Vol. 39 Issue 2 Reviews
Neil Leonard: For Kounellis

Compact disc, 2014, Gasp Records #18; available from Gasp Records, 76 Clark Road, Brookline, MA 02445, USA; telephone: +1-617-997-9014; www.neilleonard.com.

Reviewed by Ross Feller
Gambier, Ohio, USA

For Kounellis is a 38-minute electroacoustic tour de force composition by Neil Leonard, based on recordings that the composer made of a sculpture by the Greek artist Jannis Kounellis. Leonard received special permission to strike and record the 23 large, inverted, church bells, normally silent, that comprise Kounellis’s sculpture. In the liner notes for this compact disc Leonard describes his thoughts upon first encountering the sculpture: “I was struck by the intensity of this chorus of silent tongues, facing the sky and projecting a colossal resonance that is felt but not heard.” Leonard’s piece serves as a sonification of Kounellis’s silent sculpture. The bells’ alloy is articulated in order to generate a specific timbral thumbprint.

The primary material for this compact disc was culled and repurposed from several previous works. The composer first used his Kounellis recordings in 2008 for a ten hour sound installation that took place in a church in Padua, Italy. Shortly thereafter Leonard created a sound piece for a dance work choreographed by Gabriella Ricco that also used the Kounellis recordings, in addition to recordings of the heavy metal vocalist Alessia de Capua from Naples, and live saxophone improvisation by the composer. This piece was premiered on Mount Vesuvius, which Leonard describes as a “now silent tongue that was reportedly heard as far away as Rome when it erupted.” For Leonard, For Kounellis represents the culmination of his work with Kounellis’s sculpture. Before the studio realization found on this compact disc, For Kounellis was performed at festivals in China, France, and Cuba.

To create For Kounellis, Leonard used Max, Max for Live, and Michael Klingbeil’s Spear software programs for delay, pitch shifting, time stretching, harmonization, filtering, and real-time capture and integration of the saxophone material. The musical form used can be described as a composite binary, in which each large-scale section is divided into a ternary, through-composed structure. The notion of repurposing, already discussed with respect to the materials used, is also an integral part of the formal plan. The composer first composed three sections using processed bells, processed voice, and pulsed material respectively. Taken as a whole these three sections comprise the first part of the binary form. After completing this part Leonard created the second part of the binary form using the same three sections, in the same order, but with significant timbral modifications and additions.

Overall, For Kounellis is rich in inharmonic overtones, as one would expect given the importance of the bell samples. Much of the piece is devoted to time stretching and pitch shifting techniques. The piece begins with low frequency, time stretched sustains of the bell recordings. Periodically, upper partials are sounded, sometimes together, effectively creating difference, or interference, tones. The upper partials, which begin to dominate the texture, are paired with sharp attacks and pulsed materials. There is a ritualistic, drone-like nature to this texture that is explicitly stated later in the piece, in the sections that include the voice.

Gradually, about four minutes into the piece, one begins to discern a very low subharmonic rumbling along with filtered versions of the inharmonic partials. Leonard develops these materials until the second section, which begins at about 6:30. This section features vocal drones and wordless, syllabic chanting, along with heavy doses of reverb. The voice samples are copied and overlayed as the piece builds in intensity. The drones are mostly centered on perfect fourth and perfect fifth intervals. The overall effect of this section sounds like a harkening back to a previous era as found in many film soundtracks. Toward the end of this section we hear more vocal chanting, but this time from a male voice.

At roughly the halfway point in the piece the soprano saxophone enters, initially playing long sustains with a beautiful dark tone reminiscent of Jan Garbarek. The saxophone, sounding voice-like, takes over the intoning duties formerly occupied by the voice. From the initial sustains, the saxophone gradually builds to wild, climactic, chromatic flurries.

For Kounellis functions as a kind of sounding-out of a silent sculpture. There is a sense of immensity to the piece due to the composer’s utilization of high amplitudes and frequency band saturation. The ritualistic nature of the piece is reflected sonically, structurally, and referentially. Although the drone material created large swaths of stasis, Leonard was careful to develop and filter his material to create a dynamic presence. Finally, the time stretching algorithm, as found in Spear, produces very smooth transitions between samples. There are no audible byproducts or unwanted distortion as found in the consumer versions of certain well-known audio processing programs.