehn has done neither. These pieces express a unique voice, and it is rare to find an album of contemporary music that is so filled with imagination, color, and expression.

— Huntley Dent , 11.30.2022

5

Infodad

Yet another contemporary-music CD combining voice-and-instrument material with non-vocal works features music by Mikel Kuehn. The difference in this ( ) New Focus Recordings release is that the “instrumental” accompaniment in Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird is not acoustic but electronic. The piece, unfortunately, sounds almost like a parody of contemporary music, the vocal sections swooping up and down, the words used as sound patterns rather than for expression or understandability, and the electronics creating a sonic backdrop that sounds very much like the sonic backdrops for many other examples of electronic music. There is simply nothing special about the design or sound of the piece. The remaining works lack vocal components and offer at least intermittently interesting combinations of instruments or instruments plus electronics. Kuehn is at his most successful when showing his ability to create music for very different combinatorial elements. Thus, Chimera, for flute and piano, often has the keyboard producing flutelike runs and exclamations. Entanglements, for guitar and harp, intriguingly combines the very different types of strings and forms of playing of the two instruments, producing a number of unexpected sound palettes; this is the most creatively conceived and scored work on the disc. Colored Shadows, for viola and electronics, is, on the other hand, rather ordinary in the way it juxtaposes the viola – rendered screechy rather than warm – with unsurprising electronic elements. Double Labyrinth, for flute and marimba, does not explore the multiplicity of contrasting effects of these two very different instruments as interestingly as it might; indeed, the performers seem mostly independent of each other, and accordingly the work sounds disconnected. On the other hand, Table Talk, for violin and viola, places the two stringed instruments firmly in the same place, but does not do anything particularly interesting or unexpected with either of them, or with the combination of the two. And Rite of Passage, for bass clarinet and electronics, although it does explore the wind instrument’s deeper range, again uses electronic effects that add little to the overall sound picture. Kuehn manages to evoke some engaging effects in some of these pieces, but none of them contains enough ideas or a sufficient amount of exploratory material to be fully convincing – although Entanglements, thanks to its unusual and unusually well-explored instrumental combination, comes closest to giving the audience a fully satisfying experience, if scarcely one that goes beyond the tried-and-true contemporary-chamber-music genre.

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