Rand Steiger: Ecosphere: Music for Instruments & Electronics

Rand Steiger: Ecosphere: Music for Instruments & Electronics
Title: Ecosphere: Music for Instruments & Electronics
Label: CD Baby

Ecosphere, Rand Steiger's latest collection of works for instrumental ensemble and electronics, offers a veiled musical landscape that features two conjoined aspects of the composer's aesthetic. Concrete musical objects, marked by harmonic clarity and rhythmic propulsion, are treated by technology to create inflected musical structures, in which distinctions between live and processed sounds are often ambiguous. Key to this is the ingenuity with which Steiger uses technology. Partnering with some of the world's most important innovators in the field, including Olivier Pasquet and Miller Puckette, he reaches beyond ubiquitous and commonplace techniques of signal processing to embrace technology as a tool for the manipulation of perspective. A typical instance: a recognizable sound appears, perhaps a cello or an oboe. The sound starts to move in space within a multi- channel array; it traverses zones of reverberation, some of them clear and echoing, others viscous and impenetrable; an attack chatters with multiple starts, while another one oozes from the texture with barely an impulse. At all times the identity of the instrument remains clear, but at no time is there such a thing as a simple, flat-footed instrumental "note." The result is a world that is suspended between the familiar and strange, the wakeful and the dreamlike. The opening work on the recording, Dreamscape (2005), gives an immediate example of Steiger's ability to mold perception. Here, an ensemble of flute, piano, cello and percussion is in constant motion; lines emerge from the texture, navigating not only a melodic space but moving forward and back through depth, at times hidden and at other times seemingly right in front of our ears. Of course an eighteenth-century composer might have done the same thing by means of sophisticated polyphony, but in Dreamscape, the added dimensions of reverberation and movement in space lend plasticity to the listener's perspective. For example, the flute is highly treated: it is harmonized and diffused through space; through varying degrees of reverberation it seems to grow larger and smaller. Sometimes the flute sound is enhanced to the point that it seems we are hearing the piece from the flutist's point of view, as though we had been lifted out of the safe zone of third-person participation and were floating just above the stage. The percussion music, on the other hand, perhaps because these sounds are already charged by noise and the palpability of attack, is less engaged by technology. These sounds remain (more or less) uninflected and thus serve as the touchstone for the real, the waking, world. Similar themes are taken up by Traversing (2006), a tour de force for cello and ensemble commissioned by Brunel University in London for it's bicentennial celebration. In Traversing, the cello rarely cedes it's primacy, yet here again Steiger manipulates fore- and background relationships to great effect. But it is not just sound mass and volume that are at play. As every performer knows, there is a richness of small noises normally denied to the audience on account of distance. Steiger finds this noise thanks to a microphone positioned just inches above the strings, allowing us to listen to the solo cello line in Traversing from an impossibly close perspective. He is able to create moments of magnification, when the cello seems to loom over the rest of the ensemble like a mega-instrument, a repository of all sounds and possibilities. Later, when the more distant noises of the ensemble musicians enter, we can imagine what we cannot possibly hear, a ten-fold amplification of grinding bows and the tactility of sliding fingers. It might seem natural to explore fore- and background relationships in works for ensemble. Doing the same thing with a solo instrument, especially a linear one like the oboe, is another matter indeed. In Steiger's concise Nested Etudes (2007), heard here in a brilliant performance by Karissa Werdon, the oboe sound is fractured and recombined to provide just the sense of depth often missing in pieces for single-line instruments. Attack and decay, normally the twinned elements of any musical sound, are uncoupled, allowing notes to be sustained in long layered arcs of disembodied polyphony. "Nesting" is usually a term associated with rhythmic material, where one rhythm is imbedded within another contrasting one to create momentary flux in the temporal flow. But here Steiger creates a virtual "nested instrument," in which flux is created within the fabric of a single line. Ecosphere (2002), the final work on this recording, brings to mind a quotation from Proust: "If a little dreaming is dangerous, the cure for it is not to dream less but to dream more, to dream all the time." Ecosphere is the mother lode of dreaming: big, resonant, challenging for the performers, and brimming with ideas. And as the first of his recent set of pieces, it also serves as Steiger's "Burgess Shale," to borrow from the composer's title of an earlier work for orchestra. Embedded here in the musical schist are the forbearers of Steiger's recent notions about perspective, proximity, and the shifting relationships within space. Ecosphere explores it all, from the movement of sounds around a multi-channel space, to shifting densities of reverberation and the resulting evocation of distance, to the alienation of a sound from it's source by means of signal processing. Taken together, these procedures evoke something woolly and organic. There are no quotations of sounds from the natural world-this is not Steiger's version of Messiaen's birdsong. But the correlated technological treatments in combination with extremely virtuosic instrumental parts lend the impression that Ecosphere is teeming with life. A moment that sounds like the birds and animals of a rainforest is transposed with something vaguely like a thunderstorm. And throughout there are voices-singing, moaning, chattering-moving together through the sounding space in a weave that is both joyous and plangent. Ecosphere is a world whose individual components seem familiar, yet the result taken as a whole eludes facile description. Maybe that is the particular quality of dreaming that runs throughout Steiger's music: concrete musical objects-what we might call musical "material" elsewhere-become uncertain and vaporous as we approach. Something held coolly in the hand suddenly springs to life. In another moment, a vital arc of melody dissolves into mists. Everything is enshrouded in a bio-net of reminiscence, in a dream language we seem to know but have not heard. (Steven Schick) --------------------------------- Contents of CD: 1. Dreamscape (2004) [22:43] Mosaic (Edward Aaron, cello; Steven Beck, piano; Daniel Druckman, percussion; Zizi Mueller, flute) 2. Traversing (2005) [12:33] Matthew Barley, solo cello; Southbank Sinfonia, Peter Wiegold, conductor 3. Nested Etudes For Oboe (2006) [6:57] Karisa Werdon, oboe 4. Ecosphere (2002) [28:57] Ensemble Intercontemporain, Patrick Davin, conductor; Olivier Pasquet, electronics; Technique Ircam DDD EMF Media. Total Time: 71:10 Dreamscape and Ecosphere make extensive use of dynamic audio spatialization and are best heard in the 5.1 channel versions on the included bonus DVD-A, which may be played on any home theater system with a compatible DVD player. --------------------------------- Contents of the DVD: 1. Dreamscape (2004) [22:43] DTS Surround 5.1 2. Ecosphere (2002) [28:57] DTS Surround 5.1 3. Dreamscape (2004) [22:43] Dolbny Surround 5.1 4. Ecosphere (2002) [28:57] Dolby Surround 5.1 5. Dreamscape (2004) [22:43] Stereo version (96kHz sampling rate/24-bit depth) 6. Traversing (2005) [12:33] Stereo version (96kHz sampling rate/24-bit depth) 7. Nested Etudes For Oboe (2006) [6:57] Stereo version (96kHz sampling rate/24-bit depth) 8. Ecosphere (2002) [28:57] Stereo version (96kHz sampling rate/24-bit depth) --------------------------------- This recording is dedi

1.1 Dreamscape
1.2 Traversing
1.3 Nested Etudes for Oboe
1.4 Ecosphere

Rand Steiger: Ecosphere: Music for Instruments & Electronics

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