Stan Link review in Journal Seamus

Journal Seamus - V. 18, N. 1, 2005 - by Stan Link

"You only get one chance to hear something for the first time." I've only recently begun arming myself with this bit of Herbert Brun's conscientiousness about new pieces. For recordings at least, it might be weeks before the right "one chance" presents itself. And indeed, a season had passed while Rodney Waschka's Saint Ambrose sat in cellophane. You take your solitude where you can get it, and a southern Indiana highway spread out a handful of hours in front of me to enjoy this piece. Although a road trip might seem less than the ideal circumstance, 75MPH ended up suggesting a great deal I might have missed idling at the intersection of Stereo, Couch, and Potato. Saint Ambrose is a century-and-a-half wide landscape of history, music, and sardonic humor where constant motion feels like a natural setting.

A one-act chamber opera for saxophonist/actor and tape, Saint Ambrose was commissioned by saxophonist Steve Duke, looking to "expand the nature of his role as a performer." The twelve scenes have Duke alternating between playing sax and acting the part of satirist Ambrose Bierce narrating his life and reading from writings such as his Devil's Dictionary. Both of Duke's performances are engaging and integrated - his sax playing is as nimble as Bierce's wit, while his Bierce is jazzy, confident, and wry.

I had been driving to the peculiar mélange of Saturday morning AM radio: conservative prattle, local sports, international music, and advertisements for financial "success." A high-wattage radio play about a Christian crocodile who could cite more scripture than his friends, the Christian frog and Christian turtle, was now over. Following these preludes of political, metaphysical, and electrical static, dynamically compressed music and disembodied voices, Saint Ambrose bloomed from many of those same elements into radio in its own right - drama with no stage thriving even absent its visual promise as "opera."

However well Saint Ambrose works live, a pointed expressivity emerges from this compact disc. Disappearing in Mexico in 1913, Bierce offers a telling contrast to another American wit, Mark Twain, who perpetually reappears as the image adorning his own books, T-shirts, coffee mugs, bookmarks, greeting cards, journals, calendars, and so on. Unlike this marketing of the Twain icon as muse to bookstore latte sippers, however, Bierce's legacy survives mostly in his writing. The intimate relationship between satire and print is paralleled by the centrality of speech in Saint Ambrose. As with radio, close recording of Duke's narration compensates for the invisibility of scene, projecting images through listening rather than onto it - an effect the "one man show" aspect of live dramatization could obscure when the eye has somewhere significant to rest.

Foremost among its many musically compelling features, Saint Ambrose sustains a crisp transparency. Some of this is naturally enforced by the alternating role of the actor/saxophonist since the tutti of sax, speaker, and tape can't really be performed. Offered by the recording medium itself, of course, Waschka resists that temptation and upholds that essential vitality of live performance found in its limits. There's an energy that comes from the constant need to trade one voice for another, and such kineticism is among Saint Ambrose's consistently engaging traits. Far from limiting, then, a sense of transparency feels integral to Waschka's aesthetic. His prevailing impulse is toward lucidity rather than saturation. Far from remaining a textural feature, however, lucidity becomes expressive in other terms. The exchange of solo sax and voice enhances their co-identity while strengthening the amalgamation of both loneliness and conversation that satirists like Bierce thrive on.

Even on the tape, as with the deliberately paced metallophone of Overture: Nothing Matters, Waschka eschews the technological potential for effortless density. Including the live performer, the number of layers rarely exceeds three or four. Held in reserve as an expressive possibility, rather than as the birthright of multi-track mixing, density makes appearances that are dramatically substantive. This is most evident as the spoken monologue of After the War gives way to Interlude #3, a mournful duet for sax and a tape comprising distorted gunfire, clangorous ringing, sweeping phase-vocoded washes, and static. The effect is oddly moving - like tuning into battlefield reports from an imaginary Civil War Radio Network just as some unidentified scene of destruction vaguely emerges through the din, loses focus, and slips back into the past.

And indeed, time is of the essence in Saint Ambrose. Waschka writes that the saxophone part uses "genetic (evolutionary) algorithms." This would be a misleading description of the audible results, however, as the sax warps a jazz thread through the tape's woof of the 19th century. In turn, the combination of those elements with synthetic and processed sound draws another breath of the work's appealing airiness. The firm stylistic location of the sax part opens a gap between it, the time period of the subject, and the technological component. The effect is a kind of anachronistic interchange that feels less like disjunction than an unbinding of some sort. Whatever forces held things in their places have come undone, and Saint Ambrose imparts a sense of effortless mobility.

Finally, an indelible aspect of Saint Ambrose's clarity is Waschka's technological approach, which I might term "pantechnophilic." Many will recognize the types of sounds in Saint Ambrose along with the processes that yielded them. Waschka notes simply that the "synthesized portions were made using various programs and types of equipment." This is tellingly and productively vague. The piece doesn't dwell in its own processes. Accordingly, there are probably few moments of "how'd he do that?" Saint Ambrose maintains its transparency in part because it is neither ideological nor technological "problem solving" music. There is little outward sign here of either a piece or a composer "working through" something and exhibiting that as product. Far from simply "accessible," however, Waschka's comfort and confidence in his compositional aesthetic, musical choices, and technological resources create a piece that makes itself consistently and pleasurably available - a sign of ease that is in no way "easy".