Chamber Music for the Inner Ear

Kitty Brazelton

CRI-Emergency Music CD 889; $15.99

Reviewed by Tom Bowden

Music is a living language spoken between listeners and music-makers. Like any language, despite the solidifying effect of notation and recordings, music evolves. We don’t segregate our increasingly multilingual music-listening, and we can’t primly parse out our music-making, either. We can’t say what needs to be said in languages that no longer reflect the way we live.

—Kitty Brazelton

Kitty Brazelton’s new CD, Chamber Music for the Inner Ear, reflects the attitude of younger generation of composers who reject the antiseptic atonality of their elders—the same atonality and academic hermeticism that has succeeded in turning off at least two generations of American audiences from concert art music. The austere aesthetics of those forms of modernism that required a well-grounded education in music theory to be appreciated only widened the gap between art and popular music and the general listener’s ability to appreciate both.

The generation of composers, like Kitty Brazelton, who grew up in the age of rock-dominated music and culture, bring with them an eclectic sensibility that appreciates both classical traditions and fresh styles, often seamlessly joining them in their works, works that also try out new combinations of compositional instrumentation.

Brazelton, now a full-time professor at Bennington College, has written an opera, electronic music, chamber music, and other styles, and performs in rock bands (Hide the Babies, Dadadah, and Hildegurls). Chamber Music for the Inner Ear features performances by the Manhattan Brass Quintet and the California EAR Unit; a composition incorporating 5-string violin and bongos; and duets for cello and alto sax and for trombone and electronic sounds. Stylistically restless, the music here expresses numerous moods, exploits a wide range of timbres and colors, and reveals an attitude toward composition that asks, “Why not?”

One of my favorite tunes on this CD is “R,” featuring Lyris Hung on 5-string violin, Jay Kauffman on guitar, Brazelton singing, Mat Fieldes on double bass, and Danny Tunick on bongos. I imagine it as a 1950’s soundtrack for a beatnik chanteuse.

The liner notes describe “Sonar Como Una Tromba Large” (To Sound Like a Great Waterspout), which pits trombonist Chris Washburne against a pre-recorded tape, as a “musical answer to what would happen if a Vulcan mind-meld were performed on Mario Davidovsky and Willie Colón [and] filled with quarter-tones, angular phrases, glissandos, squeals and salsa-like rhythms.” But music-by-blender it is not, possessing instead a haunting, meditative quality that sounds like a dialogue between kindred spirits, a dialogue that flows wherever the mood of the moment and the associations and allusions take them.

“Called Out Ol’ Texas” (anagram for “alto sax cello duet”) is the one piece on Chamber Music that harkens to the formal, abstract music of an earlier generation of “concept” artists. (The problem with concept art, like L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, is that unless you know ahead of time the premise the tune is based on, it’s like listening to a series of punchlines to jokes you haven’t heard.) The concept sounds cool: Based on four pictures, each with two types of elements (one for cello, one for sax), each performer improvises a musical impression of the elements, with the composer indicating when to change from one picture to the next and when cellist and saxophonist should change which element they are interpreting. But can the song, as a song, exist in the listener’s ear without knowledge of the premise? Does it retain a structure, direction, and purpose without that knowledge, or does it end up sounding at best like interesting noodling?

The best, most ambitious piece on this recording is “Sonata for the Inner Ear,” a three-movement work for flute, bass clarinet, violin, cello, piano, organ, sampler, drum kit, and marimba. To quote the liner notes on what happens in each movement would only lead somebody who hadn’t heard the piece to conclude it is a structureless, chaotic cacophony. But as in the works of Frank Zappa and John Zorn, Brazelton assembles a string of melodic and rhythmic phrases and fragments into something that ultimately ends up revealing itself as possessed of organic wholeness.

I’m new to the works of Kitty Brazelton, and I eagerly look forward to hearing more. Her compositional voice and vision are her own. I highly recommend Chamber Music for the Inner Ear. For anybody who’d like to learn more about her music, hear more of it, have the chance to buy scores to some of it, and so forth, then check out her website at

—Tom Bowden is the Managing Editor of Tech Directions and serves as Contributing Review Editor to The Education Digest.

© 2002 Prakken Publications, Inc.

related links:

"Chamber Music for the Inner Ear"

Other CDs by Kitty Brazelton

Kitty Brazelton, composer