Composer Mikel Kuehn, a 2014 Guggenheim Fellow, writes music that is deftly structured, exquisitely orchestrated, and imbued with an ideal balance between deep pathos and intellectual rigor. Heard here in performances by Chicago based Ensemble Dal Niente, Flexible Music, percussionist Gregory Beyer, guitarist Daniel Lippel, cellist Craig Hultgren, and BGSU Saxophone Ensemble, and with in depth liner notes by flutist/composer/new music icon Harvey Sollberger, Kuehn's music takes the high modernist tradition as a starting point, creating works of rich depth that reward repeat listenings.
|Undercurrents for 14 instruments (2013)
Undercurrents for 14 instruments (2013)
|Ensemble Dal Niente, Michael Lewanski, conductor
|Devouring Time for solo marimba (2010/2014)
Devouring Time for solo marimba (2010/2014)
|Gregory Beyer, marimba
|Chiaroscuro [Hyperresonance II] for cello and electroacoustics (2007)
Chiaroscuro [Hyperresonance II] for cello and electroacoustics (2007)
|Craig Hultgren, cello
|Color Fields for tenor saxophone, vibraphone, guitar, and piano (2006/2008)
Color Fields for tenor saxophone, vibraphone, guitar, and piano (2006/2008)
|Flexible Music: Timothy Ruedeman, tenor saxophone; Haruka Fujii, vibraphone; Daniel Lippel, guitar; Eric Huebner, piano
|Objet/Ombre [Hyperresonance III] for 12 saxophones and electroacoustics (2008)
Objet/Ombre [Hyperresonance III] for 12 saxophones and electroacoustics (2008)
|BGSU Saxophone Ensemble
|Unfoldings for solo guitar (2004)
Unfoldings for solo guitar (2004)
|Daniel Lippel, guitar
|Between the Lynes for flute, cello, and piano (1994)
Between the Lynes for flute, cello, and piano (1994)
|Ensemble Dal Niente
2014 Guggenheim fellow Mikel Kuehn's Object/Shadow includes works written over a twenty year span, for soloists and ensembles, with and without electronics, and highlights Kuehn’s virtuosic compositional craft and poignant artistic voice. In the liner notes, flutist/composer/icon Harvey Sollberger describes a dilemma — how should contemporary composers come to terms with the legacy of modernism as laid out by luminaries such as Boulez, Babbitt, Stockhausen, Carter, and Xenakis. Sollberger writes, “the project of Modernism after them has remained wide-open in its possibilities, leaving composers of the next generation to confront the issue of what to do (or not do) with it: to run with the ball, that is to embrace and extend the Modernist tradition in all its implications; to adopt only its more superficial qualities while jettisoning the rest; or to ignore it and go with the more easygoing flow.” Sollberger’s notes, and the remarkable music on this recording, testify with conviction to the fact that Mikel Kuehn has decidedly chosen to “run with the ball,” building his oeuvre on the depth of craft and the breadth of compositional inquiry that is at the core of the modernist project, while expanding further into realms reflective of contemporary aesthetic directions. Writing with a finely tuned sense of orchestration, Kuehn’s music balances rigorous pitch choice with attractive foreground textures. Undercurrents, the largest work on the disc, highlights hybrid timbres between sub-groups of the ensemble, a technique grounded in the music of the first generation of modernists. Chiaroscuro and Objet/Ombre are works from a larger series of electroacoustic pieces by Kuehn called Hyperresonance, which also fuse composite textures, though here Kuehn’s symbiotic relationships exist between live instruments and electronics. In Color Fields written for Flexible Music, we hear a different side of Kuehn’s voice, informed by the group’s instrumentation as well as his background in jazz. Referencing Louis Andriessen’s iconic canon, Hout, Kuehn adapts the compositional technique to his purposes, treating the shifting canonic order and pairings like a Rubix cube to create a prismatic texture. The strength of this collection of pieces ultimately lies with the maturity of Kuehn’s artistry; here is a composer who has patiently honed an integrated aesthetic rooted in tradition but which is forward looking. He now invites us into his compositional world with this comprehensive collection of sublime chamber works.
Design/CD Layout: Stefan Kuehn (www.skuehndesign.com)
Engineers: Dan Nichols (Tracks 1, 2, 7), Mark Bunce (Tracks 3, 5), Ryan Streber (Track 6), Christopher Jacobs (Track 4)
Mixing, Mastering, Post-Production: Ryan Streber, OktavenAudio.com
Digital Editors: Dan Nichols (Track 1, 2, 7), Mikel Kuehn (Track 3, 5), Christopher Jacobs (Track 4); Ryan Streber (Track 6)
Recording Locations/Dates: Recital Hall, Northern Illinois University, De Kalb, IL, 1/31/2015 to 2/12/15 (Tracks 1, 2, 7); Bryan Recital Hall, Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, OH 10/19/2008 (Track 3) and 11/13/2010 (Track 5); Lippes Concert Hall, SUNY Buffalo, Buffalo, NY (Track 4); Southcrest Studio, Huntington, NY (Track 6)
Executive Producers: Mikel Kuehn and Daniel Lippel
Session producers: Mikel Kuehn, Michael Lewanski (Track 1); Gregory Beyer, Mikel Kuehn (Track 2); Mikel Kuehn (Track 3); Flexible Music, Christopher Jacobs (Track 4) Christopher Chandler, Mikel Kuehn, Andrew Martin Smith (Track 5) Daniel Lippel, Ryan Streber (Track 6); Mikel Kuehn, Michael Lewanski, Chris Wild (Track 7)
Edit producers: Mikel Kuehn (Tracks 1, 2, 3, 5, 7), Daniel Lippel (Tracks 4, 6)
Liner Notes: Harvey Sollberger
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
This sharp portrait of composer Mikel Kuehn, one of the most rigorous and challenging American composers of the last two decades, explores the span of his repertoire with great precision and craft. Most of the seven works presented here—written between 1994 and 2014—draw inspiration from the work of earlier American modernists, whether Milton Babbitt (“Between the Lynes,” played by Chicago’s Ensemble Dal Niente) or Elliott Carter (“Devouring Time,” a solo marimba work performed here by the superb Gregory Beyer, with a swelling lushness and keen articulation), but knowledge of the work that preceded Kuehn’s isn’t necessary to appreciate his music on its own. One of the strongest pieces in the collection, a piece for solo cello and electronics performed by Craig Hultgren called “Chiaroscuro,” is unmoored from such historical roots; instead, the five-section work explores the interaction between live cello and pre-recorded, electronically-altered cello recordings. It’s gritty and marked by sharp discord, but the collision of live and electronically-rendered cello parts is fascinating, with constantly-shifting perspectives—sometimes the blend is utterly cogent, flowing with common purpose, and sometimes the two components tussle, with visceral screams and cries. Other pieces are deftly performed by Flexible Music, guitarist Daniel Lippel, and the BGSU Saxophone Ensemble.
- Peter Margasak, Best of Bandcamp Daily Contemporary Classical, 1.25.17
An encompassing portrait of American composer Mikel Kuehn (b. 1967) emerges from this varied collection, its seven pieces performed by a number of different instrumental configurations and its contents ranging from solo and ensemble works to electroacoustic settings. Kuehn's composing style isn't beholden to any one stylistic group or tradition, even if it emerged out of the considerable collective shadow of Schoenberg, Stockhausen, Ligeti, Lutoslawski, and others. In this case it would be more accurate to say that such influences have been so thoroughly absorbed into the 2014 Guggenheim Fellow's material that what appears on Object/Shadow sounds like Kuehn and no one else.
The release is enhanced by Harvey Sollberger's in-depth liner notes, which provide invaluable insight into the recording's selections and the composer himself. Sollberger succinctly describes, for example, a central dilemma faced by contemporary composers, specifically whether to adopt selective aspects of Modernism and ignore the rest (or reject it altogether, as some have attempted) or embrace and extend the tradition. Sollberger's contention is that Kuehn chose the latter route, obviously the more difficult choice of those available but an admirable one marked by integrity and courage. Sollberger also excels at identifying specific characteristics of Kuehn's composing style, noting, for instance, that while a typical piece might be carefully engineered and meticulously arranged, it never sounds laboured but instead unfolds organically. Kuehn's handling of pitch, rhythm, transitions, and timbre is also discussed, as is his propensity for dividing ensembles into sub-groupings within a composition and his music's tendency to proceed on several different layers at once, such that the distinct parts both operate independently and in accordance with one another. As a review can only scratch the surface of what's happening in a given Kuehn setting, anyone wanting a more comprehensive analysis need look no further than Sollberger's text.
No better piece illustrates such aspects than 2013's Undercurrents, an ambitious fifteen-minute setting that the Chicago-based Ensemble Dal Niente (conducted by Michael Lewanski) executes with poise. Though its opening flourishes might call to mind Alban Berg, the piece gradually establishes itself as a Kuehn portrait in microcosm and showcases in particular his talents as an orchestrator and mood sculptor. Melodic fragments flit rapidly from one instrument to the next, with woodwinds, guitar, strings, piano, harp, and percussion collectively marshaling the work into being, each instrument adding critical tone colour to the multi-layered design.
Composed in honour of Elliott Carter's 100th birthday, Devouring Time offers a perhaps slightly easier point of entry for Kuehn's music given that it features a single instrument, in this case marimba. Interestingly, too, the piece can be seen as symbolic of Kuehn's composing philosophy in that it draws from Carter's legacy (by transforming a technique associated with his 1994 solo piano work 90+) while also building upon it. In like manner, 2004's Unfoldings presents a solo guitar setting realized with exquisite attention to detail by Daniel Lippel, the work's title referencing a progressive unfolding involving a series of six chords and resonant voicings stemming from them. The most immediately accessible piece is arguably Color Fields (2006/2008), to some degree because its arrangement for tenor saxophone, vibraphone, guitar, and piano allows each voice to declare itself with maximum clarity. The rapid, rhythmically driven setting also adds a hint of jazz flavour to the album while at the same time suggesting allusions to Louis Andriessen and even Kurt Weill. The earliest work on the recording, 1994's Between the Lynes likewise offers an accessible sampling of Kuehn's music in featuring a trio arrangement for for flute, cello, and piano.
His embrace of electroacoustic music's possibilities are intimated by the inclusion of 2007's Chiaroscuro and 2008's Objet/Ombre, the first featuring cellist Craig Hultgren and the second the BGSU Saxophone Ensemble; both works derive from a larger cycle of electroacoustic pieces the composer has titled Hyperresonance, which focuses on combining live instruments with electronics in real-time. Admittedly no one will come away from Object/Shadow whistling Kuehn's melodies, but that's clearly not his primary concern. In demanding much from himself, he demands much from the listener, too, the expectation being that listeners must bring their fullest powers of concentration to the material to reap the greatest possible reward from it. Without question the seventy-one-minute collection flatters Kuehn as a composer but even more importantly as an artist of integrity intent on extending the Modernist tradition into the 21st century. -- Ron Schepper, textura, 1.2017
Released in November last year, Object/Shadow is an overview of works written in the two decades between 1994-2014 by the American composer, Mikel Kuehn.
Undercurrents for 14 instruments, deft, almost pointilliste textural gestures – a splash of cymbal, a shimmer of vibraphone, a ripple in the piano – combine to create a music that is constantly shifting, as is the scuttling solo marimba of Devouring Time.
Chiaroscuro, for solo cello and electronics, comes to life with percussive taps and slaps on the cello’s body, and fades out in a shimmering cloud of colour. Colour Fields is written for the unusual quartet of tenor saxophone, guitar, vibraphone and piano, an ensemble revelling in a modernist soundworld; saxophone and guitar often step together, answered by vibraphone and piano, in a distinct and bustling dialogue between the instruments.
Object/Ombre for twelve saxophones and electronics creates some especially exciting, darkly ominous colours. The piece for solo instrument unadorned by electronics, Unfoldings for solo guitar, cannot help but bring Tippett’s lyrical The Blue Guitar to mind, although there’s a greater nervous energy about Kuehn’s piece, matched by some vibrant colours. The disc concludes with the darting, playful Between the Lynes for cello, flute and piano, indebted perhaps to …explosante fixe… by Boulez.
The survey on this excellently-recorded disc convinces the listener of Kuehn’s compositional integrity; in an age when it’s all too easy for composers to leap aboard bandwagons or write for particularly popular groups and soundworlds, especially if it garners a popular response, Kuehn’s carefully-crafted soundscapes are realised in a manner that utterly liberates their ideas, rather than being imposed on them for the purpose of novelty or gimmickry. There’s a fluidity and a maturity to the writing that makes this disc particularly satisfying. Like the music of Dai Fujikura, for instance, it avoids traditional ensembles and instrumental line-ups to pursue a sonic landscape of the composer’s own hearing.
Performed by Ensemble Dal Niente, Flexible Music, the BGSU Saxophone Ensemble and instrumentalists, Object/Shadow is released on the New Focus Recordings label.
— Dan Harding, Shock of the New, 6.21.2017
The results of the musical revolution that Modernism midwived during the last century are still with us. At one time a matter of novelty, the possibilities Modernism opened up—regarding pitch relationships, the role of timbre, and musical syntax—have grown into a kind of alternative common practice whose strategies are always already available to contemporary composers.
For composer Mikel Kuehn (b. 1967), the common practice of Modernism is a notable presence animating his work. Kuehn, who is Professor of Composition at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, began as a percussionist while in his teens in the Los Angeles area. Like many composers of his generation, his background includes jazz and other musics outside of the Western classical tradition. Some of these eclectic influences can be felt in his compositions as, for example, in their instrumentation. But on Object/Shadow, the first full release dedicated to his music, Modernism, with its expansive pitch and timbral vocabularies and especially its divisionist syntax, is the central point of reference.
On the ensemble pieces Undercurrents (2013), Color Fields (2006/2008) and Between the Lynes (1994), Kuehn employs Modernist-derived strategies for handling textures and phrasing. On all three pieces, he treats the surfaces as complex, colorful mosaics made up of small, irregularly-shaped tiles, foregrounding different instruments or instrumental combinations as brief, constantly changing events. The tensions created by these fragmentary textures are complemented by unresolved dissonances and phrase endings left dangling like open and unanswered questions. Those are general observations; each of the pieces has attractions of its own. Color Fields, for example, written for and performed here by the Flexible Music quartet of tenor saxophone (Timothy Ruedeman), vibes (Haruka Fujii), guitar (Daniel Lippel) and piano (Eric Huebner), like Milton Babbitt’s All Set takes a jazz ensemble and turns it to abstract uses. Whereas All Set broke the ensemble down into constantly changing subgroups, Color Fields is notable for combining instruments into a single line of composite timbre. The contrast of staccato and sustaining voices sounding in parallel gives the piece a restless push, as do the generally long, propulsive phrases running through it. Between the Lynes for flute, cello, and piano, the oldest work represented, is also the closest in sound to a mid-20th Century, broken-surfaced serial composition. It’s a gratifying excursion into audio painting: Like pieces falling in a turning kaleidoscope, the three voices—Ensemble Dal Niente’s Emma Hospelhorn, Chris Wild, and Winston Choi–combine and divide into quick, short-lived alliances and oppositions.
Unfoldings (2004), a solo guitar work written for and played by Lippel, treats color nuances within the more restricted palette of a single instrument. The composition consists in a subdued drama built on the different timbral characteristics of open and stopped strings, harmonics, varied chord voicings, and the placement of the right hand relative to the bridge. Lippel’s sensitive and unhurried performance brings out the fine-grained shadings this subtle work calls for. Chiaroscuro (2007) also focuses on the timbres of a single instrument, but the sounds here are enhanced and multiplied by virtue of having the solo instrument—a cello—augmented by its own pre-recorded and manipulated sounds. As a result, Chiaroscuro is as bold as Unfoldings is temperate; Craig Hutgren’s robust realization foregrounds percussive strikes, microtonal clashes, and deliberately harsh bowing.
A fine and stimulating collection of music.
— Daniel Barbiero, 7.10.2017, Avant Music News