Strong Force
Mutable Music 17511-2

STRONG FORCE is a true American mongrel.

A through-composed piece, written by someone very much on the New music side of things, it’s still given a distinct sense of spontaneity through the contributions of improvisers, whose sympathies usually lie on the jazz side of the fence. Commissioned by The Fromm Music Foundation at Harvard University, much of the music bubbles along thanks to the individual players’ skills, as well as its creation by Sunnyside, N.Y.-based composer Earl Howard who sits in on synthesizer. In fact, STRONG FORCE’s main weakness is definitely extra-musical, with some contributions distant or muffled because of the live recording situation at New York’s Merkin Hall.

Born in 1951, Howard now concentrates on creating pieces for live electronics and electronic tape, as well as those that add live improvisation to orchestrated sounds created by electronics. Also an alto saxophonist, Howard has written and performed pieces for solo saxophone, for saxophone and tape and recorded improvisations with hyperpiano specialist Denman Maroney.

Two of the musicians here — who collectively make up the Parabola Arts Ensemble for which this composition was shaped — have recorded other Howard works individually. Pianist and academic Anthony Davis, best known for his operas X and TANIA, and his work with trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, has recorded two of Howard’s compositions for piano and tape. Gerry Hemingway, associate of exploratory musicians ranging from composer Anthony Braxton to saxophonist John Butcher, has recorded a Howard piece for solo percussion. Dutch cellist Ernst Reijseger’s reputation comes from his work in Hemingway’s quintet and the ICP orchestra; while harpist Anne LeBaron, a contemporary composer, has also performed in improv situations with pianist Muhal Richard Abrams and Braxton. Within this composition, Howard has evidentially created particular solo passages for each.

Often, for instance, LeBaron’s silvery harp glissandos and Reijseger’s arco lines meld, approximating an even larger stringed instrument. On his own, though, the cellist seems to prefer abrasive scratching and rumbling bow slices than conventional string lines. There is a point in the final section, however, where with more torque added, he strums and flat picks different sections, creating complementary vibrations that may or may not be in the score.

Cello pummeling and LeBaron’s contrasting descending runs frame Hemingway’s solo section in Part 2. Trading vigorous drum strokes with Davis’ arpeggio-rich continuum and Reijseger’s string slides, he then turns to kettle drum and crash cymbals to color the performance. Although the piece appears to reach a climax here, the live sound muddies some of the composer’s multi-layered conceptions.

The same sort of thing happens in the next section, where thunderous strokes and bell-tree shakes from the percussionist give way to an extended passage where he seems to be emphasizing the beat with his bass drum pedal, rolling his sticks upon the drum heads and whacking the sides of his snares and toms. You may have to leap up and turn your playback system down though, since the thunderous results becomes almost as unbearably loud as the introductory sections of a couple of other tracks are inaudible. STRONG FORCE’s final seconds also appear to fade to silence following focused harp plucks. Hopefully the fade was the decision of Howard, not the hall’s acoustics.

Prominent on the keys as soon as the percussion interlude subsides, Davis — who earlier on indulges in internal string strumming — plays an extended, semi-classical fantasia of splayed notes and underlying harmonies, with left handed harmonic interjections using sympathetic voicing to create a capacious soundscape. Occasionally too, you hear synthesizer whorls that ascend from underneath the other sounds then vanish.

That sort of restrain characterizes Howard’s other electronic interjections here. Usually he’ll provide an underlying ostinato, a split-second note commentary or create oscillating overtones, leaving the fireworks to others, most notably the percussionist. Howard is obviously satisfied that his composition is receiving a first class reading.

Indeed STRONG FORCE is played as well as can be expected from the humans. But be aware of reproduction weaknesses when investigating this CD.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Strong Force 1 2. Strong Force 2 3. Strong Force 3 4. Strong Force 4 5. Strong Force 5

Personnel: Parabola Arts Ensemble: Anthony Davis (piano); Earl Howard (synthesizer); Anne LeBaron (harp); Ernst Reijseger (cello); Gerry Hemingway (percussion)