Robert Honstein: RE: you
New Focus Recordings

Though Robert Honstein is, formally speaking, a composer of orchestral, chamber, and vocal music, his RE:you is hardly what one would call a conventional classical recording. By way of background, music by the Boston-based composer has been featured at The Tanglewood Music Center and the Bang on a Can Summer Institute; Honstein, who studied at Yale University with David Lang, Martin Bresnick, and Chris Theofanidi, is also a founding member of the NY-based composer collective Sleeping Giant and co-directs the Fast Forward Austin, an annual one-day new music marathon. NewMusicBox has described his music as “artistically curious, non-doctrinaire, and unpretentious”—a pretty good way, it turns out, of characterizing the general character of this forty-two-minute release.

One is struck by the unusual album title first, after which one's eye is similarly caught by the irreverent track titles, which originated from, in Honstein's words, “a series of about 100 messages, both incoming and outgoing, that were erroneously cc'd to me by a popular online-dating site in 2008.” Needless to say, a title such as “Better find those little blue pills if you plan on giving her more than lip service.” isn't the kind of thing one sees popping up on your everyday classical album.

None of which would amount to much if the music weren't worthy of attention, but, in this case, it assuredly is. Expectations are again challenged, however, as RE:you, while performed by a chamber music-styled collective (in differing configurations), is less pure classical than a hybrid form that merges contemporary classical and melodic pop; in fact, Honstein himself has referred to the recording's concise instrumentals as “song-like” compositions that adhere to an A-B-A pattern. The presence of electric guitar and percussion on certain pieces also strengthens the association with pop music.

The small-group arrangements benefit the music in allowing the individual instruments to come through with maximum clarity. In the opening “My friend I understand 100%. I have no girlfriend.” setting, the arrangement allows for maximum separation between the piano, percussion, clarinet, guitar, and glockenspiel, which in turn makes it all the easier to monitor the acrobatic interactions between the brooding piano patterns, fluttering guitar and clarinet phrases, and stop-start rhythms (so ably handled by Owen Weaver). The groan of the cello at the start of “I know the feeling...” is similarly rendered more audible when it's shadowed by subtle shadings of electric guitar and piano.

Another strength of the album is its plentiful mood contrasts, with the nervous hyperactivity of the opening piece and “Just please let me know and that's all I ask from you.” countered by the ponderous romanticism of “Why are you not answering? I don't wish to play games.” By comparison, “Better find those little blue pills if you plan on giving her more than lip service.” flirts with a kind of jagged funk style, due in large part to aggressive percussion and acoustic bass playing.

The large timbral range also bolsters the album's appeal, the most arresting example of which occurs within “I am hidden my dear for you!!!!!!!” where Asian flavour is introduced by the flute and percussion playing (especially when the sharp intake of breaths makes the flute resemble a shakuhachi). On the three pieces that feature Concert Black, a trio featuring flutist Domenica Fossati, percussionist Owen Weaver, and double bassist Lisa Dowling, the contrasts between the instruments are most vividly defined. Ultimately, though, while there's much to recommend RE:you, the most appealing thing about it is the way it sidesteps easy pigeonholing.

November 2014