Pierre Boulez was widely praised as an innovator for his Rèpons when he premiered it at IRCAM in 1981. This is a piece where a computer samples the live sound of a chamber ensemble, recalculates it to a programmed algorhythm and then scatters the sounds back out into the hall. Not to knock Boulez, but American composer Roger Reynolds had been working in this very same vein in the 1960s, and IRCAM was aware of that, as in 1978 it brought Reynolds out to Paris and he composed his piece …The Serpent Snapping Eye utilizing resources almost identical to Rèpons. Reynolds' 1978 effort Whispers Out of Time for String Orchestra earned him the Pulitzer Prize, and critic Kyle Gann pointed out that Reynolds was only the second avant-garde composer other than Ives to be so honored, although Gann did not point out that Ives was awarded for his Symphony No. 3, which is not an avant-garde work. Indeed, Reynolds' music is anything but chummy, cozy, and rosy -- his music is highly spatial, an aspect not always readily apparent in recordings. The source of his sounds is not always clearly discernable, whether from tape, live instruments, or live electronic processing; it is really the listeners' guess, and Reynolds wants you to listen to his sounds as making up part of a coherent whole, requiring many return visits to his recordings.
Reynolds is building a new sonic world from the ground up, and has done so for nearly 50 years, although its impact has always been felt more keenly in Europe than in his native America. Perhaps this is partly why Neuma has decided to title this collection Three Circuitous Paths to the Music of Roger Reynolds, as more than 15 CDs of Reynolds' music are available and yet his music remains known mainly to new music specialists. Indeed, there must be a friendly, non-academic way of presenting Reynolds to the public, even though his music may seem inhospitable to the uninitiated and theoretical sounding, though it is not designed that way. These recordings were made at the 2002 June in Buffalo Festival at SUNY, and two of the three pieces here are a little more approachable than Reynolds' usual fare. The best of them is Mistral (1985), a piece for brass, strings, and harpsichord that is reminiscent of Varèse at times and features some very interesting scoring for the brass, although here we are a bit let down by the university-made recording that doesn't pick up the string or harpsichord layers very well. Flutist Rachel Rudich plays Ambages (1965), a seminal Reynolds work written for his wife Karen Hill Reynolds -- its premiere in Switzerland marked the beginning of his international career (a download of Karen Reynolds' original 1965 performance of Ambages may be found on Reynold's website. It's hard not to avoid the comparison to Varèse's Density 21.5 here, although Reynolds' piece is longer and its plane is flatter -- if one were to compare the effect of Density 21.5 to a Max Ernst or René Magritte painting, then Reynolds is more like Rothko or Helen Frankenthaler. TW III (i.e., Transfigured Wind III, 1984) brings the flute into the context of a chamber ensemble with tape, and this is more like the standard brand of Reynolds evident from other recordings -- new music meant to sound unfamiliar, revelatory to some and forbidding to others.
There is no arguing with the high level of craftsmanship involved in what Reynolds does; his sketches and score materials, donated to the Library of Congress, often take the form of visual shapes or computer printouts -- a reproduction of even one of these might have made the path to Reynolds' music a little less circuitous. For a general-purpose introduction to Roger Reynolds, perhaps this is a little less than ideal -- the New World disc of Whispers Out of Time might still be better. Pogus Productions' …The Serpent Snapping Eye might even be a little better as it contains Ping and Traces, the first pieces that Reynolds issued on LP through CRI, and thus the first of his pieces even known to expert listeners. No matter how one accesses his music, Roger Reynolds will never be other than what he is, an uncompromising visionary in search of new sounds and methods -- how well that works for you will depend on what you are looking for in new music.