Innova Records, flagship label of the American Composers Forum, releases way too much for any one person to actually listen to. I do give each of their discs at least a cursory spin, if not necessarily from beginning to end. Much of their material goes over my head, as my knowledge/understanding of modern composition is pretty weak. But they also dabble a bit in experimental, electronic and improvised music, and occasionally they send me an item that I can really and truly identify with. Christopher Campbell's new Sound the All-Clear is one of those discs. It's the first release by a young St. Paul composer and former Innova intern, a startling blend of experimental soundscapes with traditional Gagaku instrumentation.
It's interesting to hear the work of this recent Sarah Lawrence graduate (where he studied with George Tsontakis, who also penned the liner notes) in comparison with, say, Innova's own Music From Stanford series. Whereas the work of those doctoral students is deadly serious, as if each composer felt s/he was competing against the entire history of art, here comes a guy fresh out of school who is willing to flaunt all the rules and pursue his own brand of highly idiosyncratic sonic mischief. There's something very whimsical about Sound the All-Clear, both populist and cerebral. The suite is carefully crafted with a real attention to audio detail, yet it manages to give the appearance of something tossed off, accidental. Part of this feeling comes from Campbell's own descriptions, such as the one for "Imago" ("Throwback memory track. In Sioux Falls, SD, my family had a huge tree full of apples and cicada molt in the backyard...) or "Interlude I" (simply: "Tons of birds in a bush!"). One can choose to tastefully ignore his goofy persona when interviewed while appreciating the air of levity it brings to his compositions.
One of the nice things about Innova is that, even when they release work by young unknowns, they still help provide top-notch performers to interpret these works. Among the two dozen people credited as players in this instance are jazz percussionist Susie Ibarra and Innova's own director, sound artist Philip Blackburn. As far as what any of them play on this record is a question left unanswered. The ensemble beautifully marries the austerity of Gagaku with a uniquely Midwestern sense of wonder at the universe, transforming the traditions of Japanese court music into the music-box delicacy of Campbell's soundworld, a fragile architecture of rattling percussion, aching strings and warm mouth organ tones. Something in Sound the All-Clear definitely has the potential for crossover success; the vocals on "All Clear (1, 2, 3, 4, 5)" even bring to mind some of The Books' music, only less precious, more likely to linger in the mind for days to come. One also hears shades of popular electronicians like Colleen and Mira Calix in the mix. Tsontakis sums it up nicely:
"The 'sounds' themselves are finely sculptured, clear, bright and most often optimistic--even cheery. They are created, like perfumes are, from blended essences: of voice, piano, music boxes, sheng, prepared koto, strings, electric guitar, PVC flutes, balloon bassoons, Aeolian harp, toys, lithophones and other choice sound sources played by himself and others--miced and modified to Campbell's tastes and palette. Some are rhythmic, some float, and others drone."