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Eric MOE (b 1954) Uncanny Affable Machines
Cross Chop, for drumset (2008) [9:23]
Uncanny Affable Machines, for viola and fixed electro-acoustic sound (2014) [ 9:45]
And no birds sing, for keyboard [9:04]
The sun beats the mountain like a drum, for pipa and electro-acoustic sound (2004) [8:57]
Frozen Rain, Summer Dreams, for piano (2008) [8:21]
Let me tell U about R specials, for flute and electroacoustic sound (2005) [9:56]
Paul Vaillancourt (drum set)
Jessica Meyer (viola)
Eric Moe (keyboard, piano)
Yihan Chen (pipa)
Lindsay Goodman (flute)
rec. 2013-18, Oktaven Audio, Mount Vernon, New York; Tuff Sound Recordings, Pittsburgh; Loft Recording Studios, Columbus, USA NEW FOCUS RECORDINGS FCR212 [55:26]
The notes tell us that Eric Moe is currently the Andrew W Mellon Professor of Music at Pittsburgh University. He is clearly a pivotal figure in the musical life of that city and founded an important new music series there. Occasionally his name filters through onto the release schedules: composer portraits have been released on labels such as bmop/sound, Albany, Naxos and New World. In addition, he is an accomplished pianist – indeed he reveals as much in performances of two of the pieces on the present disc. On the basis of my encounter with these pieces I would suggest his work is characteristically well-crafted, rhythmically propulsive, and often shot through with wit or occasionally melancholy. The half dozen works here are entertaining without being life-changing.
The odd title Uncanny Affable Machines actually characterises the nature of much of this music rather well. Three of the pieces, those for viola, pipa and flute, involve interaction with pre-recorded electro-acoustic material. Although the other three do not, at least two of them involve music that could be described as mechanistic; the third is the piano solo Frozen Rain, Summer Dreams. This begins with rapid, repeating notes which may on the one hand seem to evoke a mechanistic pulse; in fact, they instigate what I feel is the most conventional music on this disc, evocative though it undoubtedly is. Its ABA structure begins and ends with an impression of a cold autumnal walk in Montana while a more pentatonic, central section characterised by wide intervals inhabits more of an Oriental aesthetic. Like all the works on this disc it comes in at around the nine-minute mark; pleasant as it is - the ending is glassy and enigmatic- I did feel that it rambled a bit.
Moe is also the performer of the strange keyboard piece And no birds sing, which employs a grand piano adapted to incorporate nineteen notes in each octave. This interference renders the standard piano sound (and our perception of traditional harmony) redundant. Its extra-musical inspiration is Keats’ ballad La belle dame sans merci which contains the line that forms its title. I wrote the phrase ‘post-apocalyptic elegy’ in my listening notes and it seems from Moe’s own comments that this is the mood he’s trying to convey here. Tunes try to escape from the sounds; they exist but the temperament in which they are projected puzzles the brain – with good reason. At around 1’57”, the music takes on a more virile shape, and emerges as yet more dissonant and unhinged before the gently haunting dysfunction of the work’s opening returns; the landscape may be a little more familiar to the listener, but it’s no more consoling. This often Partchian sounding piece is most impressive, and is sensitively rendered here by the composer.
The other unadulterated work here is the drumkit solo Cross Chop, whose mechanistic nature is characterised by its clockwork precision, provided with seemingly surgical accuracy by the percussionist Paul Vaillancourt. Cross-Chop is nine minutes of virtuosic, impressively taut rock drumming, which occasionally references non-Western cultures by nods in its gentler sections to steel drums and gongs, creating unpitched music that somehow sounds pitched. In fact, “Cross Chop” is a surfing term, and this piece repeatedly namechecks the famous repeated drum-break from the 1962 surf-rock instrumental hit ‘Wipeout’ by the Surfaris. (The band may be long forgotten, but ‘Wipeout’ is part of the human collective unconscious – all readers will know its opening guitar riff whether they realise it or not). At my local jazz club, drum solos tend to be the signal for punters to go to the bar, but this is a riveting piece, brilliantly performed by Vaillancourt. Indeed, it’s perfectly regular waves of sound threaten to overwhelm the performer - that they don’t epitomises Vaillancourt’s virtuosity.
To my ears, the pick of Moe’s pieces with electro-acoustic content is the quirky title track. Uncanny Affable Machines begins with taped, clinky sounds over which Jessica May’s somewhat drily recorded viola soliloquises. The weird electronic interference soon morphs into bird noises. The viola line occupies a sound-world similar to that of Lou Harrison’s pieces for solo strings, most obviously perhaps his Concerto for Violin and Percussion. The electro-acoustics feature some winning gamelan- like textures – while the viola is kept constantly busy, with agitated material which harshens in the last couple of minutes, during which the work entertainingly degenerates into something of a rock jam, the viola like a feedback-laden guitar.
As I have often found on discs of new music, the pieces with the best titles seem to convince the least. Under normal circumstances, I am very taken by the very sound of the pipa but in The sun beats the mountain like a drum, the rock posturing which Moe applies to it just sounds plain wrong to me, nor is the piece improved by the electro-acoustic collage, a hotchpotch of references from what sounds like a distorted blues singer to dislocated antique cymbals. As one might guess, the cultural reference of Let me tell U about R specials relates to the throwaway, robotic lines of staff in fast-food or chain restaurants. Some of these feature in this piece but they are delivered in such a po-faced, unnaturalistic way that their impact seems blunted to my ears. Despite Lindsay Goodman’s lively, quirky flute playing and the brilliant title, for me, at least, the piece simply doesn’t manage to integrate its wantonly diffuse elements sufficiently.
Ultimately, Eric Moe’s music is rhythmically propulsive, imaginatively conceived, and aesthetically diverting. It must be fun to play and at its best it’s captivating and enjoyable. I used the word ‘quirky’ to describe one of the pieces, and I think that gets to the heart of all of these works. It is revealing then that I found the bleakest piece here, the piece for adapted piano And no birds sing the most successful. However, those listeners with a taste for unusual works for single instruments may find something to tickle their fancy here.
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