Prediction: The visionary new music, system-testing percussion, and virtual rainbow of colors that distinguish Dust to Dawn, the latest hybrid SACD in Reference Recordings’ Fresh! series, guarantee that it will become a hit among music-loving audiophiles who dare play tracks beyond 3 minutes in length. The inventive genius that courses through the recording’s three compositionsControl (Five Landscapes for Orchestra) by Nico Muhly, 34; Switch by Andrew Norman, 37; and Eos (Goddess of the Dawn), a ballet for orchestra by Augusta Read Thomas, 52is, in and of itself, enrapturing, formidable, and breathtaking. But when combined with the spectacular coloristic and percussive effects captured by the Soundmirror engineering team, you have a recording virtually certain to earn Dust to Dawn at least one Grammy nomination and countless airings at audio demos.
The Utah Symphony, under the direction of Thierry Fischer, commissioned the music in honor of its 75th birthday. The most spectacular piece of the lot, Norman’s single-movement, 28-minute Switch, showcases the phenomenal percussionist, Colin Currie, as well as the orchestra’s percussion ensemble.
Switch‘s off and running battery of constant surprises initially comes across as a wigged out variant of Loony Tunes Meets Keystone Cops. The music is so out of the box that Currie told the composer during rehearsals that playing Switch “feels like being trapped (in the best possible way) inside a giant pinball machine.” Certainly your head may feel like a pinball as Norman’s percussive thwacks, gongs, crashes, pounds, and God knows what else go careening back and forth between your speakers and all over your listening environment.
Norman conceived one section of Switch as an experience where “slapstick acts as a kind of cosmic channel changer, ripping everyone from where they are and placing them down in an entirely different sonic world.” It’s certainly a wild carnival ride, whose climax could very well leave you gasping for breath. But lest you infer from this description that Switch is all surface effects, rest assured that it is far more. Which is not to say that you’re going to find rest through most it. But beyond the surprises and assaults, Norman’s music includes some unexpected mystical transitions that ultimately transcend the game playing as they lead you into a truly magical world where wonder is the norm. Switch is an astounding experience.
Muhly’s tour of Utah’s wondrous landscapes may be less purely visceral, but it, too, abounds with mystery. Starting out with thrilling low trombone and percussion, it builds, and then shimmers with mesmerizing waves of color and harmony. While Muhly has no fear of letting it all hang out, especially when a storm of red dust builds, he’s equally content with moving inward, observing, and gazing with wide-eyed stillness. There is much brilliance here.
Grammy-winning Read Thomas, whose Eos celebrates the Goddesses and nymphs of Greek mythology (with a few Gods thrown in for good measure), is far more content to let the yin side of her personality emerge as her creation dances through your listening room. The opening of the ballet is luminous, the sounds of darting rain wonderfully effective, and the kinetic effects most gratifying. If Eos ultimately seems a bit lightweight in the company of Control and Switch, it will surely find a home in the hearts of listeners who prefer to dream without being awakened with a bang (or, in Norman’s case, thousands of bangs). It certainly gives you some time to ground before Muhly and Norman take you on wild and colorful journeys you will not soon forget.