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Splinter Reeds brings reed quintet sonorities to the Center for New Music

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Splinter Reeds is a chamber music quintet whose name explains everything. All five of its members play reed instruments. The single-reed players are Bill Kalinkos on clarinet, Jeff Anderle on bass clarinet, and Dave Wegehaupt on saxophone (soprano and alto). The double-reed players are Kyle Bruckmann on oboe and English horn and Dana Jessen on bassoon. The ensemble itself is a “splinter group” from the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players (SFCMP). Bruckmann, Kalinkos, and Anderle are all current members of the SFCMP ensemble; and Wegehaupt and Jessen have been occasional contributors when their resources were required.

The idea of a reed quintet (as opposed to a wind quintet) is relatively new. It dates back to the founding of the Calefax Reed Quintet in 1985. The founding members were Amsterdam grammar school (Barlaeus) students at the time, who came together for the performance of an opera composed by Willem van Manen to celebrate their school’s 100th anniversary. They were bold enough to ask van Manen to compose something they could play as a group; and a few months later he presented them with “Barlaeus Blaaskwintet.” With the premiere performance of this piece, Calefax was born.

What is most striking about the reed quintet is the richness of sonorities it can produce. One reason is that each individual instrument has its own broad range of sonorities. That variation is, in part, a product of an octave key, which facilitates the shift from low to high register through overblowing. There also tends to be a unique middle range whose spectral qualities are distinct from both the low and high registers, as well as a very high register that pushes overblowing to its limits. In addition, during the twentieth century overblowing techniques developed for multiphonics, in which multiple distinct pitches are identifiable.

Much of the Calefax repertoire had to depend on arrangements. These included settings of all fourteen fugues and four canons in Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1080 The Art of Fugue. These were all prepared by founding saxophonist Raaf Hekkema. The result was an ingenious series of exercises in facilitating the listener when it comes to negotiating Bach’s thick contrapuntal textures. Each setting brought an approach that not only sorted out the voices but also established a clear sense of foreground and background.

Thus, when Splinter Reeds performed last night at the Center for New Music, giving the third concert in the SFCMP Players Show Series, playing two of Hekkema’s arrangements seemed entirely appropriate. If BWV 1080 is not, strictly speaking, “new music,” Hekkema’s approach to sonority-based composition had the same spirit of contemporary thinking that Anton Webern had brought to the six-voice fugue in Bach’s BWV 1079 (The Musical Offering). These arrangements did much to orient the ear to the unique expressiveness that a reed quintet can provide; and each of the two settings took a central role in each of the two halves of the evening’s program.

Each Bach selection was both preceded and followed by one of the 21 pieces that Tom Johnson called “Rational Melody.” Johnson studied composition with Morton Feldman and is also well-versed in abstract mathematics. It would thus be fair to say that each of the pieces in this collection (none of which have specific instrumentation and were arranged for reed quintet) is based on at least one fundamental mathematical principle. Even the name of the entire collection suggests a focus on integer ratios, and Johnson was clearly trying to move beyond the simple division of a duration into either two or three equal parts. Another interest is in the self-replicating nature of fractal geometry; and the fifteenth piece in the set (one of the selections included in last night’s program) is Johnson’s creation of a self-replicating melody.

If this coupling of Bach and Johnson provided a “core of rationality” to the Splinter Reeds program, the concluding piece, “Wood Burn” might best be described as an irrational romp. It was composed for Calefax in 2005 by Ned McGowan, and American composer and flutist (and San Francisco Conservatory of Music graduate) living in Amsterdam and performing in the eclectic band of five soloists called Hexnut. “Wood Burn” was an exuberantly wild burst of energy, working all five reed players for all they were worth.

It also perfectly complemented the opening selection of the evening, “Line & Length,” which composer Matthew Shlomowitz described as being about “different lines of different lengths.” This equally irrational outburst, replete with aggressive overblowing and repetitions calculated to try the patience of the listener, got the evening off to a wild start. As performed by Splinter, however, one could appreciate the sense of humor with which this musical tantrum had been conceived. This was the performers’ way of letting the audience know that they should be ready for anything, and diversity was definitely the order of the evening.

The central part of the program, however, was taken by two duo performances. The first of these was Roshanne Etezady’s duet for clarinet and alto saxophone entitled “Glint.” This was another high-energy piece performed at a breakneck pace. It was followed by the more introspective “Dorian Reeds” by Terry Riley, performed on bassoon and oboe against a drone of three vinyl pipes tuned to the same pitch. The performance also involved playback of ongoing electronic sampling. The score, which was not instrument-specific, consisted of individual melodic “cells,” similar to those found in the score for Riley’s “In C,” while the electronics provided echo effects similar to those of the multi-chambered installation for which Riley composed “Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band.” The drone was performed from behind the audience, thus adding to the “environmental” quality of the music.

Taken as a whole, the program was a well-balanced combination of stimulating rationality, calm reflection, and serious fun, making for a full evening to accommodate all tastes.

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