At the end of last week, Starkland released their latest CD. Entitled On The Nature of Thingness, the album presents a survey of seven works by two emerging composers, Phyllis Chen and Nathan Davis. The performers are members of the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), in which Davis performs as a percussionist.
Readers of this site had their first encounter with ICE in August of 2015 when Sono Luminus released an album consisting entirely of music by Anna Thorvaldsdottir entitled In the Light of Air. Reading about ICE it was hard to avoid thinking about Voltaire’s famous witticism about the Holy Roman Empire: It was not holy, it was not based in Rome, and it was hardly an empire. ICE is certainly an ensemble. However, it seems to be rather firmly established in New York and in a New York Weltanschauung about what constitutes “contemporary,” in which “being hip” seems to trump the risks of a myopic view of history. Ah, well, Gustav Mahler once told his wife, when she complained about the music of Arnold Schoenberg, that “the young are always right.”
Ironically, Starkland seems like a curious place for the material on this new album. They have had an excellent track record of producing work by artists who were too hip to worry about being hip; and some of them, like Guy Klucevsek and Elliott Sharp have been that way for decades, possibly before at least some of the ICE performers were born. As a result, those of us who lived through that history (rather than reading about it) are likely to have an I’ve-heard-that-song-before reaction to much of the content of On The Nature of Thingness, if not W. S. Gilbert’s more caustic reaction: “I have known that old joke from my cradle!”
There are some positive sides to this recording. Davis’ “On speaking a hundred names,” for real-time electronic processing of a solo bassoon, takes a familiar approach to contemporary jamming and ventures into some highly imaginative territory, even including a fascinating “acoustic cross-reference” to throat singing. Indeed, what makes this recording work so well is that, in spite of the limitations of recording technology, it can still convey the spontaneity of performance behind this music; and for this virtue bassoonist Rebecca Heller probably deserves as much credit as does Davis. Ironically, this is the one selection on the album that is not a premiere recording.
On the other hand Davis is also responsible for the longest selection, which takes the title of the album. On the Nature of Thingness is a four-movement suite for soprano and twelve instrumentalists, each of whom plays a Jew’s harp (these days more often called a “jaw harp” out of a sense of political correctness) in addition to his/her chosen instrument(s). The text sources are literally all over the map (actually just the European continent), including Zbigniew Herbert from Poland, Hugo Ball from Germany, Arthur Rimbaud from France, and Italo Calvino (in English translation by William Weaver) from Italy. Ball provides the source for the second movement, entitled “DADA;” and it draws upon the same rhetoric of nonsense syllables that can be found in Kurt Schwitters’ “Ursonate.” Unfortunately, Davis decided to interleave Ball’s text with declaimed excerpts from the manifestos published by the Dada movement. Taken as a whole, the suite makes for an encounter that will be either amusing or tedious, depending on how many of the old jokes the listener already knows. In this respect the suite is probably representative of the entire album.