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CD Review

Larry Polansky

Four-Voice Canons

Various performers and collaborators
Cold Blue CB0011 DDD 59:22
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A round or a canon is a musical form in which several voices or instruments perform the same material, but with staggered entries. For example, in a three-voice version of "Row, row, row your boat," some people don't get to sing the first line until others are singing "Gently down the stream," and others don't get to sing it until "Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily." The last group to sing the opening line is the last to sing "Life is but a dream," and they sing it all by themselves. In a so-called mensuration canon, all of the voices end at the same time, which means that the later you enter the canon, the faster you have to sing – or the more you have to compress - to reach the end at the same time as everybody else. One might predict that as the canon approaches its end, its density increases arithmetically. And it does – with vertigo-producing results

Larry Polansky is the modern dean of the mensuration canon, although the form is more than a half-millennium old. This new CD contains thirteen of his mensuration canons; one of them (DIY Canon) is presented in three difference guises, bringing the total number of tracks to fifteen. (Polansky gave three different composer/performers a blueprint for the canon's construction, but left the materials used up to them.) The composer himself uses a variety of sounds – traditionally musical and otherwise – to build his canons. One canon uses the voice of his three-year-old daughter (?) Anna. Another uses a gamelan. Still another combines the croaking of frogs in a pond at Mills College with Anthony Braxton's baritone saxophone, the composer's wife (?) playing a Javanese rebab, and a Kurzweil sampler sine wave. (We are wryly told that "performances, except those of the frogs, [are] used by permission.") In one canon, composer Chris Mann tells us that he is sitting in a restaurant… a take-off on Alvin Lucier's I Am Sitting In a Room ? (The best moment is when Mann clearly yells out, "Can I have some mustard?")

There's another level of complexity: in most cases, the individual voices consist of the "permutational cycling" of a few musical elements. This makes it more difficult to follow the individual voices as they combine with each other.

Many Cold Blue CDs are floaty, impressionistic affairs… this one will keep you alert, as it is too interesting to be relaxing. These canons are clever, mysterious, and comical – part theory of relativity, part Rube Goldberg, and part comedian Steven Wright.

Guest collaborators include percussionist William Winant and the York Vocal Index, a chamber choir from the University of York in England. Mind the canons!

Copyright © 2003, Raymond Tuttle