PRISM Quartet Color Theory With So Percussion and Partch
Derek Johnson, adapted electric guitar (Future Lilacs); Stratis Minakakis, conductor (Future Lilacs, Skiagrafies) XAS Records; CD, DL
The four members of PRISM Quartet, an award-winning ensemble based in New York City, Philadelphia, and Ann Arbor, have been singleminded in their pursuit of new sonic and stylistic frontiers for their mutual instrument of choice, the saxophone. But that’s not to suggest that Timothy McAllister, Taimur Sullivan, Matthew Levy, and Zachary Shemon have been close-minded in matters of ensemble integrity. Alongside strictly four-part inventions, PRISM has engaged in eye- and ear-opening collaborations with other artists and ensembles, including prominent jazz saxophonists such as Steve Lehman, Dave Liebman, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Greg Osby, Tim Ries, and Miguel Zenón; the ensemble Music from China; esteemed choir The Crossing; and early-music consort Piffaro.
Disparate though all these projects might be, what they all share in common is an enviable combination of integrity, individuality, and instant appeal – no mean feat, given some of the more rigorous creative modes PRISM has investigated. Those qualities are amply evident on Color Theory, issued April 14 as the second release from the quartet’s new label, XAS Records (distributed by Naxos). Without question one of PRISM’s most elaborate undertakings, the project finds the foursome working with So Percussion, another pioneering quartet devoted to breaking new ground and forging new alliances, and Partch, a West Coast percussion ensemble that focuses on the Seussian microtonal instruments created by maverick composer Harry Partch.
The common thread among the three pieces on the album – Blue Notes and Other Clashes by Steven Mackey, Future Lilacs by Ken Ueno, and Skiagrafies by Stratis Minakakis – is the notion of saxophones and percussion used as raw materials to build a new repertoire inspired by and based on the notion of musical colors. Ueno took the concept a step further, calling for the physical transformation of one of the saxophones and adding an electric guitar in altered tuning to the mix. Derek Johnson, a skillful and versatile Bang on a Can associate, handles the guitar assignment; Minakakis is also present, serving as the conductor on his own piece and Ueno’s.
Instant verdict: Mission accomplished. The PRISM players not only produce a positively beguiling range of tonal colors and shadings on their own, but also mix and mingle with their percussive cohorts in consistently rich and imaginative ways. In “Deep Hymn,” the opening movement of Mackey’s Blue Notes and Other Clashes, written for PRISM and So Percussion, you’re drawn in instantly by tones of hushed, pealing mystery, and then disoriented thoroughly by metallic tones that flex and wobble like rubber – a gorgeous mix of hushed saxophone and steel pan. What’s especially gripping about that moment is that it’s not merely alien; it’s alien and undeniably beautiful, music that goes straight from the ear to the heart.
Mackey sustains those qualities in the seven movements that follow, each named with an evocative adjective and a musical term. “Rustic Ballad” (perhaps despite its title) mixes buoyant sax phrases and martial beats before slipping into a slinky groove and a wriggling melody. Keening and lilting saxes dance over a stuttering beat in “Off Waltz,” grounded with earthy marimba. Shimmering vibraphone and robust marimba preface radiant steel pan, airy melodica, and smeared saxophone in “Pale Lament,” swelling and ceding like waves, then joining in ardent song.
“Mottled March” is furtive and whimsical by turns; “Dappled Grooves” mixes yearning wind figures and spacious pulsations, culminating in a herky-jerky power ballad. Airy gestures from saxophones and percussion alike flit and wheel in “Dirty Branle,” swelling suddenly and quickly to a boisterous torrent. The closing “Prismatic Fantasy” presents a flurry of disparate gestures, swirling, fusing, dissolving, and recombining in seductive sequence; the ending, which arrives without fanfare, is both understated and satisfying.
Both Ueno and Minakakis opt for long spans rather than discrete segments in their works for PRISM and Partch. Ueno – whose creative span runs from solo improvisation and the rugged intricacies of Central Asian multiphonic throat-singing to rigorously constructed symphonic works and opera – found inspiration for Future Lilacs in “Futures in Lilacs,” a 2007 poem by Robert Hass sparked in turn by Walt Whitman’s iconic “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.”
Opening with a stinging guitar note played obsessively on alternating strings to produce shifting overtones, Ueno gradually introduces the unconventional Partch instruments – “Castor” and “Pollux” canons, chromelodeon, adapted viola, cloud chamber bowls, and bass marimba – their unconventional tonal and timbral qualities at once disorienting and inviting. The saxophones make their presence known some three-plus minutes into the piece, notes bending and slurring in accord with Partch implements and roiling guitar alike. Ueno compels the PRISM players to make full use of their horns’ capacity to sputter, hiss, and clack, and further deploys what he calls a “hookah sax”: a tenor saxophone with seven feet of rubber hose inserted between its mouthpiece and body – a method made famous by the seminal New York City noise-improvisation trio Borbetomagus.
Like much of Harry Partch’s music as well as certain Asian traditions that have informed Ueno’s compositional style, Future Lilacs has a ceremonial quality, its players sounding fitfully as if ordained by ritual. Rollicking and meditative in alternation, the music sustains its initial fascination; Ueno’s techniques are novel, but never mere novelty, serving expressive purposes consistently throughout this haunting work.
Minakakis, too, found inspiration for his approach to mixing PRISM and Partch in literature: specifically, Goethe’s 1810 book Theory of Colours, which summarized the poet’s view of the nature of color and how humans perceive it. A 2016 concert review in The New York Times reports that Minakakis also cited certain late-period works by Beethoven, upon which Goethe’s treatise may have cast a shadow.
Skiagrafies (Greek for “shadow etchings”) commences with a singular mix of whisper-soft baritone saxophone with Partch’s adapted viola and bowed cloud chamber bowls, an instantly striking gesture that conjures an eerie gloaming. The music proceeds, wraithlike, through subtle, striking shifts; the effect is something like watching shadows cast by clouds while the sun arcs slowly across the sky, the resulting permutations continually waxing and waning in intensity. As the end approaches, the saxophones muster their force, as if attempting to fly free of gravity’s pull before quietly succumbing to the inevitable.
Throughout Color Theory the performances by all players involved are vital and engaging. Recorded at Rittenhouse Soundworks in Philadelphia, the album – engineered by Peter Tramo, produced by Matthew Levy in collaboration with his PRISM colleagues and the individual composers, and mixed and edited by Levy – captures honestly and vividly what must have been an especially demanding series of sessions. Factor in a handsomely designed package with authoritative notes by John Schaefer, and the result is a completely commendable production.
PRISM Quartet performs with Joe Lovano at Le Poisson Rouge on June 4 at 7pm; www.lpr.com
CORRECTION (Apr. 19, 2017): A previous version of this review listed the diamond marimba and kithara among the Harry Partch instruments used for Ken Ueno’s composition Future Lilacs. Those instruments are included on the album, but are not featured in Ueno’s piece.
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