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It might not appear like an obvious hotbed of contemporary music, but amid the rolling cornfields of western Michigan, at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Bill Ryan has been masterfully cultivating the GVSU New Music Ensemble. And with RETURN, the group's fourth album, Ryan is reaping what he has sewn since founding the ensemble in 2006: All 15 works were composed by his former students. (Full disclosure: Some 35 years ago, I was a young literature student at GVSU.)
Although Ryan and the group routinely tackle some of the most intimidating warhorses of our time, including Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians and Terry Riley's In C, their new homegrown release may be their most interesting. RETURN teems with fresh-sounding electroacoustic compositions by Daniel Rhode, Adam Cuthbert and Matt Finch, rigorously built to open up vibrant, ambient spaces.
The composers began by writing purely acoustic pieces for the ensemble. Then they took those musical manikins back into their studios to tastefully dress them in electronics. The result is a fascinating hybrid weave of surprising sounds and fluid borders between unadorned instruments and their processed counterparts.
In the transcendent glass surface, a single, untroubled chord appears and dovetails into new layers while a melodic fragment emerges. The little theme sounds pinched, like a solitary bagpipe cutting through the fog, yet its aching beauty can easily lodge in your head. Turns out, it's no bagpipe at all, but instead a violin pitched up high via some clever processing. The music builds to shimmering heights.
Instruments in their more natural state surface in there are no gradients, where reverberant blips give way to a meandering saxophone and a high flying clarinet. Delicate, chirping layers of electronics bloom in under its own colorless weight, eventually welcoming a distant, droning saxophone and flute.
Some pieces seem to pay homage to minimalists and ambient pioneers of the past. Old school-sounding synthesizers, a la Popol Vuh or Vangelis, drift through location sharing, while dearest rewinder these mixes Steve Reich-styled pulsations with the idiosyncratic sound world of Brian Eno. If RETURN had a lodestar, it might be Eno's Music for Films, his undervalued masterwork from 1976. Yet Eno's miniatures are just that, while most of the works on RETURN are granted space to stretch out and breathe.
Some of the music can only be described in terms of its arresting atmospherics. In a clear wall sports gently swirling layers of hollow wind and sparkling stars. Background refresh, with its muffled beat under ticking clocks, offers garbled emissions, like a secret language of subterranean beings. The soaring airport for light could serve as a soundtrack for the Aurora Borealis.
Calming, alluring and sophisticated all at once, RETURN marks a high point for Ryan, his ensemble and former students. Those who are drawn to the music of Max Richter, Daniel Wohl, Hauschka and the remarkable Jacaszek, will want to pay close attention to this fresh batch of electroacoustic practitioners.