Splinter Reeds performs at the Center for New Music (55 Taylor St., San Francisco) on Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2016.
Splinter Reeds — Got Stung (self-released, 2015)
The five members of Splinter Reeds are classical musicians who can play the heck out of their instruments. But “3 Songs, 3 Interludes,” a small suite on their debut album Got Stung, shows their irreverent side.
The first of the songs, “Bee,” opens a capella, all five members chanting a somber melody that begins with the line, “Got stung by a bee in the heart.” One by one, each voice drops out, replaced by a woodwind playing the backing chords. Eventually, you’re left with nothing but reeds, which then shoot off into countermelodies like vines entangling a wall.
It’s a fun effect, although the song isn’t necessarily cheery, and the band is certainly no novelty act. Claiming the title of the Bay Area’s first professional reed quintet, Splinter Reeds has been performing for three years around Northern California and spent a week-long residency at Stanford.
Their focus is on newly commissioned compositions, so everything on Got Stung is freshly written; it’s no stodgy “repertoire” album. You can get a taste when the quintet opens their 2016-17 season on Aug. 16 with a concert at San Francisco’s Center for New Music.
Oboist Kyle Bruckmann plays frequently in jazzy and experimental contexts, and his major project Wrack recently recorded his homage to Thomas Pynchon, titled … Awaits Silent Tristero’s Empire. The other band member I’m most familiar with is Jeff Anderle, who’s been part of the Edmund Welles bass clarinet quartet.
So, you could say the usual things about the blending of genres and all that, but Got Stung is a modern-classical album at heart, presenting the compositions with focus and verve. Elements of scenic melody and mood pervade the album, along with lots of fun, choppy bottom lines from bass clarinets and bassoon.
The instrumental “interludes” of “3 Songs, 3 Interludes” (composed by Erik DeLuca) show off different uses of the quintet — an ambient metallic sheen; a softly poking and curious quasi-melody; a study of long, sparse tones. It’s a fan-out of musical strategies. In fact, the last of the songs, “Want,” follows the opposite path of “Bee,” starting off instrumental with vocal parts joining gradually.
The eight-movement suite “Splinter” (Mark Mellits) is a highlight of the album, often florid and downright beautiful, played with intense focus and verve throughout. It feels like storytelling, in moods ranging from the brisk hocketing and bright, jazzy chording of “Scarlet Oak” to the beautiful, florid calm of “Weeping Willow.” The bass clarinet sounds especially nice on the fast-paced movements such as “Cherry” and “Red Pine.”
“Splinter” is the most classical-sounding of the pieces on Got Stung. Elsewhere, the band lets its avant-garde side show. Bruckmann’s piece, “Mitigating Factors,” is a slow-moving exploration of that territory, with touches of electronics shadowing the organic grumbles and air-rushes of the horns.
You might call “Wood Burn” (Ned McGowan) an active form of minimalism. Against a hard-digging bass clarinet line, the other reeds spin Morse-code pops and twirling riffs of melody. Jordan Glenn’s composition “My Bike” is peaceful at heart — it even has bird songs in the background — but halfway through, the piece starts adding some stern and shrill harmonies for a dose of attitude and even belligerence.
As a statement of purpose, Got Stung shows off a strong variety of Splinter Reeds’ interests. It’s exciting to see a group intent on bringing new works to life. Let’s hope they can continue building on this great start.