The music of Asian-American composer Nick Vasallo is characterized by a fastidiously shaped palette in which form and function is determined by a series of cross-fertilizations and collisions that coalesce and crunch together influences drawn from Western classical traditions, contemporary ‘heavy metal’ music, and idioms with more antique and elegant accents drawn from the modes and mores of the Far East.
The hybrid pieces that result from such musical miscegenation articulate a brutalist asceticism that is very much Vasallo’s own, one rooted in the here and now, wholly engaging with modernity while cognizant of the past and the ‘other’. Caught between past and present, East and West, it is music of urgent, often raw-edged immediacy eager to communicate, to connect, and to comment.
Monuments Emerge, the imposingly titled fourth recording (his first for Innova) from the Bay Area-born composer offers a concentrated précis of music composed between 2007 and 2012 and presents Vasallo as a composer for whom compromise is clearly not an option. This is music to be taken at face value, the obvious contrariness between elements that fuse fragility and force with poetic persistence bordering occasionally on the pugilistic.
For immediate evidence of such, sample Antares Rising (2010), where the USCS Wind Ensemble is partnered by the traditional Japanese drumming group Watsonville Taiko to offer a portrait of a star inexorably moving towards supernova extinction. Of the two excerpts from The Vertigo Series (2009), ‘The Aftermath’, in which thumping taiko drums are joined by glittering contributions from Javanese Gamelan instruments, dystopian trumpets, and vocal shouts and screams, is no less violent.
Or try the miniature, chiaraoscuro-contrasted triptych Transcient Reflections (2007), where a rippling piano line conjuring up the fabled and fateful flapping of a butterfly’s wings central to James Gleick’s chaos theory is interrupted (annihilated might be a better word) by a sudden descent into the “infinite darkness” of silence before the senses are re-engaged by the apparent return of a butterfly in flight, caught this time in the multi-hued reflections of a stained glass window.
If there is a center of gravity to this program, it smacks much of the apocalyptic. Explosions in the Sky (2009) pits a solo piano in a contest of concerto-like dimensions against a combination of violin, viola, horn and percussion. More extreme is the two-part Elements of Metal (2011) – played here with coruscating directness by the Contemporary Music Ensemble Korea and Del Sol String Quartet – which draws from Vasallo’s performing background in a San Francisco ‘death metal’ band. Where ‘Collapsing Obsidian Sun’ shreds string lines as a piano darts and dances like stellar dust just as the Earth will be vaporized when our own sun metamorphoses into a deadly supernova, ‘Omnes Perituri’ (‘All shall perish’) takes proceedings to a lethal conclusion.
Similarly, The Fifth World (2009) looks to the end of one world and the beginning of another as prophesized (for later this year as it happens) by the calendar of the ancient, now lost Mayan civilization. While less obviously agitated, the four-part work for solo piano (the performer uncredited in the liner notes) chisels impatiently, insistently away at a 10-note melody that is constantly re-iterated, re-fashioned, and re-shaped as it attempts to describe a perfect evocation
of sky blue.
Pulverizing album closer Oblivion (2012) leaves the listener in little doubt about Vasallo’s evangelical belief in “Heavy Metal as a viable
and meaningful art form” (the title alludes to the name of band the
32-year-old composer has played in since a teenager and who perform here alongside the Ariose Singers.) Mashing mixed-voice choir with distorted electric guitar, it screws together two polyrhythmic cycles glued into place by an ancient Byzantine mode. Loud and uncomfortable though it may be, it is also curiously compelling – something that could be said of Vasallo’s music as a whole.
Performances throughout are strenuously committed, but some may find Vasallo’s own somewhat indulgent production – which doesn’t always have the clarity the music requires, in part because he too often seems to turn the volume up to 11 – owes more to the needs of aficionados of Heavy Metal rather than classical (even contemporary classical) music.
Even so, Vasallo is clearly a composer on a mission and one possessed of a distinctive (albeit not always easily digestible) voice. But if monuments are to emerge from what he produces, perhaps they don’t all need to be conceived as intimidating monoliths?