CDs are not live music. CDs have to compete for our attention in ways that concerts never do. They not only have to draw us away from the myriad attention-demanding devices that proliferate our lives but also have to hold that attention, even if peripherally, for an hour. What may work brilliantly in a performance setting may be challenging as a recording, and I fear that is the case with this CD. Here we have an award-winning, highly-lauded ensemble performing wonderful music at an extremely high level on a debut CD that unfortunately falls flat. I have the strong sense that if I were to hear this music live I would be riveted, but at the end of the day Group Theory fails to hold my attention.
The group counter)induction was formed in 1998 and has seen its profile steadily increase over its lifespan. Three composers are listed in its ranks, alongside piano, violin, viola, cello, and clarinet, and that seems no small point. Performers often benefit greatly in working closely with composers, and the adeptness with which c)i tackles the music of both the resident and outside composers seems to be a result of this relationship. Moreover, composers often know what other composers are doing much better than performers, and this seems to have influenced their programming decisions over the years.
The music on Group Theory does not shy away from a modernist aesthetic, but there remains quite a bit of diversity within the recording. One of the strongest pieces, Salvatore Sciarrino‘s Centauro Marino (1984) eschews motives and, as the composer writes in the liner notes, “development, even connection, is shunned.” Short, angular gestures and atmospheric effects come together convincingly and the performers seem to be in absolute command of the piece. On the other hand, Erich Stem‘s Fleeting Thoughts (2010) doesn’t contain nearly so many sharp dissonances and provides a strong sense of rhythmic and motivic clarity. It is perhaps more immediately accessible than Centauro, but both work quite well.
In the end, though, it is this diversity that seems to be the CD’s undoing. The liner notes speak of counter)induction’s “flexibility and variety” being a “hallmark of the ensemble’s aesthetic direction,” and while this may very well benefit them as a whole, it does not benefit this CD. A good recording, like a good live program, should have a sense of direction and purpose that is self-evident. Unfortunately, Group Theory seems to be more focussed on providing a snapshot of this ensemble than being a cohesive recording. It was often the case that individual pieces were compelling, but I wasn’t necessarily compelled to listen to the next track.
In parting, let me highlight two of the best elements of Group Theory. The first would have to be the last track, Eric Moe‘s Dead Cat Bounce (2009). Written at the time of the economic meltdown of 2008, the piece borrows a term for a stock that has a short uptick in price during a long, severe decline. The piece is immediately engaging with a strong rhythmic drive and constantly teeters between a sense of pure tragedy/horror and gallows humor. (I keep debating which.) Moe transitions deftly between rather different sections of this 12-minute piece and seems to strike a magnificent balance between the lyrical and the motoric elements therein.
The second highlight is clarinetist Benjamin Fingland. His playing was exceptional throughout, and he consistently presented the most cogent interpretations of the recording. I have the feeling that, like the exceptional pianist David Tudor, he could “play the raisins in a slice of fruitcake,” and do so convincingly.
There are many wonderful aspects to this CD, and while I do not feel that it works well as a whole, I am also hesitant to disuade anyone from giving it a listen. I would highly encourage readers to listen to those samples that are available online and also to listen to the music provided on counter)induction’s YouTube page. This is a fine ensemble, and I think many will enjoy this recording.
counter)induction. Group Theory (New Dynamic Records, March 2012) | Buy it on Amazon