Vol. 36 Issue 1 Reviews
Christopher Bailey: Immolation Ritual

Compact Disc, 2010, Innova 695; available from Innova Recordings, 332 Minnesota Street E-145, St. Paul, Minnesota 55101, USA; www.innova.mu; www.emcollective.org.

Reviewed by Ross Feller
Gambier, Ohio, USA

When I first sat down to listen to this CD, I was instantly impressed with the composer’s raw, idiosyncratic approach. The provocative title, suggesting sacrifice perhaps as a form of protest, seemed to come alive in sonic materials that the playwright Berthold Brecht might have described as “das plumpe denken,” or crude, unpolished thoughts. The One-Sheet text on the Innova site for this CD states that Christopher Bailey’s Immolation Ritual “features an evocative mix of virtuoso soloists and electronic soundworlds… at once alien and strangely familiar.” For me, the music is evocative largely because of uncomfortable and unresolved relationships between formal structures and materials, and between the live instruments and electroacoustic sounds.

The works on this CD span Bailey’s career. The earliest piece is from 1994, while the most recent work was composed in 2007. Each work reflects and/or refracts various compositional concerns that the composer has ostensibly employed throughout his career. These include the focus on microtonality and the use of familiar tonal accoutrements that are hidden, juxtaposed, or elided. The CD also includes some fine instrumental and vocal performances by a variety of performers well known in their respective areas.

The first piece from this collection, entitled Mergurs Ehd Ffleweh Bq Nsolst (2005), opens with jarring, chant-like sounds that are mixed with precise, microtonal materials. Bailey describes this piece as “ecstatic death chants from the planet Mercury.” The text for this piece, ably performed by the vocalist known as Sukato (who fashions herself as a female Tiny Tim for the avant-garde underworld), is from an imagined language used by the citizens of the hot planet. In case you are not conversant in this language Bailey includes an English translation in the CD booklet. The title itself resembles language that might be found in James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, or perhaps from a short story by Italo Calvino. Sukato’s vocalizations cover a hybrid territory between shouting and singing. They are “accompanied” by a cimbalon-esque, microtonal guitar part that effectively offsets and punctuates the vocals. The electronics involved impart an ethereal, folk element that is quite powerful when struck just right. For some of the sounds one is reminded of the raw, additive sign waves that were used by composers back when Fortran programming was popular.

The second piece, Aftermath, (2006) begins with an engine sound, spatially mixed to suggest the Doppler effect. As the sound fades out, a string drone replaces it. There are effective uses of spatialization and depth, offering the listener a visceral sense of a multi-tiered approach to foreground and background. Sweeping synthesizer gestures, often processed with fast tremolo modulation, are juxtaposed with dissonant intervals and noisy textures. The latter materials are successful complements to the more pitch-based synthesizer sounds. Both of the first two pieces seem to be constructed from concatenations of material that flow, more or less, like waves in an ocean. This effectively defeats any traditional hearing of an arch-shaped contour. It also makes the beginnings and endings sound like arbitrary points that could very well have been located elsewhere.

Abstraction 1 (1994/2004) includes more work with drones. This time they are set against a somewhat disjunct violin line that oscillates between angular and lyrical expressions. Bailey describes this piece as “a haunting series of aphoristic utterances projected by the solo violin, atop a warmly-glowing, ever-changing drone-like background.” But the pairing of live instrument and tape seems to be one of forced convenience. The tape part sounds unintentionally choppy at times, especially since it mostly serves to articulate and instigate sustains. One of the strengths of this piece is how the composer plays with very subtle approaches to the slowing down of time.
The fourth piece, Abstraction 6 (2005), is described by Bailey as “a high-energy jolt.” The tape part is much more emphatic than in Abstraction 1. The taped sounds (reminiscent of a microtonal organ) seem to crash and splash around the live saxophonist, who, for the most part, performs a static palette of atonal pitch materials. The saxophone part is superbly performed by Eliot Gattegno. Occasionally, microtonal materials from the tape clash with the saxophonist’s use of equal temperament. The result is charged.

Out Of (2006) for piano and electronic sound is ably performed by Marilyn Nonken, one of the finest performers of contemporary music. The sense of altered tuning (Just Intonation in this case) enlivens the live instrument’s part, which mostly consists of fragments having little consequence. Because the pacing of events remains static, it is challenging to remain alert while listening to this piece.
NanoSymph (2005), the sixth piece from this collection, is a short piece that successfully crams many sonic fragments into a small window of time (one minute). One is reminded of John Oswald’s “plunderphonics” techniques, but here the composer is plundering himself. This miniature includes many of the composer’s standard practices, but because of the time compression used it offers a delightful and challenging listening experience.

The seventh piece, Walking Down the Hillside at Cortona, and Seeing its Towers Rise Before Me (2007) is scored for two pianos tuned to 19-tone equal temperament. This wonderful piece includes seven scalar descents over the course of 13 min., 41 sec. These culminate in a series of massive chords, attacked with full force, but unexpectedly sounding unsteady and volatile. The tuning and consistent employment of registral movement combine to impart the sense of an aural illusion, not unlike Shepard tones. At the end of this piece there is a mammoth 45-second decay that appropriately allows the sounds to die away.

The last work, Abstraction 2 is for violin, piano, and tape. The tape part plays a small role in this piece. The materials given to the instruments are well composed, with particular close attention paid to resonance. There is also a peculiar sense of harmonic rhythm, sounding at times almost arbitrary. Bailey gradually builds the piece from repeated motives, while also suddenly changing the texture from time to time. These textural changes do not, however, have the force of a true rupture, which might utilize premature cutoffs or rhythmic displacements. On the whole, the instruments perform expressive materials in combination with quoted fragments and Klangfarbenmelodie. This is a challenging work in the sense that the composer thwarts the expectations that he sets into place.

Several of the pieces from this CD offer the listener powerful, evocative, and strange yet familiar sound worlds. In other works the familiar outweighs the strange. The works for live instruments and tape underplay the standard compositional technique of creating a timbral fusion between both parties. It seems somewhat strange, given the fact that the composer describes himself as the “computer programmer guy,” that he chose to work in the marginally interactive, old-school realm of tape. Nevertheless, part of the charm of this CD is the frequently uncomfortable fit between concept and realization, between various tuning systems, and between live instrumentalists and tape.