Why is it that so many composers are reticent to write for the bassoon? The misconception that it is clumsy, slow, liable to play out of tune? The temperamental reeds? The fact that Schoenberg omitted it from Pierrot?
Whatever the case, bassoonists everywhere can thank their lucky stars for Dana Jessen, an enterprising bassoonist who took matters into her own hands, beginning a bassoon-crowd-sourced commissioning project for major works for bassoon ensemble. The first commission went to Bang On A Can co-founder Michael Gordon, and the result, Rushes, defies expectations.
Composing a 50-minute bassoon septet is a daunting task, but Mr. Gordon is up to the challenge. He defines the piece as a "continuous listening experience," and it really wouldn't make sense any other way. Taking the first twenty minutes to introduce his listeners to the bassoon with a long descent from the highest register to the lowest, Mr. Gordon uses a grid of thousands of rapid-fire repeated notes to establish a unique sound world. He wisely stretches the note-values as he reaches the lowest, gurgling notes of the bassoon - this is a fiendishly difficult technique.
Mr. Gordon makes his task more approachable by limiting his palate - he eschews many bassoon techniques that are very fetching - multiphonics, long sustained lines, and clown-like staccatos are all absent. Indeed, he even restricts himself to a single diatonic scale for the first twenty-six minutes of the piece. The effect is tantalizing and beguiling, always drawing the ear to the next event.
When Mr. Gordon does introduce new pitches, the music ratchets up a level, and most of the dramatic tension occurs in the third and final section. The real treat comes at the very end, when (spoiler alert) the values are finally stretched to new lengths and the music glows in a coda worthy of Stravinsky, the bassoon's greatest champion.
The playing throughout is egregiously exemplary. These bassoonists make absolute light of the formidable challenges of technique, ensemble, and pitch that this music presents. They somehow achieve a luminous, unified glow that would not be possible with lesser forces or lesser players.
Really, though, the playing is almost offensive. By making the difficult seem so within reach, the Rushes Ensemble sets a crazy-high standard for bassoon ensemble, and encourages composers to go for broke when writing for the bassoon. Actually, that's probably a good thing.
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