MARK APPLEBAUM: 56 1/2 FEET (INNOVA RECORDINGS, 2005)

3 substantial pieces by Mark Applebaum, a composer/performer whose work is characterized by a kind of polymathic intellectualism, drawing on concepts from contemporary literature, acoustics, psychology, mathematics, and philosophy. The way he channels those influences, though, results in music that’s playful, unpredictable, and extremely captivating. I had the pleasure of meeting Mark when he visited Duke around the time this record was released. He came across as a kind, verbose, insanely-energetic thinker — and I remember thinking, during the concerts where his work was featured, that his compositional voice was a perfect encapsulation of his personality.

20, the opening work for string quartet, is in 20 movements, mostly in the range of a minute long. It’s structured in such a way, though, that one tends to hear it in 4 groups of 5 short sections; those 4 “meta-movements” are harmonically distinct and internally consistent. The short duration of each movement lends a sort of frantic quality to the musical gestures, which veer from achingly lyrical to vicious staccato attacks; the piece ends with a jaw-droppingly beautiful solo for cello over slowly-exhaled chords in the other strings.

Agitprop, a “concerto” for mouseketier (an “electroacoustic sound sculpture” built by Applebaum) and jazz orchestra, is a lot of fun — a carefully guided improvisation that takes the timbral characteristics of a big band as a loose basis for experimentation with extended techniques, stochastic processes, etc. While it’s fully NOT concerned with being loyal to whatever “jazz” is, some of the coolest parts are absolutely reminiscent of visionaries like Sun Ra and Mingus, and/or sound like a late-night community-radio set where a DJ’s mixing swing-band records with sound-effects tapes.

I ran out of available time today, so sadly could not listen to the last piece, Sum=Parts. I’ll come back to it later. But these two works have given me plenty of food for musical thought for the coming days of work…

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