Classical CD Reviews

NATHAN DAVIS: “The Bright and Hollow Sky” = Int. Contemporary Ens./soloists/Douglas Perkins – New Focus

Some eerie blending of acoustical and electronic sounds makes for interesting listening.

Published on July 25, 2011

NATHAN DAVIS: “The Bright and Hollow Sky” = Like sweet bells jangled; pneApnia; The Mechanics of Escapement; Dowser; The Bright and Hollow Sky – International Contemporary Ensemble/soloists/Douglas Perkins, cond. – New Focus Recordings FCR120, 65:00 [Distr. by Albany] ****:

Nathan Davis is a New York based composer and percussionist with a clear understanding of the blend between acoustical and electronic sounds sources and with some fascinating results. Davis has studied at Rice University and, while on a Fulbright Fellowship, at the Rottersdam Conservatorium. He has also explored a great deal of the philosophies and tonalities of Karnatic music and meditation. Davis has written pieces for many of the most influential performers of new music including the Calder Quartet and the Ethos percussion ensemble. His works have been featured at the Ojai Festival and at many performances of the International Contemporary Ensemble, featured on this recording.

This disc illustrates the meditative, introspective quality of Davis’ work and showcases his ability to treat traditional sounds in very unusual ways quite well!  In many ways, I suggest starting with his “pneApnea” for alto flute and live processing (delays, decays, and so forth). This fascinating work takes its title from the Greek terms for breathing and the difficulty or absence of doing so (the term “apnea” is one most people have heard)  Soloist Claire Chase creates an almost “eastern” sound that seems to begin out of nothing and close into nothing. With the assistance of the processors, the net effect is almost like listening to a floating shakuhachi ensemble.  Davis’ “Like sweet bells jangled” begins in a similar trance-like way as a sole triangle blends with some odd, not quite triadic, harmonies between clarinets and flutes. Small hollow wood percussion “react” to the sonorities while the harmonies created by the winds are run through a ring modulator to heighten the effect and further blur the identity of the various sources of sound. Here, too, the effect is odd, eerie but not at all unpleasant.

I found “Dowser” for bass clarinet and delay to present an experience similar to that in “pneApnea”.  Bass clarinetist Josh Rubin does some truly amazing things to his instrument including singing while playing, pitch bending, some multiphonics all with the assistance of the electronics delays. At times, the sonorities are – again – barely definable and pitches slide in and out of clarity. The movement in this piece, like the others, is very gradual and deliberate. In this piece too, the instrument is almost transformed by the skills of the player; in the case I found it very reminiscent of a didgeridoo.

“The Mechanics of Escapement” for toy piano and clock chimes offers another beautiful but bizarre listening experience. The timbres between the small tuned rods of the toy piano and those within a mechanical clock are nearly seamless. Phylis Chen has made a career out of collecting toy pianos, writing music for them and performing works featuring them. As her own website admits, the results are frequently “quirky” but in my estimation oddly beautiful. Davis’ work takes advantage of the chosen timbres and the performer’s expertise to create a piece that sounds “artificial” but still very acoustical. Following pitches as they bounce around the composer’s landscape is fun and this piece is rewarding to listen to; almost like walking inside a toy piano and watching the tiny hammers as the pitch rods are struck.

“The Bright and Hollow Sky” for a larger group of the ICE ensemble plus ring modulation presents a similarly other-worldly experience. The music is almost pushed along by a chugging, almost syncopated mallet line against wind pitches and utterances that seem wildly out of place at times, very syntactical at others. The blend of upper range timbres between the clarinets and the flutes is assisted in places electronically and the bizarre multiphonic bursts by trumpeter Peter Evans are fascinating and worth some kudos! This piece is a bit more restless, strident  and kinetic than the others on this disc but fascinating, none the less.

The package notes by Whit Bernard refer to Nathan Davis’ work as similar in their ethos to the work of architect Louis Kahn where “the world of objects (and) ideas are one and the same.” From what I can tell, I would agree. Davis’ music is certainly not for everyone and even in this collection, some pieces have a sound that most listeners would appreciate on some level with others might not. The ICE performers are all dedicated and Daniel Lippel and New Focus Recordings is to be commended for making a wide variety of new music and new performers available in very high quality recordings.

– Daniel Coombs




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