Bassoon and Bass Clarinet (but Mostly Bassoon)

It’s tempting to say Leslie Ross and Katherine Young have cornered the market on bassoon multiphonics. They haven’t, of course, but how many people do you think are out there making a name for themselves in that field?

I’ve written before about Young’s solo bassoon album, Further Secret Origins. Now I’m discovering Ross’ music, since she’s making an appearance at Meridian Gallery (San Francisco) on Friday, Feb. 17.

Ross is a scholar of bassoon multiphonics. She’s also a bassoon builder by trade, working out of a studio in New York, but a highlight of her web site is a painstakingly thorough multiphonics catalog, with charts, musical notation and sound samples.

The Meridian concert will be a chance to get inside the bassoon. According to the description, Ross’ bassoon will be outfitted with microphones on every key, dissecting the sound and possibly throwing the components to different speakers around the room. I’m very curious what it’s going to be like. If I can clear time for the show, maybe I’ll give Young’s Further Secret Origins another study as a point of comparison; it’s not the same thing but does feature long drones of multiphonics.

I decided to hunt down some of Ross’ recordings and came up with the late-1990s trio Trigger, with Fred Lonberg-Holm on cello and Paul Hoskin on bass clarinet. It’s one of the earliest releases on the Pogus label, Al Margolis’ sanctuary for experimental music. The album All These Things is full of spirited improv (and some spirited composing, too), in mostly short tracks that are often jumpy, with all three players bouncing upbeat, abstract sounds off each other. It’s novel to hear the bassoon’s voice in here, alongside the wide range of bass clarinet sounds — lots of low end is possible with this mix.

There are multiphonics here and there, although I can’t always tell which reed is producing them. It’s not a primary focus of the music, but it does produce some nice moments where one reed is droning away at a multiphonic while the other two players keep chugging forward at a fast clip. It’s as if they’re taking turns swinging one another’s weight forward in order to keep the assembly moving in one direction.

“Bang 448-2345” is a good 9-minute piece that has it all: uptempo classical composing (shades of Anthony Braxton’s Ghost Trance Music, just for a moment); a quieter phase where Lonberg-Holm explores bowed cello sounds and Ross chugs along with rapid, popping bassoon notes; and frenzied group improvising.

Moment of kismet: Hoskin, who’s from Seattle, has a Bay Area show coming up as well. He’ll be at Studio 1510, playing solo and in duets with Scott Looney, on Friday, Feb. 3.

Architeuthis Better Not Step on My Lawn

Architeuthis Walks on LandNatura Naturans (Carrier, 2010)

The CD gives no indication that you’re listening to and Amy Cimini on viola and Katherine Young on bassoon. Maybe the idea is to absorb their identities into the duo, to force you to think of the music as coming from a single entity, a single mind.

Maybe I just overthink these things.

Those who’ve heard Young’s solo bassoon album, Further Secret Origins (Porter, 2009), won’t be surprised at Moment One of this album, when a buzzing, throbbing bassoon sound drops into the scene, followed shortly by scribbly, scratchy viola bowing. Young pumps away at one tone, then another, in a jumpy Morse code, while Cimini works the viola through aggressive gestures thick with glissando.

The music is organic, with the two instruments played acoustically, no effects. It sounds mostly improvised, with all the dynamism that the label implies. Some tracks linger on one trick or formation for a while, like the upward duet squeaking on “Glitterbird,” but the sound is full of variations and pulse.  Young’s Origins relied on dronelike states, with the bassoon adding pockmarks that added up to a feeling of activity and motion. The same process is hinted at here, but Cimini’s viola is more wild. The two together create a vivid sense of color.

One composed-sounding passage shows up on “The Field,” when Young and Cimini drop out of a really interesting, bubbling improv and tiptoe into a careful melody. As the composed line starts to unravel, Young sticks to airy tones of concentration, while Cimini plucks strings in a spare but  quickening cadenza.

The bassoon’s dronelike scraping takes over on “Surgeon of Fades,” providing a stucco backdrop to some pulsing, downcast viola playing. That one ends with some nifty, high-register viola sawing with a simultaneously plucked lower string — which sounds really music-techno-geeky, but it’s a neat effect.

Katherine Young: Bassoon Time

Katherine Young — Further Secret Origins (Porter, 2009)

I got curious when the Love, Gloom, Cash, Love blog got so excited about a solo bassoon record. And it even had a tie to that viola trend I’d written about earlier:  One of Katherine Young’s ongoing bands is Architeuthis Walks on Land, a duet with Amy Cimini on — what else? — viola. I had to check this out.

Because it was on the verge of being released, I figured I’d give Young’s solo bassoon album a listen first. It’s definitely experimental, often bordering on drones, but it rewards close listening with wisps of melody that do add up to a whole, a story. And the bassoon is accompanied by electronics that tap out subtle rhythms backed with the texture of small crinkles or static crumples.

“Terra Incognita” opens with a freightliner’s blast of bassoon, but from there it explores quieter bleats over a soft electronics backing.  “For Autonauts” likewise explores quieter territory, with raspy gentle tones, clipped short like tentative harmonica notes, played over a subtle, irregular pulse.  The tones get longer later on but keep to the same careful, near-melodic template. It’s not a drone, more like a whispered song that’s not in a hurry. This is the track I’m thinking of with that “close listening” remark — it’s 14 minutes, but if you’re in tune with its frequency, the time flies by, and the wandering near-melody makes perfect sense.

Same thing on “Elevation,” in a smaller dose.  The bassoon produces more of those harmonica sounds, even some multiphonic bits ….. You can hear the effort. It’s like watching art being etched from stone, a careful pace.

“Some People Say That She Doesn’t Exist” is the most accessible track, with a bass pulse underriding a pleasant melody. But it’s followed by “Orbis Tertius,” which closes the album by getting us back into abstract improv turf — long tones evoking an eternal sea.

The Architeuthis duo covers similarly abstract ground, but Young plays in all sorts of contexts from pop to Anthony Braxton. I’ll have to keep an ear to the ground for her.