Review: String Noise – Alien Stories

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Academia and the classical music world have, in recent times, rightfully come under fire for consistently failing to center modern works for performance, and even more importantly, failing to center works by members of marginalized communities. With that in mind, this album by chamber duo String Noise comes at a good time, featuring 5 pieces by living Black composers.

The album opens up with the the title piece “Alien Stories” by Jessie Cox. A flurry of textural and extended technique elements make up the building blocks of this work. Dissonant stabs and harsh dragging of bows, pointillistic bursts of rhythm. The composer states that during COVID he thought a lot about aliens, and the alien relationship of viruses and cultures, the impacts of music in terms of showing history and culture and individuality. If you’re a fan of textural approaches to music making of the kind frequently seen in noise and other experimental genres, then this piece should appeal to you quite a bit. It’s quite haunting in its barebones arrangement, with dynamic swells and whispers seemingly coming from nothing.

“ARCHIVE01 [Absolute Recoil]”by Lester St. Louis has a similar texture-based approach to its composition, but in a much more brash and layering manner before a sudden stop. This piece then leads us to “La Puyala Munta” by Anais Maviel, which builds off a folksong base, punctured now and then by contrasting rhythms and harsh extended techniques. It’s a wonderful mix of more accessible form combined with modern technique and style. Maviel states she wanted to connect classical canon with the oral traditions from the French village where her paternal roots are, and explore music embodying joy.

“Only Time Will Tell” by Charles Overton has a much more tonal approach than the pieces discussed so far, possibly with some jazz informing the sound. Overton states that “Only Time Will Tell” is music for the present moment, and particularly the uncertainty that colors everything lately. There’s a calming sort of thread running underneath, though more complex patterns get woven over the top of it. The contemplative mood that bookends the piece is left up to the listener about whether they feel encouraged, discouraged, or both.

“Yet to Be” by Jonathan Finlayson is what I would call the most academic sounding piece on the record, which makes sense since the composer states he wrote it to formalize the harmonic movement in trumpet improvisations he did while quarantining in the woods. The efforts to move things from an improvisational approach over to a violin framework let the composer get some distance and I’d recommend that approach to the listener as well. Step back enough to take everything in, to see the development from improvisation to a formally written piece pushing at its constraints.

Alien Stories is a commendable work showcasing a wide variety of pieces from current Black composers, showing off trends in the classical and academic scene. My only real wish is that it was longer, with either a couple more pieces or some longer, multi-movement works thrown in.

4/5 Flaming Toilets ov Hell

Alien Stories is out now through Infrequent Seams.

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