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Barbary Benary: Downtown Steel

Release Date: 10/24/2006 
Label:  New World Records   Catalog #: 80646   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Barbara Benary
Performer:  Barbara BenaryBill RuyleChristopher NappiSteven Silverstein,   ... 
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Downtown Ensemble MembersMembers of Gamelan Son of Lion EnsembrleGamelan Son of Lion,   ... 
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 1 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BENARY Aural Shoehorning. 1 Sun on Snow. 2 Barang I. 3 Barang II. 4 Downtown Steel 5 Barbara Benary (gamelan, 1 vn, 2 vibraphone 5 ); Phyllis Clark Read more (sop); 2 Joseph Kubera (pn); 1,5 Steven Silverstein (cl); 1,3,4 Peter Thompson (cl); 4 Daniel Goode (cl); 2,5 Jon Gibson (s sax); 2,5 Gamelan Son of Lion; 1 DownTown Ens NEW WORLD 80646 (61:09)

I have always enjoyed the orchestral transcriptions Colin McPhee made of the gamelan music he heard and recorded at first hand in Bali and Java during the 1930s. Barbara Benary’s music is a different proposition: she employs a real gamelan orchestra (in the first of the pieces above) and the idiom also provides the structure and raison d’être of those of her works using Western instruments—in other words, whereas McPhee came from a Western perspective, Benary comes from an ethnomusically informed one. She and her associates set up the Gamelan Son of Lion in New York in 1980 and it is still going strong.

The composer herself played violin in early minimalist ensembles and has been a part of the New York new music scene for several decades, as have several other musicians on this release, such as Jon Gibson and Daniel Goode. One of the delights of this fascinating disc, “Sun on Snow,” is the performers’ rapport, not unlike the closeness you find in jazz groups who have been playing together for a long time. Such thorough familiarity enables passages of improvisation (notably Gibson’s sax in Downtown Steel ) to emerge as an integral part of the musical fabric rather than an outside commentary upon it.

The gamelan orchestra, made up primarily of gongs and metallophones, is not tuned to the tempered scale. (Interestingly, non-tempered tuning is now peppering the music of many contemporary composers, including John Adams.) Benary daringly juxtaposes the two systems in the aptly named Aural Shoehorning , gradually introducing vibraphone, marimba, and piano in the first movement to double the gamelan instruments, either in unison or at the octave. The ear adjusts to some extent—as it does, say, for an out of tune piano—but when this movement concludes with solo piano rhapsodising on the pentatonic melody in early 20th-century style, the result is a jolt (at least to these 20th-century Western ears). Returning to tempered tuning feels like a respite, but also serves as a reminder that most of the music we listen to is restrictive; that there are other tuning possibilities out there, and they can be alluring.

Structurally, the music’s intensity builds from one movement to the next. It is both exciting and formally “right” when drums enter in the third movement. An energetic finale contains jazzy sections: while the melodic material is built from gamelan themes, the timbre of soprano saxophone and an “off beat” ostinato pattern in the piano’s bass register contrive to suggest Brubeck. Throughout, Benary’s scoring (to the extent that she actually specifies instruments) is clean and clear. This also applies to the other large work, the somewhat more dynamic Downtown Steel , which begins with an ostinato figure on glockenspiel overlaying parallel fifths in the piano part. While employing Western instruments exclusively (including tuba!) the piece reveals an Asian approach once again in its structure and even in the layout of the musical forces. The closing measures are quiet, as in Aural Shoehorning —a self-effacing bow rather than a post-Romantic high five.

These two works are the most recent, the earlier ones (such as Barang I and Barang II , for one and two clarinets respectively, both from 1975) sounding like preparatory studies in comparison. Yet Aural Shoehorning dates from a decade ago, and I’d love to hear what Benary has been up to since. Hers is a calm and fastidious muse: even when she reaches a forte, there are no effects designed to work viscerally on the listener. Instead, you’ll find formal strength and an uncluttered soundstage.

This fascinating music is played by committed, understanding musicians, recording quality is everything that could be desired, and not least, the CD boasts the advantage of Kyle Gann’s detailed and enthusiastic essay, “Barbara Benary and the Expanding Braid.” An ear-opener, and early days though it may be, a Want List contender.

FANFARE: Phillip Scott
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Works on This Recording

Aural Shoehorning by Barbara Benary
Performer:  Barbara Benary (Gamelan), Bill Ruyle (Marimba), Christopher Nappi (Vibraphone),
Steven Silverstein (Clarinet), Steven Silverstein (Bass Clarinet), Joseph Kubera (Piano),
Daniel Goode (Gamelan), Patrick Grant (Gamelan), Lisa Karrer (Gamelan),
Jody Kruskal (Gamelan), Laura Liben (Gamelan), David Simons (Gamelan),
David Demnitz (Gamelan)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Downtown Ensemble Members,  Members of Gamelan Son of Lion Ensembrle
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1997; USA 
Venue:  American Academy of Arts and Letters,NYC 
Length: 25 Minutes 7 Secs. 
Notes: American Academy of Arts and Letters,NYC (11/16/2005 - 11/17/2005) 
Barang II by Barbara Benary
Performer:  Steven Silverstein (Clarinet), Peter Thompson (Clarinet)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1975; USA 
Venue:  New York City 
Length: 5 Minutes 25 Secs. 
Notes: New York City (03/2006 - 04/2006) 
Downtown Steel by Barbara Benary
Performer:  Nick Didkovsky (Percussion), Bill Ruyle (Marimba), Jon Gibson (Soprano Saxophone),
Christopher Nappi (Drum Set), Barbara Benary (Vibraphone), Marcus Rojas (Tuba),
Peter Zummo (Trombone), Daniel Goode (Clarinet), Joseph Kubera (Piano)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Gamelan Son of Lion,  Downtown Ensemble
Written: 1993; USA 
Venue:  American Academy of Arts and Letters,NYC 
Length: 11 Minutes 39 Secs. 
Notes: American Academy of Arts and Letters,NYC (11/16/2005 - 11/17/2005) 
Sun on Snow by Barbara Benary
Performer:  Christopher Nappi (Marimba), Jody Kruskal (Concertina), Nick Didkovsky (Electric Guitar),
Jon Gibson (Soprano Saxophone), Barbara Benary (Violin), Phyllis Elaine Clark (Soprano),
Phyllis Elaine Clark (Percussion)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Gamelan Son of Lion,  Downtown Ensemble
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1985 
Venue:  American Academy of Arts and Letters,NYC 
Length: 14 Minutes 23 Secs. 
Notes: American Academy of Arts and Letters,NYC (11/16/2005 - 11/17/2005) 
Barang I by Barbara Benary
Performer:  Steven Silverstein (Clarinet)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1975; USA 
Venue:  New York City 
Length: 4 Minutes 0 Secs. 
Notes: New York City (03/2006 - 04/2006) 

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