When you work in the Neo-Classical/Avant-Classical/Contemporary Classical field (or whatever it’s called this week), it’s difficult to find a niche - but even more arduous to dig your way out. Sure, Phillip Glass made a statement with minimalism, and indeed made a career of it, but how difficult would it be for him to sway his audience if he were to veer radically away from his signature sound? Stravinsky, though celebrated for his early ballets and “middle” period, pretty much lost everyone once he turned to atonality and twelve-tone serialism. Tim Brady understands this danger, as his music, for better or worse (I say better), is seldom allied to a particular style or mold; call him a musical chameleon with a talent for creating unique compositions. Though he demonstrates techniques employed by composers who work primarily in the chamber and symphonic realm, he never uses any gimmick long enough for it to become a label.
Unison Rituals is a case in point. The title track explores the deepest reaches of a saxophone quartet (soprano, alto, tenor, baritone with soprano doubling alto and alto doubling on soprano). What begins as a slightly slurred work, reminiscent of Lutoslawski’s Chain 1, slips into a homophony of deep sforzandos in an ostinato, changing textures with every repeat, but coming only in short bursts as the instruments recline into subtle drones and key-clacks. As alluded to in the title, Brady focuses the last few minutes on unison lines for two soprano saxes, creating an energetic ending that’s more explosion than conclusion.
For Double Helix, Brady adds a new dynamic, bringing in skinned and metal percussion, piano and cello, soaring into the realm of Steve Reich and other so-called “downtown” composers. However, Brady is never content with simple repeating phrases; he favors constant tempo shifts, often dropping out the entire ensemble and interjecting dramatic bass drum rolls and rubato cello melodies. Without warning, Brady shifts gears with Two Chords Less Than a Blues, an intimate exploration of color and texture: bowed cymbals, tenor sax trills, deepest piano rumbles and what sounds like a Chinese funeral procession (or James Brown tune) of crash cymbals and bass drum.
Escapement finds Brady performing on his weapon of choice - guitar - though it never sounds guitar-ish, as he either plays trills or percussive runs that double vibes, xylophones and soprano sax. The finale, Sound Off, is a scaled-down interpretation of Brady’s original 45-minute version, first performed in 1983 and scored for 100 wind instruments and eight bass drums. It’s a unique ensemble piece that yields equally distinctive results: long breathy hisses, extensive counterpoint and huge brass blasts, bouncing between Lígeti-esque clusters and jazz-band slinkiness.
Only time will tell if Brady’s eclecticism and his absorption of several traditions will provide him with enough mileage for a decade-spanning career, but he’s doing fine so far. This exciting collection demonstrates the composer’s talent for genre cross-pollination and highlights his ability to pen inventive, engaging works for unusual ensembles. Listeners seeking easily-labeled artists should look elsewhere!