KENNETH KIRSCHNER & JOSEPH BRANCIFORTE – FROM THE MACHINE, VOLUME 1 (GREYFADE, 2021)

Two experimental composers use technology as a compositional tool for acoustic instruments, in the first of an exciting multi-part musical series.

Composers Kenneth Kirschner and Joseph Branciforte aren’t satisfied with normal methods of composition. Their curiosity and sense of adventure branch out beyond the sounds they dream up and into the actual method of composition. In the first of an ongoing collaboration, From the Machine, Volume 1 sees them exploring “the application of software-based compositional techniques – including algorithmic processes, generative systems, and indeterminacy – to the creation of new music for acoustic instruments.” That’s a direct quote from the album’s press release, and while it sounds on paper more like a deep-dish scientific experiment, their unique idea works exceptionally well and produces strikingly intense results.

From the Machine, Volume 1 – released on greyfade, the label Branciforte founded in 2019 – consists of two compositions, each taking up a side of the LP, and written using non-linear software techniques, translated into traditional musical notation, and performed by acoustic ensembles. “April 20, 2015” is a piece for piano and two cellos, performed by pianist Jade Conlee and cellists Mariel Roberts and Meaghan Burke. Compositionally, it’s a truly collaborative effort as Kirschner initially created it as an electronic composition only to have Branciforte reverse-engineer it as a fully notated score for a small chamber ensemble. The three instruments play off each other almost magically, and it sounds almost as if they are reacting in an improvisational manner, even though this is in fact a fully formed composition. The piano and cellos create the impression of call-and-response, and the execution suggests both a free-form weightlessness and a feeling of darkness and intensity.

Branciforte’s “0123,” composed entirely through the use of the Max/MSP programming environment, explores “a single four-note pitch cell and the effects of its transformation through musical voice-leading” (again, I’m quoting from the press release because so much of how this music was created goes way over my head). The piece is performed by a low string quartet, in this case, violinist Tom Chiu (Flux Quartet), violist Wendy Richman (International Contemporary Ensemble), cellist Christopher Gross (Talea Ensemble), and double-bassist Greg Chudzik (Talea Ensemble). What results from this compositional technique, filtered through the intensity of the deep, low strings, is a sort of doom-laden minimalism. The quartet executes the drawn-out, resonant notes as collective exhalations, and while the piece sounds like it may have been a physically demanding, exacting exercise, the experience as a listener is one of catharsis. Furthermore, while “0123” began life in a high-tech, computerized environment, the string ensemble manages to perform the piece in a manner that recalls early 20th-century composition. A more stark, unadorned take on Bartok’s early string quartets comes to mind.

Everything – right down to the title – seems to indicate that From the Machine, Volume 1 is just the beginning of Kirschner and Branciforte’s collaborations. It’s one of hopefully many releases that sees these two unique visionaries restlessly exploring what can be achieved through outside-the-box compositional concepts. 

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