Composer and clarinetist Jeremiah Cymerman operates at the intersection of improvisation and electronic composition, with his music taking shape via heavy post-production, sound collage and recomposition (cut-up techniques, if you prefer). The use of disassembled and reassembled fragments of improvisations — which Cymerman calls “recycled sounds” — is at work in each of the five pieces on Fire Sign. And whether Cymerman has drawn them from concerts, studio sessions, or home recordings, he’s able to strike a compelling balance between hallucinatory sound sculpting and the immediacy of improvised music.
The brief “Opening” is for processed clarinet and electronics, a lambent swirl that recalls mid-1970s works by composer like Jacques Dudon. But with the exception of some components of Fire Sign‘s heady closing piece, Cymerman’s sound world moves in very different directions from those heard on this fragment. This is audible from the outset of “Collapsed Eustachean,” a piece assembled from the marvelous extended techniques of improvising trumpeters Nate Wooley and Peter Evans. Rooted in their buzzing, vocalic, splattery exchanges, Cymerman creates multiform musical effects. What’s compelling about his electronics is that they are never arbitrary but are actually clued into the logic of the improvisations, deepening or heightening them, creating contrastive effects, or framing them provocatively (it’s depressing to think about how rare this is). What’s impressive aside from the visceral wonder of Cymerman’s creations is how he is able to conjure these worlds without obscuring the initial improvisations. His engagements with Tom Blancarte’s contrabass solo on “I Woke Up Early the Day That I Died” are incredibly violent, transforming the thwack of bow or rough double-stop into something like weaponry. Yet, there are also tiny sounds like electronic insects that seem to be crawling through the instrument’s wood.
The range is even greater — more incisive and metallic in many places — on “Touched with Fire,” a crying, groaning, sizzling piece rooted in Christopher Hoffman’s cello and the drums of the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s Brian Chase, which sound like electrified wooden boxes feeding back. Again, Cymerman never overburdens things — when there’s a mournful cello double-stopping passage, he leaves it alone except for a deep guttural undercurrent. He’s also deft at framing transitions, as when a huge wave of sound peaks just as the duo is preparing to enter a gentle, spare, lyrical period (which he accompanies with what sounds like water instruments doubling the cello).
The lengthy, concluding “Burned Across the Sky” (the earliest piece here) uses many of the same sources (Wooley, Blancarte, Hoffman, Cymerman himself on avian clarinet) to stunningly different effect, supplemented by Sam Kulik’s trombone and Harris Eisenstadt’s percussion. It opens with a lengthy passage for excoriating, uncontrolled trumpet set against a stately, elegiac strings/brass chord and rides out in a gorgeous canon, like the neoclassicism of Gavin Bryars via plunderphonic composer John Wall.