Vol. 45 Issue 1 Reviews
Ingrid Laubrock: Dreamt Twice, Twice Dreamt

Compact disc (2cds) 2020, Intakt CD 355, available from Intakt Records, P. O. Box 8024, Zürich, Switzerland, www.intaktrec.ch/.

CD CoverReviewed by Ross Feller

Gambier, Ohio, USA


This impressive collection of compositions was inspired by various vivid dreams that the composer, Ingrid Laubrock, had during the previous ten years. Vivid dreams can lead an artist to hitherto unimagined work or concepts that they, perhaps, haven’t been able to work out during their waking hours. Because logic or time are often irrelevant to the dream state, the mind is especially free to conjure objects, events, etc., that don’t necessarily exist in the ‘real’ world. For this project Laubrock followed the advice given to her by a medium in London. According to the liner notes, the medium suggested to “use the dreamlike state we find ourselves in just before going to sleep or just after waking as a trigger” for her writing. Laubrock did precisely that. As she outs it, “rather than writing programmatic music that reflects the dreams, I would read a diary entry and attempt to re-enter the dream to compose from that state of mind. It felt liberating to use dreams as vehicle as they freed me from any constraints of conventional form. Sudden unexpected shifts and tears in the fabric are completely normal in dreams and so is emotional darkness and violence - all great fodder for a composer!” This was also the raison d’etre of the Surrealist movement, but Laubrock’s work results in much more varied contexts.

The ten compositions on Dreamt Twice, Twice Dreamt are organized according to a rolling cast of soloists pitted against various sized ensembles. There is a core trio featuring piano and quarter-tone keyboard, electronics, and Laubrock herself on either tenor or soprano saxophone. This trio is joined by accordion, electric harp, and violin on the second compact disc for small ensemble, and double bass and drum set on the first compact disc, which features the EOS Chamber Orchestra, a mixed group of 19 strings, woodwinds, and brass. The second disc permutes the order of the five compositions, starting with the second work, and rotating the first piece to the end of the disc, and changing its name from “Dreamt Twice”” to “Twice Dreamt.” Hence, the title of this ten piece double disc. The small ensemble versions were composed first, while those for chamber orchestra were created after re-imagining each work, often, according to the program notes, focusing “on a detail in a small-group version to generate a materially different large-group piece.” Three of the reinterpretations on the second disc are shorter than their companions on the first, while two are longer in length.

“Dreamt Twice” begins with a short duet between saxophonist Laubrock crisply slap tonguing, which is interspersed with double bass pizzicati. Shortly after the drum set enters along with the electronics part. Pluto’s contribution takes the form of an amplitude modulation texture that sounds like it could have been produced from a live capture feed. The piano and trombone also sneak in, taking part in forming the overall texture, which might be described as moments of chaotic spontaneity, tied together via other moments of immense power, involving pre-composed unisons, chordal material, and dynamic contrasts. Each part explores a unique set of materials that sound similar but are easy to distinguish due to the clear recording and compositional sequestration. Freely improvised gestures weave in and out of set materials, characterized by unisons and rhythmic simultaneities. Given the necessity of coordinating the large number of instruments in the chamber orchestra to create a unified effort, it makes sense that the ensemble instruments perform many of the unison or controlled materials.

About two-thirds of the way through “Dreamt Twice” the texture drastically thins out, leaving what sounds like an electronically altered piano and some finely tuned, microtonal saxophone gestures. This in turn is punctuated with noisy sounds from the drums and bass. In one particularly poignant moment, the double bass mimics the electronic timbre using sul ponticello bowing, articulated with tremolo. The electronics timbre, here, sounds like the string players are playing at the very top of their fingerboards - a sonic approach that was a mainstay in 1960s sound mass compositions. This is followed by some lyrical violin playing that is immediately and tersely imitated by Laubrock’s tenor saxophone. The ending dissipates, fading out some lyrical materials taken from the mid-20th century, atonal compositional playbook.

“Twice Dreamt,” the companion piece to “Dreamt Twice”  begins with a slowly unfolding series of piano chords that wander around an indefinite, atonal space, not unlike some of the piano parts in Olivier Messiaen’s music. At 2:40 the texture is widened with what sounds like an electronic accordion, whose attack points are coordinated with those of the piano. This is abruptly punctured by what sounds like an aggressively distorted electronic guitar, but is the electric harp. These sounds are clearly at odds with the other instruments, which produces an interesting sonic contradiction. At times it sounds like the electric harp is literally shredding a hard substance. Because of the malleability of the instrument it is difficult to tell whether it is being altered by Pluta or via some outboard pedals. The harp’s contributions are augmented with some crashing piano chords. This texture remains charged until almost the end, where we hear a rallentando that slides down in pitch as it slows down. The result? Think Jimi Hendrix meets Jimmy Page meets Merzbow.

“Snorkel Cows” (the chamber orchestra version) begins with a jazzy, free-floating pizzicato bass and arhythmic drum accents. The quarter-tone keyboard then joins this texture, altered with traces of chorus and flange. The mostly fast, spasmodic piano gestures are echoed in the ensemble. One experiences a visceral sensation between the equal temperament tuning of the ensemble pitted against the quarter-tone keyboard. The ensemble writing sometimes resembles the punchiness of Frank Zappa’s late work with Ensemble Moderne. Shortly before the four-minute mark the music seems to hit a sonic wall, leaving in its wake a spectral drone and glissandi that mark the same territory. Also, we hear virtuosic tremoli leading to a subtle electronic treatment. Later on in this piece Laubrock’s tenor comes in almost like a voice making a commentary on what the ensemble just presented. She plays a spun out melody, supporting the underlying chordal framework. Laubrock’s approach is split between a classical tone and material from jazz practice, which builds to a frenzy in the high register. The ending includes some final chords that resolve the various tensions that this piece conjures.

“Snorkel Cows” (chamber orchestra version) begins with piano arpeggios and runs that morph into a section featuring tremolos that get picked up or projected by Pluta’s electronics, suggesting highly elastic and malleable timbres. This is one of the most pronounced and effective uses of electronics from this collection. Subsequent sections feature angular saxophone lines that match the quarter-tone keyboard. Pluta also uses some delay on the saxophone and other more subtle types of processing. Near the five minute mark it sounds like the piece ends several times, requiring stoppage and consequent restarting. We hear saxophone fragments split between their acoustic initiations and their electronic transformations, like a hall of mirrors. This adds a distortion to the saxophone that is also utilized elsewhere in this collection.

The sectional demarcations in this work are more obvious than some of the other pieces, which contributes to a clear sense of formal structure, guiding the ears from one texture to the next. A good example of this occurs at 7:42 as the chaotic material led by the piano come to a halt, leaving sustained piano resonance in its wake. Pluta then filters the piano’s tremoli, using amplitude modulation or granularization that periodically pans as it slowly recedes into the background. This contributes an intriguing layer of clear artifice to what the acoustic instruments are doing. The piece ends with a series of tremolo chords, while the saxophone plays some plaintive melodic materials in convincing, cantabile style.

“Drilling” (cd 1) begins with sustained string chords that oscillate between two primary sonorities. They are briefly cut off by a quarter-tone keyboard chord that softly interrupts the flow but also, of course, disrupts the sense of equal temperament. It is as if the two protagonists - the chamber orchestra and the keyboard - are attempting to speak the same language but are unable to come to terms because of their prior disposition. The texture is sustained and slow moving as befits an 18-minute piece. One of the more conventionally beautiful works from this collection it is reminiscent of Arnold Schoenberg’s well-known timbral movement from his Fünf Orchesterstücke, op. 16 (1909). The chordal content, along with the harmonic rhythm, provides a state of restlessness. Laubrock effectively mixes timbre and tuning in this composition. Just as the listener is getting used to the quiet, suggestive texture, the composer radically breaks it at the midway point, with fast rhythmic unisons featuring the ensemble and the soloists, which in this case includes Laubrock on the soprano saxophone, performing virtuosic, cadenza-like licks. Each new flurry of activity sparks the piano, bass, and drums to initiate similar changes.  Pluta seems to work with the same materials, refracting them using his electronic toolbox. Laubrock switches back to the tenor saxophone toward the end, which contains uneven, subdued expressions involving instruments from the chamber orchestra, as well the core soloists. The piece ends with a charged rumbling created by low register notes on the piano paired with the double bass and strings.

“Drilling” (cd 2), like “Drilling” (cd 1) is the longest piece on its respective disc, and features all three core soloists. It opens with some close-up accordion blasts and subsequent resonance clusters which are created from a long, drawn out crescendo that seems to get thicker and thicker every second. Like “Drilling” (cd 1), this texture is sustained for quite awhile. The clusters are reminiscent of György Ligeti’s “Volumina” for solo organ. This texture fades out as it morphs into one that includes plucked harp notes and violin. This is followed with several other distinct sections, some obviously featuring Pluta, others less obviously so. An example of the former situation features the accordion performing spasmodically, as Pluta adds soft granularized water sounds mixed with echoes of the accordion. Pluta creates what might be described as a sonic, digital, cast of fragmented characters, cartoonlike in scope. Each soloist is a strong performer, without overly dominating the work. This includes the composer-performer whose work it is. Instead, each soloist contributes a distinct part, interlocking their materials with that of the others.

“I Never Liked That Guy” (cd 1) begins with some chamber writing joined by the piano, Pluta’s processing, and saxophone. Eventually the soloists carry the work forward as the chamber orchestra is used to fill in gaps or punctuate material. Here, the electronics seem to play tricks on our ears, providing a sense of a virtual space or a ghostlike doubling of the saxophone. About halfway through, the angular gestures give way to a pulsating groove involving the bass and drums, underneath the soprano saxophone, which plays soloistically often incorporating extended techniques. Instruments from the chamber orchestra chime in from time to time, supplying a kind of musical commentary. This all fades into a series of noises, before ending with a tonal dramatic flourish.

“I Never Liked That Guy” (cd 2) begins with some sweltering saxophone licks, accompanied by the piano, which early on, becomes granularized by Pluta. The saxophone and piano continue their dialog, occasionally performing together in unison. At other times the piano performs on its own as a soloist, absent materials that might be called soloistic. Rather, the piano part performs pockets of repeated notes that swing back and forth like a pendulum. About a third of the way through the piece the saxophone plays sharply attacked notes echoed microtonally by Pluta and the piano. Here, the overall timbre is both salient and disturbing at the same time. The use of electronics is blatant and playful. Pluta seems to chase the saxophone, while the piano’s role is more of a textural and harmonic backdrop. Midway through the piece, Laubrock switches back to tenor and the sweltering, almost anguished, licks of the beginning. But know they are heard with respect to what came before. No sooner is this realized then Laubrock switches to the soprano, playing in an angular, pitch-based manner similar in scope to the work of soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy. But Laubrock goes much further afield conceptually, including raw, extended techniques and noises, which resemble the electronics part.

“Down the Mountain, Down the Mountain” (cd 1), the last piece on the first disc, begins in a similar manner to “I Never Like That Guy,” the immediately prior work, except the pacing is much more drawn out, and the overall sense is more subdued. This stasis is periodically disturbed by loud glissandi played sul ponticello on the violin. The writing for the chamber orchestra is exquisite. Laubrock mixes unusual timbres together to form truly memorable textures. Toward the midway point the piece builds in density, as the composer divides the instruments into multiple layers that are simultaneously sounded - a veritable feast for the ear. The intensity remains for several minutes until the next section begins. This includes a series of sustained tones played by the lower pitched instruments as a backdrop for the quarter-tone piano.

“Down the Mountain, Down the Mountain” (cd 2) contains many elements also found in the other works from this collection, including high pitched string sustains and harmonics played sul ponticello, electronic granularization, and quarter-tone tuning. Here, the coordination between the core players seems looser than found in some of the other works. Still, there is plenty of imitation and call and response playing, and unison interludes between sections featuring textural exploration, which is also the recipe for many of the other works.

Laubrock manages to combine some disparate bedfellows within a convincing, far-reaching expression. We hear acoutrements from jazz practice, 20th and 21st century avant-garde and spectral techniques, free improvisation, new complexity gestures, electroacoustic prominence, and traces of Helmut Lachenmann’s musique concrete instrumentale, all combined without postmodern seff-consciousness or any derivative whiffs. The role played by Pluta’s electronics is largely a subtle one, functioning as one instrument among others. However, because of the live capture and electronic capabilities he also functions as a sonic filter of the other parts. At times it sounds like he triggers changes in the others, at other moments it is the opposite case. It is also worth pointing out that Laubrock’s compositions often include materials that sound ‘electronic,’ including extended techniques, microtonal tuning, and harsh, dissonant timbres.

One possible critique of Laubrock’s compositions for soloists and chamber orchestra on the first disc, is that she tends to similarly employ hard stops and starts for each section, rather than using a more nuanced, dovetailed, overlapping approach. It might be argued that dream states follow the latter formal structure as much as the former, this then that, approach.

Like some of the pivotal work in the short-lived Third Stream movement (work by Charles Mingus or Gunther Schuller) Laubrock’s work bridges artificial gaps put into place by the music industry to keep things neat and tidy. In short, Laubrock, on Dreamt Twice, Twice Dreamt, subtly combines acoustic and electroacoustic forces to create music that is of its time and wholly original.