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Monday, July 28, 2014

Robin Hayward, Nouveau Saxhorn Nouveau Basse, Elegy to a Failed Instrument

One composer's drone is another composer's melodic center. It depends on context. Music which uses long continuous tones and hearkens back in some way to classical Indian music tends to use the long tones as an anchor to something that either does or is expected to occur overtop, even if that "something" never quite comes to bear on the music. On the other hand Robin Hayward's Nouveau Saxhorn Nouveau Basse (Pogus 21077-2) uses long tones in a different way.

The album at hand today contains three pieces. Each uses long tones on the microtonal tuba, an instrument Robin Hayward conceived of using six valves, allowing for standard plus microtonal soundings. He plays the instrument on all three works.

"Plateau Square" utilizes the instrument with a four-speaker sound system. Each speaker reproduces sound aspects in an individual plateau of pitch relationships. I wont attempt to explain it; indeed I am not entirely clear what is meant in the liner notes. Suffice to say that long tones correlated in pitch to a particular plateau are the basis for the work.

"Travel Stain" combines long tones on the microtonal tuba plus a guitar part realized by Seth Josel. The guitar notes, mostly plucked harmonics, accentuate the long tones. There is an elaborate hexagonal notation with tone sequences that the instrumentalists explore one-by-one.

"Nouveau Saxhorn Nouveau Basse" returns to solo microtonal tuba. Subtitled "Elegy for a Failed Instrument", it centers around a horn invented by Adolpho Sax, with six valves that were configured to avoid the need for the instrumentalist to combine multiple valve stops. All tones were produced by depressing one valve at a time. It never caught on. Hayward combines his microtonal tuba (which also uses six valves but in different ways, including combinations) with a seven-speaker sound system. To honor the memory of the instrument Hayward conceives of a tuning-note sequence that utilizes long notes produced by only one valve at a time, with six speakers each devoted to the notes played by depressing a particular valve. The seventh speaker is located backstage and represents the bell of the saxhorn. What counts is the sound of the notes and their overtone development as the tones interact with the aural playing space. The piece creates eerie harmonies via a system of multiple trackings that gives the work an acoustic-electric ambiance and fullness.

All told this is music that creates its own space. And you do not need to understand fully or even partly the theoretical underpinnings that went into the works to appreciate the sonorities that are produced.

In the end there is an aural poetics at play. Hayward has his own kind of rigor which we can appreciate for its existence--and then set aside and appreciate the music in its full utterance. It's haunting and moving music!

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