Vasko Dukovski and Bohdan Hilash (clarinets)
Alisa Horn (strings)
Troy Rinker (doublebass)
Grace Browning (harp)
John Ferrari and Charles Kiger (percussion)
conducted by Paul Haas
The composer Christopher Bono is someone I had never before encountered until Invocations, an entire CD devoted to his music that arrived in the mail a few months ago. His own website does not offer a biography and the about page on his blog merely states the following:
“I enjoy all aspects of sound and music. As a composer and student of life, I am interested in new sound worlds, alternative states of consciousness and experience through sound, and collaboration.”
As it turns out, Bono has quite a fascinating life story which I eventually learned directly through email from him. He grew up in a St. Louis suburb and trained to be a professional baseball player (he was drafted by the Seattle Mariners) before physical injuries forced him to abandon athletic activities. At the age of 21, he taught himself guitar and initially explored rock. After experimenting with heavy metal and even country, he eventually turned his attention to classical composition. His mother was a trained classical musician, but sports had been his focus throughout his formative years. While the music he has gone on to write—at least from what I can glean from having listened to this disc—does not particularly conjure up America’s greatest pastime, it does sound like something written by someone who is somehow an outsider. While much of 21st-century contemporary composition is not beholden to any rules, to the extent that I could probably claim everyone to be an “outsider” in some ways, Bono’s music sounds as though everything he writes is something he is discovering for the very first time, even if there are clear reference points throughout to the sound worlds of other composers from both our own time and other eras.
The bulk of the disc is comprised of an elaborate three movement composition dedicated to the composer’s father, also entitled Invocations. Each of the three movements has a different instrumentation. The first part, “Exhaust,” is scored for string trio which Bono describes in his program notes as “exposed and vulnerable.” One violin shy of a full string quartet, the string trio has certainly had a far less illustrious history. While few composers have worked extensively in the string trio medium, some have created important individual works for it either relatively early—Ludwig van Beethoven (who actually wrote four of them), Henry Cowell, La Monte Young, Charles Wuorinen—or comparatively late—W.A. Mozart, Arnold Schoenberg, Irving Fine, Ljubica Marić, Ivan Wyschnegradsky, Elliott Carter—in their careers. So the idiom is not without illustrious pedigree. Perhaps even more than being “exposed and vulnerable,” there’s something somehow sonically pure and clean about the interplay of one violin, one viola, and one cello, and Bono in “Exhaust,” once again proves how emotively satisfying an instrumental combination it can be.
The second movement, “Fish, Father, Phoenix,” is something else entirely. Here a string quintet (with double bass) is joined by harp, winds, percussion, and a series of samples. Seemingly taking a cue from the documentary-like snippets of pre-recorded speech in Steve Reich’s landmark Different Trains, Bono weaves an elaborate soundtrack around fragments of a narrative. But unlike the speech samples Reich used, which—like those in Scott Johnson’s earlier John Somebody—determine the melodic shapes and rhythmic inflections in the instrumental music that accompanies them, Bono’s speech samples are but one timbral element in his multifarious sonic palette.
In “Sunday Stills the Willow,” the final section of the composition and also the shortest, the samples are gone but the rest of the ensemble remains. Gone also is the frenetic drive and what remains is extremely heartfelt but somehow more introspective.
Perhaps the most exciting music for me herein, however, is what comes next on the disc—The Missing, a work for string quartet composed in 2010.
The piece opens with a series of extended techniques—e.g. bowing extremely close to the bridge, microtonal pitch slides, and various scrapes and squawks. What follows, though more traditional in its nature, is every bit as unusual—thematic material inspired by indigenous music from the West African nation of Togo is developed somewhat along the lines of middle period Beethoven. Imagine how different the world could have been if such music would have been written in the early 19th century.
The final track on the disc offers an alternative take on “Fish, Father, Phoenix” without the speech samples. Strangely, this version somehow sounds even more Reichian to me, albeit with a much more cinematic hue.
All in all, discovering Christopher Bono’s music has been a rewarding experience, one that makes me wish I had even more time to devote to listen to everything that comes my way.