Both Ueno and Minakakis opt for long spans rather than discrete segments in their works for PRISM and Partch. Ueno – whose creative span runs from solo improvisation and the rugged intricacies of Central Asian multiphonic throat-singing to rigorously constructed symphonic works and opera – found inspiration for Future Lilacs in “Futures in Lilacs,” a 2007 poem by Robert Hass sparked in turn by Walt Whitman’s iconic “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.”
Opening with a stinging guitar note played obsessively on alternating strings to produce shifting overtones, Ueno gradually introduces the unconventional Partch instruments – “Castor” and “Pollux” canons, chromelodeon, adapted viola, cloud chamber bowls, and bass marimba – their unconventional tonal and timbral qualities at once disorienting and inviting. The saxophones make their presence known some three-plus minutes into the piece, notes bending and slurring in accord with Partch implements and roiling guitar alike. Ueno compels the PRISM players to make full use of their horns’ capacity to sputter, hiss, and clack, and further deploys what he calls a “hookah sax”: a tenor saxophone with seven feet of rubber hose inserted between its mouthpiece and body – a method made famous by the seminal New York City noise-improvisation trio Borbetomagus.
Like much of Harry Partch’s music as well as certain Asian traditions that have informed Ueno’s compositional style, Future Lilacs has a ceremonial quality, its players sounding fitfully as if ordained by ritual. Rollicking and meditative in alternation, the music sustains its initial fascination; Ueno’s techniques are novel, but never mere novelty, serving expressive purposes consistently throughout this haunting work.
Minakakis, too, found inspiration for his approach to mixing PRISM and Partch in literature: specifically, Goethe’s 1810 book Theory of Colours, which summarized the poet’s view of the nature of color and how humans perceive it. A 2016 concert review in The New York Times reports that Minakakis also cited certain late-period works by Beethoven, upon which Goethe’s treatise may have cast a shadow.
Skiagrafies (Greek for “shadow etchings”) commences with a singular mix of whisper-soft baritone saxophone with Partch’s adapted viola and bowed cloud chamber bowls, an instantly striking gesture that conjures an eerie gloaming. The music proceeds, wraithlike, through subtle, striking shifts; the effect is something like watching shadows cast by clouds while the sun arcs slowly across the sky, the resulting permutations continually waxing and waning in intensity. As the end approaches, the saxophones muster their force, as if attempting to fly free of gravity’s pull before quietly succumbing to the inevitable.
Throughout Color Theory the performances by all players involved are vital and engaging. Recorded at Rittenhouse Soundworks in Philadelphia, the album – engineered by Peter Tramo, produced by Matthew Levy in collaboration with his PRISM colleagues and the individual composers, and mixed and edited by Levy – captures honestly and vividly what must have been an especially demanding series of sessions. Factor in a handsomely designed package with authoritative notes by John Schaefer, and the result is a completely commendable production.
PRISM Quartet performs with Joe Lovano at Le Poisson Rouge on June 4 at 7pm; www.lpr.com
CORRECTION (Apr. 19, 2017): A previous version of this review listed the diamond marimba and kithara among the Harry Partch instruments used for Ken Ueno’s composition Future Lilacs. Those instruments are included on the album, but are not featured in Ueno’s piece.