More Happy Crab Than Sluggish Snail: William Brittelle’s Joyous Homage to the Chambered Nautilus
The chambered nautilus is a snail-like marine creature native to the Pacific, prized for centuries for its intricate, spiral shell. With their debut recording, a collection of new William Brittelle compositions out recently from New Amsterdam, ACME (American Contemporary Music Ensemble) pays homage to this strange creature. The whole album, Loving the Chambered Nautilus, is streaming at Brittelle’s Bandcamp page (something that more composers should be doing!). Brittelle considers the nautilus to be part organic and part inorganic, and therefore a metaphor for the electroacoustic nature of these works – although that could be said about just about any creature with a shell. Come to think of it, this could just as easily be called Loving the Hermit Crab. Like the crab as it lurches across the sand, the music here has the same kind of jaunty, carefree pulse, albeit a vastly more elegant and precise one. Do Brittelle’s arrangements reflect an obvious organic/inorganic dichotomy? Not so much. The machine-made timbres here tend to be wry, playful and tongue-in-cheek: they ping, oscillate and swoosh, mingling with the more nuanced, emotionally resonant tones of Caleb Burhans’ violin and banjo, Nadia Sirota’s viola, Clarice Jensen’s cello, Eric Lamb’s flute and Megan Levin’s harp. And the playing is lively and animated, about as far from mechanical as you can get, enhanced by the use of electronic effects on the harp and violin and possibly other instruments. Some of the arrangements are so intricate that the consideration of who’s playing what takes a backseat to the overall effect of the work.
Which is more or less a party. The instruments swoop and dive, frequently in unison, when they’re not interchanging voices, sometimes tense and staccato, sometimes more casually and fluidly, with the feel of a round. Sometimes, especially when the synth is going full tilt, this reaches toward a sardonic Rick Wakeman-esque bombast. More frequently, it recalls Jean-Luc Ponty’s early 80s work, Jensen putting a considerably more soulful spin on Ralphe Armstrong’s busy basslines. The first work is Brittelle’s Future Shock (For String Quartet), in three parts. An irrepressibly joyous, dancing, cinematic piece of music, it intertwines a kaleidoscope of synth textures with the ensemble. They move from rhythmic and balletesque to a flurrying intro to the second movement that sounds like it was nicked from ELO’s Last Train to London (a defining piece of electroacoustic music if there ever was one). Sweeping ambience trades off with staccato flurries, big snowbanks of low lushness spiced with glimmering harp, stark cello, frenetic high string cadenzas and shimmering, sustained upper-register lines.
The ensemble follows that with the swirling midrange ambience of Acid Rain on the Mirrordome, a miniature tone poem, and then Future Shock (For Cello), a spirited, jauntily pulsing song without words that swoops up to a crescendo as the chorus kicks in, Jensen’s biting intensity paired off against woozy Dr. Dre-style portamento synth and similarly sardonic voicings. The darkest and most emotionally vivid piece here is Loons Lay in Crystal Mesh, both direct-miked and electronically processed individual voices exchanging pensive motifs over slowly shifting, sustained long-tone sheets. Unfortunately, the title track is just a mess: reaching for a more ornate take on a plinky Tears for Fears 80s-pop vibe, it doesn’t have the hooks to be a good pop song or the depth to be anything else. Poor nautilus: he deserves something as good as the irrepressibly entertaining material that comprises the rest of this album.
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