Vol. 43 Issue 4 Reviews
Thomas DeLio: Selected Compositions III (1986-2017)

Compact disc, 2019, NEUMA 450-120, available from Neuma Records, www.neumarecordsandpublications.com/.

Reviewed by Bradley Green
Washington, D.C., USA

DeLioSelected Compositions III (1986-2017) is the fifth in a series of recordings by composer Thomas DeLio released by Neuma Records and Publications (now owned by Innova). This series includes three compact discs: Selected Compositions (1991-2013), Selected Compositions II (1972-2015), and the present disc, as well as two DVDs of multichannel work (space/image/word/sound I and II). With these albums, one is offered a representative journey through 45 years of music released by the ever-inventive composer, and this newest album is no exception to the sonic sensitivity many have come to expect from DeLio’s work.

Selected Compositions III (1986-2017) is a collection of both acoustic and electroacoustic works, consisting mostly of percussion and electronics, offering a generous sampling of DeLio’s sound-focused style. First, the recordings themselves, as well as the mastering work by Antonino D’Urzo, is of exceptional quality. Additionally, as spatialization plays an important role in many of DeLio’s works, some of the tracks that normally contain multiple channels of audio have inevitably been rendered into stereo mixes. Though there is no stereo substitute for a true surround sound experience, the mixes on this album offer a faithful alternative.

Perhaps unique to this installment of Selected Compositions, the track order takes on a concept album-like structure that incorporates an alternating thread of brief, palate cleansing, almost entirely silent works entitled limn (1-6), of which each of the six versions are brief and occur between each of the other works on the disc. According to the liner notes, “limn” means “to draw or paint on a surface; to outline in clear, sharp detail.” The composer further states, “…I hope to bring the listener closer to the experience of sound wiped clean, as if existing in some pristine state; not as an element of a linguistic, temporal, or timbral evolution, but as an entity in and of itself.” Though each iteration of limn is intriguing on its own, incorporating both processed sounds and intentional artifacts like amplitude clicks and pops (a common occurrence in DeLio’s electronic works), knowing the composer’s tendency to employ form as a fertile ground to affect the listening experience, one can safely assume that this connective tissue was implemented intentionally. As such, though it is quite possible that these tracks may have less impact if heard in isolation, when the album is experienced as a whole, limn allows the compact disc itself to assume a fascinating macro-structure across its 80-minute duration.

With the exception of limn (1-6), there are seven works on this collection, the first of which is entitled Trois visages. Interestingly, Trois visages (Three faces), constitutes three separate settings, composed between 2005 and 2016, of the same short poem from the collection Pour un tombeau d’Anatole by French poet Stéfan Mallarmé. Revisiting or reworking previously used, or written, material as a means to offer a different perceptual context is a primary theme in DeLio’s oeuvre. Each setting is for percussion ensemble and soloist (flute, violin, and soprano, in that order) and can be performed individually or as a set. Far too much is written about this work in the album notes to be successfully summarized, though the common thread between each work is the opposition of pitched and un-pitched sonorities, various contrary relationships between the soloist and ensemble (especially those involving the text, which is spoken in both French and English throughout each setting), and the use of spatialization, in which the stereo mix gives a decent impression, though I imagine some of the experience is diluted without a true spatialized setting (two of these three works are, however, available in surround sound recordings on the aforementioned DVDs).

The first setting of Trois visages, entitled et avant / image (2011), was performed by flutist George Pope and the Akros Percussion Collective. The pitch to noise spectrum DeLio employs is apparent immediately, manifesting as various non-pitched percussion (primarily maracas, cymbals, and tom-toms) and unvoiced words pitted against flute, various pitched percussion (primarily vibraphone and tubular bells), and voiced words. Additionally, though the flute part is sparse, existing mainly in the first third of the piece, Mr. Pope’s performance is understated, serving as an effective catalyst that begins the transformation from mostly non-pitched to pitched sonorities. As such, the Akros Percussion Collective gives great attention to the individual colors, allowing this transformation to occur seamlessly.

Contrary to et avant / image, et absence begins with an extended solo performed by violinist Airi Yoshioka. The ensemble (the University of Maryland College Park Percussion Ensemble under the direction of Lee Hinkle) follows with a beautifully balanced performance that supports the central role played by the violin. Yoshioka offers an incredibly dynamic and colorful performance, which runs the gamut of pitched and non-pitched extended techniques, including speaking and playing simultaneously.
The final setting, qu’un espace / sépare, was performed by soprano Stacey Mastrian and the University of Maryland Baltimore County Percussion Ensemble under the direction of Tom Goldstein. It contains the only instance in Trois visages where the text is sung melodically. As the flute soloist was confined to the first third of et avant / image, here, the soprano is confined entirely to the last minute of the work, which occurs after a continuity-interrupting span of silence. Though Mastrian’s part is noticeably brief, her performance is memorable, delicate, and necessarily reserved, especially when juxtaposed against the much more aggressive percussion and spoken text. Additionally, the UMBC Percussion Ensemble delivers a dramatic and thoughtful performance.

In contrast to the previous work is a two-channel electronic setting of a poem entitled by parch reading (2016) by P. Inman, a poet that has been a consistent source of influence on DeLio’s music since the 1990’s. The connection between their styles is neither incidental nor artificial, as DeLio’s use of sound in regard to perception mirrors Inman’s “intense focus on language as substance in and of itself.” He further states that Inman’s poetry “vivifies the interconnection of language as it is engaged and meaning as it is shaped… it does not just talk about the world… it becomes part of it, a thing in it.” This piece, like the majority of the electronic works on this album, utilizes musique concréte techniques consisting entirely of processed and filtered recordings of readings of the text by male and female voices, with a third voice used briefly for timbral contrast. The result is an ethereal rendering of the text that, like Inman’s poetry, flirts with concrete meaning without ever becoming fully explicit. As such, some spoken passages are heard without any alteration, electronic or otherwise, allowing the listener to focus solely on the words and sounds therein, and at other times the audio is so heavily processed that the textual meaning is obscured. What is left is sweeping mid-high spectrum material that is faintly colored by the inflections of the words and register of the speaker. The processes used to create the sound material of the piece are manifold (e.g., granulation, filtering, various effects, processing, etc.). No one filtering technique or device is favored, so the goal seems to be the resulting sound and not the technique used to achieve it.

The next piece is a percussion solo performed deftly by percussionist Morris Palter, entitled wave / s (2002). This work is an outgrowth of the previously written marimba solo Transparent Wave IV (1999), in which DeLio added other pitched and un-pitched instruments to the work, while keeping the original marimba part untouched. This results in a surprisingly unassuming piece, where each passage emerges out of silence for a brief time before submerging again, usually in the form of a decrescendo for the non-reverberating instruments, or sustain for the reverberating instruments (or both). As most entrances occur as rolled and slight crescendos out of the silence, the few unannounced accented attacks that do occur throughout, are jarring and poignant, consistently keeping the listener on their toes.

Spüren (2016) and Sherds (for Wes Fuller) (2017) are two short two-channel electronic works consisting entirely of processed sounds. In the two movements of Spüren, each sound was created from samples of music from non-Western cultures, though, except for two brief moments in movement two, the material is so heavily processed that a listener will likely not be aware of the connection unless told. It seems to me that Spüren (German for “feel” or “to sense”) is an apt title, as the piece is as much a physical experience as it is aural. Abdicating the more subtle use of dynamics and contrast as found in the other works, Spüren is more about harsh and immediate contrasts. After a frame of silence, the first movement opens with a misleadingly quiet and pleasantly reverberated gesture before abruptly bombarding the ear with high spectrum tones mixed with very dry and granulated clicks and pops with bell-like timbres underneath, all of which is clearly felt as well as heard. What follows is a warm, ocean-like band of noise along with other soothing mid-range colors (which sound somewhat like seagulls, to complete the ocean analogy) that offer a brief respite before once again delving into another physically taxing passage. This harsh and urgent contrast between discomfort and soothing occurs throughout the piece and appears to be purposeful, and as such, though it is short, its brusqueness makes it stand out from the other works on this album.

On the other hand, Sherds, dedicated to composer Wesley Fuller and named after his piece Sherds of Five, is closer to the aesthetic of the other works. DeLio states that this is “an examination of the juxtaposition of wet (reverberated) and dry (non-reverberated) sonorities,” which is reminiscent of the noise to pitch spectrum used in Trois visages. In the case of Sherds, the progression stems from which type of sound is taking perceptual precedence, as both the wet and dry sounds occur many times in tandem, and the impetus seems to be from moving from a total mixture at the beginning (perhaps initially favoring dry sounds) to wet sounds dominating at the end.

The penultimate work on this collection, “decker” (1998), is another electronic setting of a poem by P. Inman, who also supplied the reading from which most sounds were derived. The most salient difference between this setting and by parch reading has mainly to do with Inman’s poem itself, in which “it seems clear that the page has superseded the line as the most important structural unit in the design of his poetry.” As such, though his nebulous use of language is still present, the type of page (of which there are two: physical and ‘virtual’) and the placement of words on the page are now integral structures that Inman, and thus DeLio, explore. In the piece, the text is filtered and processed to create new timbres similar to by parch reading. However, much of the piece is dedicated to cutting around the unprocessed (or very lightly processed) reading in a variety of interesting ways in order to hear individual syllables and mouth sounds, or to have the reading exist as a backdrop for the more colorfully processed excerpts. Additionally, there is a recurring use of a single sine tone and soft white noise that frame and occupy the spoken sections, which I assume are to symbolize, at least in part, the two page types DeLio mentions in his notes, which is juxtaposed against the concrete representation of the ‘virtual’ pages, spoken by the poet as “page one,” “page two,” and so on.

The final and earliest piece on the album, Against the silence… (1984-85), is scored for percussion ensemble and four-channel computer-generated tape (again here reduced to stereo), and is performed by the University of New Mexico Percussion Ensemble under the direction of Christopher Shultis. This is the largest work on the album, both in terms of scope and duration, and is the only one that combines electronic and acoustic forces. It is also the genesis of what is likely DeLio’s most often discussed compositional feature: Long stretches of silence between sound events (some almost a minute in duration) used to “rid those events of their connective tissue and prior sonic identities.” Contrary to works such as by parch reading and wave / s, in which silence is employed functionally as an equal partner to sound, the silences here instead work to undermine the function of the sonic material by challenging our ability to connect them contextually in time “without losing the coherence of a single connected musical event.”

The first movement opens with a handful of percussive sounds followed by a succession of high spectrum tones with bell-like attacks and the sustained colors of additive synthesis. These synthesized sonorities function as an extended and transformed decay of the opening percussive attacks, constantly layering and panning around the listener for the remainder of the movement. This is followed by a more timbrally vivid and turbulent second movement, characterized by rapidly pulsating and lightly reverberated sustained tones, and far more acoustic instruments, including the extended use of piano. Through the first half, this movement is much more sporadic than the previous material. It then delves into a quiet, rhythmically static piano passage, aimlessly shifting across the instrument’s range and constantly fluctuating between the fore, middle, and background of the listener’s perception. This culminates, after another long silence, into a final stretch of the same palpating piano, slower and softer this time, which is coarsely and regularly interrupted by a very loud and piercing iron pipe, initially heard in the first movement. Against the silence… is one of the more compelling works on this album, and may be the one that appreciates the most during repeated hearings. The economic use of electronic forces and noticeable restraint employed belies the stark juxtaposition of elements apparent between the large sections. Additionally, the New Mexico Percussion Ensemble does a fantastic job bringing depth to these structures, blending with the electronics as if it was just another member of the ensemble.

I have heard some describe DeLio’s music, and this album in particular, as being a “challenging” listen. While I don’t necessarily agree that it is challenging per se, at least not in the same way as a John Cage or Christian Wolff piece may be challenging, where enjoyment is difficult to obtain prior to reading ample notes. But it can take multiple listening sessions before one begins to grasp the minutia of the aural relationships at play, both micro and macro, inside and between the works. There are layers upon layers of abstract structures permeating the album, and that is before one considers how the music connects to Inman’s and Mallarmé’s texts. It is music that can be enjoyed purely as a sonic experience so long as the listener does not agonize over what they need not explicitly understand. But it also begs for repeated hearings informed by a close reading of the liner notes, so that the seemingly amorphous structures begin to take on a more definite shape, all the while continuing to be captivatingly elusive.