Chicago-based composer Owen Davis’ December Music for soprano, bass clarinet, cello, and vibraphone is a fast and fleeting experience of the atmosphere of winter days. It certainly depicts the surreal stillness that is only stirred by bitter winds and the frigid air that chills you to your bones, but, in doing so, allows the wondrousness of this barren season to be seen as well.
The piece begins with soft breath sounds through the bass clarinet, spare glissando harmonics in the cello, and percussive consonants from the vocalist that immediately evoke wind. The lack of any real sonority underlying these sounds makes the atmosphere of the piece feel especially spare and cold. The chattering and buzzlike vocal sounds remind me of teeth clicking together and unintentional sounds made in the extreme cold. I like the effect of the bowed vibraphone around 26”. The definite pitch and rich timbre of the instrument flesh out the texture more, while retaining the chilly ambiance because the timbre of metal bars without motor spinning is inherently not a particularly warm one. I really enjoy the wobbly timbre in the bass clarinet that emerges around 51” after its first introduction about ten seconds earlier. I’m not sure exactly how this sound is generated, but it sounds like it comes from some sort of effects pedal. Considering how present the sound of breath through the instrument has been in the mix, I wouldn’t be surprised if the instrument were lightly amplified. The section between 1’20” and 1’30” serves as a high point in the music in the sense of its density, but, keeping true to the idea of a dead day of winter, it is ephemeral at best. It is much like a particularly large gust of wind that carries a tiny cloud of snow.
This “climactic” section leads to probably my favorite part of this little piece, the section from 1’40”-2’05”. The atmosphere is surprisingly tranquil after the build in density. The soprano sings calm, pure tones interrupted periodically by percussive consonants while the bass clarinet breathes gusty breaths and clicks the keys flutteringly and the vibraphone adds both the raw sound of bow on key (without generating much pitch) and occasional pitches that are struck by mallet that match the singer. The texture generated from this combination of timbres is completely captivating. This section really brings to mind some of the more breathtaking moments I have had the pleasure to experience walking, busing, and driving around the wintery world of Wisconsin.
What did you think of the music? I’d love to hear, so feel free to comment below!