Utah-based composer Phillip Bimstein made quite a splash with his earlier Starkland release Garland Hirschi's Cows, a clever marriage of narrative, American vernacular, wry humor, and deftly arranged electronic sounds. An immediate follow-up to Garland Hirschi's Cows, however, was not something Bimstein could just yank out of the air -- his combination of MIDI-based sequencing, editing of interview material, "found sounds," and live instruments is time intensive and anything but easy to produce. Therefore, a whole decade has separated Garland Hirschi's Cows from the 2006 Starkland release Larkin Gifford's Harmonica. Larkin Gifford's Harmonica covers the most essential productions Bimstein created since Garland Hirschi's Cows, most written to commission and all but the title work involving carefully timed interaction between pre-recorded music and live performers.
Casino is the most immediate and fun of the five pieces featured here, and that's mostly by virtue of its first movement, where Bimstein's laconic, matter-of-fact commentary on gambling is synced to a bed of dance beats and electronic slot machine sounds. The remaining two movements, based out of similar stuff, sustain the interest without improving the piece or moving forward on its earlier ideas. In addition, one gets a sense that collaborating artists Sierra Wind Quintet have to wait awhile, particularly in the third movement, to get involved into the texture.
Half Moon at Checkerboard Mesa uses beds that are rhythmically similar to Casino, although built out of natural, rather than electronic, sounds. Oboist Stephen Caplan plays along with a very busy electronic texture, but in this instance, the oboe part clearly comes across as a solo most of the time. The Bushy Wushy Rag marries the reminiscences of a Busch Stadium beer vendor with a rhythm track made up of baseball sounds while the Chamber Players Equinox perform mutations on Scott Joplin and W.C. Handy. The Bushy Wushy Rag is clever and would make for great radio fodder, but it runs a little longer than it needs to. Rockville Utah 1926 is a departure from the rest, as it is a string quartet playing music evolved from Garland Hirschi's Cows with no electronic component. While the Abramyan String Quartet plays it nicely, the artificial reverberation employed in the recording doesn't sound natural or suit the music well.
You'll want to take a break before proceeding onto Larkin Gifford's Harmonica, as it is the longest work on the disc and the one most fully invested in the MIDI environment that serves as Bimstein's basic "score." Larkin Gifford, a near 100-year-old neighbor of Bimstein's, plays his harmonica and tells stories about his long life. By way of accompaniment, Bimstein creates a new musical texture out of notes singled out from Gifford's harmonica playing. Like The Bushy Wushy Rag, Larkin Gifford's Harmonica would make for great public radio fodder, but one is led to wonder if this will work as well in the listening room as it would on the radio in the car. Perhaps this is where Larkin Gifford's Harmonica would work best -- on a long road trip out in areas of the country where one cannot find anything good to listen to on the radio. However, Bimstein is really quite skilled at pulling together these electronic montages and composers of computer music really should take note of Larkin Gifford's Harmonica as it provides an inspired blueprint for a kind of sound design that is part documentarian, part classical composition, and part audio art. In purely technical terms, Larkin Gifford's Harmonica is very well done, no matter how the content of the pieces, and their point of view, may strike you.