Nashville’s all-volunteer Alias Chamber Ensemble received a Grammy nomination last year for their Naxos recording of Gabriela Lena Frank’s Hilos, and this season the ensemble—which donates 100% of its proceeds to other community-based nonprofits—has already been hard at work on a new collaboration with Nashville Opera as well as promoting their new CD for the Delos label. The plucky and progressive ensemble reflects a certain homegrown, do-it-yourself spirit, and the decision to follow the Frank release with the equally earthy and folk-inspired music of Kenji Bunch makes for an inspired follow-up.
Bunch is a violist and former member of the Flux Quartet, and his performing and composing often inform each other; Bunch’s recent viola showpiece The Devil’s Box was premiered at last year’s SONiC Festival at Zankel Hall with the composer as soloist, weaving folk sources into notated music of exceptional energy, expression, and charm.
“Boiling Point represents some of my favorite and most personal chamber music of the last decade,” Bunch explains. “These are the works that have led me to define my approach as a composer of what I like to call New American music. Just as we see a culinary movement that incorporates locally sourced ingredients and unexpected creative flourishes into traditional forms to re-imagine classic American dishes, I draw from regional vernacular musical elements, infuse them with avant-garde improvisation, Romantic lyricism, and classical forms, and humbly offer my idea of chamber music for the 21st century.”
The disc features nine tracks, although listeners are strongly encouraged to purchase the album’s digital edition which features a final duet between Kenji Bunch and ensemble cellist Matt Walker. The first work, String Circle, is a string quintet featuring Bunch on the extra viola. The work’s first movement, “Lowdown,” moves through several moods in less than five minutes, seamlessly transforming the simplest open string sounds into laid-back grooves. Folk-derived string techniques like slides, bends, and percussive “chops” lend the music a primal character. Bunch uses drones in more than one movement of the piece, and his music always has a strong tonal center. That’s perhaps because Bunch stays very close to his materials, exploring all kinds of possibilities within vernacular idioms, rarely blending them to noticeable effect and never holding them at a distance. String Circle is closer to Appalachian Waltz than to Bartók; it is folk music for classical players more so than a contemporary composition tinged with folk influences. It is music with an immediacy and authenticity that is clearly audible from the first measures.
Alias negotiates material both rough-edged and refined in this composition, capturing moments like the rickety, old-timey pizzicato fourth movement, titled “Porch Picking.” Surprisingly, for music with such a folk basis there isn’t as much outright soloing as one might expect, and the majority of the movements groove well below peak intensity. The final movement, “Overdrive,” is wilder and also draws from a crunchier harmonic palette than the other movements; it’s a great ending to a piece that serves as effective a calling card as any to introduce listeners to the range of styles Bunch has absorbed.
The next works on the disc, Drift and 26.2, find Bunch working in a less Americana-styled idiom; it’s refreshing to hear examples that blend influences more completely with his own compositional voice, yet at the same time I find myself more excited by the works that give themselves wholly and unabashedly to the particulars of folk techniques that Bunch utilizes so persuasively. Luminaria for violin and harp stands out among these less overtly vernacular works, with lots of fine dialogue and some exquisitely ornate violin playing over the work’s many trill figures.
Boiling Point for amplified string quartet, bass, and drums takes the album in a new direction, with more improvisatory playing from the ensemble and a more contemporary hard-rock feel. The work accompanies a teakettle, which is set to begin heating during the course of the piece, the whistle coinciding with the piece’s climax. It’s a clever idea that works well even without the visual cue, hinting at a path unexplored on the rest of the album.
For those who purchase the album’s digital edition, Double Down is likely the best performance of the disc, with playfulness, drama, and elan, kind of a distillation of all that String Circle has to offer. Bunch and cellist Walker engage in some friendly competition and some of the only real dirty playing on the album—it’s an electrifying mix of deft compositional choices and wonderfully intuitive soloing that also suggests the kind of skilled improviser/performer by whom Bunch’s music is best represented.
There’s a tension between the different approaches to integrating classical and vernacular traditions on this disc, and that’s why it’s so fascinating to hear Kenji Bunch at work with an ensemble as talented and dedicated as Alias. I’m curious to see whether he will likewise “double down” on any one style or notational approach or continue to explore a wide breadth of genres and approaches. The works recorded on this disc give a lot of insight into Bunch’s musical journey and the kinds of close collaborations that fuel his creative efforts.