Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Listening List: 2. Michael Sterling Smith

The Listening List is a blog series in which I listen and critique two pieces by my composer friends. I was inspired by Rob McClure's similar series, "Music With Friends." For most pieces, I plan to listen twice, with scores where available, and jot down some initial thoughts. My intention is to force myself to engage more with my friends' music, not just to offer unsolicited feedback. After my first entry, I found that this blog will probably demonstrate me wrestling with my own thoughts and biases about music as much as it will review the work of contemporary composers.

Michael Sterling Smith -

Mike is one of my good friends from the University of Florida. He's currently working on his DMA at North Texas. I'm probably more familiar with his work than most of the people on this list. I'll give two recent pieces an extra listen.

Hyperflexion - String Quartet

Mimesis - Saxophone Quartet

These pieces complement each other rather well, so my assessment will include a lot of comparisons. Since saxophone quartet is often compared to string quartet in terms of range and timbral homogeneity, and since the pieces were written in succession, it seems only natural that there be some crossover of ideas.

This most striking similarity is Mike's use of scales. In both pieces, these are non-tonal scales, kind of combining modes (I did not deeply analyze them). Much of Hyperflexion is descending, while much of Mimesis is ascending. I really like in Hyperflexion (strings) how Mike pulls the idea of descending scales out of the ricochet bowing gesture at the beginning. Since the notes decrease in volume/physical energy, the parallel of descending pitch seems very natural. In fact, the only part of Hyperflexion I didn't find that successful was the contrasting section of ascending scales! I realize this is a transition to the higher register tremolos (after descending all the way to the cello's lowest note), but I wonder if that section was truly necessary.

In Mimesis, the ascending scales (and accompanying crescendi) make for a nice wash of sound in the busier sections. I also really liked Mike's judicious use of slap tongue in this piece. Particularly in the hall this was recorded, the slap tongues sound positiviely brutal and shocking. He never overuses them, saving them for key structural moments and the climax.

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