Philippe MANOURY: The Book of Keyboards (works for percussion ensemble) – Third Coast Percussion – New Focus, 49:48 (8/417) ***:
New works of distinction for various vibraphone, marimba and sixxen ensembles, not so far distant from the world of Iannis Xenakis.
(Sean Connors, Robert Dillon, Owen Clayton, Peter Martin, David Skidmore, Ross Karre, Gregory Beyer)
Imagine the mailman, in his normal course of delivery. He delivers the mail at one house as per usual. But at the next, he meticulously tears up the letters and makes a small pile on the porch, which he lights on fire. As you watch from the window, he proceeds down the block following what appears to be a deliberate design. Occasionally he deviates, delivering normally at three straight houses. But the former pattern re-emerges. Here in the box, there in a smoldering pile left on the porch. This would be a spectacle of great interest and mental engagement. You would not get bored as you awaited with some interest his arrival at your own mailbox.
Make the scenario stranger, though. Instead, imagine the mailman shape-shifting at every house, disappearing and reappearing randomly as a lawn ornament or a raccoon or wafting balloon. An initial intense interest would weaken as the changes become rapid and arbitrary. The predictive function of the mind would turn off and dream-like instantiations of the mailman, now transmogrified into a crow holding a knife, would eventually be felt as a vast boredom.
The release at hand, the Book of Keyboards, avant-garde works for percussion, plays out between these two poles, from the defiantly strange to the completely unintelligible. The entire body of music on display here refuses to do what 99% of music does: connect in some way with listeners’ expectations, represent motion, or a feeling-world, or narrative structure. That is to say that it is New Music with a vengeance, for a narrow audience, which may just possibly include some of our readers. The following short list of criteria may help in this determination. This music may be for you if:
- You have an especial appreciation for mallet instruments. The sonority of marimba and vibes goes directly to your brain with potent effect.
- You don’t need any ‘hooks’ for the musical experience. Pure listening is a hard-won skill and habit. You can dispense with attaching meanings and references.
- You have some experience with the high quality of New Focus recordings and are well disposed to works that press at the outward edges of classical avant-garde.
The most ambitious work at hand (tracks 3 & 6) take their name from the Sixxen, a set of vibraphone-like microtonal instruments which are built from scratch. Xenakis was the pioneer of the concept. He did not entirely specify the sonic parameters of the instruments and in fact, there is built-in randomness inasmuch as (again according to the liner notes) neither absolute pitch nor relationship between the pitches can be predicted. These are works for headphones, as the position of the instruments is key. Yet locating the source of the sounds doesn’t provide as much orientation as we require. For all the mallets have agreed aforehand to deny us overt pattern; rather we have an “eventful” musical space. But what kind of events are we talking about? Perhaps it could be compared to driving down the highway in heavy weather. We expect much water to sweep over the windshield and it does, from above and below. But none of it is informative, nor does it leave any lasting impression. It merely keeps us alert and momentarily observant of the nature of water. Substitute ‘sound’ for ‘water’ and you would have a fair approximation of the method here. The liner notes claim that the music is devilishly difficult and few would dispute that. Certainly, Xenakis has built up his considerable reputation on skirting the edge of the possible, yet we are not convinced that technical difficulty amounts to an artistic value outside of gymnastics or platform diving.
There is a brief piece for six Thai gongs and two marimbas which is cogent and pleasing. The subsequent marimba duo rambles and swirls like the anti-morphic postman, with only the occasional musical idea longer than twelve seconds. If the seven-and-a-half minute vibraphone solo stands above the marimba doodles, it is only because of the more ample sound palette of the instrument. Within the non-figurative method, “events” are allowed to happen without imposition of intention. The resemblance to the “extraterrestrial” (liner notes) wind chimes here and elsewhere is the closest we get to an extra-musical feature in this abstract and elusive music.
The last big work, Metal is an immersion in an original ambience of clattering metallic sounds that compels admiration by its range and even timbral beauty. By now, we have given up looking for musical messages and merely wait receptively for the thinning and thickening sound events. One must also praise outstanding work by these classically trained percussionists who have certainly expanded the horizon of the art form.
Without doubt this is an intriguing production aimed at a small and discerning audience of “willing ears.” That music like this could even find the light of day in a world increasingly indifferent or hostile to art (not to mention eccentric art) is a small wonder. Thanks to labels like New Focus for supporting new music of headstrong independence like this.