I can't find information—either in Cedille's booklet or even on the Internet— about how Fifth House Ensemble originally came together or chose their name; but they are a Chicago-based chamber music ensemble with particular interest not only in contemporary music but in multimedia performances, community projects and music education. Their new CD brings together four contrasting 21st-century works, three of them premiere recordings written or arranged for 5HE, as they style themselves. Cedille's typically excellent sound helps make each work a pleasure to encounter, and the booklet provides comments by each composer on the piece at hand and some musical analysis by either the pianist or clarinetist of 5HE.
The program opens with a very attractive 7-minute sextet by Alex Shapiro called Perpetual Spark, a celebratory portrait of the music educator Dale Mara Bershad. It began as a piano piece, and the new (2011) version opens with piano solo—a sparkling pattern of groups of 16th notes—but it is soon joined by the flute (perhaps piccolo on a sustained high note?) with strings providing a rich foundation and complex harmonies. The opening and closing passages are exhilarating, to borrow a word from pianist Jani Parsons' description, while the slower middle section has a lovely flute solo supported by the warmth of the strings.
Jesse Limbacher, who is still in his early 20s, contributes a 6-minute woodwind trio, Air, whose title is a pun, referring not only to playing instruments that must be blown through but to the breathy sounds the players are asked to make, and more encompassing to the very air we breathe—and, I assume, to the old word for a song. The work opens with blowing and clicking sounds—it would be interesting to see a video of this performance—before the clarinet, oboe and bassoon begin to play "normally," though at first tentatively. It could be said that the clarinet is the star of the piece, since it, more than its fellows, sustains a melodic line, at first in its lowest register and later pushing toward its highest (where the music reminded me somewhat of Stravinsky's writing for the clarinet). Jennifer Woodrum is the outstanding soloist. But the oboe and bassoon hold their own, including some squawky outbursts midway and mysterious percussive effects. The work is much more musical than my description probably makes it sound: even the traditional-minded might find it quite satisfying. Though I didn't hear it as "a life-affirming expression of the human condition" or a "gradual struggle from primordial mystery," as the composer refers to it, I did find it consistently enjoyable through repeated listening.
Mason Bates' Red River is a five-movement suite (a little under 20 minutes) portraying the Colorado River from its origins in the Rockies to its emptying into the Gulf of California. But unlike such completely celebratory tone pictures as The Moldau and the Grand Canyon Suite, this 2007 work acknowledges the reality of the modern river being dammed up and diverted, only to evaporate in the Sonoran Desert.
The piece is scored for clarinet, violin, cello, piano and electronics or electronica: Bates' program note uses both terms, but nowhere are we given any specifics as to what equipment is involved or how it produced the sounds. The composer is not listed as a performer, but I would guess (from his appearances in clubs as DJ Masonic) that he is contributing the sounds live with the 5HE instrumentalists, unless the latter are playing in synch with a recording. In any case, the work opens with eerie electronic sounds suggesting some austere mountainous region where the river begins. Descending rippling figures in clarinet and piano suggest the trickling downward (not altogether unlike the opening of The Moldau). After a brief pause "The Continental Divide" is followed by "Interstate 70," where we imagine the "epic American freeway" paralleling the "bumpy and capricious" path of the river. Here the music, bright and cheerful, sounds most in the American tradition associated with Aaron Copland, Virgil Thompson and others. (The absence of electronics in this movement increases the resemblance.)
From here the movements are without pause. Electronic wooshes introduce "Zuni Visions from the Canyon Walls," a slow, meditative movement where the clarinet and violin are prominent. Pitches are bended as Bates imagines us looking down at the river from the viewpoint of the "Zuni Indians [who] once lived in caves up in the walls of the [Grand] Canyon." (Haven't the Zuni always lived far to the east, over the border into New Mexico? But the movement is evocative in any case.) Somewhat harsher electronic sounds, including something like drumbeats, introduce "Hoover Slates Vegas" (I'm not sure how to read this title), where the rhythms get syncopated and the clarinet in particular takes up jazzy riffs that suggest the playground of Las Vegas near Hoover Dam. Finally, "Running Dry on the Sonoran Floor" opens with the piano and clarinet portraying the last trickling of water into the desert, followed by a series of quiet chords and a distant electronic "wind."
To conclude the CD program and also provide its title, Excelsior (2012) is by far the longest work on the program (31 minutes) and the one calling for the largest group of players. Composer Caleb Burhans explains that his piece is a kind of slow-motion portrayal of a 1960 leap from space—102,800 feet in the air—to test a new Air Force parachute. The work calls for all ten 5HE string and wind players, plus soprano Martha Cluver and the duo "its not you its me," consisting of the composer on electric violin and Grey Mcmurray (sic), listed as "percussion," though web sources (and one's ear) indicate electric guitar as well. Cluver (misspelled "Culver" in the program note) opens the work with a capella melisma, and later sings the text of a poem by John Coletti called "Text," which has no obvious connection to the subject of the successful parachutist. (The last part of the poem reads "eleven cue balls misaligned/powered by, switch/pillow, points, face-planting/cannot connect/cannot connect.")
Clarinetist Woodrum calls the writing "boldly minimalist," but on a first hearing I found it somewhat too repetitive. However, on repeated hearings I liked Excelsior a great deal more—perhaps it was a matter of knowing what to expect. The work is slow, almost dreamy, in its earlier pages, though punctuated with forceful piano chords. As it continues it doesn't exactly get faster, but flowing arpeggios give it more of a sense of propulsive rhythm. Instrumental colors constantly change, while Cluver (who is the composer's wife), using very little vibrato, offers a pure, soaring sound in the passages where the human voice joins the instrumentalists. After some quiet pages midway through, the music builds in volume and rhythmic energy to a forceful climax before fading away.
In all these pieces the players of 5HE give committed, rhythmically incisive, beautiful-toned performances. Cedille's engineers capture the massive volume of parts of Excelsior with no distortion, while the most delicate blowings and clickings of Air are nicely pinpointed as well. The booklet, as I've suggested, should have more detailed and accurate information in places, but does provide valuable comments from both the composers and the players.