Sounds Heard: Line Upon Line Percussion
This past May, NewMusicBox contributor Andrew Sigler and I each covered Austin, Texas’s “Fast Forward Austin” festival, and those looking for an audio snapshot of that city’s emerging new music scene would do well to give Line Upon Line Percussion’s new album a listen. This trio of percussionists—Adam Bedell, Cullen Faulk, and Matthew Tedori—formed at the University of Texas at Austin in 2009, and the four composers whose works are featured on the album are all Austin-based as well.
They were also all born in 1980 or after, with included works composed in 2009 and 2010. As one might expect, the influence of minimalism and New York’s Downtown scene is felt in their respective pieces, some more strongly than others. The homegrown way the album was put together—with Line Upon Line members commissioning brand-new works from local composers—led the ensemble to request four very different pieces that would each touch on different areas of the ensemble’s versatility.
James D. Norman’s Redshift (2010), which leads off the disc, is inspired by a concept from physics regarding the change in frequency of sound (or light) as an object moves away from the listener. As Norman explains, “This relationship of source and observer is the fundamental process at work in Redshift, relating player to player and ensemble to listener.” The work expands an initial unison line in a variety of ways, morphing and stretching in a kind of quasi-heterophonous texture that balances an interplay of quick-decaying instruments along with more sustained tones (including some impressively pure bowed cymbal playing). Redshift has the most spare and symmetrical instrumentation of any work on the album—six metal planks, six wood planks, and a crash cymbal—yet Norman’s inventive and constantly varying orchestration propels the work forward. The timbres are never far from the tinge of Gamelan music, with the metal plates providing plenty of clangorous overtones that sound rich and bell-like on this recording.
Steve Snowden is a composer who grew up in rural Missouri, and some of his previous works have turned to folk sources for inspiration. His contribution, A Man with a Gun Lives Here (2010), is based on the secret codes used by hobos as they roamed the country during the Great Depression, but the music in this case is devoid of folk tunes or invocations of particular styles (Snowden’s Appalachian Polaroids, a work featured at last year’s “Fast Forward” festival that incorporated an actual folk tune). Instead, his piece for this disc unfolds naturally from the history and character of vagabond culture.
“The Hobo Code is a fascinating system of symbols understood among the hobo community,” Snowden explains. “Because hobos weren’t typically welcomed (and were often illiterate), messages left for others in the community had to be easy for hobos to read but look like little more than random markings to everyone else to maintain an element of secrecy. Each movement of this piece is based on one of these symbols and, just like those resourceful hobos, makes use of very limited materials.”
Snowden’s A Man with a Gun is scored for a single shared bass drum and several additional implements, emphasizing the communal and ritualistic elements of the composition’s subject. The first movement, “Be Prepared to Defend Yourself,” lopes along with a series of rugged, uneven gestures for bass drum, played in a variety of ways that wring a lot out of a fairly humble instrument, while the second movement, “There are Thieves About,” serves up a sneaky rhythmic groove augmented by metal plates placed on the surface of the bass drum. The final movement, “A Man with a Gun Lives Here,” adds a three-pound sack of buckshot to the mix, which is dropped, smacked, dragged, and eventually poured onto the drum head. It’s a tribute to Snowden’s resourcefulness that after the effect of the entire bag being poured onto the drum—a point many composers might have considered a suitable cadence—Snowden instructs the players to tilt the drum head and spread the buckshot over its surface, creating a sonority akin to tidal surf cresting and receding. Snowden’s exploration of the physical impulse have rewarded him with a large palette of timbres, and his work has a rustic, red-blooded quality that is missing from a lot of timbre-oriented percussion music. Line Upon Line delivered the requisite (and at times acrobatic) choreography and lent the piece’s timbral explorations an expressive element.
Zack Stanton’s Echoes of Veiled Light (2009) was a response to the ensemble’s request that he compose them a quiet piece—always a challenge of subtlety and restraint when writing for percussion, and one that Stanton seems well-equipped to meet. The work is based on the echoing and close imitation of successive musical ideas, woven into a delicate filigree that successfully blends pitched and non-pitched sounds. The influence of minimalism and postminimalism is present but, refreshingly, it never overwhelms Stanton’s own voice. The work reveals great textural sophistication, as well as a sustained, lyrical impulse that is a nice contrast to what is largely a groove-based album.
Ian Dicke’s Missa Materialis (2010) caps off the disc. The work was inspired by Austin’s Cathedral of Junk, a structure welded together by artist Vince Hannemann out of assorted debris. While Snowden’s contribution allowed its attitude to be revealed through the interplay of musical objects, everything in Dicke’s junkyard mass seems to have crystallized around the vivid metaphor of our society’s ritual cycle of materialism. The first movement features slammed trash can lids, as well as the sound of what I think is a newspaper placed over an open trash can and then tapped. The visual element strikes me as so important that I had a very different experience watching a video of the piece and hearing the same sounds on the CD. Dicke has a knack for clever and pungent combinations of timbres, and many of his unlikely but fresh combinations carry the music even without the added theatrical effect of seeing what trash items produce each sound.
The work’s second movement ends in a gesture that struck me as a good example of one of the things that Dicke brings to the table as a composer—a great ear for sound and an understanding of how to best let its innate qualities shine through. The movement ends in a duet of winding ratchets, overlapping unevenly and stuttering over each other in a kind of highly active stasis. Other moments, including a ghostly musical saw part in the third movement and whipped trash bags in fourth, coax unexpectedly varied timbres from seemingly limited sources. Fragments of material linger, dreamlike, as things to be reveled in, suddenly stopping or occasionally spinning into cathedral-like structures. The work reflects its liturgical inspiration not only in its final quotation of Latin text, but in the way that each gesture is suspended, meditated upon, and slowly passed between players.
This disc introduces us to an ensemble that is rhythmically tight and sensitive as well as timbrally curious, and their commitment to local composers telegraphs their seriousness in making contributions to the percussion repertoire. The effort is also an example of how a “garage band,” local, do-it-yourself impulse worked alongside the more traditional commissioning process—a marriage of old and emerging paradigms that is versatile and undogmatic. Line Upon Line’s debut release is a great way to sample a local scene and the ensemble’s considerable range of abilities.