(Anne LeBaron — harp, flute, electric harp, percussion, ukelele; Wolfgang Fuchs — contrabass clarinet; Ronit Kirchman — violin, mouth whistle; Torsten Mu˝ller – bass; Leroy Jenkins — violin, amplified violin; Chris Heenan — alto saxophone, bass clarinet; Paul Rutherford — trombone; Georg Grawe — piano; John Lindberg bass; Kristin Haraldsdottir — viola; Nathan Smith — clarinet/bass clarinet; Kiku Day — shakuhachi; Kanoko Nishi — koto; Earl Howard — electronics)
Anne LeBaron is a composer and performer whose place in the current new music firmament (by whatever classification) is sonically radical. She has received heaps of prizes, awards and grants. On her two disc set 1, 2, 4, 3 imagination and improvisation are the keys to what she has gathered on 18 tracks, some live and some studio. There are solos, duets, quartets and trios which are unlike anything you have heard before, unless you follow the most contemporary of serious modern composers.
Then there is the impressive collection of both exotic and familiar instruments. The Japanese shakuhachi is an end-blown bamboo flute. The koto, similar to a zither, has 13 strings stretched over a rectangular sounding board with moveable bridges to adjust the pitches. It is the national instrument of Japan. There are times when you would find it difficult to identify particular instruments due to their ‘prepared’ nature or the method being used to play them.
Think of ‘prepared’ instruments, as in John Cage’s ‘prepared’ piano, particularly in terms of LeBaron’s prominent ‘prepared’ harp. In her jewel box notes, LeBaron explains her deconstruction of the harp as finding ways to prepare it, bowing on different types of strings (steel wound wires, gut and nylon) and slithering around on them.
Listen for microtonal effects which sound like East Indian music and Indonesian gamelan music or Oriental-influenced Western music by Karlheinz Stockhausen or Lou Harrison.
What she says unites these pieces is “…the aesthetic of spontaneous improvisation.” The participants agreed to create music with no pre-conditions other than the instrumental configurations for each number. She adds, “All the pieces are therefore co-composed by all participants, taking shape in real time.”
So far, her explanations made sense, but my understanding stopped when I read the following: “Anne LeBaron, composer and performer, writes music embracing an exotic array of subjects that encompass vast reaches of space and time, ranging from the mysterious singing dune of Kazakhstan, to investigations into the physical and cultural forms of extinction, to legendary figures such as Pope Joan, Eurydice, Marie Laveau and the American Housewife.” Indeed.
So what does all of this sound like? Well, it is not Beethoven or Duke Ellington. In fact, there is a distinct possibility that LeBaron’s improvisations are so abstract, so spontaneous and so solipsistic that they are not music in any traditional sense.
She is not alone in this post-modern, post-minimalist musical world, however. Not a few contemporary composers are explorers, searching for some elusive Northwest passage to a musical Nirvana. These are chance creations: Coherence is not an attribute of these works. There are no melodies or tunes. So it seems LeBaron is sailing in the same direction as others.
The sound is very good, considering the fact the tracks were recorded over time (eight years) in various locales. If this kind of sonic activity appeals to you, go for it and give these CDs a whirl.