New York-based composer Guy Barash is a risk-taker, willing to pull ideas from all disciplines as he jumps into the unknown. As curator for the Eavesdropping concert series, he programs works that use sound in unconventional ways. This approach extends to the compositions on his debut album, Facts about Water, released by Innova in May 2014. Each piece features the poetry of frequent collaborator Nick Flynn, and all address multiplicity in some form or another: infinitely divisible streams of water (Wrong Ocean), the many bees that make up a hive (Blind Huber), haunted ravings of Iraqi detainees (Seven Testimonies), and a shape-shifting sea god (Proteus).
Facts about Water opens with Wrong Ocean, a series of miniatures that explores water’s potent, destructive force. The string quartet’s instruments each evoke individual streams, sometimes moving against each other independently (“Source”) or converging into one (“Feed”). Thorny melodic lines and unabated dissonance sweeps the listener into a disorienting river of sound, but recurring motives (such as an accelerating, repeating note reminiscent of dripping) create unity among the short and turbulent movements.
Blind Huber, for mixed chamber ensemble, excerpts its text from Flynn’s poems about eighteenth-century Swiss naturalist François Huber. Huber, although blind, made many important discoveries about the life cycle of bees with the help of his assistant Burnens. This grotesque but delicate setting alternates perspectives between Huber and his hive’s collective mind, each exploring their own natures. “Blind Huber I” opens with sensitive counterpoint among the ensemble as Huber muses touchingly on his blindness and his hive (“my eyes now more like their eyes/morning filtered beyond translucence/as the acolytes cover their queen”). In contrast, “Geometry” is an unwavering syllabic setting, the ensemble in unison like the buzzing heave-ho of a whole hive (“Before wax/we’d use it to build, carve/pine resin into cells,/ fields within hollow trees,/hexagons wired into/our sleep.”).
Most striking is the interplay between soprano Jamie Jordan and tenor Eric Dudley. In each movement, Dudley leads with the text, Jordan doubling just behind, repeating the syllables in insistent rhythm. But in the last movement – the only from assistant Burnens’ perspective – they switch places, revealing Jordan to be Burnens. As the individual bees in a hive function as a single unit, so does Huber and his trusty assistant.
Seven Testimonies is a schizophrenic pastiche, a setting of Flynn’s text adapted from redacted testimonies of Abu Ghraib detainees. As Victor Poison-Tete reads the fractured text in agitation, the rock band behind him noodles in a percussive and shifting confusion. One can imagine the horrors Abu Ghraib prisoners face, a saturation of stimuli and crushing darkness as they recall their experiences to interrogators. The familiar instrumentation is rendered farcical in its abrupt starts and half-remembered riffs on American patriotic songs, itself a collection of redactions.
The final piece on Facts about Water, Proteus, is an “electric monologue” of subtle dread. Andrew Struck-Marcell’s voice is consistently matter-of-fact, croaking as he reads Flynn’s dark and searching prose poem. The distorted digital processing of his voice flickers and changes with each segment of the text, vocoded pitches appearing and fading like the piece’s metamorphic namesake. The effect is terrifying, although slightly lessened by a lack of timbral development to match the deepening, increasingly abstract text. One keeps hoping for Struck-Marcell’s distorted voice to open into a Lovecraftian maw of cosmic horror. Yet in the last phrase, we hear only an unprocessed, sinister voice: “Here I am. Holding my breath. And then letting it go.” This abrupt end is chilling.
All of the music on Facts about Water skitters with tension, intricate musical phrasing, and a deep understanding and respect for Nick Flynn’s text. However, the wide differences in timbre, style, and instrumentation undermine the collection’s cohesion. Nevertheless, the individual pieces are excellently performed and well crafted, and merit repeated listening.