Sad Stories of the Death of Kings

Brian Baumbusch’s Effigy (OTHER MINDS OM 1032-2) is from 15 February 2022…the label are pretty excited about this release from this Californian composer, since it features two sizeable orchestras at work – the CSU Fullerton Wind Symphony and the Other Minds Ensemble – and it’s quite rare for composers of “new music” to enjoy that kind of luxury these days, a consideration that would never have occurred to me.

I quite like parts of ‘Kings’ in seven movements, especially the fourth movement ‘Interlude’ which exhibits “polytemporal techniques”, which I would understand to be two or more time signatures pulling against each other, a feat which the players here achieve with the kind of grace that makes it look easy and produces exciting (though stately and full of poise) musical moments. There’s also a steel guitar tuned to Just Intonation, influence from Hindustani classical music, and gamelan too. Pretty much all of these elements are by way of saying big thanks to Lou Harrison, a modernist who’s now regarded as a “maverick composer” along with all the other mavericks roaming the American Mount Olympus ranch like so many mustangs. ‘Kings’ suite is enjoyable for its richness and bold strokes (Baumbusch is not a minimalist), even if I found the phrasing and rhythms a bit slow and stilted; it’s either being played too respectfully, or the composer can’t quite score enough syncopation into his composition.

‘Isotropes’ is the other work here, coming to us via Henry Cowell and Conlon Nancarrow (especially their rhythmic aspects), and shows how Baumbusch has further developed that polytemporal thing; all the parts (which were recorded in isolation, due to lockdown) are supposed to mesh together and then gradually drift apart, in accordance with a carefully-planned score. Some very rich instrumentation and excellent playing, plus a bright vivid recording; I like the overall concept here better than ‘Kings’, but ‘Isotropes’ still sounds like a control-freak’s idea of entropy, i.e. it’s not really that chaotic and all the parts fall into very tidy well-ordered segments. Perhaps I’m going off the deep end though, as he’s simply hoping to achieve a “drifting” impression, rather than the kind of danger-filled apocalypse I’m wishing for. Full marks for using the archaic word “murmuration” for his third movement here.

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