by Tamas Vilaghy
“The isms” was a phrase used by conservatives in mid-nineteenth century America to collectively disparage the radical social movements of the day. For art historians the term refers, rather, to the various art movements at the turn of the twentieth century, united by their aesthetic innovation, political engagement, and ephemerality. Both objects of the term, then, desired social transformation, often under the guise of contrarian manifestos and moral indignation at the status quo. Both involved ideology, a term which, in order to be understood, must remain qualitatively neutral, encompassing both abolitionism and prohibitionism, socialism and fascism.
This moment of ideology has passed, which is to say that our ideas seem less and less able to change the world. In other words, nothing has happened: we are living in our failure to enact change, though our world is more ideological than ever. The period of potential transformation, Modernism, has birthed a cynical stepchild who denies the possibility of change. This cynic, Postmodernism, masquerades as the transcendence of ideology, the last –ism, throwing disinterested jabs at the world it cannot comprehend. It declares, ultimately, that we live in the best (and worst) of all possible worlds.
It takes a certain kind of barbarism to look happily upon this state of affairs, just as it takes courageous despair to recognize it for what it is. Fortunately for us, Ryan Muncy chooses the latter. His album’s six tracks explore various strands of contemporary composition, showcasing not only his virtuosity on the instrument, but our own forms of discontent: there is hardly a joyful note on the hour of music presented here, yet it remains multi-faceted, emotionally charged, and challenging.
The album’s opener, James Tenney’s Saxony, can properly be called ism‘s centerpiece. It functions as Muncy’s thesis, the conceptual framework of the album. In New Focus Recordings’ own words, the aim is “to cast the ‘-ism’ onto the ever-increasing breadth of tremendous new works for saxophone” (not the most clarifying statement), perhaps better reformulated as using solo saxophone as a lens onto the disconnected –if not fractured– landscapes of contemporary classical music. Saxony is a shining example of late-modernism which announces its own demise.
The piece uses arch form, or what Tenney refers to as “swell.” Schematically, it is a long crescendo followed by a long diminuendo, with the digitally delayed saxophone layering improvisatory runs into an ever more dense patchwork. We hear the full capability of the sax family throughout, from the earthy Eb fundamental which begins the piece to the fluttering soprano runs higher in the harmonic series. Indeed, it is Muncy’s timbral variation which astounds here, assuming the guise of a clarinet, trumpet, violin, accordion, even a synthesizer, throughout the piece. No novice of improvisation, Muncy adds new textures to the soundmass with apocalyptic calmness. He drops out the bass register at precise moments to clarify the confusion above, to devastating effect. In terms of structure, one could say that nothing changes during the piece, and a lesser player would have difficulty maintaining the necessary variety of sounds. By contrast, Muncy’s stylistic breadth is on full display here as he leads us from the dawn-like intro through passages which evoke first plaintive birdsong, then screeching vultures. A Stravinskian melodic line wanders in around 15:00, announcing the denouement after this climax. It takes ten minutes for Muncy to extricate himself and return to the drone fundamental that he started with.
Within the circumscribed parameters, Muncy is given the freedom to encapsulate the whole of music. Ism would be significant for Saxony alone, and does in fact “resurrect one of the instrument’s forgotten masterpieces,” as the label suggests. The pieces following it are brave shots in the dark, attempts to shape the canon of solo saxophone works. And though, as miniatures, the pieces which comprise the second half of the album lack the mature scope of Tenney’s modernist opus, they further demonstrate Muncy’s astounding versatility as a performer.
We descend into Erin Gee’s Mouthpiece XXIV, the aural equivalent of spelunking for the first time. The two performers (this is the only track on which Muncy is joined by percussionist Ross Karre) plunge into the piece with a nervous energy, producing hollow, watery, cavernous sounds drenched in reverb. What little melodic content the piece contains is handled by the percussion, repeating little ostinatos against a backdrop of ugly saxophone tones: Karre dips bells into water, for example, and the microtonal shifts produce strange effects against the unstable texture. The sax here is more percussive, with Muncy’s pops and tongue rolls echoing through the sonic space like creepy cave creatures.
David Reminick’s Gray Faces brings us back aboveground, though this piece isn’t drenched in sunshine, either. It’s built around simultaneously humming and blowing into the sax, producing a raw distortion effect like a harmony that’s fighting itself. A melody develops around diminished seconds, hobbling along; you can hear Muncy hover near the microphone, pressing the keys down. There is a sense of anxious intimacy to the piece, like a toy soldier lost in the woods, and the title brings to mind a childlike revulsion for sameness. The melody almost reaches a point of clarity towards the end, as if settling into solitude, before drifting sparsely off.
The next piece, masked by likeness, takes a more aggressive stance. Composer Morgan Krauss’ background in noise music comes through, as the long, slow, breathy tone vibrations which introduce the piece patiently assault the listener. One hears the reed straining in Muncy’s lips, foreboding and inhuman as electric signals: microphone feedback, radar blips, and a flat EKG are just some of the images the piece evokes. The faint vocalizations above the noise only accentuate the inhuman atmosphere, gradually developing into a machine-like lurch by the last third of the piece. It doesn’t let up.
So we’ve had three shorter pieces, each exhibiting different extended techniques, each approaching its subject differently, each imparting a different sort of discomfort. Yet it’s impossible not to register a continuity here: we have not heard a “traditional” saxophone note in 22 minutes. The fractured identity of Postmodernism peeks over our shoulder.
Which brings us to Evan Johnson’s Largo calligrafico / “Patientam”. Other reviewers have noted a Beckettian character to Johnson’s music, and Muncy’s grunts, moans, gargles, and hisses certainly communicate an inability to communicate. The closest I can come to describing how this piece sounds is a cello being examined by an extraterrestrial: wooden breaths, pops, long reverberations, short stutters. Again, it is noteworthy that Muncy can get these alien sounds from his horn. This is perhaps the most difficult piece on the album, and one worthy of attention, but the point I’m trying to make (in a magazine called Cacophony, no less) is that even difficult music has its limits. Listening to the album for the second time, the thought crossed my mind during Johnson’s piece: I can’t go on, I’ll go on.
The grayscale atmospherics of the album’s second half range from anxiety to horror, and this, coupled with the short breaks between tracks, does get a bit gloomy. I started this review off with some gloom, and I applaud Muncy for staring into the abyss. I am a fan of gloom. But I am also a fan of disparate aesthetics, and I remember holding my breath when I saw Muncy play an Alex Mincek piece two years ago: precise, labyrinthine notes shot from his sax like machine gun bullets. Where is that sort of virtuosity? That rhythmic precision?
We do get a taste of it in the last track on the album, Lee Hyla’s short and sweet Pre-Amnesia. It’s a wonderful closer, dynamic and brash, showing a hint of jazz (more Braxton than Cannonball), despite the heavy “composed music” feel of the rest of the album. Oddly enough, it contains the one and only true overblown screech on the record, so no one can accuse Muncy of making one of those albums. He has, in fact, produced the most nuanced, forward-thinking saxophone album in recent memory. And he ends it the only way it should be ended: with a nice loud honk.
ism on New Focus Records/TUNDRA
 On a side note, the second half does start too quickly. Perhaps the only technical complaint I have is the quick transition between tracks, which doesn’t allow the pieces to end properly. But this is a minor grumbling, and the album really is beautifully recorded.