Music Monday: LeBaron: After a Dammit to Hell

Let’s be real, this was pretty much inevitable. Music Mondays very deliberately don’t have a theme or central organizing principle (beyond being music I like), but still, there are patterns. Twentieth–Century works, works a little off the beaten path, bassoon features — these are all things I’ve come back to again and again. So how better to wrap up the last Music Monday with an off–the–beaten–path work for solo bassoon from late in the most recent century?

Even tho there’s considerable overlap in our respective “contemporary concert music in LA people” social circles, my first exposure to Anne LeBaron’s music came at the final concert of the 2016 Meg Quigley Vivaldi Competition (which I wrote about at more length in my post on the Galbraith bassoon sonata), which saw a performance of her work for two bassoons and electronics, Julie’s Garden of Unearthly Delights. Born in Baton Rogue in 1953, LeBaron earned her undergraduate degree in music from the University of Alabama, and followed this with a Master’s from SUNY Stony Brook and a Doctorate from Columbia. While in college, she began playing harp as her primary instrument, and has contributed to expanding both the repertoire and the notational possibilities for that instrument, with at least one double CD under her belt featuring her playing and collaborations. Not long after finishing her work at Columbia, LeBaron began a three–year stint as Meet the Composer’s composer–in–residence in Washington DC, subsequently teaching at the University of Pittsburgh before joining the faculty of CalArts, where she currently co-chairs the Composition Program in their school of music.

Between her Master’s and her Doctorate, from 1980 to 1981, LeBaron was in Germany as a Fulbright Scholar to study with Mauricio Kagel and Ligeti György, and today’s piece dates from immediately after that period. After a Dammit to Hell was written in 1982, and it takes its inspiration from a sandwich. Birmingham, Alabama used to be home to a barbecue joint called the Tired Texan, and they sold a sandwich called a “Dammit to Hell”. The Tired Texan closed in 1996, but the a description of the sandwich lives on on the Birmingham wiki page, a description I think it’s worth excerpting in full:

The “Dammit to Hell Sandwich” was a pile of pork scraps, chopped hot dog pieces, and chicken necks, hearts, livers and gizzards drenched in a extra-hot sauce consisting of Ellison's usual sweet barbecue sauce with Mancha’s “Agent Orange” and ground cayenne.

As the title so eloquently implies, this piece is about what happens after you eat one*. It begins [YouTube] with a set of frantic palpitations, as the reality of the situation begins to set in. The bassoon attempts to escape into the upper register, only to run headfirst into a mangled tone. An awkward, halting dance ensues, and then another wave of palpitations that blossoms into the first of several multiphonic passages. (A multiphonic is an extended technique for woodwind instruments that involves using special fingerings to make it sound like you’re playing more than one note at a time. They range from grungy and acerbic to arrestingly radiant.) There is another tentative dance, but multiphonics keep interrupting its progress, at least at first.

Right as the dance seems to be settling in, there’s a surge back into the upper reaches, followed by a long, warbling, oscillating descent. This introduces a sequence of ever compounding grace notes that builds to a belchingly low passage that heralds another uneven, irregular interlude before a screaming visit to the uppermost reaches of the instrument. For a moment, all seems clear, but then a few hiccups interrupt the proceedings and the palpitations threaten to return. To forestall them, the bassoon tries to instate a forced calm, but the surface soon bubbles and ripples into the most raucous multiphonics yet. One ungainly galumph later, and the bassoon almost seems to have the palpitations under control, only to have a wrench thrown in the works by a growling multiphonic and a plaintive exploration of the stratosphere. This builds into a brief, tempestuous outburst that seems to exhaust itself in its furor.

Only then, the bottom falls out of the world as the bassoon plunges into the lowest region of its range, with haunting harmonics coming to the fore like ghostly wails. A tentative figure increases in turbulence into a frantic scampering across the entire range of the instrument that grows in chaos until triumphantly holding out one of the highest notes in the instrument’s standard range, sounding clear and clean at last. All that remains is a sanguine return to the sonic basement, and the piece ends on our lowest note, overlaid by a delicate, tantalizing multiphonic sheen.

*Note added 30 May 2017: Anne LeBaron writes in to say that she had a second meaning in mind for this title. “After” can be a marker of time, as I described in the original post, but, in her words “it can also be a kind of tribute or homage to the sandwich. In other words, ‘after’ means ‘in imitation of’.” So that's another way of thinking about this piece!