Vol. 46 Issue 1-2 Reviews
James Dashow: Soundings in Pure Duration, Volume 2

DVD, 2022, available from Ravello Records and as a digital download from streaming services, RR8063, https://www.ravellorecords.com/catalog/rr8063/

Reviewed by Ross Feller
Gambier, Ohio, USA

Dashow CoverJames Dashow’s second volume of Soundings in Pure Duration features works for electronic sounds, several which are composed for instrumental or vocal soloists. The composer is well known in the electronic and computer music worlds, and has produced a large amount of work over many decades. This release contains the last four works in the Soundings series, composed between 2014 and 2020, as well as the re-release of “….At Other Times, the Distances,” which is an older, quadrophonic composition. This DVD contains stereo mixdowns and full 5.0 surround mixes for each of the five compositions. The stereo versions were all spatially enhanced to suggest a wider than normal audio field.

Dashow is perhaps best known for his work with spatialization. According to the liner notes: “controlling Movement IN Space and the Movement OF Space are now basic elements of his compositional approach, in functional collaboration with timbre, dynamics, and pitch/frequency structure. This latter aspect is realized using a rigorous, but not overly rigid, application of the composer’s Dyad System which offers Dashow the means to work within a time-varying complexity of multiple structural levels that correspond precisely to his unique way of hearing, i.e. his distinctly individual harmonies, lines, counterpoint and, above all, timbral conceptions.” This visceral approach to spatialization is poignantly integrated into the compositional structures of each work on this disc.

The recording’s title was taken from the English translation of philosopher Henri Bergson’s notion of time and how it affects human beings. Dashow employs this translated phrase because it includes an expanded definition of the word ‘sounding’ that seemed to the composer an apt characterization of musical works in general.

The pieces in this second volume appear in the order of concert presentation, rather than in chronological order, underlining the importance of experiencing this music in a live setting. Nevertheless, these compositions retain their spatial and timbral power even when heard individually through headphones. They can be thought of as self-contained timbral-spatial constructions that elaborate their own novel approaches to making and perceiving acoustic and electronic sounds.

The first work, “Soundings in Pure Duration No. 9,” for bass flute and octophonic electronic sounds features brittle and angular gestures in the electronic part, and mournful, plaintive gestures in the flute part. The electronic part takes on the role of an accompaniment, in that it supplies support for the flute more so than playing an equal role in the unfolding of the composition’s trajectory. The liner notes confirm this: “Each piece with a soloist has its electronic timbral qualities chosen to enhance or contrast with the characteristics of the particular instrument.”

The electronic part’s brittleness is heard in contrast to the organic warmth of the bass flute. Reminiscent of the work of Mario Davidovsky and Milton Babbitt, I had the sense that the composer was referring back to earlier fixed-media and instrument works from the ‘golden age’ of pre-digital electronic music in the 1960s and 1970s. Multiple layers of sound quickly fly by the listener, culminating in percussive flute sounds that trigger held sustain tones in the electronic part, serving to reinforce the flute’s resonance.

Meanwhile the tour de force of electronic sounds move rapidly in a virtual three-dimensional space. At times the flute initiates these sounds. At other moments the reverse takes place. The piece never settles down into anything resembling stasis. Instead we experience over 13 minutes of rapidly changing timbres that create virtual arcs in space, with the flute both battling and being reinforced by a wide variety of synthetic sounds. Thinking narratively, the use of the bass flute simultaneously suggests under and outer worlds full of activity.

The second piece from this collection, “Soundings in Pure Duration No. 8,” for bass-baritone voice and octophonic electronic sounds, begins with the dramatic sound of a loud explosion and its subsequent fallout. The bass-baritone then enters in a kind of sprechstimme, vocalizing a text by the American poet Stephen Dobyns. The liner notes describe Dobyns’s text as containing an “ironic dark humor” that includes “insights into the human predicament often framed in a sort of tough-guy exposition that… never fails to communicate his sensitivity to the underlying fragility and almost tragic foundations of his subject and of people in general.” Dashow was attracted by these principles because they sync with “his own concepts of musical structure,” wherein he attempts to create “multiple layers of musical sensibility, some explicit, some implied, engendering emotional tensions that together form the expressive engine of his work.”

The vocal part is timbrally, registrally, and dramatically transformed to accommodate the representation of different characters, not unlike parts of Iannis Xenakis’s opera, Oresteïa, which also features the bass-baritone voice. The electronic sounds in this composition, which feature a rich variety of FM synthesis and percussive timbres, are so closely aligned with the voice that they often sound as if they were produced via a real-time processing system. This is because of the close enveloping of the voice pitches and other types of synchronization.

Later, we hear not just explosions, but explosions followed by what might be described as electonic ‘shrapnel’ that is viscerally spatialized so as to become a poignant cinematic sound effect. This relates to one of the textures found in this piece. The liner notes describe two kinds of textures, one active, the other reflective. The former is characterized by contrasting timbres, while the latter describes “those moments when the text pulls back from the rollicking events taking place and reflects on the human conditions of the five characters” from the text. The overall result is a complex, swirling series of sounds that represent the inner and outer worlds of five unsavory, down on their luck, characters.

“Soundings in Pure Duration No. 7,” the third work, was composed for alto saxophone and octophonic electronic sounds. The piece begins with electronic sounds that are similar to those heard in the other works. Percussive FM timbres treated with moderate doses of reverb, dynamically move around in space. This serves as an introduction for the saxophone, which emerges from the electronic ‘backdrop.’ From this listener’s perspective, the saxophone sounds more integrated with the electronic parts, than, say the flute, because of its wider timbral possibilities. The saxophone and electronic parts sound like they are in a dialogue, at times resembling a simple conversation, at other times - a raucous argument.

As in many of his other works, Dashow utilized his Dyad System to develop the saxophone’s pitch materials, while also allowing the timbral quality of the saxophone to determine his timbral choices for the electronic part. Perhaps the reason why the saxophone and electronic parts seem better matched here, is that the composer himself played the saxophone and is intimately familiar with its capabilities. There are even hints of a big band saxophone section toward the end of the piece, for which multiple saxophones were pre-recorded. The piece ends with the saxophonist playing what the liner notes refer to as “an Adderley trill,” in homage to one of the composer’s favorite saxophonists: Julian Cannonball Adderley.

The fourth track, “Soundings in Pure Duration No. 10,” is the last Soundings work. As a purely electronic piece, and at over 33 minutes in length (more than double the length of any of the other works in this collection), I wondered if it would hold interest over this long period of time. Given what I had heard in the other works, I expected a relentless, tour de force of electronic sounds.

The beginning went against the expected grain, so to speak. One hears carefully crafted, single attacks followed by reverb trails that sound as if they are moving within an X/Y spatial axis. As the piece evolves one never reaches a static, comfortable state of listening. There are always perturbations and slight changes involving synthesis and processing techniques. The liner notes describe this piece as “Dashow’s most concentrated attempt at harnessing the expressive capacities of audio space.” The rich variety of timbres is orchestral in scope. Overall, this work presents a dramatic sonic journey that covers a vast area of timbral and spatial layering. One senses the meticulous craft of a composer who knows how to keep things interesting.

The last piece is a re-release of an earlier work that predates the Soundings in Pure Duration series. This piece exploits the capabilities of a quadrophonic system, and in some respects is a much simpler work than the others on this disc. But you can hear the composer work through similar techniques that are also located in his later work, such as the juxtaposition of contrasting or complementary textures that trace distinct spatial trajectories. Other similarities include the composer’s consistent approaches to reverb and physical modeling emulation, and the inclusion of a potpourri of FM and percussive timbres.

If you are familiar with Dashow’s work, this disc doesn’t supply any radically new information about his compositions or electronic music techniques. Nevertheless, it represents an important collection of works that showcase many successful ways to integrate live instruments and electronic sounds, within a robust approach to spatialization. This is an important release by a well-known practitioner of both analog and digital electronic music, and multi-channel systems that integrates pitch, timbre, and spatial effects into convincing compositions.