Vol. 31 Issue 2 Reviews

Larry Austin: Ottuplo! The Eighth Decade

Compact disc, 2006, CDCM Computer Music Series, Volume 35, Centaur Records CRC 2830; available from Centaur Records, Inc., 136 St. Joseph Street, Baton Rouge, Louisiana 70802, USA; telephone (+1) 225-336-4877; fax (+1) 225-336-9678; electronic mail info@centaurrecords.com; Web www.centaurrecords.com/.

Reviewed by Jim Phelps
DeKalb, Illinois, USA

While it is not so difficult to cite many composers and performers who have contributed important innovations in one or two areas of musical art, it is not so easy to find those who have dispersed their visionary efforts over such a broad spectrum as has Larry Austin, who now serves us in this capacity in his eighth decade. These innovations lie not only in the domain of music composition and performance (e.g., early mixing of jazz with new-music elements, "open style" including incorporation of theatrical and dance elements, sonic/visual explorations with fractal geometry, the realization of Charles Ives' Universe Symphony, unique employment of convolution cross-synthesis techniques, to name a few) but also venture into realms of archiving, recording, publishing and distributing music as well as playing leading roles in our organizations of the music community. 

During a recent symposium, Richard Kostelanetz cited SOURCE: Music of the Avant Garde, co-founded, edited, and published by Larry Austin from 1966 to 1974, as one of the most important music journals ever published. Indeed! The impact of SOURCE lives on to this day. It is easy to view CDCM: Consortium to Distribute Computer Music, founded by Austin in 1986, and its production on the Centaur label of 35 discs, as a contemporary version of the same vision which created SOURCE. Following this was a progressive presidency of International Computer Music Association (1990-1994), which saw the first Asia-hosted ICMC and, in 1996, the award of the Magisterium prize in Bourges, honoring his artistry, influence, and vision over several decades. 

While this document serves as a review of a new disc, not a history, this release should be heard bas relief against the backdrop of such a career, a career which, in 2006, exhibits all the enthusiasm and energy embodied in its past. This new CD offers us the opportunity of hearing new Larry Austin music in the present, as we reflect on accomplishments in the past, and look forward to new ones in the future.

Music presented on this CD spans the years 1965-2006: an early "tape piece," RomaDue, from 1965 (revised in 1997); art is self-alteration is Cage is ... from 1982-83 (revised in 1993); Ottuplo! (1998-2000); Threnos (2001-02); Tableaux: Convolutions on a Theme (2003-4); Adagio: Convolutions on a Theme by Mozart (2004-05); and Les Flûtes de Pan: Homage à Debussy (2005-06).
Larry Austin has a long history of "tipping his hat" toward music of other composers and performers. These musics include those from the distant past, the more-recent past, as well as from the present, contemporary world in which we live.  It could be said that it requires a certain bravery to invite, implicitly, comparison of one's self with certain venerated icons, the likes of which would include Henry Purcell, Wolfgang Mozart, Modest Mussorgsky, Claude Debussy, Charles Ives, John Cage, and others. Fortunately, Mr. Austin does not go about his work with a fear of intimidation. He honors, glosses the works of these other artists and, in the process, contributes new art to the many streams of influence and inspiration flowing from our past into, and through, "us."  Mr. Austin tips his hat in such a manner with several pieces on this CD.

His travels have taken him far and wide on this planet and often his music reflects this cultural influence, both overtly and covertly. Surely we all have experienced reflections from our excursions into other cultures and have studied their impact on our lives and music. Two such "studies" appear on this CD and both represent interaction with and absorption of these cultural dynamics in the music.

Always enjoyable is the opportunity of hearing early works by our most influential composers, works that, perhaps, aren't performed so often, and especially works that represent a composer's early efforts within a genre they later grow to champion and, in some cases, help to create and develop. Included on this CD is a work from 1965 (revised in 1997), RomaDue. It is presented here as a fixed-media, electronic-music piece, but it originally allowed various other participants, including musicians and dancers. Playful, brash, bravado, passionate… well, that's Rome, isn't it? And indeed, this piece was realized at the American Academy in Rome. Were all of our "firsts" of this quality? Ah… yes… would be nice! This piece is from the psyche of a performer as much as it is from that of a composer—Larry Austin the performer. This might be a convenient time to remind us all that his musical roots include a very healthy dose of jazz, and he himself was a jazz player. I can easily see that Austin "performing" this piece. This is jazz without the “jazz.”

Ottuplo! was recorded live at Merkin Concert Hall in New York City, performed by the Flux Quartet (the Smith Quartet appears as an ambisonic-encoded virtual quartet), and it's difficult to imagine a better recording resulting from a studio session. All of the tricky elements of mix, balance, space, and performance are working perfectly together—a definitive recording, surely. Perhaps if more people were to hear this piece, then more composers would write contemporary works for string quartet, works that are not neo-classical but, rather, works that speak with a present-day language “about” a present-day society. This is such a work. It could rightfully reside alongside other seminal string quartet works, such as Black Angels by George Crumb, in their capture, and captivation, of a contemporary society; this is a fresh, unique utterance powerful enough to exist outside the dark shadows of venerated histories (monoliths) of genres. This is one of the first known string quartet compositions to combine live performers and ambisonic encoding/decoding for three-dimensional recording and performance technology. The quartet "sound space" is visited by delightful reminders of where this piece was composed—at Lake Como while the composer was in residence at the Rockefeller Center at Bellagio, Italy—a rather unexpected peek into this inspiring environment.

Ever wonder what 16 double-basses playing together would sound like? How about 16 Robert Blacks? That's what we hear when we listen to art is self-alteration is Cage is… Mr. Austin composed this "omniostic" piece based on the letters C-A-G-E for John's 70th birthday. Upon receipt of the piece, Cage exclaimed, "I feel changed already."  The 16 string basses trace a path through the 64 block letters of Cage's name. The 64 letters are structured as 16 iterations of C-A-G-E. Each step along the path (each block letter) offers a combination of four pitches and/or silences derived by a computer algorithm. Notated pitches are limited to open strings plus the first three natural harmonics of each string with the instruments tuned scordatura to the pitches C, A, G and E, each instrument tuned to one of four different sequences/permutations of the letters.   Whatever the reader of this review is imagining in their "mind's ear" as they ponder such a piece, it is likely very different from what they will hear on this CD. The clarity in polyphony and texture is just as astonishing as the subtlety in performance and mix is beautiful, a fitting walk down the paths of CAGE.

Larry Austin's music has always been about SOUND! His music explores and glorifies sonics unique to whatever sources are brought to bear, whether traditional acoustic instruments, electronics, or a combination of the two. A recent avenue of such sonic exploration is witnessed through his pairing of materials recorded by the same instrument, convolving the two, thereby creating a cross-synthesis timbre. This is rather unique since most examples of convolution pair dissimilar instruments. Using convolution in this manner allows the composer, and the listener, to hear delicacies embedded within the original sonic attributes of the instrument that might otherwise go unheralded—an intensification of beauty. These convolutions are heard along with the live performance of the instrument. Such explorations on this CD are Les Flûtes de Pan: Homage à Debussy, Adagio: Convolutions on a Theme by Mozart, Tableaux: Convolutions on a Theme, and Threnos.

In Les Flûtes de Pan, Mr. Austin distills precious ideas and moments from a piece by Debussy (Syrinx) which, standing alone, is little more than a ditty (it is doubtful the piece was intended by Debussy to be anything more than that), elaborates on (one might say "realizes") these morsels and creates a flute wonderland of sonics, replete with rich, subtle beauty. If Debussy had scripted a few ideas, handed them to Austin and said "make a piece out of this," this is what you would get, and it is indeed what we have. Jacqueline Martelle's performance (on flute) delicately navigates a zone representing "common ground" between Debussy and Austin, an important and challenging performance feature of the piece.

Most classical repertoire involving the clarinet, while perhaps rather glorious in some respects, seems not to appreciate/employ the richness of the clarinet as a unique voice, capable of subtleties in drama, color, and articulation. In short, much repertoire simply ignores, as if to eschew, much of this tonal splendor. Mr. Austin "corrects" this malady in Adagio: Convolutions on a Theme by Mozart with the artistry of renowned clarinetist F. Gerard Errante. The original Mozartean beauty-in-simplicity, provided by materials from the slow movement of Mozart's Concerto for Clarinet, is maintained and, now, enriched. The treatment of the materials is rhapsodic, enlightening, and informs the original musical content. Mozart's musical innocence is now, somehow, less innocent, more poignant, painted with thicker, broader brush strokes not always bound by the edges of the canvas.

This recording of Tableaux: Convolutions on a Theme offers exactly what you would expect from saxophonist Stephen Duke (alto saxophone): a commanding, compelling, virtuosic performance, rich with both delicate shading and dramatic flair. A rare breed of performer indeed, Mr. Duke "becomes" the piece—lives it, infuses it—and it is virtually impossible for an audience to be even slightly inattentive during one of his performances. This piece is a celebration of saxophone sonics, both live and pre-recorded/convolved materials, and of virtuosity in performance and composition. The listener is treated with and gratified by a glorious statement of the famous nineteenth-century piano melody, from which other materials of the piece derive, toward the end. Rapture!

A very solemn work, understandably, is Threnos, dedicated to the victims of 9/11—ominous, foreboding yet offering a blanket of comfort, almost solitude. Michael Lowenstern, performing on bass clarinet, artfully portrays this complex psychology that mirrors us all, and envelops us. Among the pieces on this CD that incorporate, and honor, musics of the past, this is the only one which never allows the earlier music to be heard as a quote, either in entirety or in significant excerpted fragments. This is important, and brilliant. Who can view the skyline of Manhattan without seeing the twin towers of the World Trade Center in the shadows of our memory. They are not there, but we see them. Our memories superimpose them; we are haunted. We never hear the famous and beautiful lament from Purcell's opera, but it's there in torn fragments, sewn together by our familiarity with the music, and of the lament. We are torn, yes.  We lament, yes.  But we are also "recomposed." Once heard, this piece will not be forgotten by the listener.

Reviewing this new Larry Austin CD has often found the reviewer scratching his head while trying to avoid repetitions of the word “beauty” and trying to find appropriate synonyms, for the sake of writing style. There’s a reason for this. This music is ABOUT beauty!  If art is self-alteration, then this disc didactically represents beauty as self-realization, a collective of life’s sensitivities and sensibilities lived thus far. With due apologies: beauty is self-realization is Austin is… in his eighth decade.