Robert Honstein: An Economy of Means

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Composer Robert Honstein revels in illuminating subtle corners of textures woven out of limited materials. "An Economy of Means" highlights that quality in two extended fantasies for solo instruments, the title work for solo vibraphone, performed by Doug Perkins, and the Venice inspired Grand Tour for solo piano, played by Karl Larson. Paired together, these thoughtful, expansive works demonstrate Honstein's interest in subverting expectation within a post-minimalist context. 


# Audio Title/Composer(s) Performer(s) Time
Total Time 59:52

An Economy of Means

Doug Perkins, vibraphone
Doug Perkins, vibraphone2:06
Doug Perkins, vibraphone5:33
03Fast Notes, Long Tones
Fast Notes, Long Tones
Doug Perkins, vibraphone7:17
04Cross Fit
Cross Fit
Doug Perkins, vibraphone1:57
05Broken Chords
Broken Chords
Doug Perkins, vibraphone6:58
06Bow Lines
Bow Lines
Doug Perkins, vibraphone4:25

Grand Tour

Karl Larson, piano
Karl Larson, piano3:35
08Strada Nuova
Strada Nuova
Karl Larson, piano1:45
Karl Larson, piano3:51
10Cruise Ship
Cruise Ship
Karl Larson, piano6:52
Karl Larson, piano1:55
Karl Larson, piano8:58
Karl Larson, piano4:40

In his insightful liner notes for Robert Honstein’s An Economy of Means, pianist Timo Andres writes, “isolation can also be an end in itself, spareness an aesthetic impetus.” From the opening fluorishes of the title work for vibraphone, played here with bravura by Doug Perkins, we hear compositional patience and restraint. Honstein limits his materials with discipline, finding “hidden pathos in clean, well-lighted places” (also from Andres’ essay). Subtle changes become the source of that pathos — an extra repetition in a running passage or a brief harmonic turn sideways. Honstein uses preparations on the vibraphone, shifting timbre similarly to how one might use an alternative manual on a harpsichord. In the first and second movements, the addition of vibrating material to the face of the vibraphone creates shimmering, wave-like sounds. Within this economical presentation of material, “Cross-Fit”, the playful fourth movement, stands out as a radical structural adjustment. Here, the preparations on the vibraphone evoke steel drums, demonstrating the widest timbral palette in the multi-movement piece. “Broken Chords” contains flowing, overringing lines which shift harmonic areas subtly, turning an unexpected corner here, retreating there. The work closes with “Bow Lines”, a meditative bowed vibraphone texture, with preparations on the face of the instrument shimmering sympathetically with its bars. Grand Tour also explores the solo journey of a multi- movement piece, and does so with a similarly spare approach, despite its occasional virtuosic outbursts. The work is a travel log of sorts, an internal dialogue with the city of Venice, a city that certainly comes with its share of historical, and musico-historical associations. Honstein engages with those associations without being swallowed up by them — take for instance the moto perpetuo descending passages of the second movement, “Strada Nuova”, evocative of driving Baroque textures, while subverting regularity with rhythmic displacement. “Palazzo” opens with a motive evocative of the Rococo style, but develops it in all the “wrong” ways, getting stuck on one grouping, inflecting a sequence a few iterations too long, or following a chromatic thread that threatens to send the music right off the edge of the keyboard. It is a remarkable movement that truly captures Grand Tour’s somewhat uneasy relationship to being a tourist in Venice, with the complex dynamic between commercialism and the city’s history that is bound up in the experience. The slow, austere build of “Cruise Ship” eventually opens up into full-throated expressions of wonder and glory for this storied city, a refreshingly “grand” approach to piano writing one rarely hears among contemporary compositions for the instrument. “Passeggiata” begins as a simple minuet but then follows the introspective wanderings we heard in “Palazzo”, bringing us inside the mind of a reflective traveler. “Lagoon” evokes the flowing waterways that give Venice its character and romantic allure — as the movement grows, we hear the drama of waves crashing in a storm. The work ends as it began, with “Per”, a disembodied examination of the self that frames the wide range of emotion through the Ground Tour with question marks. Karl Larson is persuasive throughout, playing with drama and exuberance when it’s called for, and restraint in the most inward moments.

– D. Lippel

tracks 1-6: produced by Devin Maxwell; engineered, edited. mixed by Patrick Burns/Shirk Studios, Chicago, Il.

tracks 7-13: produced by Robert Honstein; engineered, edited, mixed by Ryan Streberand

All tracks mastered by Andreas K. Meyer at SwanStudios NYC.

Design: Laura Grey

Robert Honstein

Celebrated for his “waves of colorful sounds” (New York Times) and “smart, appealing works” (The New Yorker), Robert Honstein (b. 1980) is a New York based composer of orchestral, chamber, and vocal music. Raised in New Jersey, Honstein creates music rooted in performance and personal narrative. His background as a pianist and singer brings a deep love of instrumental and vocal practice to collaborations with leading musicians from around the world.

Fueled by an omnivorous musical appetite, Robert’s compositions are noted for their “dry humor” (San Francisco Classical Voice), “breathless eruptions” (New York Times) and “devilishly fun writing” (The Arts Fuse). At times “profoundly moving” (Shepherd Express) and “genuinely touching” (Chicago Classical Review), Robert combines a fascination with narrative, environment, and everyday experience to create “deeply contemplative” (Bandcamp) works that probe the vicissitudes of contemporary life from the banal to the sublime. A growing interest in story-telling, physicality and expressive embodiment infuses his work with a direct, evocative sensibility that is equal parts riotous frenzy, austere lyricism, and minimalist-tinged romanticism.

Leading orchestras, ensembles and soloists from around the world have performed Robert’s music including the Chicago Symphony, Albany Symphony, Orchestre Symphonique du Mulhouse, Slovenian National Theater Opera and Ballet Ljubljana, American Composers Orchestra, Eighth Blackbird, Ensemble Dal Niente, Present Music, Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, Third Angle New Music, New Music Detroit, Quince, Mivos Quartet, Del Sol Quartet, Argus Quartet, Hub New Music, Chatterbird, TIGUE, New Morse Code, Colin Currie, Theo Bleckmann, Doug Perkins, Michael Burritt, Karl Larson, Michael Compitello and Ashley Bathgate, among others. A keen interest in interdisciplinary collaboration has led to projects with artists across many disciplines, including photographer Chris McCaw, projection designer Hannash Wasileski, graphic designer Laura Grey, and director Daniel Fish. His music has also been choreographed by numerous dance companies such as the Cincinnati Ballet, National Ballet of Canada, Nancy Karp and Dancers, Urbanity Dance, and Frame Dance, among others.

Robert has received awards, grants, and recognition from Carnegie Hall, the Barlow Foundation, Copland House, the New York Youth Symphony, ASCAP, the Albany Symphony, New Music USA, and the League of American Orchestras. His work has been featured at festivals around the United States, including the Tanglewood Music Center, the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, and the Bang on a Can Summer Institute. He has also received residencies at the MacDowell Colony, Copland House, and I-Park.

Robert is a founding member of the New York-based composer collective Sleeping Giant, a group of “five talented guys” (The New Yorker) that are “rapidly gaining notice for their daring innovations, stylistic range and acute attention to instrumental nuance” (WQXR). Projects have included evening length works for Eighth Blackbird, Ensemble ACJW and the Deviant Septet as well as a multi-year residency with the Albany Symphony. ‘Hand Eye’ for Eighth Blackbird was released on Cedille Records to critical acclaim, while the Giants most recent project ‘Ash’ was released on New Amsterdam Records with cellist Ashley Bathgate.

With a commitment to building community around the music of our time Robert co-founded Fast Forward Austin, an annual marathon new music festival in Austin, TX and Times Two, a Boston-based concert series that paired artists from diverse backgrounds in a laid back, accessible context. As an educator, Robert has participated in outreach projects around the country, while also serving as Program Manager and Composition Faculty at NYU, Steinhardt.

His debut album, RE: You, was released by New Focus Recordings in 2014 and his second album, Night Scenes from the Ospedale, a collaboration with the Sebastians, was released on Soundspells Productions in 2015. In 2018 his album ‘An Economy of Means’, featuring Doug Perkins and Karl Larson was released on New Focus Recordings. NPR included his piece ‘Pulse’ from Eighth Blackbird’s ‘Hand Eye’ as one of their top 100 songs of 2016. ‘Pulse’ was also featured on NPR’s Tiny Desk concert series featuring Eighth Blackbird.

Robert’s original score to the Showtime Documentary The Real Charlie Chaplin was nominated for a 2022 News and Documentary Emmy for best original score. Recent commissions include, Juvenalia, a percussion concerto for Colin Currie, Endless Landscape, a chamber orchestra work for Ensemble Connect, and Lost and Found, a work for prepared solo marimba, for Michael Compitello and a consortium of percussionists. Upcoming projects include new works for Duo Vis, No Exit New Music Ensemble, and flutist Michael Avitable.

last updated 3/6/23

Doug Perkins

Doug Perkins specializes in new works for percussion as a chamber musician and soloist. His performances have been described as “terrific, wide-awake and strikingly entertaining” by the Boston Globe and he has been declared a “percussion virtuoso ” by the New York Times. He has appeared at countless venues around the world including Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Spoleto USA Festival, the Ojai Festival and the World Expo in Lisbon, Portugal.

Commissioning and collaborating to create new works is important to Doug. He has commissioned and premiered nearly 100 pieces works and regularly with such composers as David Lang, Steve Reich, Paul Lansky, John Luther Adams, Christian Wolff, Nathan Davis, Larry Polansky, and Tristan Perich. He founded the percussion quartet So Percussion and the Meehan/ Perkins Duo and performs regularly with groups like Signal, eighth blackbird, and the International Contemporary Ensemble. He has also had the privilege to work with artists like Glenn Kotche, Matmos, Max Roach’s M’Boom, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, and pianist Jeremy Denk.

Doug’s critically acclaimed recordings as a soloist, conductor, producer, and member of the Meehan/ Perkins Duo and So Percussion can be heard on the Bridge, Cantaloupe, New Focus, and New World labels. They have been called “brilliant” by the New York Times, named to numerous Top 10 of the Year lists, and the recording that he produced and performed with the Meehan/ Perkins Duo, “Restless, Endless, Tactless: Johanna Beyer and the Birth of American Percussion Music”, was hailed as “immaculately played by the duo” by the BBC Music Magazine and “an engaging experience” by Gramophone. Fanfare Magazine perhaps best sums up the recording by stating “This is a must-hear for anyone remotely interested in the development of music in the past century and is strongly recommended.” Doug’s solo record, Simple Songs was just released in October on New Focus Recordings.

Lately, Doug has been organizing large-scale percussion events that encourage a sense of community and new ways of experiencing live music. His production of Iannis Xenakis’ Persephassa in and around Central Park Lake and John Luther Adams’ Inuksuit in New York City were named Top Ten Performances in 2010 and 2011 by the New Yorker, New York Magazine, and Time Out NY. Alex Ross called Inukuit at the Park Avenue Armory, “one of the most rapturous listening experiences of my life”.

Doug is the Director of the Chosen Vale International Percussion Seminar at the Center for Advanced Musical Studies and serves with eighth blackbird as an Artist-in-Residence at the University of Chicago. Additionally, he served on the faculty of Dartmouth College where he taught percussion and directed the Contemporary Music Lab and the concert series The Way to Go Out.
Doug received his Bachelor’s degree from the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, Masters and Artist Diploma degrees from Yale University, and his Doctorate from Stony Brook University. His principal percussion teachers were Jack DiIanni, Jim Culley, and Robert Van Sice.

Karl Larson

Karl Larson is a Brooklyn-based pianist and specialist in the music of our time. A devoted supporter of contemporary composers and their craft, Larson has built a career grounded in commissioning and long-term collaborations. He frequently performs in a variety of chamber music settings, most notably with his trio, Bearthoven, a piano / bass / percussion ensemble focussed on cultivating a diverse new repertoire for their instrumentation. As a soloist, Larson is known for championing the works of his peers and the recent canon alike, often gravitating towards long-form, reflective works of the 20th and 21st centuries. Through his work with Bearthoven, collaborations with a wide variety of chamber musicians, and his solo projects, Larson has helped to generate a large body of new work, resulting in world premiere performances of pieces by notable composers including David Lang, Sarah Hennies, Christopher Cerrone, and Michael Gordon.

A sought after collaborator, Larson has performed with many leaders in the field, including the Bang on a Can All-Stars, the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), Ensemble Signal, the American Composers Orchestra, Maya Bennardo (violin), Ashley Bathgate (cello), and Ken Thomson (clarinets/saxophones). Larson’s recent performances include notable appearances at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall, EMPAC, the Guggenheim Museum, MoMA, MASS MoCA, and the Teatro General San Martín in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Karl received a Doctor of Musical Arts in Contemporary Music and a Master of Music in Piano Performance from Bowling Green State University, where he studied with Dr. Laura Melton. Larson completed his undergraduate degree at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa as a pupil of Dr. John Strauss. His recordings can be heard on Cantaloupe Music, New Amsterdam Records, New World Records, New Focus Recordings, and GALTTA Media.

21 Oct, 2018

New Focus titles on the 2018 Grammy Ballot

Several New Focus releases are listed under various categories on the 2018 Grammy's ballot. Voting for the first round is open now, and goes until October 31st. If you are a voting member, thank you for considering these recordings: TUN011: Du Yun: Dinosaur Scar Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance: #88 Best Contemporary Composition: #49 for Air …

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Best of Bandcamp Contemporary Classical June 2018

These two gorgeous works by Robert Honstein present a kind of minimalist composition that refuses to be limited by austerity. The title piece is a stunning vehicle for percussionist Doug Perkins, exclusively playing the vibraphone here. The six exquisite movements alternate between deeply contemplative, glacially slow passages with billowing, ghostly overtones, meticulously produced by both precise mallet work and luxuriant bowing, while other movements cleave to a more kinetic sort of minimalism, with technically complex cycling patterns. At times Perkins prepares his instrument with sheets of tin foil, which produce a wonderful, subtle buzz like the sound of a West African mbira, and manila folders, which provide a damping effect. Elsewhere, he bangs his mallets on the outer frame of the instrument for a clanky sensation, with each extended technique deftly enfolded into the orderly flow. Grand Tour is performed with equal poise by pianist Karl Larson. The seven-movement piece reflects on the composer’s time in Venice, Italy, but it’s less about a tourist’s visit than a complicated, internal dialogue with the city. The composition is bookended by two versions of “Per,” a fragile string of haunting single notes that hang in the air precariously, but then Larson bangs out the steeplechase motion of “Strada Nuova,” setting up a toggling action between spare melancholy and churning movement.


Album A Day

Doug Perkins is a vibraphone monster. He starts off this album with a piece called “Filigree”. The guy throws down lightning-quick notes with the lightness of half-ply toilet paper. Generally, with speed comes power. The amount of practice and training it takes to play speed lightly is astounding. This shit does not come easy. When he gets down into those bass notes, they’re covered in a sheet of tin foil. This is done to stop some of that resonance from blaring out. The point of this piece is to stay as light and fluttery as a butterfly on Keto. Check out this shit out for yourself. On the next song Doug uses a bow on one of the keys to produce long ringing ethereal notes that would make a baby angel jealous. Couple songs later, this dude lays down more shit on top of his vibraphone, which gives it a metallic clong straight out of gamelan music.

The ass end of this album goes under the title “Grand Tour” with Karl Larson on piano. Karl generally plays the shit out of the modern fucking canon. I’m talking: Olivier Messiaen, Morton Feldman, Pierre Boulez, and Ligeti. That fast, dissonant, and bizzaro-type shit. The air and grace with which this motherfucker plays piano on the album is inspiring. This shit’s like Satie on heroin. Notes are played with the weight of falling leaves and the humility of Kanye. As the last note rings out, it disappears. The album closes yet the air of it remains with you. You’ll feel the desire for more. You’ll itch for this shit. But the only thing you can do to maintain that high is to play that shit again. If you’re an audio addict, this is sonic fucking opium. And as far as Honstein pushers go, Karl and Doug are maddest of fucking hustlers.

Robert Honstein is a dope fucking composer. He’s alive, by the way -most of the composers I talk about are super fucking dead- which classifies this album under contemporary classical music. Generally, it’s easier to convince someone to pluck a stranger’s pubic hair than it is to listen to some contemporary classical music. But throw on some Honstein on a late chill night and everyone in a 10-meter radius of those speakers will be high as Bob Marley hotboxing a hatchback off those slick sound waves. This album slows a room down. The second hand on the clock will start second-guessing its next move. It has a way of settling thoughts and chilling out the wiggiest of weirdos. In this way, it’s similar to early Sigur Rós or some Philip Glass. It’s that dope, introspective, sparse, restrained, and heartfelt shit. It’s the type of music you’d put on to drift off in thought and take a cerebral vacation on planet fuck-this-shit-I’m-out. And it does all of this with a vibraphone, a piano, and some smooth fucking composition.



On his latest release, American classical composer Robert Honstein largely eschews the irreverence that came into play on his 2014 release, RE:you, whose track titles originated from messages erroneously cc'd to him by a popular online-dating site (sample title: “My friend I understand 100%. I have no girlfriend.”). An Economy of Means shifts the focus to single-performer works that while comparatively less irreverent are nevertheless playful and explorative. These two multi-part pieces appear to have concentrated Honstein's creative energies into maximizing the compositional and textural possibilities works for solo instruments afford. In this instance, the title piece is performed with consummate zeal by Doug Perkins, whereas the second, the Venice-inspired Grand Tour, is realized handsomely by pianist Karl Larson. While the range of instrumental resources is modest compared to RE:you, the hour-long An Economy of Means hardly suffers when Perkins, a member of the Meehan/ Perkins Duo and So Percussion, and Larson, a contemporary music specialist who's premiered works by David Lang, Scott Wollschleger, and others, engage with the material so fervently.

Certainly the ear is tickled by the brilliant flourishes with which Perkins begins the title work in “Filigree.” Once one has recovered from the dazzle of its trills, Honstein's identity as a post-minimalist composer begins to come into focus, and as the work advances through the subsequent five parts, one also comes to realize how much the composer treats each part as a vehicle for exploring a particular compositional strategy. After that effervescent opening, for example, Honstein applies vibrating material to the vibraphone in “Chorale,” resulting in a deepening of the material's quiet, hymn-like grandeur. The self-descriptive “Fast Notes, Long Tones” punctuates rapidly executed rhythm patterns with sustained single notes, the intricate patterning again suggesting a connection to minimalism in Honstein's writing, a connection, however, that he distances himself from by departing from strict repetition. His music also is considerably funkier than the classical norm, as shown by the body-rousing swing of “Cross Fit,” and for a work that's performed by a single instrument, there are surprisingly pronounced timbral contrasts, as shown by the mechano-styled sonorities presented in “Cross Fit” versus the smooth gleam emanating off of the instrument during “Broken Chords.”

In keeping with its title, Grand Tour is a travelogue of sorts that exposes the listener to various Venetian sights and scenes, whether it be palazzo or lagoon. Contrasts are as pronounced in this second setting as in the first, with the opening “Per,” for example, a ponderous single-note exercise, much different from the aggressive descending patterns that lend the second movement, “Strada Nuova,” kinetic drive (“Per” makes a return appearance at work's end, by the way, to impose a satisfying framing structure). “Cruise Ship” builds in conspicuously slow manner, with Larson assembling the structure, it seems, one piece at a time until the steady ascent culminates in a grand vision that suggests awe on the viewer's part when confronted by the immensity of the ship. “Lagoon,” on the other hand, sparkles from its first moment, with Larson's rippling cascades calling to mind the incessantly flowing waterways of Venice. If there's a standout movement among the seven, it's this one for being so expansive and dramatic.

Much as they do on RE:you, track titles again play an important role, with many, “Chorale” and “Cross Fit” among them, cueing the listener in specific ways. Some parts, such as the serene “Bow Lines” with its meditative bowed vibraphone effects, confirm one's expectations, while others subvert them, with Honstein indulging his playful bent in this context, too. In lending themselves so naturally to rhythm and melodic displays, vibraphone and piano both turn out to be ideal conduits for his music. The musicians' execution is virtuosic but not gratuitous, and the two give the works readings so thoroughly attuned to the composer's wishes one is tempted to call them definitive.


San Francisco Classical Voice

Robert Honstein is part of the composers’ collective Sleeping Giant, which seems to function as a way for like-minded colleagues to market themselves under a catchy name. Sleeping Giant’s members, who besides Honstein include Timo Andres, Christopher Cerrone, Jacob Cooper, Ted Hearne, and Andrew Norman, undertake both collaborative and individual projects. (Even when they work collaboratively, as on Eighth Blackbird’s 2016 Hand Eye, their contributions are individual.)

Honstein has the spotlight to himself on An Economy of Means (New Focus), and though he has written plentifully for ensembles, the works here are for soloists — the percussionist Doug Perkins and the pianist Karl Larsen, both exceptional interpreters who specialize in new music.

That the music is for solo instruments explains the album’s title; as Andres, Honstein’s Sleeping Giant colleague, writes in a philosophical liner note, “a major topic of An Economy of Means is the inherent drama of a lone performer tacking a large-scale work.”

We’re used to hearing pianists do that, in reams of 19th-century scores, right up through contemporary works. We’re even, in the age of Evelyn Glennie, used to solo percussion works. But this album’s title work is a true oddity — a six-movement suite for which Perkins has only a vibraphone (and, Andres tells us, “a large battery of mallets and strategically-placed props), rather than the stage full of noisemakers that percussionists typically have on hand.

That said, an agile player with two hands full of mallets can get plenty of music from a vibraphone, and if Honstein’s “means” here are economical, his score is an opulent exploration of the instrument’s techniques and expressive range. And that is doubly so when the vibraphone is “prepared,” like a Cagean prepared piano. Nothing in the notes tell us exactly what “prepared” means, for a vibraphone, but you can deduce the setup from the sound of certain movements — for example, “Cross Fit,” in which the vibraphone keys produce an attenuated, percussive sound, much like that of a piano prepared by placing pieces of wood or metal in the strings.

The opening movement, “Filigree,” uses the vibraphone’s upper range, and at first evokes the timbres and chance qualities of wind chimes, presented in a speedily swirling figure, sometimes with a graceful if constricted melody floating over it. The effect is hypnotic, but just as you settle into it, Honstein changes the structure, punctuating what at first was a perpetual motion piece with brief stopping points that let the vibraphone timbre ring out — as if you’re watching a film running at high speed, punctuated by still frames.

Honstein is clearly drawn to sharp contrasts. He follows the brisk, flighty “Filigree” with “Chorale,” a meditative movement, built around a sequence of mid-range, vibrating tones, with other tones fading in as a kind of glacial counterpoint. “Fast Notes, Long Tones” is largely as advertised, though title hardly does justice to the movement’s intricacies. It begins, for example, with a rhythmic pattern, hand-slapped on a part of the instrument that produces no tones, and a steady, watch-like ticking, while a brisk figure is played so quietly that it sounds almost as if it’s in another room.

The ticking, it becomes clear later in the work, is actually the sound of the mallets hitting the keys, although at this point, the impact is louder than the note; later, when the figure returns at a higher volume, the link between the tones and the tapping is clearer. The piece unfolds organically: the pianissimo figure grows louder and more involved, the hand-slapping percussion ceases, and a second layer built of ringing, sustained tones takes over the foreground.

In “Cross Fit,” an angular, almost cartoonishly humorous movement, Honstein moves deeper into the intersection between purely percussive sounds (which vibraphonists are not often called upon to produce) and long-lined melodic figures (which is their more familiar milieu). Here, the percussive timbres are hard and solid, sometimes like a hammer on wood, sometimes like a guitar pick gliding across muted zither strings, and sometimes like the metallic tones of a gamelan orchestra. The one thing the instrument does not sound like is a vibraphone.

More traditional timbres, or something closer to them, return in “Broken Chords,” a dreamy, rich-textured minimalist essay on repeated tones and intervals, and a return of the chime sound — but lower in the vibraphone’s range — heard earlier in “Filigree.” The slow-moving finale, “Bowed Lines,” takes another left turn, with Perkins trading in his mallets for stringed instrument bows, to produce sustained tones with rich overtones, which melt together into an appealing chordal haze.

The piano work, Grand Tour, is a travelogue of sorts, in the tradition of Liszt’s Années de Pèlerinage. Though some of Honstein’s titles are vague (“Cruise Ship” and “Lagoon,” for example), others locate the tour somewhere in Italy (“Palazzo” and “Passeggiata” — the latter a reference to the traditional Italian evening stroll), with only “Strada Nuova” referring to a specific place, a scenic boulevard in Venice.

Not that it matters, greatly. It’s not as though Honstein draws on folk themes or Italian dance rhythms, as Mendelssohn did with the Saltarello at the end of his “Italian” Symphony. In a way, Honstein is really touring the keyboard, much as An Economy of Means toured the vibraphone, but this time without any physical and timbral alterations.

The set is framed by a pair of nearly (but not entirely) identical movements, both called “Per,” in which a single line of four-note motivic cells gradually makes its way up the keyboard, and then down, with the sustain pedal building a hazy, atmospheric backdrop around them. “Per” seems deliberately bland: the motivic blocks are played in a steady, four-square rhythm, with no changes of dynamics or coloration. But then, there are long stretches of Bach that, on the page (that is, without the expressive elements that interpreters bring to them), seem to behave similarly; think of the Prelude of the first unaccompanied cello suite. Here, that straightforwardness has a distinct function, first as a stage-setter, then as a return to the journey’s starting point — another move taken from Bach’s playbook, this time the Goldberg Variations.

In between, Honstein is unconstrained in matters of style, and the eras particular styles represent. “Strada Nuova” begins with the drive and harmonic character of a Romantic etude, but Honstein hijacks its Chopinesque spirit and melds it with a post-minimalist approach to repetition (rhythmically, if not harmonically). The minimalist-Romantic blend returns later in the set, in “Lagoon,” where rippling figures give way to themes rooted in repetition, and even, very briefly, a chord progression that is pure Philip Glass, offered more as a tip of the hat than an outright lift. As the work evolves (at 8:57, it is the longest movement in the set), Minimalism, Romanticism and even a bit of impressionism jostle for the spotlight.

Whatever palazzo inspired the movement of that name seems to have captured Honstein’s visual and historical imagination: the movement is clean, bright and sharply articulated, with Baroque decorative flourishes that evoke formality and grandeur. “Cruise Ship” and “Passeggiata” seem visually-inspired as well. In the first, a placid, slow opening section giving way to a long section of pure Romantic display, with crashing chords, octave doublings and anxiety-laden harmonies. And that section, in turn, gives way to a quiet, melancholy, virtually eventless coda.

Given the movement’s title, it’s hard not to hear the piece in cinematic terms, as a cruise that began in calm waters but ran into a storm so violent as to sweep everyone off, leaving a ghost ship in its wake. The far more restrained “Passeggiata” evokes this sort of imagery as well. In this case, Honstein’s music blends prairie-era Copland and harmonizations borrowed from Renaissance vocal music, with occasional bursts of unprepared dissonance disrupting the flow, suggesting a portrait of an American strolling through an Italian village, struck, perhaps, by the coexistence of antiquity and modernity.

That could be overreaching, of course, but it has been a long time since classical instrumental music sounded so unabashedly narrative. Honstein gets away with it because he has so much going on, in so many competing styles, often an undercurrent of dry humor — and because interpreters as eloquent as Larsen and Perkins are able to balance those elements perfectly.


American Record Guide

This is an album of works for solo vibraphone and solo piano that shows Honstein’s compositional style as nearly pointillistic in nature, with many sharp and small points creating grand canvases of musical imagery. The album begins with the vibraphone work An Economy of Means. The movement ‘Filigree’ is bright and clear, notes dripping into the ear in quick succession like a delicate strand of pearls somehow made of resonant gold. 'Fast Notes, Long Tones' is immensely rhythmic, with a muted groove achieved with hand slapping, mallet stick ends, and notes that resonate beneath until the air clears their vibrations away. 'Cross Fit' is also built of many different sounds happening in the same moment, with optimism and Super Mario background music as thematic overtones. With this work for vibraphone, Honstein has developed the instrument from whatever it meant for you before into a rainbow-timbered groove machine. Grand Tour, for piano, is infused with baroque ornamentation and bright colors that bring to mind Italian gelato shops. There are moments here too that have such weight that Honstein was surely discussing the depths of the ocean or the experience of walking into a church centuries old, its stone walls practically screaming stories sad and beautiful. The performances of these works by Perkins and Larson are deliciously slower than I expect in the slow tempos, and racing along with abandon in the fast passages. The album art and typography are by far the most satisfying I have seen in a while and match the music well.

-Stephanie Ann Boyd, 8.24.2018, American Record Guide

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