Iron Orchid, David Bird’s collaborative electro-acoustic work for pianist Ning Yu, is the audio component of a larger multi-media sculpture project with sculptor Mark Reigelman, Echo Chamber. Consisting of 56 metal tubes, all containing an audio speaker, Echo Chamber is the physical and experiential embodiment of the sound sculpture. Exploring a wide range of techniques on and inside the piano over a pillow of swirling sine tones, the recording of Iron Orchid is a powerful sonic journey in its own right.
The realm of sound installation can trigger a lot of associations — static forms, ambient textures, ethereal timbres. Iron Orchid, the sibling musical work associated with the interactive multi-media sculpture Echo Chamber, defies these assumptions, covering a vast range of expressive and textural territory over its 34 minutes of music. Composer David Bird and pianist Ning Yu have cultivated a work that mines the material of the piano for its sonic potential (metal, wood, wire). The piece establishes immersive sound environments that are momentarily passive and active, while always evolving to create a larger expressive trajectory. The result is a piece that stands alone and independent as a powerful sonic document.
“Garden” opens the recording with a rolling tumult of microtonal tremolos in the low register of the piano, interwoven with apocalyptic, foreboding electronics. Later in the movement, chime-like harmonics activated with objects inside the piano toll in the accumulating winds of the electronics. “Iron” focuses on the variegated sound vocabulary of scrapes on the piano strings over an accumulating pillow of sine tones. As the electronics come alive into a percolating organism, we hear a solemn composite melody emerging from lone microtonal pitches.
“Interlude” begins a series of four short movements that make up the middle of the work, and which introduce a more conventional pianism, initially accompanied by dynamic electronics that respond with timed synchronicity. Over the course of “Prism,” we hear piano and electronics bubbling over as the line ascends in register, leaving only the twitching detritus of the musical exoskeleton of the movement as it ends. “A Thin War of Metal” settles into a deep groove allowing the piano to articulate angular, syncopated runs. Once again, an electronic doppelgänger replaces the acoustic image towards the end of the movement, providing a disconcerting mirror image. In “Between Walls,” the stunted sound of muted harmonics in the low register punctuates an unsettling undulation in the electronics.
The final movement in the piece, “Petals,” opens with haunting, anthropomorphic sounds emerging from a dystopian electronic landscape. Notes articulated with a slide inside the piano provide a plaintive counterpart to disembodied long tones over a background dotted by glitchy sounds of electronic interference. Iron Orchid is persistently dynamic. Electronics that provide context for the protagonist’s voice of the piano become animated while the keyboard role sometimes pivots to provide a layer in a multi-dimensional texture. Iron Orchid balances a character of alienation with an ever-present embedded lyricism that reaches out to the listener, a glint of light in austere expressive surroundings.
– Dan Lippel
Performed by Ning Yu
Produced and composed by David Bird
Engineered by Charles Mueller and Ryan Streber
Recorded at Oktaven Audio, Mt. Vernon, Ny
Mastered by Christopher Botta
David Bird is a composer and multi-media artist based in New York City. His work explores the dramatic potential of electroacoustic and mixed media environments, often highlighting the relationships between technology and the individual. His work has been performed internationally, at venues and festivals such as the MATA festival in New York City; the Gaudeamus Festival in Utrecht, Netherlands; the Wien Modern Festival in Vienna, Austria; the SPOR festival in Aarhus, Denmark; the IRCAM Manifeste Festival in Paris, France; the Festival Mixtur in Barcelona, Spain. He has composed and collaborated with groups like the Ensemble Intercontemporain, the Jack Quartet, the Bozzini Quartet, Yarn/Wire, the Talea Ensemble, Mantra Percussion, the Mivos Quartet, the Austrian Ensemble for Contemporary Music (OENM), AUDITIVVOKAL Dresden, Ensemble Proton Bern, Loadbang, the TAK Ensemble, andPlay, and the Nouveau Classical Project. He is a founding member of the New York-based chamber ensemble TAK, and an artistic-director with Qubit New Music, a non-profit group that curates and produces experimental music events in New York City.
Praised for her, “taut and impassioned performance” by the New York Times, pianist Ning Yu performs with vigor and dedication for traditional and repertoire of the 20th and 21st century on stages across the United States, Europe and Asia. Ning brings virtuosity and adventurous spirit to a wide range of music, both in solo performances and in collaborations with some of today’s most distinguished creative artists.
Working at the forefront of the current creative music scene in the US, Ning has given dozens of world premieres by esteemed composers such as Tristan Murail, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, David Lang, Michael Gordon, Enno Poppe, and collaborated with artists from different genres such as Sufjan Stevens, Glenn Kotche, Pete Swanson, and Bryce Dessner. She has performed with ensembles such as Bang on A Can All-Stars, ICE, Talea Ensemble, Signal Ensemble, counter)induction, and she is a member of the highly regarded piano/percussion quartet Yarn/Wire.
Ning appears in concert halls, international festivals, universities, and other non-traditional performance spaces. These venues include Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, Museum of Modern Art , Miller Theater, Guggenheim Museum, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Monday Evening Concerts in Los Angeles, Library of Congress, Issue Project Room, Pioneer Works, Contempo Concert Series at University of Chicago, the Kennedy Center, Kimmel Center, Köln Philharmonie in Germany, Muziekgebouw in Amsterdam, Kwe- Tsing Theater in Hong Kong, Spoleto Festival, Rainy Day Festival in Luxembourg, Ultima Festival in Norway, Transit Festival in Belgium, Edinburgh Festival in Scotland, Singapore International Arts Festival, Princeton University, Stanford University, Columbia University, Yale University, Brown University, and Eastman School of Music.
In theater, Ning performed with Mabou Mines’ Dollhouse — a critically acclaimed production directed by Lee Breuer. She can be seen in the production’s feature-film version, produced by ARTE France. Ning has also collaborated with director Moisés Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project on the development of the Tony Award–nominated play 33 Variations.
Ning is the winner of the Boucourechliev Prize at the Ninth International Concours de Orléans in France — a competition devoted to piano repertoire from 1900 to today. Together with other members of Yarn/Wire, the first-prize winner of Open Category of the International M-Prize Chamber Music Competition, and the prestigious “40 under 40 award” of the Stony Brook University for outstanding alumni.
Ning is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music (B.M. And M.M.A) and Stony Brook University (D.M.A.). She is assistant professor of piano and chamber music at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Ning currently resides in New York City with her husband and daughter. She is a Yamaha Artist.
Pianist Ning Yu (Yarn/Wire) and composer David Bird originally created this music to be used as part of an interactive sound sculpture by Mark Reigelman in 2019, so it’s remarkable that it not only holds up on its own, but thrives as a piece of music. As the title suggests, the work revolves around the idea of metal, and in this context it sparkles, crashes, decays, and clangs. Bird’s electronics alternately seem to emanate from the acoustic patterns played by Yu, whether she’s playing dark left-handed clusters or scraping the strings inside of her instrument. Some of the electronic elements are objects inside of the piano, which generate odd harmonies with the keyboard. A series of shorter pieces reveal Yu’s artistry as a pianist, with electronic responses that alternate between shadowing and abstracting her playing, fighting against it, or finding harmony within it. Bird never settles for a single approach in his writing or in the application of electronics, yet the music never lacks cogency.
— Peter Margasak, 9.01.2021
Its paradoxical title, fusing intractable mass with delicacy. suits this music well. New Yorker David Bird hatched Iron Orchid in collaboration with Yarn/Wire pianist Ning Yu. This intense yet finely detailed electroacoustic work was conceived initially as a component of Mark Reigelman's sound sculpture Echo Chamber, channelled through speakers concealed within a stack of metal tubes. Computer-generated sounds respond in kind to the piano's intrinsic articulateness, and despite the sustained density there are a multitude of subtleties to be discerned and discovered within its skeins of microtones and restless variations of texture and timbre.
— Julian Cowley, 10.16.2021
Yu's debut, 2020's Of Being was mightily impressive, but this album, a collaboration with composer David Bird, is a whole other animal. Bird, who first caught my ear on andPlay's wondrous Playlist, is obviously a deep thinker about sound, refusing to accept any limitations on what an instrument can do, in this case the piano, which is pushed to its limits as an object of wood and metal and plastic. Surrounding the sometimes startlingly heavy sonics generated by Yu are not only electronics but recordings collected from the Echo Chamber, an 11-foot tall sculpture created by Bird and Yu with Mark Reigelman that contains a speaker in each of its 56 metal tubes. That's all fascinating to know, but the overall experience of the album is of inventive, mind-expanding electroacoustic soundscapes, some spiky and herky-jerk, like a malfunctioning Terminator taking baby steps, others, like the staggering album-opener Garden, nearly overwhelming oceans of wall-shaking sound. I'm no audio elitist, but that latter quality is only fully realized on my good, old-fashioned component stereo. If there's one nearby, you owe it to yourself - and the dedicated team who made this extraordinary album - to play it there and at high volume.
— Jeremy Shatan, 9.18.2021
‘Iron Orchid’ is an electroacoustic work for piano and electronics composed by New York-based composer David Bird and performed by Ning Yu. The work “builds on materials generated for the interactive sound sculpture Echo Chamber, an 11-foot metallic structure that Bird and Yu collaborated on with site-specific public artist Mark Reigelman II in 2019”.
Composer David Bird is interested in electroacoustic music and multimedia environments and the relationship between individuals and technology, between human and computer-generated sounds. He worked with ensemble Intercontemporain, The Bozzini Quartet, Ensemble Proton Bern, to name a few. Ensemble TAK is the name of his own New York-based ensemble. Ning Yu is an essential pianist in performing music from 20th and 21st centuries. She premiered compositions by Bang on a Can-composers like David Lang and Michael Gordon and many other recent compositions. It is often difficult for me to gain a clear picture of the procedures followed with projects like these. This usually ends up in my thought, concluding that in whatever way this music came into being, it counts if it talks to me for me as a listener. For sure, this is the case with this recording. In all tracks, the electronic textures have something omnipresent. They are not just background or context only for the acoustic piano. The relationship is a different one, resulting from unusual strategies. ‘Prism’ is built from detailed floating and bubbling electronics with a dynamic piano solo. ‘Petals’ starts as a spooky and atmospheric texture of electronic sounds make fine whole and embedment of sparse piano sound sometimes generated by playing the inside of the piano. Near the end, a melodic line occurs. ‘Garden’ has almost cosmic ambient-like textures combined with restless piano movements. A good trip of overwhelming sound constellations. Continuously changing sound vehicles full of details. Fascinating!
— Dolf Mulder, 9.28.2021
Composer and electronic musician David Bird’s work Iron Orchid enlists pianist Ning Yu as a collaborator. Bird’s electronics often provide steely sounds that accord both with the title and the inside the piano work that Yu does. In fact, the second word of the title plays a role in the piece as well, indicating the organic nature of its formal design. So does the presence of live electronics against an acoustic piano, albeit one that has effects, microtones, and reverb as part of its palette. Thus in sections like “Iron,” reverb-hued electronics and string noise create thorny textures; an interesting coda involves a simple piano ostinato that is distressed with quarter tones and Bird unleashing plucking noises to a quasi-electronica beat.
The shape of Iron Orchid is somewhat hollowed out, with the outer movements of sizable duration while the central movements serve as aphoristic impressions. “Interlude” includes high sine tones throughout, with an atonal introduction followed by flowing ostinatos. “Prism” features a slow build from the electronics while foregrounded piano plays an angular and rising accelerando; Bird responds in kind with analog bleeps. “A Thin War of Metal” once again juxtaposes acerbic electronic textures with clusters and extended chords that give a nod to postmodern jazz. “Between Walls” returns the proceedings to inside the piano effects, this time against windswept electronics.
The final movement, “Petals,” brings together a number of non-metallic sounds to create a section that highlights the organic nature of Iron Orchid’s concept. A submarine klaxon opens the movement, followed by granular synth textures set against Yu playing reverberant single notes. A cello sample enters to create counterpoint against the piano, while a distorted series of electronic ostinatos push against the acoustic foreground. Yu takes up a mournful chord progression that banishes the most pointed electronic interjections, with bent notes, rumbling, and periodic percussive attacks creating an affecting coda. Iron Orchid is an engaging listen throughout. At a half hour long, it seems to cry out for a sequel to fill out a duo recital program. Here’s hoping.
— Christian Carey, 10.25.2021
In a sense this is daring, as it is the music-only part of a multi-media sculpture. Rendering the sonic component of a composite, multi-media structure in this manner inevitably allows full-focus on the music itself, which, it turns out, is the result of fabulous invention on the part of composer David Bird. The sculptor in the original project was Mark Reigelman. His 11-foot-tall sculpture consists of 56 metal tubes, each containing an audio speaker. Entitled Echo Chamber, this sculpture is also explored here via the sound of a piano, here played by Ning Yu, with scatterings of the materials of Echo Chamber woven into the fabric. The effect is of some sort of super-percussion instrument (the piano, is, after all, a percussion instrument).
The piece is a “collaboration” between Bird and Yu, so it was a coin flip that determined whether the review headnote would be “Bird/Yu”; but Bird is described as “composer” so that took the decision in his sole direction. Nevertheless, there is a feeling of excitement throughout the whole project: When it comes to the stasis of the opening of “Iron,” the second movement, we hear potential rather than simply a sustained “pillow of sine-tones,” as the online explanation for this disc has it. Other sounds in this section originate from scraping the piano strings. There is something of a gamelan feel to the first “movement”/section, “Garden”
Microtones are an integral part of the sound world of this piece/structure, and the result can be highly beautiful, as in the latter parts of “Iron.” There is a central “panel” to the work that comprises the next movement, “Interlude” plus “Prism,” “Thin War of Metal,” and “Between Walls.” The piano becomes more active; there is more of a sense of dialogue between piano and electronics in “Prism,” before “A Thin War of Metal” seems to seek out jazz territories (what the accompanying notes refer to as a “deep groove”). It could also be called “finger buster,” possibly, and Yu’s pianism is as sparkling as a prepared piano will allow her to be; it’s fascinating to hear an electronic riposte, too.
Muting the piano’s natural richness of harmonics in the low register in “Between Walls” is a fascinating effect: a piano speaking through a gag, perhaps. The low register sounds identifiably like a piano, and yet simultaneously does not. This type of reframing of sound, of toying with expectations and the morphing of the known into a related but distinct other, is very much part of Bird’s way, and it is as refreshing as it is stimulating.
We appear to be at the seaside for “Petals,” the work’s final section; those could be seagull calls we hear (they are created via a slide inside the piano). Again, the notes offer an alternative description: a “dystopian electronic landscape.” It is in this final section, too, that the sound appears to homogenize somewhat: this is no longer “piano with electronics” or “piano versus electronics,” but one sound surface that maintains its own shifting integrity. The final fade into silence is mightily effective: it takes a few seconds or even minutes to readjust to the corporeal world around oneself after this experience.
The design of the disc slipcase is on the surface of it modern and cool, but unless your name happens to be Mark Rothko, black on black (here, black print on a black background) is really not the best idea. In the manner of Wordle-solving, I might have been able to work out “Iron Orchid” from the letters that I can make out, but thankfully New Focus’s web page includes the title.
This is stimulating music, brilliantly recorded. New Focus remains one of the most exciting of labels operating today.
— Colin Clarke, 6.24.2022