Who said the bassoon is monophonic?

Putting out a solo album for bassoon without any harmonic accompaniment is a daring move. The sound needs to be compelling, there needs to be enough variety to maintain attention spans, and the music needs clear shape and definition. To this end, Matthias Kronsteiner defies the notion that the bassoon is a monophonic instrument on his recent debut CD modified – music for bassoon. Released by Composers Concordance Records, nearly half the pieces on the disc are for solo bassoon, and the rest are duos with various “family members” – flute, bass clarinet, and double bass. The use of electronics and human beat box on two pieces adds new textures, but Kronsteiner’s playing holds down the energy throughout.

The opening piece, Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras No. 6, provides a more familiar beginning before the coming experimentation. I was especially impressed with the rugged and raw baroque quality to the bassoon and flute playing – if woodwinds had strings, they’d be gut, not steel on this track. This baroque / Brazilian feel is achieved by the force with which the rhythms are played and the clear shape and articulation of the melodic lines. The counterpoint truly comes alive, and it’s refreshing to hear this performed without the bassoon taking a backseat role.

Matthias Kronsteiner

The three solo bassoon pieces present very different compositional approaches and draw out different sounds from the instrument. Till Alexander Körber’s Seismograficische Reflexion goes from a single idea to a flurry of nervous activity to a contemplative sound almost approaching a melody several times. Its improvisatory character allows the bassoon to sit on some notes and move through other passages in a way that feels in the moment. While the piece could perhaps use more in the way of development and form, its transparent expression makes for a captivating composition. Christof Cech’s New Waves does well in creating a changing, jagged yet flowing groove. It goes from a feeling of perpetual motion to heavy basslines to brief moments of lyricism, often spinning larger ideas out of small motives. David Lang’s Press Release opens with a register jumping groove that gets a little funky without becoming cheesy crossover music, moves to a section of slurred moving notes in a higher register (the prettier David Lang sound) occasionally punctuated by low notes, and ends with more calm clear tones.

Mathias Kronsteiner’s playing on all these solo pieces is exceptional, with a technical mastery always put in service of musical expression. He’s not afraid to get a little ugly, honking out notes or verging on shrieking when the music demands it. That he can jump from this to a more reserved sound is testament to tremendous control over his instrument. Everything is played with a sense of line and shape generated by dynamic swells, breath accents, and clear, sometimes harsh articulations. One can feel the groove, but also a linear sense of development. This sense of shaped line, along with alternations between different timbres and registers gives the bassoon less of a monophonic sound and more the feeling of counterpoint. The pitch bends, split overtones, and multiphonics demonstrate the tremendous possibilities for the manipulation of sound. Kronsteiner’s tone possesses a deep resonance that gives especially the low register a full sound, and this sense he can hold his own solo. The booming in-your-face low notes make me wish I hadn’t gotten rid of those two 10” heavy-bass speakers I used to have in my trunk.

The duo with double bass on Gernot Wolfgang’s Low Agenda brings even more power to the bottom register resonance. This piece has a jazzy feel, and my favorite moment is when the two instruments reach a raucous groove with the bassoon growling out one of its notes. Much of the lines sound like written improvisations, and this gives a certain energy and spontaneity to the piece.

The duo with bass clarinet, Johannes Berauer’s Mizar A & B, is less heavily accented and has more of a European jazz feel in contrast to the other pieces, but still grooves with plenty of great interplay and counterpoint between the two instruments. My favorite moment is a 7/8 groove with lots of syncopation. Phillipp Sageder of Bauchklang adds human beat box over much of the piece, and this adds whole new interesting textures and rhythms to the music. Sageder’s skill and attention to sound quality make this not a novelty but an integral part of the music.

Gene Pritsker’s Modified #3 is the one piece I’m not particularly taken with. In it, pre-recorded bassoon sounds are transformed to create beats that resemble something of a cross between European lounge and Grandmaster Flash (I dig the latter, not so into the former). To this, live bassoon playing is added. The problem to me is that Kronsteiner’s sound is damn good on its own, and the electronic manipulation takes away from its resonance. Rather than expanding the sound possibilities, I find it detracts from the musicality, articulation, and many timbres Kronsteiner brings to the table. What I love about wind instruments is that playing them well involves intense physicality, literally from the gut to the lungs, vocal passages, embouchure, tongue, and last (and in fact least) the fingers. The best sounds are generated from the human body in connection with the instrument. I may be narrow-minded about this, but I have yet to hear any electronically modified wind instrument piece that sounds better than the badass sounds Kronsteiner creates with just himself, a double reed, and a bassoon on the three solo pieces – and there are many more “boundaries pushed” on these than the electronic piece.

Despite my criticisms of the last track, Kronsteiner’s disc is just the kind of thing that classical music needs right now. Most pieces are in the 4-5 minute range, with a clarity of musical ideas that makes them easy to digest. The heavy rhythmic emphasis and unique grooves are inviting to people with different musical tastes, the emotion in the performance is compelling, and the experimentation is impressive and inspiring rather than esoteric. The recording is clear without being over-polished or losing the live feel of performance. The music has the feeling of letting loose, and I could see it being performed in many different venues to many different audiences. In this way, modified – music for bassoon succeeds in Composers Concordance Records’ goal of “good music recorded well pushing the boundaries of sound and composition.”

Matthias Kronsteiner, Modified, music for bassoon (Composers Concordance Records, August 2011) – Buy on Amazon