Thursday, October 9, 2014

Chicago's Fifth House Ensemble gives permanence to an experimental free fall, among other adventures

The Fifth House Ensemble has three first-time recordings on ""Excelsior"
What would four-and-a-half minutes of falling freely from the stratosphere feel like? None of us can imagine, but a musical analogue to the experience of Capt. Joseph W. Kittinger Jr. more than 54 years ago is the main attraction in Fifth House Ensemble's Cedille Records debut.

The U.S. Air Force's Excelsior Project successfully tested a high-altitude parachute escape system, as Kittinger's 20-mile earthward journey included a crucial parachute deployment after the free fall. Caleb Burhans memorializes the latter in his 2012 composition "Excelsior" (also the disc's title). The composer thought to dwell on the imagined mental effects of this journey more than a real-time representation of the feat.

To a confounding text by Joseph Coletti, inserted in segments into the largely instrumental work and ethereally sung by Martha Cluver, the ensemble lays out a spacious scenario. Time is slowed, going in the opposite direction of what was perceptually possible (Kittinger was falling at speeds up to 614 mph). There is also a tendency of the music to be saturated with rising figures, especially near the end. Perhaps this evokes the "lift" lent by the parachute's relative drag as Kittinger approached the earth's surface and the air thickened.

Burhans' style of presentation is lulling, but also marked by a kind of patient eventfulness. He seems to be after a demonstration through music that the way Kittinger processed his experience in effect  makes a philosophical substitution of ontology for phenomenology.

In other words, in such an intentional rapid fall through space, perception of objects and sensations recedes in relevance, and a state of being becomes the totality of the relationship between person and world. Counterintuitively, perhaps, there's a stasis at the heart of the experiment as it's taken in by its fast-moving subject. This fact makes Burhan's minimalist manner seem almost an inevitable choice, and the work's length of 30 minutes expands even further into something that mimics permanence. It's an unforgettable listening experience.

"Excelsior" gets a world-premiere recording, which is also the case with two of the three other works on this release. The most attractive among the three is the non-premiere composition: Mason Bates' blithe, sensuous travelogue, "Red River," taking us from "Continental Divide" to "Running Dry on the Sonoran Floor" in five ingratiating movements.

For a non-doctrinaire approach to extended techniques for an ensemble of three wind instruments (oboe, clarinet, bassoon), there is Jesse Limbacher's "Air" to recommend.  The disc starts off with a compact tribute piece (to a teacher): Alex Shapiro's "Perpetual Spark," light in spirit and well-mannered, with the charm of much French music.

The four works and the high quality of performance add up to a dazzling picture of virtuosity, heart, and confident exploration —  a distinguished label debut.

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