freeHorn   CB0049

The music

The form of both freeHorn and ii-v-i consists of a continuous modulation between three different harmonic series. freeHorn weaves together the live interaction of acoustic instruments and computer software written by Polansky and Phil Burk. ii-v-i, a reverberant cloud of moving intonation, gradually drifts from one natural harmonic series to another. Only open strings, 2nd, 3rd and 4th harmonics, and notes stopped at the 7th and 12th frets are used, and the guitars are audibly retuned from one “section” to another—each section having a new fundamental and a new tuning.

minmaj is Polansky’s unique arrangement/“translation” for two electric guitars of Carl Ruggles’s 1921 work for muted brass, Angels. (It is the first movement of Polansky’s 3 Translations for Electric Guitar.)

The composer

Larry Polansky is a prolific composer, theorist, performer, writer, and teacher whose works are performed frequently around the world. CDs devoted exclusively to his music are available on New World Records, Artifact, and Cold Blue, and many of his pieces are anthologized on other labels. In 2010, he wrote the score for Stacey Steers’s Night Hunter, an experimental animation chosen for the Telluride, Sundance, and Rotterdam film festivals and the New York New Films/New Directors festival at Lincoln Center.

As a performer (primarily on guitar and mandolin), Polansky has premiered and recorded works by Christian Wolff, Barbara Monk Feldman, Michael Parsons, James Tenney, Lou Harrison, Lois V Vierk, Ron Nagorcka, Daniel Goode, David Mahler, and many others. A member of several contemporary music ensembles, he served as the curator for the Downtown Ensemble (NYC) for a number of years and as part of Trio (with Kui Dong and Christian Wolff) for over a decade. Recently, he produced a major festival of American Sign Language (ASL) poetry at UC Santa Cruz. (He has written a short opera in ASL and created a series of articles and festivals about poetry and performance in ASL.)

Polansky is the cofounder and codirector of Frog Peak Music (A Composers’ Collective), and from 1980 to 1990 he worked at the Mills Center for Contemporary Music, where he was one of the coauthors (with Phil Burk and David Rosenboom) of the computer music language HMSL, and a contributor to the program SoundHack (by Tom Erbe). His articles are published in such journals as Perspectives of New Music, Journal of Music Theory, Computer Music Journal, Musical Quarterly, Leonardo, and Leonardo Music Journal (of which he was the founding editor). He has edited 20 of Johanna Magdalena Beyer’s scores, as well as scores by Ruth Crawford Seeger and others. In 2004, at the request of Crawford Seeger’s estate, he completed and edited her major monograph, The Music of American Folk Song. Currently he is editing James Tenney’s collected theoretical writings and developing a theoretical, software-based investigation of a unified theory of form.

Polansky is the recipient a number of prizes, commissions, and awards, including Guggenheim, Fulbright, and Mellon New Directions Fellowships. He was the inaugural recipient (with David Behrman) of the American Music Center’s Henry Cowell Award. He teaches at UC Santa Cruz, and is Emeritus Strauss Professor of Music at Dartmouth College.

The performers

Amy Beal is a music historian specializing in American music, and a pianist. She has written three books: Carla Bley, Johanna Beyer (both from University of Illinois Press), and New Music, New Allies (University of California Press). She has also written numerous articles published in such periodicals as American Music Review, Journal of the Society for American Music, Notes, Music and Politics, Contemporary Music Review, Musical Quarterly, and Journal of the American Musicological Society. She has also Contributed chapters to the books Crosscurrents: American and European Music in Interaction, 1900–2000; Changing the System: The Music of Christian Wolff; Sound Commitments: Avant-Garde Music and the Sixties; and Modern Art and Music. She teaches at UC Santa Cruz.

Krystyna Bobrowski, an Oakland, CA-based composer, performer, sound artist, and improviser, designs and builds her own instruments using natural materials and everyday objects, often modifying an object’s sound through physical manipulation or the use of electronics. The sounds of rocks and rocking chairs, seaweed and wine glasses, twigs and motors, leaves and water-filled tubes are found in her pieces. Bobrowski is best known for her Gliss Glass, an original instrument consisting of custom glass vessels of various sizes, filled with water and interconnected by tubes and valves. In addition to performing her own work, she has performed and recorded the music of other composers, including David Behrman, Anthony Braxton, John Cage, Alvin Curran, Lou Harrison, Larry Polansky, Wendy Reid, and Christian Wolff. She has performed a number of times with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and often collaborates with musicians in the Bay Area’s improvised music community. She has been an artist-in-residence at the Exploratorium (San Francisco), Headlands Center for the Arts (Marin, CA) and the Akademie Schloss Solitude (Stuttgart, Germany).

Tom Dambly is a musician, writer, audio consultant, and producer committed to new and creative music. He has performed as a soloist, improviser, and ensemble musician with such groups as sfSoundGroup, Berkeley Contemporary Chamber Players, Mills College Contemporary Ensemble, UCSD’s SONOR, Cal Arts New Century Players, the Berkeley Symphony, and the Aspen Festival Orchestra. He has played in premieres or first recordings of new works by numerous composers, including Mark Applebaum, David Behrman, Bruce Bennett, Luciano Berio, Chris Brown, Chris Burns, John Cage, Alvin Curran, Paul Dresher, Guillermo Galindo, Vinko Globokar, Mark Grey, Hiroyuki Itoh, Makiko Nishikaze, Pauline Oliveros, Larry Polansky, Wendy Reid, Markus Stockhausen, Iannis Xenakis, and Pamela Z. Dambly collaborated with Thomas Stevens on the pedagogical books James Stamp Warm-ups and Studies for Trumpet and James Stamp Supplemental Studies, and with Gabriele Cassone on The Trumpet Book. He was assistant producer for Brian Lynch’s Simpático, winner of a Grammy for Best Latin Jazz Album.

David Dunn is a composer, performer, theorist, and “acoustic ecologist” who has worked in traditional and experimental music performance, public installations, film and video soundtracks, radio, and bioacoustic research. He rarely presents concerts or installations, preferring to lecture and engage in site-specific interactions and research-oriented activities. Recent projects include the “sonification” of deterministic chaotic systems, research into the bioacoustics of bark beetles and entomogenic climate change, research on ultrasonic audio phenomena in human and nonhuman environments, design of inexpensive wave-guides and transducer systems for environmental sound monitoring, and the design of self-organizing autonomous sound systems for spawning interaction between artificial and natural nonhuman systems. He was an assistant to Harry Partch from 1970 to 1974 and remained active as a performer in the Harry Partch Ensemble for over a decade. He has received a number of awards and grants, including the Alpert Award for Music and the Henry Cowell Award. He has written numerous essays published in a variety of books and periodicals. His music has appeared on the New World, Earth Ear, Pogus, Innova, What Next?, and other labels. He is a cofounder, with James P. Crutchfield and Steina and Woody Vavulka, of Art & Science Laboratory in Santa Fe, NM.

Giacomo Fiore is an Italian-born guitarist and musicologist who has performed throughout the U.S. While studying with David Tanenbaum and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, he decided to focus his performing on music by contemporary composers, and his PhD thesis (UC Santa Cruz) focused on the development of just-intonation guitars in 20th-century American music, with a particular emphasis on the works of Lou Harrison, James Tenney, and Larry Polansky. At the San Francisco Conservatory, UC Santa Cruz, University of San Francisco, and Cal State Monterey Bay, Fiore has taught a diverse set of courses, including 20th/21st Century Classical Music, Improvisation, Music Appreciation, the Hollywood Musical, and the Music of the Beatles. He is the Artistic Director of the Bay Area’s Tangents Guitar Series. He has recorded works by Eve Beglarian, Christian Wolff, Anthony Porter, Lou Harrison, Michael Tippet, Toru Takemitsu, and Larry Polansky.

David Kant is a San Francisco–based composer and performer whose work hovers at the intersection of art, music, and computation, exploring “the music of chaotic circuit networks, the soundscapes of bioluminescent phytoplankton, and machine deconstructions of pop songs.” He is a co-organizer of Indexical, a composer-run group dedicated to producing recordings, concerts, and publications of experimental music. Kant holds degrees in mathematics (Yale University) and digital music (Dartmouth College). His current projects include a solo horn piece that explores the possibility of recovering past sounds from field recordings, a project to synthesize the sounds of a universal language from the alphabet of Abrahamic religions, and continuing work with dynamical systems. He has worked with S.E.M. Ensemble and recently finished touring with Dream Team Ensemble, Happy Valley Band, and Gravies and the Main Dish Sauce.

Monica Scott is a cellist who has performed throughout the U.S. and in most European countries, Argentina, Canada, and South Korea. After a 1994 artist residency at the Banff Centre (Canada), Scott performed for four seasons with the Orquestra Metropolitana de Lisboa (Portugal), with whom she also appeared as concerto soloist. Since moving to the Bay Area in 1998, she has been actively promoting new music, as a member of the composer/improviser collective sfSoundGroup, and with Composers, Inc., the Composers Alliance, and numerous chamber music groups. She was the cellist of the award-winning Del Sol String Quartet, 2001–2005, and in 2006 she formed the cello-piano duo martha & monica, with pianist Hadley McCarroll, a duo that presents programs of both masterworks and challenging contemporary repertoire. Scott has taught at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music Preparatory Department, The Crowden School (Berkeley, CA), and elsewhere. She holds degrees from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and the Sweelinck Conservatorium in Amsterdam. She may be heard on the New World, Innova, Rastascan, and Setanta labels.

Comments

“It should be apparent to anyone involved in writing about music that we have not developed a useful analytical vocabulary to reference when discussing the innovations of pieces written today. Speaking in those metaphors that lack concision and, consequently, the desired effect becomes an undesirable but essential avoidance mechanism, especially when the music screams simultaneous precision and freedom. This fairly brief but potent disc’s centerpiece is the epic freeHorn, lasting some twenty minutes. It’s difficult to imagine a Larry Polansky piece conjuring shades of late Romanticism, but a single tone, branching out into a triad, picking up brass, piano and strings along the way, accomplished it for this listener. It all even begins in the rumbling depths only an organ could muster in 1876. However, the Romantic allusions stop there, as timbre and orchestration involve a felicitous mixture of chamber ensemble and guitar, encompassing other sonorities that might be software-derived. Microtones gradually make themselves felt as much as heard, eventually enabling some of the most fascinating modulation I’ve ever had the good fortune to witness. Tonal centers are not specifically that; rather, each fundamental tone is demonstrated to be the cosmos it is, satellite tones in all registers shimmering in and out of a timbrally unified focus, until the piece ends where it began.

“The other two pieces are for guitar duo, employing a similar complex microtonal language. It is as if “freeHorn”’s monolithically drony syntax has fragmented, a boon to what Anthony Braxton calls “the friendly experiencer” for whom microtones are not necessarily an acknowledged mode of listening. If ii-v-i is indeed the archetypal jazz progression—and given Polansky’s interest in jazz, it’s possible—it’s difficult to say for sure.  Both pieces do demonstrate a Derek Bailey influence as clean, clear tone jousts with harmonics. While Carl Ruggles’ original brass writing in Angels certainly informs the chorale-like minmaj, Polansky’s homage is more redolent of the remix than of straight transcription. 

“There is a sense in which each tone, over and micro, is in its proper place, like every blade of grass on the White House lawn. That said, there is also something poetic, even rhapsodic, in each gesture. Method neither enslaves nor is enslaved by fancy, which keeps interest high throughout. It helps that the ensemble performing the titular piece comprises performers and composers, among them Amy Beale and David Dunn, all sympathetic interpreters. The recording could not be better, and repeated listening reveals layers of nuance in these richly vigorous but transparently textured works.” —Marc Medwin, Fanfare magazine

 

“Where ‘new music’ is concerned, it is rarely (if ever) the case that I encounter a new recording all of whose selections I have previously experienced, either in concert or on another recording. These are always pleasurable occasions, because they almost always reaffirm my conviction that there is more than one way to approach any composition worthy of listening at all; and, while I often feel that the number of recordings of Beethoven is 0 (infinite but countable), encountering more than one recording of anything composed in this century tends to be quite a find.

“Bearing that in mind, I would like to enumerate the selections on this new recording in the order in which I first listened them. The earliest of these is minmaj (as in ‘minor’ and ‘major’). Polansky calls this a ‘translation,’ scored for two electric guitars, of Angels, a piece composed by Carl Ruggles for six muted trumpets. I heard this at a recital given by Giacomo Fiore in the Old First Concerts series in March of 2013. He played it with Polansky, along with another “translation,” this time of a hymn by William Billings. Both of these would subsequently show up in the publication of 3 Translations for Electric Guitar. On the freeHorn album, the guitarists are again Fiore and Polansky.

“About a year and a half later Fiore released his self-produced album iv: american electric guitars. This provided my “first contact” with freeHorn, the composition for which the new album is named. Polansky composed this piece in 2004 “for any instrument and electronics;” and Fiore played it as a solo. However, on the freeHorn album, Polansky presented this as an ensemble piece. Fiore again played electric guitar, Polansky played his fretless electric guitar, and they were joined by a diversity of other instruments performed by David Kant (tenor saxophone), Krystyna Bobrowski (horn), Tom Dambly (trumpet), Amy Beal (piano), David Dunn (electric violin), and Monica Scott (cello).

“Finally, in March of 2016, Polansky and Fiore performed in the second of the three concerts of that year’s Other Minds festival. That was my first encounter with ii-v-i, the remaining selection on the new album. This also saw Polansky playing his fretless electric guitar.

“Both freeHorn and ii-v-i involve Polansky working with natural harmonics, rather than scale systems. The title ii-v-i suggests a familiar chord progression; but in both of these pieces Polansky is interested in what he calls ‘continuous modulation.’ Since the frets on one of the two guitars involved in the performance are not designed to capture the pitches of the overtone series, the performers are required to retune their instruments as part of the performance itself. In freeHorn, on the other hand, the necessary overtones can be readily synthesized by the electronics; so Polansky’s approach to continuous modulation arises from the interplay of instrument sounds and synthesized tones.

“The title freeHorn also suggests a free-form approach to structuring that interplay. On Fiore’s recording the duration is about twelve minutes. On the new album, it is closer to twenty minutes. Presumably the additional time involves exploring how each of the contributing instruments engages with the synthesized natural harmonics in its own particular way. In other words, both performing and listening are matters of ongoing discovery; and, on the new album, there is definitely enough to discover in that twenty-minute track to warrant listening to it on several occasions over an extended period of time.

minmaj, on the other hand, seems to take its point of departure by recognizing that Ruggles conceived it as a brief study in the ambiguity of dissonance. For Ruggles that meant deliberately avoiding establishing whether the prevailing mode was minor or major, which explains Polansky’s choice of title. However, what is interesting is that, by playing on a fretless instrument, Polansky could extend that capacity for ambiguity much further than Ruggles was able to express with six trumpeters who, by virtue of training and experience, were locked into the intonation of the equal-tempered chromatic scale. This would explain why Polansky called the piece a ‘translation,’ rather than a ‘transcription.’ I would be willing to guess that Polansky saw his ‘translation’ as a way in which to situate Angels in a ‘domain of intonation’ more conducive to what Ruggles may have actually had in mind.” —Stephen Smoliar, The Rehearsal Studio

 

“The title piece spans two-thirds of the entire release and it’s for a small chamber orchestra…. [I]n an odd way I am reminded of the music of Architect’s Office, but then without voices and much better recorded; nevertheless, there was a similar moody atmosphere, an excellent slowness about this, which I enjoyed very much. Music for an endless slow, warm summer’s day. The other two pieces see Giacomo Fiore on guitar and Polansky on fretless electric guitar on one piece and electric guitar on the other.  ii-v-i is a ‘continuous modulation between different harmonic series’ and is a more hectic piece, but both gentlemen keep things very civilized. minmaj is a very quiet piece that ends this release and passes without too much notice, which is a pity. With freeHorn being such a fine and long piece I am still quite pleased with this.” — Vital Weekly (Netherlands)

 

“The music on this CD emerges from a particularly rich synergy of scoring, tuning, programming, and polished performances…. freeHorn on track 1 features no fewer than eight musicians that include acoustic and electric instruments in addition to the computer electronics. freeHorn begins with a single, deep tone that is felt more than heard. What sounds like a trombone enters at a slightly higher pitch, then the guitar and keyboard. Horns join in along the harmonic series, and this produces a powerful feeling of awakening, especially when the french horn enters. The tones are elegantly long and smoothly flowing; the opening of Das Rhinegold comes briefly to mind. At about 3:00 some dissonance creeps into the brass, creating a feeling of uncertainty as the piece continues. The various parts no longer feel tightly connected and there is a greater sense of mystery and tension. Short riffs from the various acoustic instruments appear among the longer tones, disrupting the sleek texture.

“A low drone heard in the electronics along with various alien sounds soon dominates the texture, creating a sense of remoteness. The volume continues to build and billow while the horns and guitars dart in and out of the texture—the playing here is precise and well-balanced to the electronics. This ball of sound seemingly has movement, and yet is simultaneously static. By 17:30 the tempo begins to slow and there is a comforting return to the more conventional harmonic structure of the opening series. This warm and welcoming feel provides a nice sense of closure as the texture thins and the volume decreases—and a single low tone fades to a finish. freeHorn is an amazing excursion, starting from conventional harmonic comfort, extending all the way to a foreign remoteness, and then carrying the listener safely back again.

ii-v-i follows on track 2 and begins very differently with deep bass tones and a moving guitar line above that immediately projects an air of mystery. More guitar lines join in at 1:40—a bit more sociable and less mystifying—with just the slightest flash of a Joni Mitchell sensibility. After slowing some at 4:00, the tempo moves resolutely ahead and there is an almost country-western feel that ultimately evolves into interleaving layers mixed with strong rhythmic stretches. The tuning seems to be changing even as the passages of the guitar melodies emerge and disappear, and just when you get comfortable, it morphs into something new. Finally, the last note rings out for several long seconds before disappearing into silence. ii-v-i unwinds in a swirl of different sounds and rhythms, the listener constantly and pleasantly recalibrating as the piece unfolds.

“The final track on this CD is minmaj, a short duo…. minmaj begins with a single questioning chord followed by more simple chords asking more questions. Although light and measured, there is a sense of moving forward and the accompaniment from the bass adds some depth to the texture. At 1:23 a more sinister sensation emerges followed by a quieter and more lonely stretch. The growing sense of the solitary isolation persists to the subdued ending. minmaj is a concise sketch of just that sort of enigmatic uncertainty that we all encounter at 3 AM.” —Paul Muller, Sequenza21

 

“The title piece here deals with ‘a continuous modulation between three different harmonic series.’ This means very little to me (as a non-musician or composer), although I found the music here no less fascinating. When I was listening to this CD in the store recently, a customer asked if it was some sort of religious music, like from a church service. Hmmmmm, I don’t think so. The title piece, freeHorn, has layers of reverberating drones, seesawing, breathing together slowly, calmly at first. As some of layers expand or drift, certain elements or instruments become somewhat disorienting. Each instrument seems to be vibrating in a slightly different way. Although there appears to be sense of calm at the center, this piece makes me feel uneasy, as something bad or dark is about to take place but nothing bad did happen. The last piece, minmmaj, is…for two electric guitars and sounds delicate yet somehow fractured, bent notes hanging in the air waiting for some resolution. At around 31 minutes in length, this is more like an EP yet feels just long enough to make fascinating and impressive nonetheless.” – Bruce Lee Gallanter, Downtown Music Gallery Newsletter 

 

“Two distinct yet related sides of composer Larry Polansky are captured on this thirty-two-minute release. A classic polymath, he’s issued material on New World Records, Artifact, and Cold Blue, and as a performer premiered works by Christian Wolff, James Tenney, Lou Harrison, and others. Polansky’s also worked at the Mills Center for Contemporary Music, recently produced a festival of American Sign Language (ASL) poetry at UC Santa Cruz (where he teaches), and has published articles in a host of journals devoted to contemporary music practice.

“Two of the three settings are guitar pieces performed by Polansky and Giacomo Fiore, an Italian-born player whose PhD thesis explored the development of just-intonation guitars in 20th-century American music. The twenty-minute title piece, on the other hand, augments the guitarists with six other players, each participant a distinguished music scholar, performer, and composer in his/her own right. Pianist Amy Beal, for example, has published books about Carla Bley and Johanna Beyer, whereas Krystyna Bobrowski, credited with horn on the release, designs and builds her own instruments using natural materials (such as rocks, leaves, and seaweed) and everyday objects (rocking chairs, wine glasses, and motors). Fleshing out the ensemble are Tom Dambly (trumpet), David Dunn (electric violin), David Kant (tenor sax, computer), and Monica Scott (cello). 

“On the release’s inner sleeve, Polansky describes freeHorn as consisting of ‘a continuous modulation between three different harmonic series’ during which the musicians interact in real time with computer software written by the composer and Phil Burke. Opening softly, freeHorn slowly blossoms as individual instrument sounds contribute to the gradually swelling whole. An initial single tone is joined by sustained brass, strings, guitar, and piano flourishes until the whole assumes the form of a shimmering, drifting mass of mutating timbres, pitches, and sonorities. A tamboura-like drone provides a ground to fluctuating microtonal shadings throughout this electroacoustic chamber work, whose slow-motion flurries prove transfixing, especially when the instruments’ unusual tonal contrasts and harmonic shifts are handled with such sensitivity by all involved.

“Though the other settings are scored for guitars only, they’re arresting in their own way. ii-v-i, we’re informed, limits itself to ‘open strings, 2nd, 3rd and 4th harmonics, and notes stopped at the 7th and 12th frets’ and involves the retuning of guitars from one part to another, but such details ultimately resonate less than how the piece simply sounds. Hearing Polansky (fretless electric) and Fiore (standard electric) interweave makes for a fascinating listening exercise. As their spidery tendrils criss-cross and occasionally unite, it’s hard not to think of Derek Bailey, though other moments suggest ties to country blues playing and one riff even vaguely echoes ‘Ramblin’ Man,’ of all things. Ending the release memorably is minmaj, a three-minute treatment of Carl Ruggles’ 1921 work Angels that’s rendered with exquisite care by the guitarists. Still, as compelling as the guitar settings are, it’s freeHorn that most powerfully argues on the recording’s behalf.” —Ron Schepper, Textura