Album Review: PRISM Quartet, Animal, Vegetable, Mineral

AVM Frontcover

Bold chords blare underneath agitated glissandos that jump and fall in organized chaos. “Jackass,” the first movement of Steven Mackey’s “Animal, Vegetable, Mineral,” erupts from PRISM Quartet — a saxophone chamber ensemble — with fervor. Mackey, a Grammy award-winning composer and electric guitarist, originally wrote the piece in 2004, but the Quartet’s recording here provides a crisp, fresh perspective with their brash performance. 

“Animal, Vegetable, Mineral” is a three-movement work that takes its inspiration from the daring nature of skiing. It’s also the titular piece of PRISM Quartet’s December 2019 album. Where “Jackass” was an unruly descent, “Bagpipe,” the second movement, mixes the nasal sound of bagpipe ditties with drones that wander through dissonance. The third movement, “Machine,” is a syncopated jaunt, finding an energetic groove in off-kilter layers and leaping pitches.

PRISM Quartet — Timothy McAllister, Taimur Sullivan, Matthew Levy, and Zachary Shemon — was founded at the University of Michigan in 1984. Since then, it’s been a leader in the presentation and commissioning of new works, furthering its goal to present an expansive variety of new pieces and composers. Like much of the group’s work, Animal, Vegetable, Mineral, released on the ensemble’s label XAS Records, is made up of a variety of sonic environments, from bold exuberance to quiet rumination. Recorded between 2014 and 2018 and released in December 2019, the album showcases an eclectic mix of some of today’s leading voices in composition.

Emma O’Halloran’s “Night Music” flutters between anticipation and anxiety. O’Halloran, one of the inaugural winners of National Sawdust’s Hildegard Competition, is an Irish composer whose work is unabashed, often melding ideas from pop with those of contemporary classical music. Written in 2014, “Night Music” is inspired by a trip to Miami, where she felt a simultaneous stimulation and exhaustion. Alternating between exultant forte and introspective piano, the piece blends catchy, repeating melodies with stark pensiveness. PRISM Quartet’s delicate shifts between the sections captivate and enhance the music’s intricacy.

Where “Night Music” was a mix of excitement and introspection, its follow-up, Kristin Kuster’s “Red Pine,” is fully contemplative. A slow ballad, the reflective piece flows between robust pulses and gentle trills, wading through rich tones and muted dynamics. Kuster, a composer and chair of the composition department at the University of Michigan, frequently finds inspiration in the natural world, and here, she writes about the pine forests of Ontario with slow-moving, textural chord changes. Anna Weesner’s “Vamp” is also marked by a sense of thoughtfulness, but instead begins with lively whimsy. Weesner, a 2009 Guggenheim Fellow, writes with delicacy here, creating a song-like piece that celebrates the softer side of the saxophone. The peppy opening swiftly changes into a more improvisatory-feeling ode as saxophones interact in a timeless call-and-response. Both Kuster and Weesner’s pieces exemplify a gentler sound, providing Animal, Vegetable, Mineral with welcoming variety.

The album ends with Pulitzer prize-winning composer Julia Wolfe’s Cha, an unrestrained ode to the cha-cha. Written with the memory of dancing with her father in mind, Cha begins with an erratic pulse that speeds up until it unleashes into a full-blown dance. Saxophones each play their own bouncy melody, interlocking in a foot-tapping beat. While exhilaration is a main component of the record, what makes the collection most interesting is its journey through a broad range of sonic territories — not only showcasing the expected loudness of the saxophone, but delving into its many intricacies.

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