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David Rosenboom: In The Beginning

Rosenboom / Svoboda
Release Date: 11/13/2012 
Label:  New World Records   Catalog #: 80735   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  David Rosenboom
Conductor:  David Rosenboom
Number of Discs: 2 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

ROSENBOOM In the Beginning David Rosenboom (pn, Buchla synth); Mike Svoboda, Steve Suminksy (tbn); William Winant, Nicholas Terry, Matthew Cook (perc); Erica Duke Patrick, Angela Perry, Derek Stein, April Guthrie (vc); Midnight Winds; Jane Grothe (hp); Amy Tatum (fl); Claire Chenette (ob); Andrew Leonard (cl); Briana Lehman (bn); Daniel Rosenboom, Marissa Benedict (tr); Doug Tornquist (tb); Danny Holt, Richard Valitutto (pn); Andrew Tholl (vn); Mark Menzies (va); Maggie Hasspacher (db) NEW WORLD 80735-2 (2 CDs: 127:00)

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I’ve reviewed David Rosenboom (b. 1947) a couple of times now in Fanfare , as well as interviewing him for my book on In C (he played in the recorded premiere of the work). I remain fascinated and invigorated by his work. He’s an enormously ambitious composer, not so much in the careerist but the visionary sense. From the very beginning of his musical life he has wanted to unify the most divergent elements, and he seems to have the sort of intellect that can juggle extremely complex, sophisticated, and esoteric concepts and disciplines towards that goal. Computer algorithms, just intonation, stochastic mathematics, higher physics, neurobiological research: All these are fodder for his quest.

And as a result he’s written a series of “series,” sets of pieces that explore different realizations of a basic concept. How Much Better If Pilgrim Rock Had Landed on the Pilgrims (1969-71), which I reviewed in 33:2 , is such a meta-work of nine pieces. In the Beginning comes from a decade later (1978-81), and moves towards an even greater degree of complexity and mastery of its materials.

I haven’t mentioned it before in my reviews (nor does Chris Brown in his comprehensive and technically detailed notes to this disc), but Rosenboom seems to me very much the heir of Henry Cowell. Both were “avant-garde prodigies” (indeed, I’m hard pressed to think of any others). And Cowell from early in his career was obsessed with linking rhythm, timbre, and harmony into a single “unified field theory” of music. Rosenboom seems very similar. This set of pieces is again rooted in the composer’s exploration of overtone and “undertone” harmonic relations, and the proportions derived from these harmonies in turn determine the formal structure of the works, their pacing and evolution of materials. Unlike Cowell, Rosenboom is open to a greater degree of controlled randomness in the mix (Xenakis is one of his inspirations). But the music, no matter how prolix, never sounds chaotic to me. This sort of cross-parametric organization, simultaneously rigorous and open, is also closely related to the ideas and work of James Tenney, a former teacher and close friend of Rosenboom, and one of the seminal creative forces in American experimental music in the second half of the 20th century.

In brief: This set consists of eight pieces. The first three are scored respectively for digital synthesizer; trombone, percussion, and four cellos; and wind quintet. There then are three etudes: for multiple trombones; keyboard and plucked strings; and piano, this time played with oranges rolled on the keyboard! Finally, the last two works are in turn again for synthesizer, and for chamber orchestra. The first three pieces are long (20-30 minutes each) and more “abstract.” The etudes are more playful and short. The final piece feels like a logical culmination, in both its orchestration and references to earlier music in the series.

I don’t want to do a piece-by-piece exegesis, as the effect of this series is more like experiencing a long-term weather pattern, mutating from one state to another. The music is often highly textural, but usually the different lines, even when using limited pitches or ostinatos, are well distinguished from one to another, and also morph through different figurations throughout a work. The effect is like looking into a river and seeing a basic continuity of patterns, yet also constant variety and change. And because of Rosenboom’s harmonic theory, the music always sounds largely consonant no matter how dense or chromatic it actually becomes. As one moves through the series, the sense of deep harmonic progression becomes ever more evident. There’s a great sense of play and openness of spirit here (even to the point that in No. 4 for digital synthesizer I felt I was hearing a sly take on the 1969 novelty electronic hit Popcorn ).

I will say that the first two pieces, which are also the earliest, in the set feel a little more schematic to me, and I find them starting to wear out their welcome after a while. Rosenboom may have been just a little too enamored of his system, so deep was he into the process of its discovery. But by the wind quintet (No. 3), I feel like the music begins to loosen up and is not quite so dogged in its pursuit of purpose and structure. Even if an event like a lovely chorale that suddenly emerges out of the storm is calculated, it also sounds fresh and spontaneous. And this sort of spirit becomes ever more pervasive through the remaining works.

In a way this is a sort of “neo-Ars Nova” music, inventing structures to create all aspects of music from the ground up (Messiaen, despite all the birds/raga/religion associations, is another such composer). It’s a useful thing that along with his formidable intellect, Rosenboom is blessed with a natural, near-overwhelming musicality. I’m curious by now about one thing concerning the composer. Everything I’ve heard of his on disc comes from his early career (he was only 34 at the last work on this program). Each new release on New World is slowly moving forward in historical time, so that one feels the discography is in a sort of canon with Rosenboom’s real life. All these performances but the electronic works are recent studio productions, so he seems to be making a careful audio archiving of his oeuvre. The last work I know is one I keep mentioning in every review, Systems of Judgment , but it’s from 1987. So suffice it to say I’m very curious to know the continuing arc of his development.

In many ways I think this is the most satisfying and stimulating release in the New World Rosenboom series so far. Performances are all composer-supervised (he conducts the final work), and so seem definitive. I have not tried to parse out all the performers to the various pieces because they often overlap from one piece to another, and I think it would create a Rube Goldberg of a headnote. For the record, along with the composer on piano and synthesizer, Mike Svoboda, William Winant, and Jane Grothe have featured roles, and Midnight Winds consists of Amy Tatum, flute; Jennifer Johnson, oboe; Andrew Leonard, clarinet; Marciej Flis, bassoon; and Allen Fogle, horn.

I mentioned above that Rosenboom is a composer who wants to create everything from the ground up. As such, In the Beginning is an appropriate title, as there does seem to be something godlike in the project. It’s a relief to say that for all this ambition, it doesn’t succumb to overinflated grandiosity. There’s a continual sense of curiosity and musical play animating the proceedings.

FANFARE: Robert Carl
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Works on This Recording

In the Beginning by David Rosenboom
Conductor:  David Rosenboom
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1978 - 1981; USA 

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