Recorded and originally released in 1996, Rheo-Umbra is a two-part composition by Elliott Sharp for a typically bizarre ensemble consisting of electric harp, electric bass, two bass clarinets, percussion, sampler, string quartet, and electric guitar (along with the Slab, a somewhat guitarish instrument invented by Sharp himself). The first six minutes of "Rheo-Umbra 1" are built on a repetitive theme that is carried by the string quartet and muttered about, commented upon, subtly undermined and sometimes supported by the others. There's lots of interesting stuff happening, but you have to listen hard to catch it -- the electronic percussion sounds that judder underneath, the tickety-tockety guitar bits that bounce around it. Then the whole thing breaks down and bass clarinet drones take over while a pitched but percussiony obbligato is played by either Zeena Parkins (on her electric harp) or possibly Sharp himself on his Slab. Sharp's fretless guitar then takes over and pulls everything queasily off-kilter for a while, before the strings come back in a dry, almost dodecaphonic style; things stay harmonically awkward for quite some time, though snidely persistent maracas help everyone maintain a steady beat. The final few minutes are jittery and dark, with more percussive string sounds pitter-patting around in a rather panic-stricken way. "Rheo-Umbra 2" opens with the two bass clarinets playing strangely open harmonies in strict time, then brings back the wonderfully weird guitar/Slab tapping that provided so much of the textural interest during the first movement. Then all becomes hellacious noise for several minutes, allowing listeners of a certain age to luxuriate in some downtown nostalgia. Quickly, though, the music becomes tightly controlled again, with an uneven rhythm and precise comping from the string quartet while the guitar taps reenter and the weird sub rosa juddering sounds do the same. The composition ends with more of a whimper than a bang, but overall this is a fascinating pair of pieces.
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AllMusic Review by Rick Anderson
|Rheo-Umbra, for ensemble, electronics & samplers|