Jeremiah Cymerman - Fire Sign

Killed in Cars is okay with cross-posting, so I guess I'll post my KiC reviews both there and here...couldn't hurt for the artists represented to get review hits from a couple of sources.  So without further ado:

Jeremiah Cymerman - Fire Sign
With Fire Sign, Jeremiah Cymerman returns to the intricate microediting approach of his previous Tzadik release, In Memory of the Labyrinth System, one of my favorite albums of 2008.  For Labyrinth, Cymerman made recordings of his own extended-technique clarinet vocabulary and then reworked them in ProTools into a new kind of electroacoustic music where some passages are allowed to sound as recorded, more or less, but they’re also turned into orchestrations and reinterpretations of themselves through intense editing.  Fire Sign expands on this idea by introducing a variety of other source materials: trumpet, contrabass, cello, drum improvisations, and a small ensemble passage from a live performance.
Tiny samples of sound, often small fractions of a second in length, are assembled in new combinations and re-deployed as rhythmic elements and textural spaces.  Even new pitches can be created this way: imagine taking a wisp of sound, a tiny “click,” and running it against itself 200 times in a second: instant bass tone, oscillation through microediting!  Cymerman’s samples are at times so small that one can imagine them behaving like particulate matter, adrift in Brownian motion if left alone, but his careful hand puts them back into the mixes in fascinating ways that enable his source materials to have musical conversations with the audio equivalent of their own homeopathic essences.  At times, the less-manipulated source passages often taking “lead instrument” roles in Fire Sign compositions are also given gentle tweaks through microediting: timbral changes can be effected through removal of tiny moments of sound that alter the waveforms or front-end articulations of notes, and delays can be made by pasting small reiterations of note tails at the ends of phrases.  Overall, Fire Sign isn’t as dense-sounding with microedits as In Memory of the Labyrinth System, but instead makes more use of that conversational potential between source and sample.
While there isn’t any sonic similarity, Cymerman’s microediting compositions remind me of the hermetic devotion of Conlon Nancarrow’s player piano pieces.  Both composers have worked with technologies designed primarily to reproduce familiar sounds, and both aimed for transcendence instead, creating anfractuous and personal worlds through new potentials of technology and a lot of detail-oriented hard work.
Cymerman suggests listening to Fire Sign with headphones, and I’d agree (though I’ve been enjoying it tearing up the air in my living room, too).  There are a lot of subtle sounds that are hard to catch without headphones, but they really enrich the listening experience: in “Collapsed Eustachian,” for example, there are many subtle sounds in both the source material (Wooley and Evans breathing through their trumpets and light tapping on valves) and in the microedits (soft, high frequency electronic-sounding blips, low-end rumbles, and granular effects occasionally coalescing in the midrange with an ambience of static or vinyl surface noise).  The mixes also feature lots of interesting panning to give the music space from left to right, and gradations of reverb to create some front-to-back room as well, creating a 3-dimensional sound that seems to translate best with headphones.
My favorite piece on Fire Sign is “Touched With Fire,” made of in-studio guided improvisations from Christopher Hoffman (cello) and Brian Chase (drums).  This is a high-contrast piece, pitting high density, fast sections, with gentle slow/rubato/ambient scenes.  Cymerman shows here how he can balance highly agitated passages with the need to let the piece breathe, sometimes becoming enveloped in the near-stillness of catatonia.  Long tones contrast with staccato, and there are plaintive passages with relatively traditional harmonic/melodic motion (occasionally interrupted with moments of glitched decay).  
For those looking for even more tonality, the album’s closer “Burned Across the Sky” is built on a gentle loop from a live show, over which Cymerman records a solo that mixes his bag of extended techniques with fleeting moments of more traditional playing (there are a few chromatic clusters in there) and some microedits, and the whole gradually fades away instrument by instrument to a melancholy effect somewhere in the ballpark of Gavin Bryars’ “Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet.”  It’s a moving end to a stimulating album.
For anyone interested in more details regarding Cymerman’s editing techniques, he published a great article about the making of Labyrinth in the March/April 2008 issue of TapeOp.  Unfortunately, TapeOp is incredibly behind in making back issues available online, but Cymerman was kind enough to put a scan of the article on his website.  It’s an inspiring read if you’re interested in creative ways to integrate the recording/engineering process into the act of composition itself.  You can read it toward the bottom of this page: http://www.jeremiahcymerman.com/interviews
(review first published at Killed In Cars)

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