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David Rosenboom
In the Beginning
New World Records 80735-2

Like a number of his peers active in new music of the mid-Seventies, composer and performer David Rosenboom emerged during a period when boundaries between genres were being collapsed. Jazz/improvisation, concert music and rock ceased to really “mean” anything beyond being placeholders in conversations. While ostensibly “new music,” Rosenboom’s work harnesses human relationships and realizes complex systems in ways that are quite accessible. It is interesting that this recently released set of Rosenboom compositions is titled In the Beginning because, while they were composed between 1978 and 1981, he had recorded three LPs by that point and had been making pieces since the Sixties. When the eight works (“In the Beginning I-V,” In the Beginning Etudes I-III”) were composed, the Iowa-born Rosenboom had relocated to the Bay Area from Toronto, in part to collaborate on a digitally controlled analog synthesizer with inventor Don Buchla, as well as embarking on a teaching appointment at Mills College. With the exception of “In the Beginning I” and “IV,” which were recorded in Toronto and Mills in 1979-1980, all of the realizations on this two-disc set are recent and primarily acoustic. These pieces are for mixed orchestra, sextet, keyboard, wind quintet, and eight overdubbed trombones.

It would be inexact to align Rosenboom with the “minimalists,” because though his music is based on evolutionary processes through harmonic series, and through mathematical means he has constructed systems based on irreducible harmonic relationships. Take, for instance, “In the Beginning I,” which is one of the two pieces here that utilize the Buchla 300 synthesizer (“IV” is the other). The music is clearly based around a central node – a crawling progression – while around it are advancing and receding rhythmic elements and emerging series of great detail. The music is orbital and shapely, and the way that sequences shore up next to one another gives “In the Beginning I” a blooming quality and a feeling that one is witnessing a number of coexistent processes take form. As electronic compositions, Rosenboom’s works have a particularly organic feel, and sequences shift in focus with an almost improvisational naturalness. At times the keyboard progressions mass in a gooey, nebulous and cloud-like manner, while other iterations are given an almost pianistic elegance. These shifts in texture are almost imperceptible and, in fact, might owe more to the listener’s momentary fluxes in mood or perception than anything Rosenboom’s music concretely “does.”

“In the Beginning II (Song of Endless Light + Sextet)” is a stunning acoustic chamber piece for four cellos, percussion and trombone – William Winant and Mike Svoboda helming the latter two positions, respectively. Following an Asiatic hall of mirrors for the celli, Winant crisply metes out rhythmic cycles as trombone and strings to shape the piece’s harmonic possibilities. While there is no real improvisation here, density and dynamics are unfixed – thus, the cellists and trombone build into vigorous whorls and voluble blats, stomping through series with real power. It is interesting to note that around the time that these pieces were being conceived, Rosenboom was teaching a course on Harry Partch and Iannis Xenakis – two singular and disparate composers. In listening to “In the Beginning II,” the meeting point between mathematically – and architecturally – derived sonic space and ritualistic harmonic/rhythmic developments is gracefully achieved. While ostensibly different in texture and shape from the electronic works by dint of instrumentation, apparently the literal differences between this work and “In the Beginning I” are quite small. This just goes to show how the ear perceives acoustic and electronic music as worlds apart, even as they may occupy a comparable space.

The second disc begins with a series of three etudes. “In the Beginning (Etude I)” is a piece for eight overdubbed trombones performed by Mike Svoboda. It is an extraordinary realization of orbital masses and knotty, refracting shapes and clusters, fleshed out by gorgeous, Valkyrie-like high-harmonic drones. Indeed, there is something almost sacred in the hall-filling blocks of long tones as they cycle through scalar progressions; one feels as though Svoboda could be lifting an enormous edifice to the heavens. The second and third Etudes are for keyboard, though on the second Etude the keyboard is augmented with a bevy of plucked-string samples (akin to Nancarrow scoring harpsichordist Antoinette Vischer). Exhausting a set of twelve cycles, the piece is both natteringly particulate and imbued with a barrelhouse roll in its surprisingly jaunty dance.

“In the Beginning V (The Story)” is the closing piece and the last of the cycle to have been written. A sixteen-piece orchestra conducted by Rosenboom moves through a collagist appropriation of a variety of structures (or as the composer might put it, “models”) from the preceding works. In the first two movements (there are six), overlaid, frantic arpeggios shift to a sped-up percussion and drone fragment out of “In the Beginning II.” The third section is lush, scored for two pianos, marimba and strings, and has a gently rippling, overlapping effect. Vibes, clarinet, bassoon, flute, viola and cello work through a small progression in the fifth movement; given a surprising amount of tension (a la “In the Beginning II”), passages of nearly explosive vigor emerge before being folded back into cellular refractions. “In the Beginning (The Story)” ends with voicings that shift from detailed logic to anthemic, almost rockist reverberations, almost recalling the work of Arnold Dreyblatt or Rhys Chatham. In the Beginning presents David Rosenboom’s music with warmth and striking clarity, giving acoustic crispness to a complex array of shapes and textures. What’s more, these works are rendered with an appreciable stateliness, which may encourage his name to be a little more “household.”
–Clifford Allen

ICP Orchestra On Tour In North America

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