Vol. 38 Issue 1 Reviews
Barry Schrader: The Barnum Museum (2009-2012)

Compact disc, 2012, Innova 830; available from Innova Recordings, ACF, 332 Minnesota Street #E-145, St. Paul, Minnesota 55101, USA; telephone: (651) 251-2823; electronic mail innova@composersforum.org; http://www.innova.mu/.

Reviewed by Ross Feller
Gambier, Ohio, USA

CD CoverIn the mid-nineteenth century P. T. Barnum built museums in New York City that according to the liner notes for this compact disc, served multiple functions as a “zoo, museum, lecture hall, wax museum, theatre, and freak show,” and were visited by upwards of 15,000 people a day. Barry Schrader’s music on this disc is based on a short story by Steven Millhauser called “The Barnum Museum.” Inspired by Millhauser’s elaborate, fictional extrapolations about events that take place in the museum, Schrader extended the story, adding details and scenarios not found in the original. Schrader states that the music on this disc is broadly programmatic, but closer to a tone poem in scope. The electroacoustic techniques employed by the composer create a viscerally synesthetic sense. The titles in The Barnum Museum describe spaces or rooms within Schrader’s imaginary museum, or creatures or objects found within. He takes us on a sonic journey from room to room much in the same manner as Modest Mussorgsky’s 1874 masterpiece, Pictures at an Exhibition moves from one painting or drawing to the next. Given the imaginary and freak-show nature of Schrader’s thematic collection of pieces, one is also reminded of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s poetry collection entitled, A Coney Island of the Mind, published by New Directions in 1958.

The Romanesque and Gothic Entranceways, the first piece from this collection, is a suitable introduction to Schrader’s music and thematic concept. The grandeur suggested in the title is matched, musically, with the loud, octave-laden, opening (which comes back in different guises several more times). After it quickly fades into the background, a series of soft, modal phrases take over. The sonic palette Schrader uses is richly endowed with a multitude of waveforms and layers of noise, and clearly synthetic. He creates a virtual world in which all the details of sound are carefully presented and manipulated. Using closely spaced echoes, Schrader employs repetition to build to a mechanical and synthetic, Devo-like, or Residents-like, dance rhythm.

The second piece, Hall of Mermaids, uses a convolution reverb type of sound, along with crisp, frequency modulation synthesis timbres, to create the impression that you are hearing the sounds from underwater. Schrader slowly develops his materials through the processes of accumulation and repetition. One hears mournful, tonal melodies in the key of A minor, and synthetic female vocal timbres offset with very deep (almost subsonic) rumbling, and upper partials poignantly related to their fundamental frequencies. The liner notes describe ripples in the water before a mermaid sighting, which seem to be musically depicted with downward glissandi. Using flanged sawtooth waves and major second clusters, the piece builds to a climax at about the three-fourths mark. Perhaps this moment is the musical depiction of the vision in the liner notes described as: “Suddenly you hear splashes and watch as flecks of water rise into the air followed by a marge aquatic tail.” Whatever the case, the piece quickly fades out from here – the mermaids have re-submerged.

The next piece, The Caged Griffin, begins slowly. The program notes tell us that this beast is large but stuck in a cage that appears too small to comfortably contain it. The music tells us that it moves slow (at first) and repetitively. Schrader effectively employs filtering and a slow, low frequency oscillator to move sounds around in the stereophonic field. Toward the middle of the piece the sounds change markedly, getting faster and noisier, and include a few punchy, synth timbres that would not be out of place in a nightclub. Perhaps this musically depicts the moment, described in the liner notes, when “the griffin’s eyes catch fire… remembering some bygone glory, some ancient valorous quest.” However, unlike music that populates nightclubs, Schrader’s sounds keep changing and progressing, refusing to remain still.

After leaving the griffin, the listener comes to a door labeled The Subterranean Levels. The liner notes tells us that there are three different levels, each characterized by various degrees of light and structural dishevelment. This piece begins with a descending, arpeggiated, step-sequencer pattern that quickly fades out leaving a series of repeated, hard-edged, percussive, fast-rising amplitude envelopes, sounding as if they are revolving around the listener’s head. They are joined by two conflicting, rhythmic pulse patterns each heard at a slightly different speed. Shortly afterward Schrader employs, given this piece’s title, the expected long reverb setting, used to suggest a large space. The sense of being underground is achieved through his deft use of filtering and spatialization. About halfway into the piece there is an organ chord that contains relatively clear tonal content against the lingering, noisy background. Due to the way Schrader stacks the upper partials in this sound, and the use of ‘stretched’ amplitude envelopes, this effect is reminiscent of convolution reverb. With respect to our narrative, it sounds like it could represent a patch of light that finds its way into a cave through a crack, or hole, in the ceiling. About a minute and a half before the ending, Schrader brings back materials from the beginning, which sound strangely artificial here given the long journey the composer has just taken us on. We’ve arrived, but only back to the same place that we began. Perhaps Schrader wants to suggest a long path that eventually winds back to the opening. The opening materials are faster and more forceful than when first heard, and are used to build up a higher degree of tension. But this build-up would seem to imply a longer ending than the one Schrader provides.

The Flying Carpet begins with a series of slow, crescendo attacks, simultaneously presented with familiar, ‘swooshy’ synth sounds. A low frequency oscillator is used to pan the material back and forth between one ear and the other. Harmonic filter sweeps oscillate between two arpreggios separated by a whole-step. These, in turn, become an ostinato background for a waveform, rich in harmonic content, used homophonically as a melody. Throughout this piece the reiterated, slow, crescendo attacks carry the sense of a sound being played in reverse. This piece seems to have been constructed from small, gestural materials that are pieced together, puzzle-like, into the formal structure, a technique that Schrader also uses in several of the other works on this disc.

The sixth piece, The Homunculus in a Jar, is initiated with percussive attacks, duplicated and overlaid harmonically into a timbre sounding like the wooden bars of a marimba or xylophone. Schrader also employs flanged, frequency sweeps combined with a subtle dose of distortion. The backstory for this piece is equally fascinating and mundane. A miniature, humanlike creature switches between going about its business and looking out of the jar that serves as its home. Gazing at the spectator, it becomes animated whenever it notices that it is being observed. According to Schrader’s narrative the homunculus is the opposite of the griffin in two senses – with respect to size and awareness. The griffin is large whereas the homunculus is small. And unlike the griffin, the homunculus seems oblivious to “the world outside its area of confinement.”

Chinese Kaleidoscopes is the most blatantly rhythmic and perhaps the most accessible work on The Barnum Museum. It is minimalist without partaking in the rigidity one might associate with this genre. Schrader uses and reuses the same pulse pattern - texturally, timbrally, and spatially transforming it via his considerable arsenal of electroacoustic devices. The pulse pattern is slowly dovetailed into other layers that periodically emerge, which is an effective way to create momentum. The accretion of timbral layers results in a very thick and rich sonority by the time the piece ends.

At twice the length used for each of the preceding pieces, the last piece, The Chamber of False Things, is the magnum opus of this collection. It is a culmination of everything that came before it, reusing many materials and techniques heard previously. But here, the increased time scale allows Schrader plenty of time to stretch out. One senses that he is composing with a more leisurely pace when presenting and developing this piece’s materials. The Chamber of False Things begins in a mechanical manner - one sound sweeps into the next and then back again. But unlike several of the other works on this disc, Schrader allows for stasis and pauses, which serve well as platforms from which subito attacks emerge, retaining their sense of surprise. His use of convolution reverb is particularly effective here, because the materials being convolved are full of dynamic contrasts, which then largely shape their convolved duplicates. The ending is suitably dramatic. To achieve this, Schrader employs drones, waves of crescendos, and fast, sweeping apreggios. The Chamber of False Things comes closest, in one significant respect, to Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. It utilizes short vignettes, each featuring a small number of characteristic sounds and rhythms, which serve to make each section distinct. In Pictures at an Exhibition this technique was used to programmatically depict the different drawings and paintings; in Schrader’s piece it is used for a similar purpose but depicts different rooms in the museum. Within a single work, this through-composed form can be detrimental, especially if care is not taken to vary sectional lengths, timbres, processing techniques, etc. But, Schrader takes meticulous care to do these things, and thereby offers us a compelling listening experience.

With the exception of The Chamber of False Things, the pieces on this disc sport lengths between five and seven minutes, enough to present convincing sonic depictions, but too short for any kind of significant development. Another weakness is that Schrader tends to overly rely on stereotypical tonal devices (the use of the tritone to signify unease, binary forms, etc.). Many of the pieces on The Barnum Museum could easily pass for soundtracks, film music, or something you might hear on the Hearts of Space radio program. This makes sense given the composer’s intent to create an electroacoustic tone poem based on the fantasy visuals he conjures from his reading of Millhauser’s short story. But the easy genre recognition involved here presents the listener with a paradox. On the one hand, the music sounds so familiar that we are fighting an uphill battle if we don’t place it into a filmic context. On the other hand, Schrader does a lot to reframe this reference. For example, he favors a sonic palette characterized by complex timbral layering and materials that are in constant flux. Even his penchant for minor key references quickly mutates by way of noise or extended chromaticism. The same can also be said of his penchant for repetition, and the modification thereof. The music keeps progressing, changing, and morphing, through Schrader’s overloading of the signifier, a primary tenant of post-structuralist philosophy.

The Barnum Museum invites you to feel as though you’re being taken on a sonic journey to some unusual spaces filled with unusual creatures. This sense of the strange (what the Russian writer Viktor Shklovsky would have called ostranenie) is achieved by Schrader with subtle means, through his employment of detunings, glissandi, spatial movement, conflicting rhythmic patterns, and the like. Overall, this compact disc provides us with an evocative listening experience. The dimensions and contents of a virtual world are described in sound. It is a tour de force of electroacoustic know-how by a master and pioneer in the field.