It’s refreshing to hear the bassoon edging its way towards the sonic foreground in contemporary music. Anyone with doubts about how cool the instrument can be has perhaps not yet heard bassoonist and core member of ICE Rebekah Heller perform; in her hands, the oft-underappreciated woodwind is transformed into a fierce creature that cannot be ignored onstage. Whether the music being performed is a cadenza from a Mozart piece or a new work by an ICELab participant, she will make you wonder how you never noticed the instrument before.
Her first solo CD, 100 names, features six work for solo bassoon, both alone and paired with electronics. All of the composers represented make use of Heller’s virtuosic playing abilities, loading up their compositions with the most extended of extended techniques. The potential “gimmicky” feel is absent though, because the pieces were obviously created in collaboration with Heller, who is clearly comfortable handling such musical material. The first piece by Edgar Guzman, ∞¿?, opens the disc with a bang; a thick, low electronic tone with rough edges cuts in and out, is quickly joined by the bassoon in its lowest range, and from there the two engage in an undulating dance of rollicking multiphonics, beating tones, and multi-tongued, staccato interruptions. The texture thickens and becomes increasingly complex as it reaches a climactic, abrupt ending.
Marcelo Toledo’s Qualia II employs a totally different sound world, beginning with high-pitched squeaks, dramatic, close-miked breath (and breathless) sounds, and amplified key clicks. Low range melodic cells are underscored by Heller’s “helicopter” technique (in which the bassoon actually does sound like a helicopter hovering at a distance), interrupted by a dramatic set of her vocalized yelps and groans. The mood then calms to slower, more extended wind and noise drones. The piece is like solo instrument musique concrète.
Dai Fujikura’s Calling is an artful construction of multiphonics wrapped around a beautifully mournful melodic line that slinks through the sound field, gradually incorporating the multiphonics into itself. On speaking a hundred names for bassoon and processing also shows off a lyrical side; fellow ICE member Nathan Davis deftly combines multiple layers of bassoon that expand and contract within the stereo space, shifting in mood from happily frenetic to angry to tranquil. Ultimately the story ends with the bassoon being swallowed in its own electronic processes, flying away into high frequencies, like a helium balloon let loose into the sky.
…and also a fountain falls the farthest from the sound worlds presented on 100 names, brought to you by Marcos Balter. It features more of Heller’s voice—this time reciting passages from Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein—heavily reverbed, and punctuated with small percussion instruments in addition to fragile bassoon textures. It shows a sparse, stripped down side of the instrument, and also reveals Heller’s willingness to try anything.
The bonus track (a sip of espresso to end the program?), Du Yun’s 10pm, ixtab is a dramatic pile-up of bassoon tracks and recorded found sound. It’s a speedy, intense roller coaster ride that slams to a halt as abruptly as it began.
For a thorough tour of the capacities (and extremes) of the bassoon, 100 names is the recording to check out. Hopefully other bassoonists will also start to perform these works (not to mention commission new works and make albums of their own!) and continue to expand the available repertoire for the instrument. Bassoon is not just for inner orchestra voices anymore.