Caleb Burhans, Evensong
The prominent New York composer's first album devoted to his own work
While composer/singer/multi-instrumentalist Caleb Burhans has been a prominent member of New York’s contemporary new-music scene for years — writing for the Newspeak ensemble, or else backing up Grizzly Bear on Letterman — he hasn’t yet seen a full album devoted to his own compositions. Evensong changes all that, which is a good thing.
But it’s not an all-eyes-on-me-style affair; Burhans’s characteristic part-of-the-team philosophy is still present. Per the title, a reference to the Anglican evening prayer ritual and the composer’s own avowed agnosticism — this is “service”-oriented music of a secular nature. There’s some stunning choral work from the Trinity Wall Street group on the opening and closing tracks, and crisp playing from Alarm Will Sound on three of the numbers in between. But the use of these elite groups (both of which Burhans has played in himself) is not an end in itself, just as Burhans’s own motive doesn’t seem to be writerly glory. The microtonality and other experimental effects are there to be found, but they never wholly obscure the melodic motifs. This is a program of music meant to stir contemplation, not awe.
In practice, this means most of the pieces move slowly; there are few outright explosive moments. But that doesn’t rule out drama. After spending 11 minutes to set up a slow-moving, powerful three-chord guitar riff — such as the one that crops up toward the end of “oh ye of little faith (do you know where your children are)” — you can imagine many composers milking a pregnant pause, and then letting rip with something extreme. Not here. The piece just ends; it walks you up to the edge of something grave and then lets you alone with your thoughts. This exercise of restraint amounts to its own stunning effect.
It’s this surprisingly potent form of subtlety that reigns throughout: as with the glorious C-sharp major culminations of both the “Magnificat” and “Nunc Dimmittis” settings, the gently complex string parts that drive the beginning of “Iceman Stole the Sun,” or the soft introduction of amplified bass to “Amidst Neptune” (a piece that also features some Glass-like piano writing). The Tarab Cello Ensemble also handles the swooning (and gradually phasing) glissandos of “The Things Left Unsaid” with such a light touch that the encroaching complexity sneaks up on you. Few new music albums work equally well as close listening experiences and as prompts for sinking into meditation, but that’s the sort of service Evensong offers.