Review: Homologic by Robert McClure

Robert McClure’s Homologic for bass flute, clarinet and computer is a remarkable, stunningly colorful work.  It opens with lyrical exchanges between the instruments and contrasting, yet fitting, timbral responses by the computer that mirror the harmonic language deployed by the instruments.  McClure says of the work:

homology – (n.) In biology, the existence of shared ancestry between a pair of structures, or genes, in different species. Evolutionary theory explains the existence of homologous structures adapted to different purposes as the result of descent with modification from a common ancestor.

“Therefore I should infer from analogy that probably all the organic beings which have ever lived on this earth have descended from some one primordial form, into which life was first breathed.” – Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species (1859).

Homologic explores the musical applications of the above statements. The two instrumental parts display melodic structures originated from the same source materials and have gone through a process of musical evolution using invented scales. While an analysis of the source material and the melodic material in Homologic will not show intervallic similarities, it will uncover the same scalar structures. This type of musical evolution has been described by Matthew Santa as MODTRANS. The computer highlights these scalar structures (either chromatically or microtonally) with delay gestures built on different versions of exponential and parabolic curves and also provides textural accompaniment.

The source material includes two pieces for Chinese flute or dizi (dee-zih) that originate from the Suzhou region of China.

The Chinese source material fits the instrumentation like the proverbial glove.  McClure takes his time to develop his material in the beginning.  I know McClure to be an aficionado of Crumb, and the influence is evident here.  There is always motion, but never the nervous teleological imperative to “get somewhere— get somewhere, dammit” that plagues many compositions.

MODTRANS, or modular transformation, means the mapping of one musical shape onto different harmonic systems— what does that shape sound like on an octatonic scale?  What does it sound like on a chromatic scale?  On a major or minor scale?  McClure explores different harmonic areas fully, and shows a dramaturgical sensibility in his timing as to precisely when to shift to another landscape for new exploration.

Clara Novakova, bass flute and Xiaoting Ma, clarinet have a terrific synergy with one another.  They truly behave as though they are parts of one large complex instrument vis-a-vis the computer.  And what a treat it is to hear the sonorous bass flute, so rarely used, as an integral part of this strange, alluring meta-instrument McClure has built.

This piece is about growth, subtlety and nuance.  The ten minutes it occupies pass by very quickly, and one realizes only in retrospect the timelessness that the piece conjures.  One comes away hoping that further explorations by McClure for similar ensembles will quickly ensue.

-Robert Gross

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