The Bright and Hollow SkyNathan Davis & International Contemporary Ensemble

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Inspired by natural processes and acoustic phenomena, composer and percussionist Nathan Davis makes music that elucidates essential characters of instruments and the fragile athletics of playing them.


The architect Louis Kahn once stood before a group of students, held up a brick, and asked it what it wanted to be.
“I like an arch,” the brick responded.
“But Brick,” Kahn quipped, “arches are expensive, and I can use a concrete lintel over you. What do you think of that?”
“I like an arch,” the brick responded.

Kahn addressed the monumental extremes of modern architecture with an ancient Platonic appeal: let things be as they are, not as you want them to be.

When Nathan Davis sat down to write pneApnea, he picked up a flute for the first time in his life, blew into it, and listened to the sound it produced. He blew into it again, and listened again. He scribbled a few notes to himself. Another breath, another sound, another scribble… a compositional process borne out of an ethic of exploration, and a basic respect for what musical instruments want to do. Likewise, The Mechanics of Escapement was the product both of months learning the overtones and clackings of a particular toy piano (exploration quite evident to those of us who share studio space with Nathan), and an apprenticeship with a master woodworker to custom-build clock chimes by hand.

There are no “concrete lintels” in this music: no synthesized electronics, no taming of unwieldy instruments. Where Nathan’s music sounds the most complex, it is in fact the most simple, as in the rich microtonal sonorities Like sweet bells jangled, created with a simple ring modulation of just intervals; or the rich bell-like overtone clusters in Dowser, which in their dense virtuosity elucidate the most basic acoustic properties of the bass clarinet.

Nathan is equally a composer and a performer, and for him those two worlds flow seamlessly into one another. Like so many percussionists, he bears the influence of Indonesian Gamelan and Indian Karnatic music; innately spiritual traditions in which percussion music plays a purifying role, making Earth inhabitable for spiritual beings. Likewise, the proud, spacious sonorities and the slow, irregular march procession of The Bright and Hollow Sky resound as a kind of invocation, initiating uncertain rituals.

There is a unity in Nathan’s craft: for him, the percussionist’s innate curiosity for new musical resources is equally the composer’s fascination with confronting sound on its own terms. There is also a collegiality. While each of the compositions on this album bears a deeply felt respect for the acoustic properties of instruments, these works were written for people, not devices. As a member of the International Contemporary Ensemble, Nathan has intimate musical relationships with each of the performers on this recording; idiomatic writing and these commanding performances—from Claire Chase’s tightly controlled pnea (breaths) and frenzied apnea (breathlessness) to Peter Evans’ virtuosic multiphonics in The Bright and Hollow Sky—are the fruit of close artistic friendships.

One cannot help but listen to this music. Not just hear, but listen. Each struck crotale sends a cloud of incense billowing through the room, each throbbing breath into the clarinet forces a collective exhalation of musty, distracted air. The acoustic space is changed, made sacred. In his fascination with acoustic purity, his reverence for the historic sacredness of resonant bodies, and his close relationships with his performers, Nathan is a 21st century Louis Kahn: an artist for whom the world of objects and the world of ideas are one and the same.

-Whit Bernard

Recorded and mastered by Ryan Streber

Recorded at EMPAC, Smith College, and Oktaven Audio
Editing and electronic processing by Nathan Davis
Analog ring modulator built by Joshua Rubin
Clock Chime instruments built by John Roche and Nathan Davis
Cd Layout design by Nathan Davis
All works written for the International Contemporary Ensemble
Produced by Nathan Davis

International Contemporary Ensemble

With a commitment to cultivating a more curious and engaged society through music, the International Contemporary Ensemble – as a commissioner and performer at the highest level – amplifies creators whose work propels and challenges how music is made and experienced. The Ensemble’s 39 members are featured as soloists, chamber musicians, commissioners, and collaborators with the foremost musical artists of our time. Works by emerging composers have anchored the Ensemble’s programming since its founding in 2001, and the group’s recordings and digital platforms highlight the many voices that weave music’s present.

Acclaimed as “America’s foremost new-music group” (The New Yorker), the Ensemble has become a leading force in new music throughout the last 20 years, having premiered over 1,000 works and having been a vehicle for the workshop and performance of thousands of works by student composers across the U.S. The Ensemble’s composer-collaborators—many who were unknown at the time of their first Ensemble collaboration—have fundamentally shaped its creative ethos and have continued to highly visible and influential careers, including MacArthur Fellow Tyshawn Sorey; long-time Ensemble collaborator, founding member, and 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winner Du Yun; and the Ensemble’s founder, 2012 MacArthur Fellow, and first-ever flutist to win Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Prize, Claire Chase.

A recipient of the American Music Center’s Trailblazer Award and the Chamber Music America/ASCAP Award for Adventurous Programming, the International Contemporary Ensemble was also named Musical America’s Ensemble of the Year in 2014. The group has served as artists-in-residence at Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival (2008-2020), Ojai Music Festival (2015-17), and the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (2010-2015). In addition, the Ensemble has presented and performed at festivals in the U.S. such as Big Ears Festival and Opera Omaha’s ONE Festival, as well as abroad, including GMEM-Centre National de Création Musicale (CNCM) de Marseille, Vértice at Cultura UNAM, Warsaw Autumn, International Summer Courses for New Music in Darmstadt, and Cité de la Musique in Paris. Other performance stages have included the Park Avenue Armory, ice floes at Greenland’s Diskotek Sessions, Brooklyn warehouses, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and boats on the Amazon River.

The International Contemporary Ensemble advances music technology and digital communications as an empowering tool for artists from all backgrounds. Digitice provides high-quality video documentation for artist-collaborators and provides access to an in-depth archive of composers’ workshops and performances. The Ensemble regularly engages new listeners through free concerts and interactive, educational programming with lead funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Curricular activities include a partnership at The New School’s College of Performing Arts (CoPA), along with a summer intensive program, called Ensemble Evolution, where topics of equity, diversity, and inclusion build new bridges and pathways for the future of creative sound practices. Yamaha Artist Services New York is the exclusive piano provider for the Ensemble. Read more at and watch over 350 videos of live performances and documentaries at

The International Contemporary Ensemble’s performances and commissioning activities during the 2023-24 concert season are made possible by the generous support of the Ensemble’s board, many individuals, as well as the Mellon Foundation, Howard Gilman Foundation, Jerome Foundation, Fan Fox and Leslie R. Samuels Foundation, Aaron Copland Fund for Music Inc., Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation, Francis Goelet Charitable Lead Trusts, The Cheswatyr Foundation, Amphion Foundation, The Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, New Music USA’s Organizational Development Fund, Alice M. Ditson Fund of Columbia University, BMI Foundation, as well as public funds from the National Endowment for the Arts, New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, the New York State Council for the Arts with the support of Governor Kathy Hochul and the New York State Legislature, the Illinois Arts Council Agency, and the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant (SVOG) from the U.S. Small Business Administration. The International Contemporary Ensemble was the Ensemble in Residence of the Nokia Bell Labs Experiments in Art and Technology from 2018-2021. Yamaha Artist Services New York is the exclusive piano provider for the International Contemporary Ensemble.

Nathan Davis

Inspired by natural phenomena and the abstraction of simple stories, Nathan Davis "writes music that deals deftly and poetically with timbre and sonority" (NYTimes), elucidating the acoustics of instruments and the fragile athleticism of playing them.

The BAM Next Wave Festival and American Opera Projects presented the world premiere of Davis’ Hagoromo, a chamber dance-opera featuring the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), soloists Katalin Karolyi and Peter Tantsits, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, and featuring dancers Wendy Whelan and Jock Soto. The Donaueschinger Musiktage commissioned Davis’ Echeia for string quartet and live electronics, and Tanglewood presented the premiere of The Sand Reckoner (a “macrocosmic masterpiece” - Boston Globe) for six solo voices and celeste. Lincoln Center inaugurated its Tully Scope Festival with the premiere of Nathan's landmark work Bells, a site-specific, electroacoustic piece for ensemble, multi-channel audio, and live diffusion broadcast through a conference system to audience members’ mobile phones.

Davis has written many other works for the ICE and its members, and has received commissions from Ekmeles vocal ensemble, GMEM (Marseille), Steven Schick, Miller Theatre, the Ojai Festival (for Eighth Blackbird and an installation by sound-sculptor Trimpin), The La Jolla Symphony Chorus, Doug Perkins, the Calder Quartet, SO Percussion, MATA, and Yarn/Wire.

Nathan was a Fellow at the Camargo Foundation in Cassis, France, and was the 2018 Aaron Copland Fellow at the Bogliasco Foundation. He has also received awards from the Fromm Foundation, Meet The Composer, American Music Center New Music for Dance, Aaron Copland Fund, Jerome Foundation, New Music USA, Concert Artists Guild, ASCAP, The Trust for Mutual Understanding, and the ISCM. He and Phyllis Chen won an NY Innovative Theater Award for their score to Sylvia Milo's play The Other Mozart, for which Davis also received a Drama Desk nomination for Outstanding Sound Design.

Also an active percussionist, Davis has premiered hundreds of pieces, working with luminaries and fostering emerging composers. He has appeared as a concerto soloist with the Seattle Symphony, Tokyo Symphony, and Nagoya Philharmonic. A core member of ICE, he is an artist-in-residence at the Lincoln Center's Mostly Mozart Festival and performs regularly at major venues throughout NYC, across the US and Europe, and has toured Russia, Bali, Turkey, and Cuba. He has recorded for Nonesuch, Tzadik, Mode, Kairos, Sono Luminus, Sony Classical, and New Albion.

Davis served on the faculty of Dartmouth College for eight years and currently teaches composition and electronic music at Montclair State University. He has given masterclasses on composition, electronics, and extended percussion techniques at UC Berkeley, CalArts, Rice, Baylor, Yale, and the Akademia Muzyczna in Krakow, Poland, with additional residencies at Harvard, Princeton, UCSD, Brown, and other universities across North America. Nathan received his Masters in Music from Yale University, Bachelors degrees in both composition and percussion at Rice University, and was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to study at the Rotterdams Conservatorium in Holland.
13 Dec, 2011

Nathan Davis record listed on Steve Smith's Top Ten!

The Bright and Hollow Sky, the beautiful recording of Nathan Davis' music performed by ICE was just listed as #5 on Steve Smith's Top Ten Classical Recordings of 2011 for Time Out NYC. The recording is a beautiful exploration of timbre, rhythm, processed electronics, and extended techniques, and was beautifully recorded by Ryan Streber in the otherworldly acoustics of the main concert hall in …

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Audiophile Audition

Nathan Davis is a New York based composer and percussionist with a clear understanding of the blend between acoustical and electronic sounds sources and with some fascinating results. Davis has studied at Rice University and, while on a Fulbright Fellowship, at the Rottersdam Conservatorium. He has also explored a great deal of the philosophies and tonalities of Karnatic music and meditation. Davis has written pieces for many of the most influential performers of new music including the Calder Quartet and the Ethos percussion ensemble. His works have been featured at the Ojai Festival and at many performances of the International Contemporary Ensemble, featured on this recording.

This disc illustrates the meditative, introspective quality of Davis’ work and showcases his ability to treat traditional sounds in very unusual ways quite well!  In many ways, I suggest starting with his “pneApnea” for alto flute and live processing (delays, decays, and so forth). This fascinating work takes its title from the Greek terms for breathing and the difficulty or absence of doing so (the term “apnea” is one most people have heard)  Soloist Claire Chase creates an almost “eastern” sound that seems to begin out of nothing and close into nothing. With the assistance of the processors, the net effect is almost like listening to a floating shakuhachi ensemble.  Davis’ “Like sweet bells jangled” begins in a similar trance-like way as a sole triangle blends with some odd, not quite triadic, harmonies between clarinets and flutes. Small hollow wood percussion “react” to the sonorities while the harmonies created by the winds are run through a ring modulator to heighten the effect and further blur the identity of the various sources of sound. Here, too, the effect is odd, eerie but not at all unpleasant.

I found “Dowser” for bass clarinet and delay to present an experience similar to that in “pneApnea”.  Bass clarinetist Josh Rubin does some truly amazing things to his instrument including singing while playing, pitch bending, some multiphonics all with the assistance of the electronics delays. At times, the sonorities are – again – barely definable and pitches slide in and out of clarity. The movement in this piece, like the others, is very gradual and deliberate. In this piece too, the instrument is almost transformed by the skills of the player; in the case I found it very reminiscent of a didgeridoo.

“The Mechanics of Escapement” for toy piano and clock chimes offers another beautiful but bizarre listening experience. The timbres between the small tuned rods of the toy piano and those within a mechanical clock are nearly seamless. Phylis Chen has made a career out of collecting toy pianos, writing music for them and performing works featuring them. As her own website admits, the results are frequently “quirky” but in my estimation oddly beautiful. Davis’ work takes advantage of the chosen timbres and the performer’s expertise to create a piece that sounds “artificial” but still very acoustical. Following pitches as they bounce around the composer’s landscape is fun and this piece is rewarding to listen to; almost like walking inside a toy piano and watching the tiny hammers as the pitch rods are struck.

 “The Bright and Hollow Sky” for a larger group of the ICE ensemble plus ring modulation presents a similarly other-worldly experience. The music is almost pushed along by a chugging, almost syncopated mallet line against wind pitches and utterances that seem wildly out of place at times, very syntactical at others. The blend of upper range timbres between the clarinets and the flutes is assisted in places electronically and the bizarre multiphonic bursts by trumpeter Peter Evans are fascinating and worth some kudos! This piece is a bit more restless, strident  and kinetic than the others on this disc but fascinating, none the less.

The package notes by Whit Bernard refer to Nathan Davis’ work as similar in their ethos to the work of architect Louis Kahn where “the world of objects (and) ideas are one and the same.” From what I can tell, I would agree. Davis’ music is certainly not for everyone and even in this collection, some pieces have a sound that most listeners would appreciate on some level with others might not. The ICE performers are all dedicated and Daniel Lippel and New Focus Recordings is to be commended for making a wide variety of new music and new performers available in very high quality recordings.

-- Daniel Coombs, July 25, 2011


Time Out New York

Long a tremendous asset to the International Contemporary Ensemble as both a brilliant percussionist and a resourceful composer, Nathan Davis finally documented five of his sonically beguiling works, with predictably rich results.

-- Top Ten Classical Albums of 2011, Steve Smith, December 11, 2011


Pop Matters

As a composer, Nathan Davis lets many variables dictate what it is he is writing before he puts his own personal thoughts and feelings into the piece. He is unusually attuned to the abstract wants and needs of particular instruments and is careful to consider who will be performing his works. The Bright and Hollow Sky is a collection of five extended works performed by the International Contemporary Ensemble, and each one is drastically different from the other. “Like Sweet Bells Jangled” is a chance for Davis himself to play with ring modulation while clarinet, piccolo and flute supply sharp dissonance. The effect would be considered dull and slow on other albums, but it’s something of a jolt here. “The Mechanics of Escapement”, an odd exercise in minimalism that is in turns soothing and frantic, is played on what sounds like my daughter’s toy piano coupled with clock chimes. “preApnea” and “Dowser” are haunting flute and bass clarinet solos respectively, but the bewildering title track is saved for last, corralling a chamber ensemble into the sound of a sky that can’t decide if it’s calm or raging.

- John Garratt, Aug. 23, 2011


Downtown Music Gallery

NATHAN DAVIS & INTERNATIONAL CONTEMPORARY ENSEMBLE [ICE] With JOSHUA RUBIN/ERIC LAMB/PETER EVANS et al - The Bright And Hollow Sky (' 120; USA) The Bright and Hollow Sky is a compilation of works that Nathan Davis has written for the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), of which he is also a current member as a percussionist. Long a tremendous asset to the International Contemporary Ensemble as both a brilliant percussionist and a resourceful composer, Nathan Davis finally documented five of his sonically beguiling works, with predictably rich results. Davis' music-making is inspired by many sources, beginning with a simple fascination for acoustic phenomena and embracing American experimentalism, Balinese Gamelan, and Karnatic music. These recordings benefit from the closest of collaborative circumstances with his ensemble mates, from the composition stage to the performance and recording phases of the works.

"This disc was picked by NY Times/Time Out journalist Steve Smith as one of his top ten picks for best modern composer discs of last year. It is easy to see why as this is one of the most creative, unique and challenging discs of the year. Each of the five pieces here were written for different instrumentation from solos for alto flute, toy piano & bass clarinet to a quartet & quintet pieces. "Like Sweet Bells Jangles" is for clarinet, piccolo, flute & percussion. The piece is sparse and mysterious with layers of carefully crafted drones. A selective amount of ring modulation was used to alter the instruments delicately. An eerie resonance has been added to the minimal percussion sounds making everything shimmer or hum cautiously, the effect is quite hypnotic. "pneApnea" is performed on solo flute by Claire Chase with live processing. Ms. Chase is a virtuosic flutist who is able to breathe life and add layers of nuance to the pieces she performs. This piece pushes her to use breathlike reverberations, bend notes and layer various parts simultaneously due to the use of processing. I am reminded of different ghost-spirits dancing around one another in a fascinating haze of patterns. "Dowser" is for solo bass clarinet with delay and the alteration adds a floating layer of echoes to the warm yet dry tone of that distinctive reed. "The Mechanics of Escapement" is for toy piano and is playful yet slightly twisted and it gets better as the tempo and ringing increases, similar to a clock spinning out of control. The title track is last and is performed by a quintet of members of ICE for flutes, clarinets, trumpets, guitar and percussion with more ring modulation utilized. I dig the way this piece builds with different bent drones sailing around one another over what becomes a hypnotic groove. Composer Lois V. Vierk does something similar with her work yet here the results are less predictable as certain instruments lay out and space is used in unexpected ways. There is compelling air of mystery the links all these pieces here together. With a little time and reflection, the mystery will be revealed." 

- Bruce Lee Gallanter

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