Lancaster, Pennsylvania based NakedEye Ensemble, directed by Ju-Ping Song, releases A Series of Indecipherable Glyphs, a collection of works for chamber ensemble that take inspiration from rock music. NakedEye's instrumentation lends itself to the association, featuring searing electric guitar parts, growling saxophone solos, and dynamic percussion. Framed around an arrangement of Frank Zappa's Sinister Footwear II, NakedEye presents dynamic works by Molly Joyce, Richard Belcastro, Whitney George, Aaron Jay Myers, Rusty Banks, and Nick Didkovsky.
Amalia’s SecretNick Didkovsky
|01||I. An Especially Fine Dress Rag|
I. An Especially Fine Dress Rag
|02||II. Amalia, Hanging in a Painting|
II. Amalia, Hanging in a Painting
|03||III. Two Heads, Sitting Together, Snapping the Dreams of Your Sap|
III. Two Heads, Sitting Together, Snapping the Dreams of Your Sap
|04||IV. Swallow the Neck of the Guest Who Hisses When You Pass|
IV. Swallow the Neck of the Guest Who Hisses When You Pass
|05||V. Amalia’s Secret (Modelled After the One For Your Parents)|
V. Amalia’s Secret (Modelled After the One For Your Parents)
|06||VI. The Smallest Glimmer Disturbs Them|
VI. The Smallest Glimmer Disturbs Them
|07||VII. A Weak Little Gentleman, Gazing, Too Dumb to Wonder|
VII. A Weak Little Gentleman, Gazing, Too Dumb to Wonder
|08||VIII. The Letter Opened, the Bottle Broken|
VIII. The Letter Opened, the Bottle Broken
|09||IX. Shamefaced Smiles and the Back of Frailty|
IX. Shamefaced Smiles and the Back of Frailty
|10||X. All Debts Owed Paid, She’d Survive This Too|
X. All Debts Owed Paid, She’d Survive This Too
|11||Sinister Footwear II|
Sinister Footwear II
|12||[These Hands] Hold Nothing|
[These Hands] Hold Nothing
|13||Dum Spectas Fugio|
Dum Spectas Fugio
|14||Less is More|
Less is More
On their new release, A Series of Undecipherable Glyphs, Lancaster, Pennsylvania based NakedEye Ensemble focuses on mixed ensemble works influenced by rock music. From works by Zappa to Aaron Jay Myers to Molly Joyce, NakedEye presents music that is invariably shaped by the inclusion of electric guitar, saxophone, and percussion. The result is an album that toggles between music that conjures the spirit of 70’s jazz/rock fusion and works that have more of an atmospheric, post-minimalist sensibility.
The album opens with Nick Didkovsky’s Amalia’s Secret, a collection of ten miniatures whose musical material is derived from an automatic music generation software Didkovsky designed called Nerve2.hmsl. Twelve musical parameters are established and chance operations and statistical formulas populate the fields, resulting in related but independent instrumental parts. The piece is anything but mechanical however, as off-kilter rhythmic loops, conversational duos, metal inspired distorted riffs, hypnotic ostinatos, and meditative textures combine into a balanced suite of contrasting sounds.
The music in Frank Zappa’s Sinister Footwear II appeared in several contexts in his output, including as a part of a three movement ballet and within the live set of his touring bands in the late 70s. Zappa’s music calls for a unique kind of mastery, of rhythmic complexity in a groove oriented, driving rhythmic context. The taut unison rhythms, overlapping percolating loops, and whammy bar infused guitar solo in Mike Bitts’ 2015 arrangement for NakedEye capture the enthusiasm for eclecticism that characterized Zappa and his cohort.Read More
The next three works on the album all engage with very regular pulse, shifting material around it to create a dialogue between static and changeable elements. Whitney George’s [These Hands] Hold Nothing is organized around a steady quarter note, the mechanical ticking of a clock (the “hands” of the title). Flowing, repetitive lines evolve around this fixed pulse, emerging to the foreground and then receding again. The ambient texture is occasionally interrupted by a pulse at a different tempo than the “clock,” introducing momentary rhythmic dissonance into the texture. Rusty Banks’ Dum Spectas Fugio also places clocks front and center. Banks created a kind of “prepared ensemble,” assigning pre-recorded clock sounds to instrumental notes, building glitchy machines of sound that illuminate how time, though fundamentally unchanging, can be perceived at different speeds depending on context. Molly Joyce’s Less is More includes a lighting part in live performance, adding a visual parameter to the aesthetic experience. The music is spare and carefully considered, with a notable tempo increase at its midpoint that represents a structural marker.
Aaron Jay Myers’ Strabismus returns to the Zappa sound world, with intricate unison ensemble rhythms that split into prismatic multi-layered textures. Jagged, mixed meter edges propel the music forward. The bass articulates airy, mysterious grooves as the treble instruments dot the soundscape with chordal washes and fleeting gestures, and hocketed gestures bounce around with visceral energy.
NakedEye finishes this release with Richard Belcastro’s Nepetalactone, a musical portrait of the effects of catnip on its feline subjects. After a sleepy intro, the cat ingests some of the energizing element, and the music shifts into a higher gear. A bluesy shuffle groove underlies slinky unison melodic lines, as Belcastro slowly develops the ideas, chopping the motives up into small parts. A slow middle section is characterized by free, exploratory material before the catnip kicks in again and the piece settles into a 7/8 groove for climactic saxophone and guitar solos.
– Dan Lippel
Produced by Ju-Ping Song
Recorded and mixed by Chad Kinsey
Mastering by Ryan Streber, Oktaven
Photo Art by Kenneth Kurtz
Graphic design by Marc Wolf, marcjwolf.com
An eclectic eight-member electro-acoustic ensemble with classical, rock, and jazz DNA, award-winning NakedEye Ensemble commissions and performs seminal works by cross-over and cutting-edge composers. Presenting music of the imagination utilizing acoustic, electric, toy, kitchen, and noise-making instruments, NakedEye’s body of repertoire reflects the group’s mission to innovate and explore musical expression outside of convention. From notated works to guided improvisations for flexible instrumentation, the group has established a new music presence in its home city from which it collaborates with composers and performers to import and export musical works in a rich, ongoing artistic exchange. NakedEye believes in the power of new music to surprise, uplift, and change. Commissioned works have received first prize at NYC’s UnCaged Toy Piano Composition Competition (2011) and grants from New Music USA (2014, 2017). NakedEye's mission is supported by Thomas A. and Georgina T. Russo Family Foundation, Pennsylvania Council of the Arts, and individual donors. Based in Lancaster, PA, NakedEye Ensemble is led by pianist Ju-Ping Song.
A Series of Indecipherable Glyphs (New Focus Recording) is an eclectic album by Pennsylvania-based group the Naked Eye Ensemble. If you’re not familiar with this ensemble I suggest giving them a listen. They’re a unique blend of modern classical, avant-garde, experimental rock-crossover and electro-acoustic band, all of which is featured on this stunning album. The album features original pieces by composers Nick Didkovsky, Whitney George, Rusty Banks, Molly Joyce, Aaron Jay Myers, Richard Belcastro, and an arrangement of Frank Zappa’s Sinister Footwear II. The album as a whole is a wonderful showcase of the composers - a number of whom wrote their pieces specifically for this group - but also demonstrates the versatility of the group and their ability to seamlessly weave in and out of any genre with ease.
The album opens with Amelia’s Secret, a suite of 10 pieces by Nick Didkovsky. The material for each piece was derived through the composer’s custom software called Nerve2.hmsl, which uses algorithmic and stochastic processes to generate musical material. The end result is 10 highly unique postcard pieces that feature Didkovsky’s very idiosyncratic sound world that fuses heavy metal idioms with modernism and classical traditions. It covers the gamut from hypnotic swirling textures to dense interwoven counterpoint and walls of sound. Overall, Amelia’s Secret is an impressive collection of pieces that serve as a good introduction to Nick’s music, as well as a showcase of the versatility of the ensemble and a great opener for the album
The second piece featured on the album is an arrangement of Frank Zappa’s Sinister Footwear II - the version found on Zappa’s 1984 album Them or Us. The ensemble executes Zappa’s intricate rhythmic complexity and overlapping melodic phrasing with seeming ease. The standout for me, as a huge Zappa disciple, is Chad Kinsey’s guitar solo. Zappa devotees will probably know that the guitar feature on this particular piece is a key feature with a long list of guitarists who have contributed to recordings. Kinsey’s solo is a mesmerizing onslaught acting as a centerpiece in the middle of the arrangement that transitions perfectly into the thematic material of the 2nd half. If you’re a Zappa fan then this is a must-listen, and if you’re not a Zappa fan then this might make you a convert.
The next two pieces on the album share a connection in that they are centered around the concept of time while utilizing recordings of clocks and repetition of a steady pulse. Whitney George’s [These Hands] Hold Nothing, scored for guitar, bass, vibraphone, piano and electronics, opens with reocrdings of mechanical and clocklike sounds (the “hands”) that culminate in an explosive pulse. The piece quickly becomes a dichotomy of consistent quarter note pulse that gets passed around the ensemble while the other instruments decorate around it with tintinnabuli, lyrical melodies and interruptions. There are also brief moments of rhythmic dissonance in which some voices break from the strict duple divisions to create rhythmic and temporal dissonances within the framework. George’s piece is a wonderful example of really dedicating a work to a single concept and drawing as many possibilities out of a singular idea, especially one so simple and direct. It’s a piece that derives its beauty from the details of the whole and exploration of moments as they develop and change over time, even though the piece maintains a consistent identity throughout
Following George’s captivating work is Rusty Banks Dum Spectas Fugio (while you watch, I flee; a common phrase often found on and associated with sundials and clocks. Banks’ piece also focuses on strict pulse with auditory references to machines and specifically to clocks, similar to George in that regard but different in that it takes on a more active, playful and rhythmically varied approach. It is scored for flute, clarinet, saxophone, cello, guitar, bass, percussion, piano/controller, but it could be said that this piece is scored for “prepared mixed ensemble” in which each member takes on a different type of cock sound through assigning pre-recorded clock sounds to accompany the more traditional timbres. The piece floats between different approaches to time - strict and constant, slow, fast, pulsed but sustained juxtaposed against pulsed and articulate. The central idea is that time can maintain a certain identity, but the rate at which we perceive it can change depending on context. I think that concept is executed quite well, and even if that central core were to get lost in the translation I would still find this a very engaging and rewarding listen
The fifth work on the album continues the focus on repetition and minimalist approaches with Molly Joyce’s aptly titled Less Is More for piano and percussion. This one stands out being the only duo composition on the album (with the exception of selections from Didkovsky’s suite), so that alone sets it apart. The central focus of consistent pulse is established right out of the gate with the piano playing a single note in tandem with a kick drum. Over time new notes and melodic fragments are injected into the framework and doubled by the percussionist on glockenspiel. Similar to George’s work, this is also a wonderful example of dedicating oneself to a single idea and exploring it thoroughly. While that is a central tenet of minimalism, I don’t know that I would necessarily label this piece as simply minimalist because of the variation from moment to moment, even though the pulse and repetition is at the center of the structural framework. There is a noticeable change in tempo that occurs near the midpoint of the piece in which lower piano octaves are introduced, the energy intensifies and the melodic fragments that once interrupted sparingly become the central focus of the musical fabric
The penultimate piece on the album is Aaron Jay Myers’ stunning Strabismus for flute, clarinet, saxophone, guitar, bass, drum set, piano; a rock and jazz inspired composition that evokes many of the same idioms one hears in the Zappa arrangement earlier in the album. Strabismus contains intricate rhythms, unison melodies, bombastic interruptions, frenetic energy and a harmonic palette that exists comfortably in both modernist styles and experimental rock or heavy metal. Myers takes full advantage of the unique instrumentation of the Naked Eye Ensemble and their ability to fluidly drift in and out of various styles and aesthetics with an organic flow from one section to another, creating an interesting and engrossing musical narrative. In contrast to the preceding works, Myers focuses on moment-to-moment instrument interactions, variations of the similar materials passed through different timbres, elongations and tructations of ideas, hocketed melodies, and rhythmic counterpoint. Overall I found this to be a wonderful piece that demands repeated listens to catch all of the rapid-fire musical detail and nuance.
If you’ve ever wondered what a piece inspired by catnip might sound like, look no further than Richard Belcastro’s Nepetalactone, for the full ensembl. This piece is similar in style/aesthetic to Myers’ in that there is a much clearer influence of rock and jazz, as well as the use of heavily pulsed intricate rhythmic interplay within the entire ensemble, but both works maintain a clear sense of the composers’ unique identities. As I stated previously, the central concept of the piece is an exploration of the effects of catnip on cats. The piece shifts in and out of calm placid music juxtaposed against frantic, exciting and energetic sections with shifting pulsed infectious grooves. The formal structure offers a calm opening with a marked change in the second section introducing the first rock-inspired section that eventually fades into another period of calm reflection. The final section of the piece begins just after the midpoint of the recording and extends through the end and returns to the previous groove-oriented material from earlier. While still frenetic it eventually settles into a consistent 7|8 with combating saxophone and guitar solos. In the same way the Didkovsky was a great showcase of the ensemble’s breadth, Belcastro’s piece is a very fitting end for what is a really stellar and exciting album from start to finish
I really cannot recommend this highly eclectic and beautifully recorded album enough. There is guaranteed to be something in there for everyone, and I feel would serve as a great primer for anyone who might want to dip their toe in the world of contemporary music.
The Naked Eye Ensemble Is: Susanna Loewy (flutes), Christy Banks (clarinets), Ryan Kauffman (saxophones), Peter Kibbe (cello), Chad Kinsey (electric guitar), Mike Bitts (electric bass), Darren Lin (percussion) and Ju-Ping Song (piano/keyboards, founder).