Andrew McIntosh: Hyenas in the Temples of Pleasure
“An abstract idea of perfection can only exist with imperfection around it, and a wild or imaginative idea gains strength and focus by having a rational foundation.” So opines composer-and-violinist Andrew McIntosh, who thinks of perfection and imperfection less as opposites and more as magnetic forces attracted to one another. As a formally trained classical musician with an especial interest in alternate tuning systems, McIntosh possesses a side that favours order, clarity, rigour, and rationality, but it's balanced by another side that's drawn to wildness, intuition, and spontaneity—the long-standing tension between the Apollonian and Dionysian traditions once again.
The very titles of the two large-scale pieces featured on this first full-length album of McIntosh's music reference the two sides, Apollonian order evoked by Symmetry Etudes (2009-2012), performed by McIntosh on violin and James Sullivan and Brian Walsh on clarinets, and Dionysian wildness by Hyenas in the Temples of Pleasure (2012-2013), brought to life by the NY-based Yarn/Wire, a quartet comprising pianists Laura Barger and Ning Yu and percussionists Ian Antonio and Russell Greenberg. In having the title composition positioned at the center of the Symmetry Etudes eight pieces, the very structure of the album presentation symbolizes order's desire to bring chaos under control.
Composed over a four-year period at the request of Sullivan and Walsh, the Symmetry Etudes, each of them based on a just intonation tuning scheme, were expressly written to exploit the clarinetists' abilities. McIntosh's violin is as integral a voice on many of the eight settings, and certainly the contrast in timbre between the string and woodwind instruments allows for clear separation. The querulous clarinet interactions within “Etude II” exude a graceful quality that calls to mind Stravinsky's neo-classical style, while the ten-minute “Etude IV” tickles the ear with episodes where the instruments align and diverge, the clarinets and violin patiently shadowing one another as they cycle through repeated upward and downward trajectories. The listening pleasure provided by the material is plentiful, even if there are moments when the sonorities are piercing, and the music seduces the ear with its sensual blend of classical formality and emotional expressiveness.
Though Hyenas in the Temples of Pleasure constitutes an approximate third of the total recording time, it's McIntosh's self-admitted favourite of his compositions. In contrast to the carefully calculated methods he applied in the creation of Symmetry Etudes, McIntosh developed Hyenas in the Temples of Pleasure using intuition and a set of drawings representing the shapes of the four pieces. Broached on a purely listening level, it sounds more free-flowing and spontaneous, as if the composer purposefully loosened his customary grip on the compositional process so as to allow greater room for the musicians' contributions. He didn't relinquish control totally, however, as shown by the presence of just intonation sonorities and the customized percussion effects produced by resonating aluminum pipes and tuned wineglasses. Bell-like percussion effects help make the fourth section memorable, and there's a dreamlike, almost nachtmusik quality to the work that is especially pronounced in the third section.
Hyenas in the Temples of Pleasure is a strong addition to the growing discography of Populist Records (which McIntosh manages along with Andrew Tholl), not only for the high quality of the musical material but for an impressive physical presentation that complements a fold-out package with a full-colour eight-page booklet.