The variety of instrumental combinations that chamber music organizations are coming up with these days is zooming toward infinity. That’s one way to stand apart from the pack; concoct an oddball configuration of your own. As did New York City’s loadbang, whose ranks consist of trumpeter Andrew Kozar, trombonist William Lang, bass clarinetist Adrian Sandi, and singer/speaker Jeff Gavett.
For their third album on New Focus, loadbang adds a string ensemble led by Eduardo Leandro, which likely generated the title of the album, Plays Well With Others — that dreaded multiple-choice grade on elementary school report cards that was supposed to measure a child’s socialization skills. Bullies and loners were at a distinct disadvantage on that playing field. No problem with that here; everyone gets high marks for getting along just fine. The issue I have is with most of the new and recent material that they are playing.
Taylor Brook’s Tarantism, a harrowing little piece on how tarantula bites were dealt with in the 16th and 17th centuries, has Gavett narrating at various speeds in an arch tone of voice and delivering wordless incantations over a series of warped brass, wind, and string effects. Heather Stebbins’s Riven is a shapeless series of extended vocal, acoustic instrumental, and electronic effects, however enlivened by a wide stereo soundstage. “I sought to weave together the seemingly muddled debris of past projects,” the composer writes. It remains a muddle.
Eve Beglarian’s setting of Brendan Constantine’s poem You See Where This Is Going pits Gavett’s pretentious legato and spoken vocals against a hop-scotching instrumental toccata. Reiko Füling’s mo(nu)ment for C/Palimpsest consists of just the fragments of the words “I am” in English, French, and German intermingled with repeated staccato bursts by loadbang and brief comments from the strings. It goes on that way for a long time before finding a bit of temporary harmonic ground near the end.
In Scott Wallschleger’s CVS, Gavett intones those three letters over and over in various combinations against spare atonal bursts from the ensemble, sometimes interpolating the phrases “There’s been a terrorist attack” and “Cool graphics.” The acronym CVS can apply to a bewildering number of things — an enzyme, a cardiovascular system, an anti-submarine aircraft carrier, constant voltage source, even a Chinese vacuum society! But since the composer calls this “a surreal work that would produce an ambiguous meaning,” I hereby choose to imagine this piece as a hostile commentary on the omnivorous CVS drug store chain; there are three of them within a mile-and-a-quarter in my neighborhood, one of which displaced the town’s only bookstore. Works for me.
After all this rigor, Paula Matthusen’s Such Is Now the Necessity is almost soothing by comparison. The horns and strings weave a layered, sustained, polyphonic series of lines underneath the vocal line, one that gradually quickens and shortens the note values, rising to quasi-Baroque splendor near the close.
Finally, the album’s cover art is absolutely hideous — two little kids right out of a 1950s magazine ad with heads warped together. I can’t bear to look at it. Were they thinking this would entice potential listeners?