For many composers, music serves as a kind of personal diary, a place where they record their innermost feelings. Kenji Bunch’s music seems more like an attic. It’s like a space filled with old kitchen appliances, curios, mementos and other knickknacks.
Members of Nashville’s ALIAS Chamber Ensemble have spent the past year rummaging through Bunch’s musical loft, and they’ve uncovered some curiosities as well as a few treasures. These souvenirs and objets d’art have been compiled into a new CD called Boiling Point – Music of Kenji Bunch, which will be released on the Delos label this Tuesday, Sept. 25.
The album’s title track definitely falls under the oddity/novelty category. Bunch arranged Boiling Point for the unusual combination of string quintet plus drum set, hot plate and tea kettle. The piece opens with the drummer tapping out a rhythmic pattern that calls to mind the clicking of a kettle just before it boils. Soon, the rest of the musicians join in, playing rock-infused, syncopated melodies complete with high-note vibratos that sound almost exactly like a whistling kettle. The piece ends when the actual tea kettle lets out its final scream.
Bunch found inspiration for the piece in the music of Morton Feldman and in comic-book graphics – the score is graphically noted, with the staff lines becoming increasingly wavy until they finally reach the word “whistle,” which is enclosed in a comic-book-style bubble.
Boiling Point is an absolute blast to experience in concert. When ALIAS performed it at Turner Hall last season, everyone, the musicians and audience members alike, sat at the edge of their seats, wondering when (and if) that tea kettle was going to boil. That sort of anticipation and excitement is lost on the album – we know that kettle is always going to boil after 6 minutes and 13 seconds. You get a slightly better idea of what the piece is like in concert from ALIAS’ YouTube video, which you can watch here.
Bunch often seems to need some kind of outside object, knickknack or other stimulus to jumpstart his musical imagination. Once he gets his creative juices flowing, he’ll write a work that is either a beautiful evocation of an object or experience, or he’ll compose some sort of novelty piece.
One of the most appealing works on the new CD is Luminaria for violin and harp. Bunch found inspiration for the piece in the votive candles he saw at St. Paul’s Chapel in lower Manhattan after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The piece is full of vivid sonic images. Muted notes and harmonics on the violin suggest the delicate paper used to wrap the candles. Trills and tremolos on the harp, meanwhile, call to mind a flickering flame. ALIAS violinist Alison Gooding and harpist Licia Jaskunas give the piece a thoughtful, deeply felt reading.
Drift, another one of this CD’s treasures, pays loving tribute to all of those great musical ideas that never made it to manuscript paper. Bunch wrote in his program notes that ideas for new pieces sometimes come to him when he’s drifting off to sleep. Often, the music is forgotten the next day. Bunch suggests these half-remembered tunes with the dreamy, meandering melodies of Drift. Clarinetist Lee C. Levine, violist Christopher Farrell and pianist Roger Wiesmeyer get Drift exactly right, interpreting it as a heartfelt, poignant lullaby.
The CD includes one piece composed specifically for ALIAS – 26.2, inspired by Bunch’s experience of running the New York City Marathon. The piece reminds me more of a film soundtrack than a concert piece – and that’s not just because it includes a reference to the movie Rocky. The music is very descriptive and follows a clear narrative. Runners cross the Verrazano Bridge to a warm French horn theme that – like a Hollywood motif – lodges itself stubbornly in the ear. Bunch then includes a pastiche of themes that suggest the different kinds of music – salsa, heavy metal, a Jewish waltz – that the runners hear as they make their way through New York’s five boroughs. The vigorous score certainly gave ALIAS a workout. The musicians – horn player Leslie Norton, violinist Zeneba Bowers, violist Christopher Farrell and cellist Matt Walker – give the piece a delightfully athletic performance.
In addition to being a fine composer, Bunch is also a viola virtuoso and joins ALIAS in a performance of String Circle. The piece is basically a tribute to Americana string music. The opening “Lowdown” recalls old-timey Appalachian fiddle music; “Shuffle Step” re-imagines Texas swing for the concert hall; and “Porch Picking” celebrates the banjo. The musicians – violinists Bowers and Jeremy Williams, violists Farrell and Bunch and cellist Walker – seemingly leave no string timbre unexplored, delivering performances that are nuanced and expressive.
ALIAS will celebrate its new CD with a release party that starts at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 25 at the CMA Atrium, One Music Circle South. Bunch and the ALIAS musicians will be in attendance. Electric violin star Tracy Silverman will also make an appearance. The event is not going unnoticed in the higher echelons of Metro and state government. Mayor Karl Dean has declared Tuesday, Sept. 25 to be “ALIAS Chamber Ensemble Day” in Nashville. Not to be outdone, the Tennessee General Assembly has resolved that Sept. 23 to Sept. 29 shall be “ALIAS Chamber Ensemble Week.” The next thing you know, somebody is going to form a Tea Kettle Party.