Vol. 41 Issue 1 Reviews
Russell Pinkston: Balancing Acts

Compact disc, 2016, Ravello Records, RR7921; available from Ravello Records, LLC, 223 Lafayette Road, North Hampton, NH, 03862, USA, ; telephone: (603) 758-1718; additional album content available at: www.ravello records.com/balancingacts; www.ravellorecords.com/

Gambier, Ohio, USA

CD coverRussell Pinkston, based in Texas, is a well known, prolific composer of electroacoustic and computer music. He is the Director of the Electronic Music Studios at the University of Texas at Austin, where he’s taught since 1983. Prior to his career in academia he was the lead guitarist, singer, and songwriter for a progressive rock band called Tracks that played throughout the New England region in the early 1970s.

Balancing Acts, Pinkston’s recent release on Ravello Records, features five electroacoustic and two acoustic compositions written between 1999 and 2014. According to the liner notes, the name of this recording refers to the composer’s view that “there is an inherent tension between the acoustic and the electronic sound worlds… There is also a tension between the spontaneity and expressivity of live performance and the absolute precision and inflexibility of pre-recorded media.”

Three of the electroacoustic pieces on this disc are scored for live instruments and computer processing and accompaniment, one features a disklavier and electronic sounds, while the remaining work is a fixed-media piece containing electronic sounds. The two acoustic compositions are respectively scored for a woodwind trio with piano accompaniment, and a violoncello and piano duet. Pinkston has organized the works on his recording with respect to medium. The first piece, Orb Spells, is a work for fixed media utilizing electronic sounds. The last two works are for acoustic resources, while the works in the middle involve live instruments with computer accompaniment.

In addition to the compact disc, curious listeners can access additional online content containing portable document file (pdf) copies of the scores, and the booklet, liner notes, and biographies. Ravello’s approach to the sharing and extending of information is commendable and acknowledges our growing web reliance.

At 17 minutes and 30 seconds in length, the five movement Orb Spells is the longest work on the disc. But due to the heterogeneous and episodic nature of the materials employed, it sounds like five short pieces rather than one long piece. The first movement Astrolabe, begins with a series of pizzicato-like attacks followed by comb-filtered, string-like sustains that are amplitude modulated with a variable speed oscillator. The result is dynamic, and serves to draw the listener into the piece. About 20 seconds from the end, the composer introduces a drum sound that can be described as a cross between an Octoban and a rototom. It is initially used to present a series of rolls that increase and decrease in speed. Interestingly, the drum sounds were derived from samples of common household objects such as milk cartons and plastic containers.

Eclipsis, the second movement, uses the synthetic drum sound introduced in the first movement, to perform a deceptive rhythm, using beat values and simple subdivisions (think quarter notes and eighth notes). The deception comes into play in that the repeated rhythmic cycle is in 17. This cycle eventually is replaced with smaller subdivisions heard along with a synthesizer string patch consisting of atonal sustains. The overall effect might remind the listener of certain film soundtrack devices that are commonly used to underscore a character’s deliberate movements while being chased or experiencing danger. This material stops abruptly leaving room for the beginning of the third movement, which starts in a similar manner to the first movement, except with harp and string sounds presenting melancholic seventh chords. Unison and chordal echoes of the harp’s pitches follow the harp attacks. This movement, entitled Stella Octangula, seems intended to be heard as pastiche, but it is difficult to determine. This ambiguity lasts for almost four minutes. During this time I had the impression that the composer, using Romantic devices, had essentially written an acoustic movement and simply transferred it into an electronic medium. According to the liner notes, the pitch material in the first and third movements is based on an Indian scale. This is perhaps easier to hear in the first movement, since in the author’s estimation, the Western harmonies and transpositions used in the third movement overshadow the sense of a non-Western scale.

At 9:05 the fourth movement begins with a basic, broken chord accompaniment in a triple meter. Again we hear electronic emblems of acoustic instruments such as the harp and orchestral strings. I wondered why the composer would bother to merely replicate basic acoustic practices. In one sense it is reminiscent of early MIDI practice, wherein composers released recordings of MIDI playback of works written for orchestra. But in another sense it is the artificial, virtuality of Pinkston’s orchestration that is intriguing.

The fifth movement, Pulsar, is arguably the most interesting movement, and represents an amalgam and reinterpretation of the sounds and techniques already heard in the previous four movements. This movement begins with the return of the drum sounds, except now they are processed through an aggressive, slapback echo. There is also an emphasis on pulsating offbeats and more intricate, syncopated rhythms. One hears direct references to the composer’s previous life as a progressive rocker. Against this, Pinkston again utilizes the synthesizer string patch.

Tailspin, composed in 1999 is the second work on Balancing Acts. It features the Yamaha Disklavier, which is used to present convincing pianistic materials against an electronic accompaniment containing chromatic harmonies and samples of plucked and struck notes from the inside of the piano, that leave resonant trails in their wake. There is a successful combination of acoustic and electronic means in this piece. About a minute into the work we hear fast, motoric rhythms along with dollops of diminished chords, suggesting a dramatic chase scene from a film score. Pinkston describes this piece as a “short musical fantasy written in a quasi-Romantic style.” Perhaps a closer comparison can be made to an expressionist aesthetic. The final section features sequential, rollicking, modulatory materials that finally end with a staccato note.

The third piece, Lizamander, for flute and computer accompaniment, was composed for the well-known flutist Elizabeth McNutt. Written in 2003, it is the second piece in Pinkston’s series of works for solo instruments and the computer. The computer, running Max/MSP, captures material played by the flute, and uses this material to generate a flexible accompaniment that changes from performance to performance.

The computer accompaniment isolates various flute pitches, effectively reinforcing and sustaining them in a drone-like manner. Pinkston incorporates a wide frequency range and time stretched octave shifts of airy attacks and key clicks that conjure up the drum sounds heard in the first piece. The accompaniment also deploys pitch following within an effective harmonic framework. And we also hear an incessant, ‘granularized’ simple amplitude-modulation layer that functions as an ostinato ground from which the live flute part evolves. As the pitches change within this layer, the music gains a sense of forward momentum.

Zylamander, for horn and computer accompaniment, presents many of the same approaches and techniques as “Lizamander.” There is also a more defined ‘orchestral’ sense, due to the conservative nature of Pinkston’s treatment of the horn part. As previously mentioned, Pinkston has a penchant for episodic forms. Often in the second sections of his compositions he deploys motoric rhythmic materials. With respect to Zylamander, he does not disappoint, except here, especially toward the middle of the piece, the horn part is harmonized with itself.

Manderleone, the fifth piece on the disc, is another piece for flute and computer accompaniment. It begins with a short series of flute attacks that progressively speed up as they bounce around the spatial field. Harmonically, we encounter more chromatic, tonal materials, with the tritone prominently featured. We also hear more granularized, sample and hold layers, sequential transpositions, and mildly dissonant pedals. Pinkston’s formal structures are very clear and ‘classical’ in nature. His sections, or movements, are self-contained entities, which makes his compositional logic easy to follow.

The last two works do not utilize the computer or electroacoustic devices, so I will only briefly make mention of them, with respect to what has already been said about the electroacoustic works from this disc. Like the electroacoustic works, the acoustic pieces are written in a conservative, early 20th century tonal style. Pinkston sticks to his penchant for sectional or movement form, and uses a predictable rhythmic palette. Also, no attempt is made to push the acoustic instruments’ timbral or registral capabilities, beyond what is recognized as standard practice in instrumentation or orchestration textbooks. There is no evidence that Pinkston’s advanced electroacoustic techniques impacted his acoustic practice. The aforementioned tension between acoustic and electronic sound worlds is noticeably absent.
The pieces on this disc demonstrate a consistent approach to composition, formal structure, and sound generation that is carried through from piece to piece. We hear similar materials, such as the octave duplications, newly engaged, based on different instrumental characters and constraints.

Several of the works on this disc employ an early 20th century tonal harmonic palette, performed with 21st century tools. Pinkston’s compositions explicitly acknowledge traditional senses of beauty as they apply to music. But, given the nature of how he utilizes technology to realize his work, we are in the presence of old wine in new bottles. The moments on this disc that come closest to replicating the raw, uninhibited approaches to rhythm and soloing that we find in Pinkston’s work with his group Tracks, are, for this listener, the most powerful and engaging.