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‘Count to Five’ by Recap and ‘Piano Music’ by Satoko Fujii: Women Turning Simple Sounds Into Sonic Experiments


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Recordings from a young percussion quartet and a jazz musician playing a prepared piano 

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Satoko Fujii

Composition, at heart, has always been a matter of transforming relatively simple sounds—the raw tones of an instrument or voice—into structures that make sense to a listener. But there has also been an implicit challenge for composers, especially over the past century, to make their sonic manipulations more extreme, either by altering the traditional sound beyond recognition or by placing familiar timbres in unusual contexts. On new recordings by Recap, a young percussion quartet from New Jersey, and Satoko Fujii, a prolific Japanese jazz pianist with experimental leanings, composers—all women—offer fresh ways to reconfigure sound, with generally stunning results. 

Percussionists have an implicit license to transform anything they encounter into a drum, which is what Angélica Negrón asks Recap to do in “Count to Five,” the title work (and opening track) of the group’s debut recording, just out. Ms. Negrón’s essay in rubbing, shaking, striking and scratching found objects (everything from paper, glass and metal to electronic feedback and recordings of distant voices) is involving, if amorphous. But it works nicely as a prelude to Recap’s appealingly varied collection. 

Allison Loggins-Hull’s “Hammers” offers a spotlight to one of the group’s players, Tiahna Sterling, heard here not as a percussionist but as a flutist; evocative as Ms. Loggins-Hull’s percussion writing is, it is the catchy flute line that commands the attention. Ms. Loggins-Hull is not alone in looking beyond percussion to fill out her texture. Lesley Flanigan’s “Hedera” is built around an ominous, insistently repeating percussion figure, but what gives this wrenching work its punch is an increasingly dense overlay of wordless vocal writing. 

“Hedera” is one of several works here with bleak emotional underpinnings. Ellen Reid’s “Fear | Release” uses high-pitched chimes, and their clashing overtones, to weave an insistent, clangorous web, with the “Release” coming only at the end, when the gradually built intensity evaporates, leaving placid, sustained tones to close the work.

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Recap

Mary Kouyoumdjian integrates sometimes keening, sometimes dreamlike vocals (her own) and a violin line (played by Andie Tanning) into a terrifyingly dark percussion texture, creating a sense of doom that is quickly relieved in Caroline Shaw’s light-textured setting of the 19th-century hymn “Will There Be Any Stars in My Crown.” Ms. Shaw sings the hymn straightforwardly, to a rhythmically idiosyncratic pitched percussion and string accompaniment, in which Recap is joined by the Transit New Music Ensemble.

Ms. Fujii takes a radical approach to her instrument on “Piano Music” (Libra Records), out now. Starting with a prepared piano (one with objects of various kinds placed between the strings), she recorded a series of short improvisations, sometimes playing the instrument’s strings directly, rather than from the keyboard, by plucking them, striking them with a mallet, dropping chop sticks on them or sliding objects along them. That was as idiosyncratic as Ms. Fujii was going to get, originally. But as she was editing the recordings, it occurred to her that her sounds might benefit from computer processing, and that her improvisations could be assembled into larger works—a process she likened, in the liner notes, to “building with Legos.”

Ms. Fujii’s musical Legos snap together tightly enough to produce two long, seamless pieces with distinct characteristics. “Shiroku” (“White”) is built around a series of undulating, slowly morphing drones that create a constant, if changeable, cushion. Against them, Ms. Fujii presents a parade of fleeting timbres—among them, harpsichord-like sounds, dramatic bursts of clatter, eerie slides and whistles, the hollow, metallic tones of a gamelan, and evocations of distant thunder—all fashioned from her piano recordings. And though much of “Shiroku” has an unmoored, spacey feeling, its underlying tensions give it shape and coherence. 

“Fuwarito” (“Softly”) is a more dynamic work, full of strange juxtapositions—mellow pizzicato figures that give way to what sounds like a buzz saw, for example, or waves of white noise overtaken by a cranked ratchet. Parts of the piece sprout from a mechanistic rumble that brings to mind some of the “industrial” pieces that Annie Gosfield has built from recordings of factory noise, although the sounds on Ms. Fujii’s palette are lighter, more transparent and more playful, overall. 

Pianists and their fans usually fetishize the instrument’s native tone, and Ms. Fujii’s works may send traditionalists scurrying for the nearest Chopin or Brahms recordings—or even to one of Ms. Fujii’s earlier jazz discs (her 2013 “ Gen Himmel ” album offers some beautiful playing, and some inside-the-piano work as well). But it’s hard not to become swept up by the imagination and invention at work here.

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