In the early '80s, a small independent label from Los Angeles called Cold Blue Music issued a series of seven 10" vinyl EPs by a group of iconoclastic composers -- Peter Garland, Michael Jon Fink, Barney Childs, Read Miller, Chas Smith, Rick Cox, and Daniel Lentz -- all centered in southern California. The revamped label has reissued the entire series of seven original EPs in a handsome three-CD box set. Compiled, they provide a quietly stunning look back at how a particular aesthetic was formed in southern California, and how that aesthetic informed virtually everything that came after it. Disc one is its own anthemic kind of SoCal manifesto in sound. While everything here is startlingly original, the most beautiful of these recordings is Peter Garland's series of six dance pieces for two violins and gourd rattles called "Matachin Dances," based on traditional Mexican dances that last just over 18 minutes in total. Their stunningly short phrases, played hypnotically and altered minutely, constitute the dance as an evolving activity, one that shifts and changes gradually in time as it is performed. These appear on disc one with Fink's works for piano and cellos. Here again, repetition, sparse phrasing, and gentle articulation allow for entire worlds to be moved in a very short time and musical figures, while slowly introduced, are startling in their haunted clarity. Disc two offers the edgiest material on the set. Barney Childs' "Clay Music" was written for instrument builder Susan Rawcliffe, who was constructing her own series of clay instruments. Childs composed the piece for her to have something to play on them. Sounding like a series of pipes and flutes, the work is created from tones and pitches more than any notion of melody. The organic nature of the work and its articulation ground it in eternity rather than in the here and now. Read Miller offers two extended pieces for readers' voices. Cadences are staggered and rounded off, and pitches are notated to carefully influence dynamics and articulation. It's hypnotic and beautiful.
Disc three combines the works of three artists. There are the evocative pedal steel guitar sonic architectures of Chas Smith, which wind out slowly, forlornly, and romantically, over the great vistas in time and space that make up the American West. Smith plays the electric pedal steel and the acoustic dobro, creating a music of mystery, wistful emotion, and fixed aural gazes toward the expanse, creating an ambience that is eternal and comes quietly out of silence only to return there a few moments later. Rick Cox's compositions for electric guitar, voices, and clarinet make up the most dynamically challenging pieces on the box, but they too have at their heart a poetic engagement with silence as a collaborator. Tonal signifiers speak and are silenced by others, carefully edging along some line that cannot be seen, only felt and heard. Silence plays foil to utterance and the two coexist in an uneasy but moving dance of cancellation and evolution. Finally, Daniel Lentz's four compositions for keyboard and voices seem indeed to sum up everywhere the listening has been for the past hour and a half. Wordless layered voices flatten and hover over insistent, pulsing, throbbing, and ever disappearing keyboards to create mosaics of minutiae, echoes of echoes, and stray notes that find a place in the seam of his four works and disappear. In sum, these three CDs make for one of the most delightful and enduring listening experiences of the new music, and do not sound dated in any way. They offer the same challenges and edification to listeners that they did in the 1980s, and perhaps -- given the cynicism that greets new works these days -- even offer listeners a kind of solace from their own skepticism.