I am already on record as an admirer of Hartford-based composer Robert Carl’s music. His compositional language, which to my ear mixes a nuanced experimentalism within organic phrasings, speaks to me on a deep and strangely (considering that all the pieces I’ve heard are wordless) philosophical level. It readily takes me to an existential thinking place. Given that, I admittedly approached his latest release on New World Records, From Japan, with high expectations.
The slow pacing of the opening composition, A Clean Sweep (2005), invites deep and careful listening to the tones of a single shakuhachi (played here with notable sensitivity by Elizabeth Brown), and it accomplishes this without ever inducing the feeling that the listener is trapped in an expensive hotel spa. This is attributable in part to the way the poetic breath of the instrument is held in sharp contrast against a metallic, whining drone of variable pitch, which keeps a steady twist of tension running through the work. The two elements tangle on equal sonic ground, the drone taking on the role of a dance partner rather than a chaperone. A second performance of the work closes the disc, for which the composer joins Brown in a shakuhachi duet of sorts, the two artists leaning into and away from each other over the drone, providing slight variations on a single melodic line. It makes for a naturally more complex and crowded reading, but also one filled with more warmth in the companionship of making it.
In between these neat bookends are three later works by Carl. In the course of its 16-minute run time, Bullet Cycle (2007) takes the listener on a journey that mixes recordings made inside Japan’s high-speed bullet trains with the sounds of acoustic musicians (two improvising soloists and a percussive time keeper, roles here performed by Katie Kennedy, cello; Bill Solomon, vibraphone; and Sayun Chang, percussion). The world Carl establishes drifts in more of a leisurely spiral than typical point-to-point travel, the music mimicking something more akin to a dozing passenger’s experience—uneasy sleep regularly interrupted by train announcements and noise, the passage of time and miles strangely difficult to quantify, personal thoughts mixed up with glimpses of passing scenery, yet always the rocking train encouraging the mind to drift until just before the destination is reached.
Carl incorporates recorded sounds from Japan even more concretely in his electronic installation Collapsible Mandala (2008-09), his sources ranging from chattering birds to aggressive explosions, from children at play to adults in prayer. Though designed to be expanded and collapsed to suit various programming situations, the piece is here presented in a 26-minute version. In addition to the various ambient sound sources—which are collaged into sections ranging from seconds to minutes in length—the work includes fast fades into significant periods of silence (sometimes more than a minute in duration) between scenes. My experience of this structure surprised me; rather than allowing me to sink deeply into the music, I felt it as an extreme surface tension, the image of the preceding section echoing in the suddenly enforced quiet while my ear strove to catch the beginning of the next; meanwhile, the noise of my own listening environment taunted me with distractions.
At the very heart of the disc is Brown Velvet (2009-10), a piece for bassoon and live electronics (performed for this recording by Ryan Hare with Aleksander Sternfeld-Dunn on laptop). Echoing elements of A Clean Sweep, the piece sets the woodwind against a deep drone of fluctuating pitch, its timbre this time more muted yet more ominous. Once again a deliberately paced dance plays out between the players, the drone supporting the movements of the bassoon, the bassoon made all the stronger in its ability to envelope the listener in the seductive richness of its tone. I never thought much about the dark beauty of the bassoon before, but this work makes it an unforgettable star.
Taken as a whole, the work included on From Japan may stand as a document to Carl’s multifaceted exploration of the intersection between American and Japanese musical culture. In much broader and perhaps simpler terms, however, it is evidence of how careful a listener Robert Carl is, and how generously he invites us all to listen with him.