Bassist Eleonore Oppenheim belongs to the sect of classical musicians that favors the aesthetic of contemporary repertoire over the canon of generations past. By itself this is nothing new; specialists of contemporary repertoire have been prevalent since the 1960s (consider the Philip Glass Ensemble, Steve Reich and Musicians, and Cathy Berberian). Nonetheless, advocates of new music are an undeniable necessity for this genre to maintain relevance in an ever-changing musical landscape.
Home, an album of electroacoustic works for acoustic bass, is the result of Oppenheim’s initiative working with NYC-based composers on expanding the repertoire of her instrument, one gaining increasing traction as a vehicle for solo exploration. While albums of all-contemporary music premieres occasionally risk inundating listeners with a single given aesthetic, the repertoire on Home feels diverse and deep enough to reflect the finer points of bass and electronics. Consider the opening track, “La Isla Mágica”. Composed by the Puerto Rican-born Angélica Negrón, the work is an effective pairing of plucked melodies and quirky, Bjork-inspired electronic musings. The blending of acoustic bass and programmed cascades and warbles works frighteningly well, almost as if the two have always been obvious bedmates. While some electroacoustic works clearly separate the sonic spectrum between the tracked sounds and live musician, Oppenheim fits within the electronic soundscape much like one would in a traditional chamber ensemble. The singularity never sounded so delightful.
While “Mágica” worked towards unifying bass and electronics, Florent Ghys’ “Crocodile” cares more to loop and splice raw material into an abstract collage. Opening with hard panned melancholy lines atop an elegant French text the work continues with disjunct samples of bass, handclaps, and Oppenheim’s own voice. Syncopated grooves collide, giving the listener a sense of pulse but denying a specific time signature. Oppenheim’s sung solfège syllables, spliced like a kick back echo against the bass, recalls Laurie Anderson’s straightforward vocal delivery, effective without showboating. The cut and paste aesthetic of “Crocodile” makes the human element feel artificial, an intriguing contrast against the album’s opening track.
Composer and organist Wil Smith’s interest in the theatrical elements of live performance informs the sinister “Heavy Beating”. Harsh percussive thwacks and glitchy chattering build a dungeon-like atmosphere that creeps along its seven and a half minute length. The work is less about melody and more about mood, how percussive attacks and decaying reverb give way to pained moans and staccato screeches from the bass’ high register. Electronic static starts to sound more like digitized screams in what feels like the least conventional track on Home. The aural experience may be challenging, but one can’t help but imagine how evocative the work would be live with appropriate lighting design.
The title track of the recording, Jenny Olivia Johnson’s “Home”, is undoubtedly the most cinematic. The opening swells ring out like foghorns in the distance. Forthcoming chaos is foreshadowed with fluctuating major and minor tonalities. Repetition lulls the listener as the texture gradually builds through delays and overdriven howls. The track begins to feel like an oncoming train with the sawing bass line and high end processed squeals. Much like “Heavy Beating” this composition is an experience, a work focused on evoking images over memorable melodies.
The album’s concluding track, a remix of “Home” by keyboardist and electronic artist Lorna Dune, is a radical way to conclude the album. Samples of the original work’s bass swells are layered over light beats and synthesized lines. It’s a bold conclusion, especially after the menacing juggernaut of “Home,” but a respectable one. Home is a collection of voices expressing different ideas through the medium of bass and electronics–what’s one more flirtation within a primarily digital realm. Certain works feel forever tied to certain performers, and even if the compositions on Home become universally shared electroacoustic standards, they’ll always feel like Oppenheim’s. Her playing honors each composer’s intention, never allowing personal indulgence get in the way of clear communication. True, albums of newly recorded commissions and collaborations can feel they belong more to the collective of composers than the performer. If such, consider Oppenheim a curator of possibilities as her debut solo recording is a stunning collection of new electroacoustic works.