The up – and down – side for a contemporary ensemble of unusual instrumentation is that they get to craft their own repertoire. San Francisco’s Splinter Reeds echoes the traditional wind quintet but eschews the non-reed instruments, replacing the flute and French horn with bass clarinet and saxophone, and craft a sound and book that’s all their own. The ensemble made its second ever New York City appearance at the Dimenna Center for Classical Music as part of the Earle Brown Foundation’s Time:Spans Festival.  

Splinter Reeds in rehearsal
© Thomas Fichter

Michael Gordon’s Tall Grass, opening the evening, was fresh enough that it was only given its title the morning of the performance. It began in fast, repeating arpeggios with an undercurrent of extended tones that progressed into quick, counterpoint trills. A nice, peaty bass clarinet and bassoon duet changed the course to slow, layered lines. It felt as if it might resolve in two contrasting sections, but the contrasts kept coming. Passage after passage landed between the two planes, any one of which would have warranted extrapolation, but on it went, with tight counts, shifting tempi and riveting themes stacked atop one another like pallets at a sod farm. 

At close to 30 minutes, Tall Grass was the longest work of the evening, the other three coming in at about a quartet hour each. Sam Pluta’s Atens, the other premiere on the program, felt beautifully microscopic. The constant in Pluta’s work is the use of electronics, which he generally deploys himself. Here, his chirps and hums, and the green light bouncing off the slat wood wall behind the musicians, suggested tall grass at least as much as did Gordon’s piece. Slowly, three of the players made their way into the audience, generally a tired bit of showmanship but the popping reeds echoed the clicks in the electronic giving a rich, new dimension to the slow pulse. 

Sky Macklay’s Choppy, a 2017 commission by the ensemble, hit with an immediate wall of reeds and shrill flutters supplemented by reeds blown into cups of water. It drew quiet laughs but was sonically effective and elusively demanding. Fast lines which could have been a mirror image of Tall Grass alternated with abrupt blasts on strict counts, demanding a precise, shared internal clock. Yannis Kyriakides’s Hypothetical Islands (also an earlier Splinter piece) brought us into the macro with an aerial view of what was meant to suggest an archipelago journey. Familiarity with Kyriakides’ work, or even assumptions based on his name, would suggest Grecian islands, but the sense of place wasn’t so strong as in his neo-rebetika. This was more abstract, perhaps an overnight passage with wind supplied through the sound system. It wasn’t actually as literal as that, but the music, the title and the soft blue lights did invite the mind to wander in a lovely tranquility.

Perhaps it was the tonal palette, perhaps it was the program curation, but there was a sameness running through the set, which could be heard as a narrow program or received as if it were a suite to celebrate the heatwave having passed (at least in the States). And even so, it was a sameness that didn’t sound quite like anything else.