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Robert Carl: From Japan

Carl / Kennedy / Hare
Release Date: 07/10/2012 
Label:  New World Records   Catalog #: 80732   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Robert Carl
Performer:  Robert CarlElizabeth BrownBill SolomonKatie Kennedy,   ... 
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

CARL A Clean Sweep. 1,2 Bullet Cycle. 3 Brown Velvet. 4 Collapsible Mandala 1,2 Elizabeth Brown, 2 Robert Carl (shakuhachi); 3 Katie Kennedy (vc); 3 Bill Solomon (vib); 3 Read more class="ARIAL12">Sayun Chang (perc); 4 Ryan Hare (bn); 4 Aleksander Sternfeld-Dunn (electronics) NEW WORLD 80732-2 (75:56)

An interesting question might be: Does a composer make a better—or different—reviewer, given that he or she may possibly listen to music in a somewhat different way from others. I won’t attempt to answer the question, despite the fine reviews that my composing colleagues in reviewing, Robert Carl, Merlin Patterson, and Carson Cooman (are there others?) regularly produce. I suspect that there is more linkage between the kind of music a reviewer writes and that which he writes about. On the basis of the reviews and music I’ve read and heard by the four (including myself) such Fanfare reviewers known to me, I can adduce some evidence. The music of Robert Carl is, like his reviews, oriented towards the avant-garde, but not always in the sense in which many might understand the term.

A case in point is the disc’s opening work, A Clean Sweep for shakuhachi and fixed media. The gentle, unhurried phrasing of the solo instrument over an austere and unrelenting electronic drone produces an effect of timelessness, evocative of the Japanese musical culture that has for many years captivated Carl’s interest. An interesting aural illusion is produced by the gradually ascending tones of the drone: these serve to reinforce the varying harmonics of the shakuhachi, creating ever-shifting timbres. Thus, this work might be considered avant-garde, but only in a sense. The tones of the shakuhachi are regularly enough produced, and the melodic lines are much in keeping with the traditional Japanese use of the instrument. The innovation comes largely from the drone, which seems similar to what a samisen would sound like were it to be shorn of its initial plucked attacks. A second version, with two shakuhachis (one played by the composer) closes the disc. The effect is quite similar to that of the first version, except that the second shakuhachi seems to react to what the first has played, creating a misterioso canonic imitation of sorts.

The “fixed media” in the disc’s second work opens with processed recorded sounds of the bullet trains of Japan. The development of this electronic background, over which the cellist and vibes player improvise, is more pronounced than that of Clean Sweep, allowing them to likewise develop their improvisations in an organic fashion. There is much use of triadic and other intervallic patterns in these improvisations, such that the piece doesn’t sound at all dissonant. The non-pitched percussion part is described by the composer as a “percussive time-keeper,” whose interjections come only sporadically, and not with any seeming regularity. Perhaps they serve as sonic markers for new sections. Like its predecessor, the piece evokes the timeless and unchanging culture of the Orient.

In Brown Velvet for bassoon and live electronics, the electronic drone begins low and descends into the sub-auditory regions. As in Clean Sweep, the drone serves to amplify varying overtones on the solo instrument, which like the shakuhachi in the earlier work, sings plaintive and wandering lines, but occasionally lapses into multiphonics. Hearing this work, I imagine a particularly haunting solitary landscape; the whole effect is, I dare say, unique among the innumerable works that I have heard in my 62 years. It will also be a particularly good work to try out on your new sub-woofers.

Collapsible Mandala is a purely electronic work, constructed along the lines of musique concrète, and derived from impromptu recordings the composer made during his three months of travels through Japan. All sorts of images are evoked in this work: I get mental pictures of people sweeping sidewalks, shopping in market places, washing, chanting, and engaging in other activities from daily life, which I would guess is exactly what they were recordings of prior to Carl’s electronic processing. Even the flavor of the Japanese language comes through the mix. This is one of the more innovative electronic compositions I’ve heard, and has several distinct sections of silence during its 26-minute span, an effort by the composer to allow the sonic images to impress themselves into the consciousness of the auditor. Mandala is, incidentally, the Sanskrit word for “circle,” and refers to the sacred diagram that represents the cosmos in Hinduism and Buddhism.

Carl’s enthusiasm for Japan and its music and culture, which he has studied extensively, comes through vividly in these works. If you like the CDs that Robert Carl reviews favorably, or other of his own works that have been recorded, I have no doubt that you will also like the music contained herein. This is powerful music—not so much in its volume, but in the effect it produces upon the listener. Easily and enthusiastically recommended.

FANFARE: David DeBoor Canfield
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Works on This Recording

A Clean Sweep for shakuhachi and fixed media by Robert Carl
Performer:  Robert Carl (Shakuhachi), Elizabeth Brown (Shakuhachi)
Bullet Cycle by Robert Carl
Performer:  Bill Solomon (Vibraphone), Katie Kennedy (Cello), Sayun Chang (Percussion)
Brown Velvet by Robert Carl
Performer:  Ryan Hare (Bassoon), Aleksander Sternfeld-Dunn (Laptop)
Collapsible Mandala by Robert Carl

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