I’m not going to lie, Remembered States is a challenging album. At the core of this collection of compositions is a full exploration of extended techniques at the pianissimo level (with a few exceptions) and the near absence of actual notes, not to mention a complete eschewal of meter. Nonetheless, once you get settled into its sound, the album is a surprisingly listenable one, drawing you in because its unusual, intricate world is so well constructed.
In a way, it’s not surprising that Matthew Hough would write an album like this; it certainly feels like the natural progression of his earlier work with groups like Zs and Seductive Sprigs. In 2005’s “Woodworking”, written for Zs, we already hear music that is moving away from the predictable regularity of meter (for fun, check out Howard Stern and co. trying and failing to understand this track). Likewise, in “The First Thing You Need to Do”, written for Seductive Sprigs, we hear a composer creating an intricate thread out of two interrelated musical lines.
The album begins with an ensemble piece called “pppppppppppppppp” (or “16p” for short). Written for four or more musicians, this particular incarnation includes voice, flute, tenor sax, trumpet, electric guitar and piano. Opening with a single note, the sound quickly scatters in many tiny, gentle dots, the rhythms creating small waves. Every gesture sounds incredibly close, the piece enveloping one in its soundscape, the plucks and clicks and murmurs dropping down in a pattern like warm rain drops.
“Remembered States” is next, written for nine performers and by far the most complex—and, at 21 minutes, the longest—work on the album. It opens with the tactile clacking of keys, gradually surrounded by an ephemera of skitterings and murmurs. This texture intensifies as the bassoon ushers in full-bodied overtones, and the other instruments soon increase in volume. At minute five there is a brief break, followed by some of the only rhythmic-unison moments of the piece (something similar happens again at minute fourteen). By minute seven the musicians have embarked along their own, seemingly independent lines, the texture thus becoming completely abstract. The violin and electric guitar rapidly scatter notes as the hushed piano and vibraphone provide a clement, dissipating backdrop. Meanwhile the flute, saxophone, bassoon and trumpet clack their keys to create a persistent pattering, interspersed with overtones that range from gritty to celestial.
“Irreverent Overtones”, for solo bassoon, is the album’s third and loudest track; I think of it as the heavy metal track. You can hear the bassoonist gulping for air as she creates a series of athletic, multifaceted overtones. These are surrounded by the playing of “ghost notes”, a technique which involves a sort of miming of notes: Her fingers press the keys and she breathes into the instrument just as if she were playing the notated music normally, but without producing any tones. The unearthly sounds produced by the overtones have an almost trance-inducing effect.
Remembered States closes with a saxophone/flute duo called “You should all be shot!”, which consists of five autobiographical anecdotes written by Hough, the text of which serves as the score and the part from which the performers read. Full of angular hissing and popping (the anecdotes tend on the harrowing side), the gestures come in rushing waves, subsiding into silence in between stories, and reaching an apex as the sax squeaks and the flutist’s breath rushes rapidly through the instrument during the anecdote that contains the title of the piece.
It may be a challenge at first, but when you allow yourself to listen deeply to this album, you’ll find the music speaking to you in a language that is both sophisticated and satisfyingly passionate.
Remembered States will be released by Original Abstractions Tuesday, October 9. A CD release concert featuring some of the performers on the recording will take place as part of the Music at First series on Friday, October 19.