April 2009 – album reviews – John P. Hastings with New Century Players & Ensemble 303’s ‘Chamber Music’ (“stark rectitude and detachment”)

25 Apr
John P. Hastings with New Century Players & Ensemble 303: 'Chamber Music'

John P. Hastings with New Century Players & Ensemble 303: ‘Chamber Music’

As well as being a composer, John P. Hastings is a curator. Actually… no. Separating the two terms suggest that there’s a gap between them: some kind of change in philosophy or mental state. It’s true that when he’s not composing, Hastings involves himself in arranging and hosting music events and sonic installations in his adopted home of Brooklyn, New York (via the ‘Sound Series’ at Presents Gallery) as well as co-running ‘The Experimental Music Yearbook’. However, it seems clear that these other activities might not involve much of a conceptual shift. I’ll come back to this later.

Starting off in Washington and Virginia, Hastings was at one time a late-’90s college rocker, playing guitar and writing songs for the post-grunge band Utris. After that he moved his base to CalArts and moved his musical allegiance – with a vengeance – to New Music via avant-garde process work and sonic art. While Utris occasionally dabbled in hard-rocking drones, Hastings’ subsequent music (be it orchestral, laptop-based or both) has quietly and methodically embraced many of the scientific components of late-twentieth-century conservatoire culture. His work sometimes shades carefully and soberly into the post-modern (via technology, found sound, chance methods and a fascination for the minutiae of microtones and the harmonic series) but his primary commitment has been to formalism and to music which establishes, as he defines it, “a logical and rationally satisfying whole.” His early chamber music pieces are rooted at the sternest end of late modernism, asserting a profound minimalism and blending it with clear process-based choices.

This debut collection reflects this position in all of its stark rectitude and detachment. All three of the minimal yet sonorous pieces here were performed either by the New Century Players (CalArts’ ensemble of “emerging musical language” musicians) or by Ensemble 303 (the experimental music group co-led by Hastings and Casey Thomas Anderson). Similarly, they were recorded in guarded heart-zones of the Californian avant-garde – two pieces in Roy O. Disney Hall at CalArts, and one in The Wulf gallery in downtown Los Angeles. These rooms seem to enclose and encourage the music in its deliberately slender and depthless form; its impassiveness; its focus on insidious pared-down number structures beneath the apparent form and textures. The musical notes themselves are explicitly passive components in a sparse mathematical schema, although this doesn’t stop them from often being beautiful.

Hastings makes his allegiance to science and mathematics plain from the off: the large-ensemble piece ‘telluric currents’ (performed by the New Century Players) is named after subterranean electric fields. Less scientifically, Hastings also describes in terms somewhere between angels’ trumpets and astro-metaphysics – “the music of the spheres, sounded with a low B-flat.” Translated, this means a single-note composition, though Hastings also states that it’s actually “one note, two curves.” The latter would appear to mean a gradual rise in pitch and an arc across the differing ranges of orchestral instruments. As for the former, every component note of the piece is a B-flat: precise timbre, octave and duration vary, but the pitch class doesn’t. The result is a kind of a chameleonic sound-curtain made up of nothing but octave variations on the same note.

In the opening moments, a low string drone is gradually joined by a low brass drone: after a minute and a half, the mid-range strings are backing up the low ones. Soon afterwards, the first of a set of horn soundings begin, adding to an enveloping hum. With no more than a single stacked set of octave intervals available to him, Hastings induces a surprisingly full sound, overlaying different instruments in different timbres and within different octaves to cover a broader spectrum of sound. The New Century Players seamlessly slot in replacement instruments as others fall out. It’s a little like a Risset scale trick reversed: instead of producing a continuous cyclic illusion of rising, the process camouflages a genuine rise. Those final sustained high B-flats (carried on stratospheric harmonics once all lower-pitched instruments have fallen away) come almost as a surprise. While this renders ‘telluric currents’ as more of an acoustic demonstration than a composition, Hastings’ arrangement of pitches and the ensemble’s dedication ensure that the listener walks away feeling that they’ve received much more musical information than they have.

‘Sonic Spiral’ (recorded by Ensemble 303 at the Wulf) is billed as “music and math in direct correlation” and as “a sound equivalent of the Fibonacci series.” It’s not the first time that the latter has been employed in structuring music. Building up from a start-point of zero and one, successive Fibonacci numbers sum the previous two, resulting in rapid and increasing jumps in magnitude as the sequence progresses. Spirals based on a linear and increasing Fibonacci sequence closely resemble “perfect” spirals based on the golden ratio, tying them in with idealised human architecture. Their appeal in guiding a compositional approach is obvious – allegedly, Bartók used them to compute part of the structure for ‘Music For Strings, Percussion And Celesta’.

Hastings’ own seventeen-minute Fibonacci piece is written for 11 unspecified tunable instruments. On the Wulf recording, I think I can hear low brass, standard and bass clarinets, violin and viola, saxophone… but what I predominantly hear is sustain, and the long harmonics which it allows to play against each other. Hasting winds the piece up with a little silver key of mathematics and simply lets it unfurl. Over seventeen minutes, the development is glacially slow. More accurately, it’s indifferent to human priorities of time and gratification; obeying rules of harmonic motion or aggrandisement set by the Fibonacci sequence.

Sitting on its locked tonal centre, the piece seems static, a softly growing hum within a gentle dynamic range. It’s actually an ever-growing and increasingly complex chord, moving subliminally up a spectrum of pitch into which new notes are eased and out of which silvery harmonic whistles sprout according to acoustic interference. Around eight minutes and forty-five seconds a lone violin seems to emerge from the stack, dipping over its own sustain and briefly leading the ensemble. It’s an illusion: the instrumentation is less dense at that point, revealing the mechanical workings of one briefly exposed instrument. The tiny dips and recoveries in pitch between continuous bowstrokes, the human flutter and inevitable tiny flaws of the working player, seem momentarily to impose a new idea on the piece: but the grand plan has always been dictated by the numbers. Just as the piece was wound up, so it winds back down.

Unlike the other two pieces, ‘desertum’ lacks a stated mathematical context. Instead, following Hastings’ habit of bringing in arcane or mythological references, it’s touted as “the dark shadow of an Earthly paradise.” Apparently performances of ‘desertum’ can be between fourteen and twenty-one minutes long. Perhaps I’ve missed some obscure rule-of-seven which Hastings hasn’t mentioned. This particular recording is eighteen minutes and twenty-two seconds long – or one thousand, one hundred and two seconds. Neither of which fit the sevens. Maybe maths isn’t dictating the process this time, although I suspect that its hidden rational hand still guides the way: perhaps the clues are elsewhere.

Despite the instrumental billing – brass quintet and percussion quartet – the main instrumentation on ‘desertum’ is an uncredited sub-bass tone. Pure, continuous and borderline subliminal, it runs throughout at a single unchanging pitch. Too textureless for an actual drone, it acts as a flattened-out level ground for the other instruments to perch on: utterly unyielding, it renders everything they do impermanent. Periodically, the brass instruments engage in a kind of minimal fanfare, each playing a single elongated note as part of a staggered, overlapping arpeggio.

The resulting sound resembles a diagonal chord, changing component notes slightly on each widely-spaced repetition. The hierarchy of pitches changes too, sometimes with the higher notes sounding first, sometimes the lower or midrange. They stack up like wobbling columns of stones, or like the same ruins viewed from different angles. During the lengthy pauses between these chord-piles, assorted percussion winds quietly across that monotone floor – wary rattlesnakes sneaking past. There may well be a long game of determined structure here: a slow-motion play through a specialised harmonic sequence played out at an inhumanly attenuated, Morton Feldman-esque pace. Perhaps, without the score, I lack the patience or the ear to determine it.

Instead (listening with more abstract, literary ears) what I hear in ‘desertum’ is a generalised sense of place – a parched and uncaring environment in which any human scratch or sculpting remains solitary and ignored, however vividly it stands up against the dry horizon. Hastings’ chords stand unrewarded and unresolved, isolated between ground and sky. Any message or change which they might carry is reduced to a molecular level. Wherever the idea of an earthly paradise fits in is an open guess. Perhaps the brass instrumentation was chosen for its association with angels, and the broken contortions of chords and desolate lack of movement imply the failure of Eden and the bitter aridity of Exodus. Perhaps Hastings’ rationalism discourages too much of a literary or Biblical interpretation, and ‘desertum’ is simply an existential communication about us – placed in hostile and impartial landscapes, struggling against the odds to make our lives and establish our significance.

Rooms and spaces which encourage. Landscapes that reject… All right, these are classic pathetic fallacies of the kind which Hastings’ more rational side might reject. But on the other hand, I think that this more emotive idea of placings, of placement, does have a relevance. Bar the utterly aleatoric or the free improvisers, almost all working composers ensure that each note and harmony used has a place in the scheme. The utter minimalism provided by these works (with their mathematical maps, their formal constraints, their refusal to allow any kind of horizontal development other than that permitted for duration and equation) works differently.

In these pieces, Hastings comes across less as a composer and more as a kind of… curator of notes. Rather than putting those notes to work, he maps them, provides them with a decreed academic location, gives them their single fixed point in his sonic display and keeps them safe there. He can and will demonstrate where they come from and how they fit in, but it’s as if his artistic work as curator of events has overlapped and merged with his compositional creativity to the extent that it’s now difficult to tell them apart. Similarly (and with the possible exception of the stonily suggestive ‘desertum’) its hard to imagine these three pieces existing and living outside the shelter of the Wulf, the Disney Hall  or their equivalent art-labs dotted around the world. It’s where music like this is safe: is understood and identified; ultimately, is pinned down.

To be honest, sometimes it’s as much about the chamber as it is about the music.

John P. Hastings with New Century Players & Ensemble 303: ‘Chamber Music’
Download-only album
Released: 21st April 2009

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