Earl Howard (born 1951 in Los Angeles) has been active since the 1970s, since
he graduated from the California Institute of the Arts (1974).
A virtuoso saxophonist who has expanded the instrument's boundaries on
compositions such as Cinco Centavos (for solo saxophone) and
Naked Charm (for saxophone and tape) and the
5 Saxophone Solos (Mutablemusic, 2005),
and a frequent performer at the Knitting Factory,
Howard later shifted his focus towards live electronics,
electronic tape music and chamber
music for electronics and acoustic instruments.
He concentrated on superimposing electronic/manipulated
sounds to live performances, as in
Quarks, Pancho Via's Spoon and Nomad (for live electronics and ensemble),
Fire Song (may 1999) for hyperpiano (Denman Maroney) and electronics,
and Entanglement (2000), for saxophone and Creatophone (Curtis Roads on Creatophone), while
the electronic pieces of the live Pele's Tears (october 1992), with an alto saxophonist, a tuba player and a bassist, displayed a more
The mixture of composition, improvisation and chance is exactly what
life on this planet is all about. So it is not surprising that Howard's
compositions seem to "grow" as they are "played".
It is also not surprising that his work is frequently composed for and
performed by musicians from the jazz tradition.
Anthony Davis has recorded his Particle W (Gramavision) for piano and
tape and commissioned Monopole (1985) for two pianos and tape, while
drummer Gerry Hemingway recorded both
C & D, on Solo Works (1980), Howard's first documented composition,
and D.R. (Auricle), both for solo percussion.
Strong Force (november 1999 - Mutable, 2003) was premiered in the fall of 1999.
The CD version, performed by Howard on synthesizer, Anthony Davis on piano,
Gerry Hemingway on percussion, Anne LeBaron on
harp and Ernst Reijseger on cello, is divided into five movements.
There is little in today's world of music that is more complex and challenging
than Howard's ensemble scores, so alien to melody and rhythm as one can be
without sounding cacophonous. Each movement relies on counterpoint and
juxtaposition, not on narrative development.
It takes a while to realize that the synth is being used as a peer instrument
to the others, not as a "novelty item" that "must" play a different role, and
to realize that very few musicians have managed to demistify electronics the
way Howard does. Whenever the harsh tones prevail, for example, Howard resists
the temptation to use the synth to outperform everybody else.
In fact, one could even argue that, most of the time, Howard does not use the
synth as a keyboard at all. All the instruments are merely tools in the hands
of the musicians: it is the musicians, not the instruments, that create the
These cold, disjointed, loose, open-ended streams
bring to mind alternatively
Anton Webern's Concerto for Nine Instruments,
Elliott Carter's Piano Sonata, Olivier Messiaen's Quatour,
Roscoe Mitchell's chamber music, John Cage and many others.
It is almost a summary of 50 years of avantgarde, but from a different, more
"biological" and less heroic perspective.
Five Saxophone Solos (october 2004 - Mutable, 2005) is Howard's most ambitious display
yet of his extended technique at the instrument. The five pieces share a
common aesthetic: they are complex entities built out of simple entities.
While this may be true also of Anthony Braxton's celebrated solos, those
used methodic and rational means to organize them. Here the flow of elementary
units is more spontaneous, similar to a child who is just beginning to utter
"the rudiments of sound and language" (his words). These are cascades of
primal speech units, not meant to create abstract sound patterns but to deliver
The first improvisation (ten minutes long) is almost exuberant, emphasizing a
childish, freewheeling, singing quality that occasionally descends into
The romantic quality is evident in the elegy that opens the second
improvisation, and that remains at the core of its elegant and somewhat
The childish quality (the surprised exploration of speech landscape) fuels
instead the third improvisation, whose unstable and irregular development
is closer in spirit to a nursery rhyme or to a dreamy soliloquy than to a jazz
The fourth piece is its alter-ego: its slow, dark and coherent dynamic evokes
an older age, in which speech has been mastered and is used to deliver meaning,
and painful meaning, but at the expense of unbridled fun.
The fifth and longest improvisation (21 minutes long) explores a broader and
wilder range of sounds, and thus moves the performer (rather than the
performance) to centerstage. Both the childish and the melancholy elements of
the previous pieces surface at different points in time, but overall this is
a more technical demonstration of the performer's language.
Thomas Buckner's Contexts (Mutable, 2005) contains
a 27-minute performance of Howard's
ILEX (2004) for vocals, electronics, percussion and pipa.
one of his most abstract and dynamic works.
The vibrant, explosive vocals of Thomas Buckner bestow on it a dramatic quality
(particularly in the mournful finale) that contrasts with the chaotic assembly of sounds from the instruments and the electronics.
Clepton (2007) contains the 38-minute Clepton (october 2006) for Earl Howard on synthesizer and live processing, Georg Graewe on piano, Ernst Reijseger on cello and Gerry Hemingway on drums.
It also documents an old performance, Rosebud (april 1989).
Granular Modality includes:
Bird 3 (march 2006) for synthesizer,
Strasser 60 (november 2009),
2455 (november 2009) for alto sax;
Crupper (november 2009) for koto and synthesizer.
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