the ink around it
BY HALEY FREEDLUND
While the ink around it may be Neil Welch’s latest recorded offering it is the result of several years of composition, reworking, and varied live performances prior to its new digital availability. The two long-form compositions from this established avant-gardist stand out amongst his existing catalog: Puhpowee, a piece for solo saxophone, and Concepción Picciotto, for ten musicians and a conductor. Though these two works differ from each other in many ways musically, they are united in their exploration of the vibrant, lush abundance of the natural world, and the human interference that threatens it.
Puhpowee is a word from the Potawatomi Algonquin language, and translates as “the force which causes mushrooms to push up from the earth overnight.” Using a variety of extended techniques for the tenor saxophone, Welch offers us a sonic portrait of the vast and thready mycelium networks underneath our feet, the mushroom fruit that burst forth from soil and decay, and the confluence of nature upon them; their biome of flora and fauna, the animals around them, and the beasts above them. Welch, who is revered by many for his work combining saxophone and live electronics, takes an appropriately acoustic approach to this work. Utilizing split tone multiphonics, vocal multiphonics, the natural reverb of the room in which it was recorded, and careful pacing and phrasing, Welch and his instrument come alive and become cohesive and ethereal, much like the delicate hyphae threads below.
Concepción Picciotto, perhaps Welch’s most elaborate undertaking as a composer, is dedicated to the peace activist of the same name, who originated from Spain and occupied a peace camp on the street in front of the White House from 1981 until her death in 2016. She held what is thought to be the longest continuous protest in world history, working to raise awareness of endless U.S. driven wars, with a particular focus on nuclear disarmament. Concepción Picciotto explores the activist’s vocal persistence and consideration of the natural world through 26 minutes of music scored for saxophone section, string quartet, rhythm section, and mezzo soprano vocalist. Some elements within the composition are quite literal to Concepción’s subject matter, such as the bird calls played throughout by violinist Janna Webbon. Others are more subtle. The muffled vocalizations of Danielle Reutter-Harrah, for example, feel symbolic of the experience of protest in the face of vast political power—how one might struggle to feel received when at it again and again. A moment of vocal song, performed by the entire ensemble mid-piece and led by Reutter-Harrah, is made all the more powerful through this symbolism by uniting together. Welch utilizes the instrumentation into sub-ensembles, easily flowing from one genre influence to the next. You will hear elements of modern classical music transition into moments of heavy jazz and wonder how you arrived there unjarred.