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Composition Reviews

Nathan Davis writes music that deals deftly and poetically with timbre and sonority.... Mr. Davis’s “de clocher à clocher” (“from steeple to steeple”), a phrase from Rimbaud, teemed with bell tones. Mr. Davis’s refined ear was instantly evident in the work’s chaste opening bars: soft glockenspiel tones ringing over gingerly scraped crotales (antique cymbals); gentle chords played at a piano’s high end; and lower piano strings bowed with a thin filament, with screws jangling among them.  Metal pipes rapped with soft mallets rang like church bells and pinged like flagpoles; microphones waved to and fro made the sounds wobble and pulse. Gongs — two hidden offstage and two suspended from the ceiling — murmured and roared, saturating the resonant room. Mr. Davis shepherded balances from a console behind the audience.

- Steve Smith, The New York Times

LENOX — Midway through the world premiere of Nathan Davis’s macrocosmic masterpiece, “The Sand Reckoner,” the word “myriad” melted in the air of Seiji Ozawa Hall, layering and tessellating in six voices on a text by Archimedes. It seemed to shake off its semantic meaning, dissolve into pure sound, and re-assemble itself into its form. Myriad were the styles, myriad were the sounds, and myriad were the discoveries at Tanglewood’s Festival of Contemporary Music kickoff concert. “The Sand Reckoner” was the greatest of these discoveries. The texts married math and poetry across the centuries, with selections from a Middle English Bible and William Blake (the latter sung by the balmy-voiced mezzo-soprano Katherine Beck) interspersed between busy passages of Archimedes. The six singers were uniformly excellent, and gritty electronics lashed against a delicate celeste played by one of the festival’s curators, International Contemporary Ensemble’s Jacob Greenberg. Here was music of spheres, both as tiny as a grain of sand and as large as a world.
- Zoë Madonna, The Boston Globe

To commence the [Lincoln Center Tully Scope] festival Mr. Davis wrote a contemplative piece scored for winds and percussion, especially bells and chimes, but also for audience members with cellphones. The ICE musicians played from various positions in the lobby, including the high platform that juts out from the balcony upstairs. All members of the audience (and the place was packed) were given instructions at the door to dial a number on their cellphones and enter different codes to call up different sounds.  The written-out parts of the piece provided a calming aural backdrop of chimes, slowly rising melodic lines in flutes and clarinets, penetrating low rumbles on the gongs, metallic flickers on small cymbals. From the collective cellphones came a wash of vibrating tones, Morse-code-like ticks, intoned spoken numbers, patches of crackling static, cosmic shimmers and more. For an extended passage all the instruments dropped out and only cellphones were heard, including those wielded by the musicians, who wandered about the space... all a part of an alluring and pensive musical experience.
- Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times

[on The Other Mozart] Superb sound design featuring some of her brother’s music, as well as hauntingly beautiful incidental compositions by Nathan Davis and Phyllis Chen
- Philip Brandes, The Los Angeles Times

Nathan Davis gained citywide fame when his ear-bending piece Bells for winds, mobile chimes and cell phones opened Lincoln Center's Tullyscope Festival in February.
On the Nature of Thingness draws on texts by writers Zbigniew Herbert, Hugo Ball, Arthur Rimbaud and Italo Calvino to explore objects and the act of creation. The diverse literary sources bring wildly eclectic musical responses. The choicest setting has the singer declaiming Dadaesque nonsense accompanied by a chorus of twanging jaw harps, to wonderfully whimsical effect. Also arresting is the third section, in which lines from a Rimbaud poem are sung on one pitchover softly pattering guitar and metallic percussion.
- John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune

Bells, a thirty-minute interactive ambient piece by ICE percussionist and composer Nathan Davis, opened the evening and formed a compelling three-dimensional sonic mobile.  

[On the Nature of Thingness] included a hodgepodge of texts related to “thingness,” i.e., poetic and aesthetic attempts to explain metaphysical reality or non-reality, as the case may be, while exploiting the overtone possibilities of ordinary sounds.  The work is memorable not only for the thought it provokes, but for its sheer exploration of sonority. The opening movement, starting as it does at A440, begins almost as an expansive tuning session with the voice gradually darting in and out of the natural harmonics of the instruments.  One of the middle movements even features a romp of swinging jaw harps while the finale explores upper guitar tuning meets upper string harmonics with the human voice as the go between.
- Dennis Polkow, The Classical Review

Nathan Davis’s Skrzyp Skrzyn [performed by the Calder Quartet] evoked childhood violin lessons with a fantastical litany of squeaks and squeals, followed by a warm, wooly thicket of resonating overtones.
- Steve Smith, The New York Times

Another favorite of mine was Nathan Davis’ Bright and Hollow Sky. Davis, who has worked closely with I.C.E., presents both jarring and tense soundscapes that evolve slowly over the course of the piece. One note would sound clearly in the flute, and then you’d realize that it’s intentionally out of tune, before the trumpet joins in on the “correct” note, and the clarinet spouts a multiphonic with the same pitch. The gradually growing structure reminded me of a glacier, slowly moving and, in many ways, causing fear, yet leaving rejuvenation in its wake.

The highlight had to be the two scores that concluded the marathon, and thus the [Ojai] festival: Nathan Davis's "Sounder," receiving its premiere, and Louis Andriessen's "Workers Union." "Sounder" made use of an installation by the MacArthur "genius" grant-winning Trimpin in which drum heads, cymbals and a toy piano hanging within one of the Libbey Bowl's shading sycamores were remotely controlled from the stage.
- David Mermelstein, The Wall Street Journal

Review: Music in Time concert sparkles with Nathan Davis compositions - [Nathan Davis'] music is gentle and colorful, sensitive to timbre and space and strangely ambient, even when it gets in your face. I guess one could call it spectral minimalism, what with the sparse gestures, looped repetitive phrases, Arvo Part-like bell echoes and overtone harmonic textures. But that wouldn’t do it justice, as the composer has found a way to sound like himself. Inspired by various phenomena and diverse in sound sources, his music offers an observant and intelligent commentary yet sounds fresh and comfortable.  The composer is at ease using new media, and the way electronically generated sounds mingled with acoustic ones was organic and seamless.

- Yiorgos Vassilandonakis, Charleston Post and Courier

"Hagoromo" reviews

"seamlessly integrated the worlds of experimental music, dance, theatre, opera, puppetry and fashion into a rich, sober whole."

- Financial Times

"visually arresting, musically adventurous, dramatically taut, and choreographically appealing”

- Today's Zaman

"The musicians of ICE brought a particularly thrilling brio to Davis’s score"

- Feast of Music

"Hagoromo is magic…stunningly beautiful. The score is lyrically evocative"

- NY Classical Review

"For Nathan Davis…one of the outstanding composers of his generation…it was a new departure, a new adventure in creating not only atmosphere, mood, and a musical vehicle for the narrating and responding voices, but a sense of location both in a heavenly world and the earthly maritime world of the fishermen. In this Davis’ command of sonority and color powerfully conjured these realities, making them plastic through the sounds of the instruments and electronics."

- New York Arts

"The Bright and Hollow Sky" CD reviews

The Best Classical Albums of 2011: Nathan Davis, The Bright and Hollow Sky (New Focus) - Long a tremendous asset to the International Contemporary Ensemble as both a brilliant percussionist and a resourceful composer, Nathan Davis finally documented five of his sonically beguiling works, with predictably rich results.

 - Steve Smith, TimeOut NY

This disc…is one of the most creative, unique and challenging discs of the year. Each of the five pieces here were written for different instrumentation from solos for alto flute, toy piano & bass clarinet to a quartet & quintet pieces. "Like Sweet Bells Jangled" is for clarinet, piccolo, flute & percussion. The piece is sparse and mysterious with layers of carefully crafted drones. A selective amount of ring modulation was used to alter the instruments delicately. An eerie resonance has been added to the minimal percussion sounds making everything shimmer or hum cautiously, the effect is quite hypnotic. "pneApnea" is performed on solo flute by Claire Chase with live processing. Ms. Chase is a virtuosic flutist who is able to breathe life and add layers of nuance to the pieces she performs. This piece pushes her to use breathlike reverberations, bend notes and layer various parts simultaneously due to the use of processing. I am reminded of different ghost-spirits dancing around one another in a fascinating haze of patterns. "Dowser" is for solo bass clarinet with delay and the alteration adds a floating layer of echoes to the warm yet dry tone of that distinctive reed. "The Mechanics of Escapement" is for toy piano and is playful yet slightly twisted and it gets better as the tempo and ringing increases, similar to a clock spinning out of control. The title track is last and is performed by a quintet of members of ICE for flutes, clarinets, trumpets, guitar and percussion with more ring modulation utilized. I dig the way this piece builds with different bent drones sailing around one another over what becomes a hypnotic groove. Composer Lois V. Vierk does something similar with her work yet here the results are less predictable as certain instruments lay out and space is used in unexpected ways. There is compelling air of mystery the links all these pieces here together. With a little time and reflection, the mystery will be revealed."

- Bruce Lee Gallanter, Downtown Music Gallery

I think my favorite new ICE-related release, however, is The Bright and Hollow Sky (New Focus), a collection of pieces composed by Nathan Davis, the group's main percussionist—he's also one of the featured composers on Saturday's MCA program. Davis himself appears on only one of the five pieces, the opening "Like Sweet Bells Jangled," in which mournful, harmonically sour lines played by flutists Eric Lamb and Claire Chase and clarinetist Joshua Rubin are surrounded and at times replaced by constant resonant tintinnabulation—that is, metal percussion instruments being struck, bowed, and processed by ring modulation. There's also the stunning "pneApnea," a virtuoso showcase for Chase (it previously turned up on her New Focus album Aliento), and "The Mechanics of Escapement," a piece commissioned by the Concert Artist Guild and performed by toy-piano virtuoso Phyllis Chen.

- Peter Margasak, Chicago Reader

"Some eerie blending of acoustical and electronic sounds makes for interesting listening." Nathan Davis is a New York based composer and percussionist with a clear understanding of the blend between acoustical and electronic sounds sources and with some fascinating results. This disc illustrates the meditative, introspective quality of Davis’ work and showcases his ability to treat traditional sounds in very unusual ways quite well!

- Daniel Coombs, Audiophile Audition (click for full review)

Performance reviews:

The world premiere of The Tempest, composed by the inimitable John Zorn…was performed with more than your average degree of gusto by ICE members Claire Chase on flute, Joshua Rubin on clarinet, and Nathan Davis on drums. The feel of the piece transitioned flawlessly back and forth between something like high energy experimental free jazz and quiet, reflective atonal counterpoint, and most everything in between. Chase and Rubin played off of each other as if they were improvising, supported by some of the gnarliest sounding drum kit writing I’ve ever had the pleasure to witness, executed in all its spastic glory by Davis. I’m not sure that there are any other three performers in the world who could have given this piece such a convincing performance, but I hope that it will stay in the repertoire long enough for me to be proven wrong.

- Marina Kifferstein, I care if you listen

The array of gold and red percussion instruments surrounding Nathan Davis, the unflappable ICE percussionist, glowed like a piece of metallic art against the stage’s black backdrop.  In the individual sections of [Kaija Saariaho's] Six Japanese Gardens, Davis moved coolly amid his instruments, creating vast, timeless soundscapes. At times the air seemed smoky, filled with the muted roar of a large gong or an indistinct wash of electronic noise. At other times a single sound—the mighty clang of ferociously hit finger cymbals or the quick clatter of mallet against wood block—emerged like a sudden beam of light.

- Wynne Delacoma, Chicago Classical Review

...Nathan Davis improvised on notated parts to create a work of disciplined wildness that will never be heard in exactly the same way again.

- Alex Ross, The New Yorker

The stage [for Henze's opera El Cimarron] is sparse only if you don’t count the innumerable percussion instruments on which this piece relies.  International Contemporary Ensemble percussionist Nathan Davis handles the herculean feat of this work with grace and precise intensity, driving the piece along with everything from marimba, to gongs, to Caribbean steel drums.

- Valmont, Parterre Box

Surely no event [in Make Music New York] balanced the avant-garde and the bucolic quite so deftly as the performance of Iannis Xenakis’s 1969 percussion sextet Persephassa, which took place on—literally on, not next to—Central Park Lake. Audience members in a flotilla of rowboats drifted around, quietly jostling for shade and waiting patiently while jerry-built rafts, each bearing an arsenal of drums, bells, gongs, and noisemakers, were piloted into position. Other drummers were arrayed on the shore, giving the placid boating party a slightly comical echo of Heart of Darkness. The performers consulted with each other by cell phone and determined it was time to begin. Suddenly, rhythms ricocheted around the floating audience. The performers laid down a pulse and instantly undercut it; they diced beats into fine degrees of syncopation, and worked together as if they were close enough to see each other blink.

- Justin Davidson, New York Magazine

Longer reviews and profiles:

Musical America New Artist of the Month profile by Pierre Ruhe,
          September 1, 2011

NYTimes review of ICE composition portrait of Nathan at Le Poisson Rouge,
          June 1, 2011

NYTimes review of Bells, February 23, 2011

New York Arts review of Bells, February 23, 2011

Lucid Culture review of Bells, February 23, 2011

Classical Review on ICE at MCA, June 4, 2011

Atlanta Arts review of solo percussion + electronics concert, October 10, 2010

Using everyday objects for music on command, a blog post by Zoe Allesandra De Luca-Parker, 13-year old daughter of Adam Parker of the Charleston Post and Courier, June 3, 2013

Radio shows and interviews:

WMUK interview, March 27, 2013

Contempora podcast interview, April 1, 2013

NPR's The Story - Claire Chase discusses her repertoire, including pneApnea (which she commissioned from Nathan), November 16, 2012

Blog posts:

Nathan muses on writing for the bassoon and on the nature of thingness on digitICE.

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