Zack Browning: Venus Notorious

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Zack Browning, associate professor emeritus at the University of Illinois, frequently mixes acoustic instruments and electronics, but this album consists entirely of acoustic works for a variety of forces ranging in size from solo piano to percussion ensemble with flute. Five of the pieces are from 2006 and 2007 and were written using "planetary magic squares, ancient Chinese magic squares and feng shui" to determine the musical structure. Extra-musical devices like these are essentially neutral, and they don't guarantee a musical outcome that delights and intrigues any more than the use of a system like serialism. Browning, though, clearly has a knack for creating fascinating, dynamic, and often beautiful material, so that when it is run through the processes of the magic squares, the results really are wonderfully delightful and intriguing. The music is for the most part hyperkinetic, quirkily hurtling forward, with startling, unpredictable juxtapositions whose oddness is almost guaranteed to make the listener smile. Browning's tonality is related to the minimalism of a composer like Steve Reich, and his recycling of small cells also gives his music a link to minimalism, but the resemblance stops there, because where in minimalism change is slow and incremental, in his music change is almost incessant, with new musical ideas breaking in with breathless unpredictability. Each of the pieces is fully successful, but Venus Notorious, scored for the eccentric ensemble of two pianos, xylophone, and drum set, is particularly striking because of the attractiveness of its largely tonal melodic material, its fun, fragmented rhythms, and its timbral variety. The two-movement Thunder Roll from 1975 has been one of Browning's most frequently performed pieces and it's not hard to see why. Scored for piano, two percussionists, and timpani, each movement is a slowly unfolding, colorful, and atmospheric evocation of a storm. The music receives exemplary performances from a wide variety of instrumentalists, mostly faculty members at leading music schools. The sound is clean and exceptionally crisp, just what the music requires.

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