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Tomas Phillips: Quartet for Instruments
Humming Conch

A single-track of forty-one-minute duration, Tomas Phillips's Quartet for Instruments might be described as an electro-acoustic chamber work perched midway between formal composition and improvisation. Phillips, a university teacher in contemporary literature as well as composer, began producing electronic music in the early 90s and has released material on labels such as Trente Oiseaux, Line, NVO, and Koyuki. He created Quartet for Instruments during a two-month residency at Headlands Center for the Arts near San Francisco, California. It's a largely ruminative work of free-flowing design rooted in the acoustic interplay of piano, clarinet, minimal electronics, and augmented by minimal electronics treatments.

There's a explorative quality to the work in the improv-like meander that dominates during certain passages. Just when instruments appear to be pursuing divergent paths, a sudden flourish finds them coalescing into a unified whole that stabilizes the piece with momentary structure before freeing the instruments once again to pursue their respective paths. The inclusion of electronic textures adds considerably to the work's appeal, and non-instrument sounds form an integral part of the piece's make-up, with the ambient sounds of creaks and the piano action punctuating the sound mass. With each note made to count and space used to maximum effect, tension is sustained throughout as one follows the music's unpredictable trajectory (that the recording was mastered by Bernhard Günter is telling in suggesting how critical each sound and texture is to the overall design). That sense of precision carries over into the work as a whole; though it might be built in part from improv materials, it nevertheless unfolds with deliberate purpose before reaching its graceful end. From a listening standpoint, it's a demanding work in that, being less rigidly structured, Quartet for Instruments offers few conventional signposts to hold onto (the instruments don't play melodies so much as utter phrases and tones, for example), so close attention is required from start to finish. The pace of development is patient and measured in the extreme, which might test the patience of some, yet the work also boasts a wealth of micro-sound detail that rewards close listening.

September 2010