Sounds Heard: Keeril Makan–Afterglow

Afterglow cover
Keeril Makan
Afterglow (Mode 257)

Performed by ICE: Eric Lamb, flutes; Joshua Rubin, clarinets, James Austin Smith, oboe; Gareth Flowers, trumpet; Erik Carlson, violin; Kivie Cahn-Lipman, cello; Randall Zigler, double bass; Nuiko Wadden, harp; Cory Smythe, piano; Nathan Davis, percussion; Erik Carlson and Adam Sliwinski, conductors.

It is always a pleasure to encounter music that serves as a reminder of some basic creative ideas: that music is a physical thing, connected to the body and to breath; that simplicity is often the most satisfying option; that the present moment and all that it holds is important. All of these notions are present in composer Keeril Makan’s latest release on Mode Records, Afterglow, a selection of chamber music and solo works performed by International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE).

In an effort to listen with ears as widely open as possible, I always do a first pass on a recording without reading the liner notes or considering biographical details about the artist(s) involved in any way (barring past information that I may already know). Although Robert Kirzinger’s liner notes and Makan’s New York Times essay about the link between his struggles with depression and his creative life are both excellent and well worth reading, I appreciated that my first listening experience of Afterglow was uncolored by extra input. Either way, the six compositions featured on this album communicated a strikingly beautiful sense of clarity and openness in both form and content.

The opening track, Mercury Songbirds, is scored for a Pierrot plus percussion ensemble. It opens with a smooth-as-glass, sine wave-like tone performed by clarinet, which is quickly thickened by additional long tones and peppered with short interruptions over top that build up and abruptly return the instruments to the previous spare texture. While there is a subtle and nearly constant drone emanating from the piano, percussive sounds performed inside the piano play a prominent role in marking the start and stop points of the more active material.

After the seven-minute mark, all of the instruments join together in a short, plaintive song that, while ultimately returning once again to slower, sparser content, causes a transformation in which all pitch content is raised to a higher register. At 9:25 we experience the first bit of silence in the work; the drone cuts off briefly, leaving gentle chords to make footprints of their own for a short time. Almost without noticing, the drone fades back in underneath the chord progression and is eventually overtaken by piano and long string tones that are abruptly cut off by a final wooden smack on the body of the piano.

Husk for flute, oboe, and harp is a more “in your face” affair—a study in contrast from start to finish. It begins with short yet dramatic harp gestures and flute jet tones, but still sports plenty of sustained pitches, many of which are performed by the oboe and set squarely in the instrumental foreground. At three minutes, an instrumental “panic attack” breaks in of twirling oboe, brash slaps, and glissandi from the harp and piano (played with plenty of fingernail action). This frantic outburst is quickly replaced by intensely quiet material, such as the sound of hands rubbing across harp strings and breath tones from the flute, made all the more dramatic when placed against the material before.

Afterglow for solo piano revels in the sonic landscape of the instrument’s harmonies and overtones that are created through a limited palette of harmonic and rhythmic material. Opening with one repeated note that keeps cycling around, it blooms with additional pitches and slightly altered rhythmic gestures. The progression of events is quite slow, so when new notes and different registers come into play, the sonic effect is fresh and surprising. The pace picks up just a bit at about eight minutes, but by the end it has slowed back down to the original pulse. According to the liner notes, the timing of the piece is quite flexible, allowing for differences between both instrument and performance space; I hope that many pianists will take up this work and bask in its sound world as much as the composer obviously has.

The other solo work on the album, Mu for prepared violin, also has a somewhat flexible score that allows the performer to explore the nature of unexpected and/or changeable timbres that result from her or his instrument. This close microphone recording puts the listener practically inside the violin; the proximity of the delicate yet complex sonorities of bowing strings prepared with paper clips creates a feeling of vulnerability and unpredictability. The effect is like the sound of slightly labored deep breathing.

Becoming Unknown for flute/bass flute, clarinet/bass clarinet, trumpet, and double bass, follows a fitful opening of melodic fragments with a plaintive melody that is, after a short time, smacked to a halt by double bass. The material afterwards features a combination of chordal material, textural exploration, and snippets of melodic content, both compressed into short gestures and stretched out into long tones.

The final work on the disc, titled After Forgetting, is a big change, as the biggest, brightest (in terms of instrumentation), and most accessible composition of the set. A pulse is established right away that continues throughout the work, but the music never rushes—all of Makan’s work exhibits a sense of patience, even at its most frenetic. Bright, open orchestration is also a hallmark of Makan’s music, with every sonority fully present in its own space, and After Forgetting is particularly lush and engaging in this regard, with vibraphone adding a metallic sparkle.

What I find most notable in this music is its complete lack of pretension; there is nothing flashy or forced, nothing trying too hard. It’s an unexpected kind of exciting music, of the fiercely quiet sort, that will greatly please discerning ears.

One thought on “Sounds Heard: Keeril Makan–Afterglow

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