Robert Honstein has always found hidden pathos in clean, well-lighted places.
In Honstein’s music, as in much of 21st-century life, those “places” are often virtual: an online dating site, an inbox full of missed connections and mistaken identities, even the internal communication channels between computers themselves. His pieces have titles like Alone Together, Talking In Circles, Why are you not answering?—prosaic language stripped of context, hinting at unseen depths of alienation.
But isolation can also be an end in itself, spareness an aesthetic impetus. This is the territory of An Economy of Means: a piece for solo vibraphone, an album, but also perhaps a kind of mission statement. Inspiration through limitation (self-imposed and otherwise) is the subject at hand. There are practical considerations to this: it’s easier to haul your vibraphone to a gig than an armada of timpani. But even more so, these two works fit into a long tradition of grand compositional statements built from humble musical materials, stretching from Bach’s epigrammatic fugue subjects to Stravinsky’s stylized banalities and on through Philip Glass’s methodical, cyclic forms. These pieces wear their ambition lightly, as if to say: more economical means to greater ends.
Writing music for a single performer is another form of limitation. No matter how many characters the soloist strives to embody, everything remains, in a sense, monologue. This can be turned to an advantage, though, and a major topic of An Economy of Means is the inherent drama of a lone performer tackling a large-scale work. Prolonged encounters between soloist and instrument tempt us to imagine a first-person narrative, even autobiography, the performer sitting in for the composer. It’s also a matter of sheer physical endurance. If virtuosity is the art of making the difficult appear easy, then a form of empathy rises from watching a performer really sweat (In Liszt’s Années de Pèlerinage, for instance, the epitome of the Romantic travelogue, the pianist must dispatch feats of strength and simultaneously embody the sensitive Byronic hero. Similarly, a pianist must maintain an Olympic grace to navigate the leaps and dives of Strada Nuova.) This struggle can be hard to convey on a recording, of course—but it’s not an accident that one of the more athletic movements here is titled Cross Fit.
That quality of emphatic alone-ness also contributes to the first-person, diaristic feeling of Honstein’s forms. Grand Tour is not a piece about sightseeing but rather about a specific traveler’s experience of travel—music written from a point-of-view, about a point-of-view. Many movements explore only a single musical gesture. Others progress in a gradual, exploratory fashion, introducing new sounds and ideas with extraordinary care. But despite this methodical approach, the music remains surprising and unexpected. One reason for this is that one is never quite sure at the outset of a movement just how far Honstein will take an idea. Some remain intimate and observational (Passeggiata); others unfurl extended essays leading to dramatic conclusions (Fast Notes, Long Tones).
Much of the music is initiated from small focus points of activity: the suspended isorhythmic bookends of Grand Tour, the shimmering, shifting white-key patterns opening An Economy. But in keeping with the scale of the two pieces, these fixed points are often pushed to extremes. Interestingly, the way Honstein develops his materials here does not take the form of Baroque fortspinnung or 19th-century developing variation, but something more linear, organic, almost stream-of-consciousness. Though these forms sometimes sound like the product of “process music” (a technique by which a composer predetermines the course of a piece by subjecting the music to transformational rules), Honstein writes that there are no large-scale processes at work here. The dramatic cruxes of the album confirm this: no calculated process could lead the placid swells of Broken Chords to such breathtakingly chromatic territory in just a few minutes, or govern the wayward harmonies of Per. It is more the affect of process that one hears, the sound of a human mind turning something over and over, traceable but in the end illogical.
That’s not to say the album is a closed system, free from outward intrusions. Grand Tour, especially, is highly referential; in fact, the music is literally set in motion by images and experiences of Venice, a city long associated with exotic “otherness” and, as such, a destination for generations of young northern-European aristocrats. Each movement of Grand Tour gives a sense of a limited worldview being disrupted and altered by a foreign element. Aimless footfalls become a breakneck dash through swarms of tourists; outrageous Baroque ornamentation, Neoclassical purity, and modernity corrupt and swallow each other; enormous cruise ships, vulgar yet beautiful, advance and recede inexorably; a ruminative evening on the lagoons turns dramatic; finally, night falls, and we retrace these wandering steps, exhausted. In the end, the grandiosity of this tour is revealed to be a bit of irony, a folly; the city is as unknowable as ever, the piece only a series of private, disconnected impressions by a single traveler.
If Grand Tour is a catalogue of experiences, then An Economy of Means is a compendium of a different sort. “Percussion” is, of course, not an instrument, but a huge category of miscellaneous instruments that fit into no other section of the orchestra. In this sense, composers can be forced into limitations the minute they decide to write percussion music. Setups containing multiple instruments can create either coloristic contrast or a single ur-instrument; here, Honstein stretches the boundaries of just a single instrument (and the technical capabilities of its player), augmented by a large battery of mallets and strategically-placed props. The result is a vibraphone piece that doesn’t always sound like vibraphone. The six movements of An Economy reveal secret voices hidden within a familiar instrument, combining and overlapping them like the manuals of an organ. It turns out to be a piece with multiple “setups” after all; they’re just contained within the purview of a single instrument—admirable economy, indeed.