Actually Pretty Fun
Chase’s sound-fabric, Souleyman’s dementia
Flutist Claire Chase, founder of the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) and a MacArthur Fellowship recipient, is on a mission to invigorate the repertoire of the flute, which had its peak popularity centuries ago in the Baroque era.
However, Chase isn’t attempting to accomplish this by reaching the lowest common denominator among audiences; instead, she tackles challenging modern classical and experimental flute pieces, striving to present the flute as an instrument that can convey great depth and complexity, and not just be the aural equivalent of frolicking butterflies.
Chase’s latest solo release, Density, takes its title from the 1936 Edgard Varèse modal and atonal solo flute piece “Density 21.5,” performed here expertly with finesse. The album spotlights pieces from established composers such as the minimalist masters Philip Glass and Steve Reich alongside freshly penned works from thirty-somethings Marcos Balter and Mario Diaz de Leon, and Chase meticulously multi-tracks her playing for a true solo album, with occasional electronic elements.
Chase’s version of Reich’s 1982 piece “Vermont Counterpoint” weaves a stimulating sound-fabric with eleven separate melodic lines and is performed flawlessly with surgical precision and a largely even tone, allowing the quality of the note attacks to bring a human element and avoid sounding robotic.
Balter’s “Pessoa” for six bass flutes is contemplative and foggy and proves to be the most soulfully expressive performance on Density, with repeated spectre-like motifs drifting in and out.
Esteemed experimental composer Alvin Lucier’s 24-minute “Almost New York” utilizes pure wave oscillators that very slowly change pitch, in addition to flutes of all ranges (from contrabass flute to piccolo), and the key effect that is highlighted is the creation of pulsating rhythms by simply playing solid tones on the flute close to the oscillator pitches; the result is the hypnotic, studied sound of science.
A listener should not expect a clinical extended technique showcase from Density nor a warm, easy listening experience, but it’s a superbly executed contemporary classical album that polishes a few more facets for a versatile instrument that’s in plain sight yet often overlooked.
Syrian musician Omar Souleyman has hundreds of albums to his name—many of which were recorded at wedding celebrations—but his latest album, Wenu Wenu, is considered his first proper studio album, produced by Kieran Hebden, known as the man behind Four Tet.
Recorded live in a studio in Brooklyn, it features Souleyman and cohort Rizan Sa’id with the typical trademark Souleyman whirlwind Syrian techno style but with a higher fidelity than usual. This is Syrian music as forced through a distinct filter—those expecting traditional Middle Eastern songs on acoustic instruments should look elsewhere; there is a boldly artificial sheen with solo synth melodic lines that squirm and wander restlessly and a persistent drum machine maintaining the strict pulse.
Wenu Wenu is energizing, maddening, somewhat hilarious and bewildering, all simultaneously; some parts might remind you of an annoying insect buzzing in your ear, while other parts lift you up with its dizzying momentum.
Two distinct, valid thoughts may go through your mind: “Really? Are you kidding me?” and “Hmm, this is actually pretty fun.”
Part of the album’s appeal and unintentional humor comes from Souleyman’s unabashed use of certain synth sounds, like the cheesy “orchestra hit” sound or canned brass blasts. Imagine a child receiving his first inexpensive electronic keyboard, like a Casio, and exhausting all sonic possibilities, pushing the instrument to its limits, until he finds the most stimulatingly furious output that the device is capable of generating. That seems to be the prevailing attitude on Wenu Wenu.
Souleyman’s spirited vocals play tag team with the synth soloing, which flutters and wriggles aggressively, constantly searching and burrowing and never settling into a safe pattern. However, despite the unique charm of Souleyman’s method, just a little is probably all that is needed, since a little goes a long way.
For this writer, small doses are best and most effective; listening to the whole album in one sitting is wearying and can possibly cause hallucinations or dementia.