Mikel Kuehn takes listeners on walk through his musical landscape on new CD

Mikel Kuehn in his studio at BGSU.

 

By DAVID DUPONT

BG Independent News

Mikel Kuehn likes to take hikes.

Oak Openings is a favorite location. He favors the wilder, natural environment to a more manicured landscape – “the messiness of nature… the entanglement of vines.”

“To me, it’s really beautiful,” the composer said. That carries through in his compositions.

They have a deceptive tangle of sounds, lines that stretch into the musical undergrowth reaching up, seeking light. As in nature, what may seem a disorder of trees, vines, leaves and their shadows, has an underlying order.

In his compositions, Kuehn said, he wants listeners to go on a walk with him and appreciate the unruly beauty of nature.

Kuehn, now on the cusp of turning 50, has just released his first CD devoted to his compositions. “Object Shadow” was released by New Focus Recordings in October.

The recording features seven compositions, most written between 2004 and 2014. The outlier is the composition that closes the recording, “Between the Lynes,” which dates to 1994. This is the earliest piece in which he explores the textures and techniques evident in the later work. “It’s one of the first I’m happy with,” he said.

“The pieces are all virtuosic,” Kuehn, who has taught at Bowling Green State University since 1998, said.  The performers are “all perfect.”

The CD opening and closes with performances by Ensemble Dal Niente, a Chicago-based new music group.

The opening “Undercurrents” features the entire 14-piece ensemble. The title piece, albeit in French not English, “Objet/Ombre,” features a 12-saxophone ensemble from BGSU with electronics that shadow their sounds. Another leading new music group Flexible Music appears on “Color Fields.” Three solo pieces for cello and electronics, guitar and marimba round out the program.

Kuehn said he was able to record the CD thanks to a Guggenheim Foundation grant and an award from the Ohio Arts Council. Without that money, he said, “I never would have been able to do it.”

Recording a piece for as many musicians as “Undercurrents” is especially costly, he said.

“Undercurrents” was recorded by Dan Nichols in Chicago using 40 microphones. That provided a striking level of detail. When Kuehn traveled to Mount Vernon, just outside New York City, to work with engineer Ryan Streber, he had an array of sonic options.

He and Streber, himself a Juilliard-educated composer, worked to realize the truest image of the piece. The mixing amounted to another step in the composition process.

Streber was also give the CD as a whole a consistent sonic signature, though it was recorded in several different studios, including by Mark Bunce at BGSU. He was also careful about the order the pieces were presented, just as an artist would be about arranging a show.

This, though, Kuehn realizes “people don’t listen in the same way,” seldom taking the time to sit down and audition a recording all the way through.

Having it on CD also provides a level of audio quality, higher than an mp3 file.

The mixing process itself, where Kuehn listened to his compositions “over and over and over” was educational in itself. That the music held up for him after repeated listening reassured Kuehn that he was on the right track.

Listening again to the pieces, he said, he recalled what he was going through at the time, “not just musically.”

His first efforts at composing were when he was a child and he scribbled out music inspired by his favorite television show, “The Six Million Dollar Man.”

He showed his efforts to his father who suggested he add some bar lines. He did and even sent it off to the show.

He had started studying piano at about age 5, and later studied percussion. He’s grounded in both in the classical tradition and in the jazz tradition. He worked as a jazz pianist throughout his college years.

His preferences in jazz reflect the direction his composition has gone to. He was a devotee of the intricacies of bebop and its later variants.

“Color Fields” for the four-piece Flexible Music ensemble best reflects that jazz background. The colors vibraphone, piano, guitar and saxophone could be from a cool jazz session of the 1950s. The lines sound like the furthest harmonic extensions of a bop line. The piano in spots uses what seem to be jazz voicings. But the similarities are fleeting.

When composing, he said, he’s aware of working within a traditions he grew up. “I’m summing up things through my own filter.”

Kuehn wants to create a sonic atmosphere where listeners can experience the music in the same way they experience “the subtleties we find in nature.”

“Object Shadow” is available through the usual online vendors.

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