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Mark Applebaum - Catfish

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Artist: Mark Applebaum

Album: Catfish

Label: Tzadik

Review date: Jan. 24, 2005

Assistant professor of composition and theory at Stanford is hardly the most promising title accompanying a new CD from Tzadik. But Mark Applebaum is also a multi-instrumentalist composer/performer in a variety of traditions: acoustic, electronic, jazz, and what he calls "trans-idiomatic improvisation." The last two are interconnected, as Applebaum prefers the improvisatory nature of jazz even more than its swing. His electronic oeuvre can be neatly divided into two basic categories: sound sculptures (instruments that are also works of art and best heard on the Innova release Mousetrap Music) and digital remix projects in the spirit of musique concrete. Catfish, part of Tzadik's Composer series, provides a mixture of all these genres while highlighting his mentors from a continuing educational collaboration (Brian Ferneyhough) to the simply compositionally inspirational (John Zorn).

The catfish (suborder Nematognathi), long a notorious mythically enormous, bottom-dwelling scumsucker favored at down-home fish fries, has become lately a major source of scientifically farm-bred high protein, lo-fat sustenance for kiev, pate and stuffed soufflé dishes. The music on Applebaum's Deep South-inflected CD shares much in common with its piscatorial namesake. Often the music is standoffish and even prickly on first encounter, but once inside, it reveals melodic and rhythmic worlds of sustaining beauty. Likewise, the sheer variety of compositional styles and instrumentations reminds us that catfish are a global phenomenon (not merely a iconic regional delicacy), consisting of over 2000 identified species worldwide and more than two dozen in the States alone.

The CD's first three compositions demonstrate the variety of Applebaum's work: a piece for two multi-percussionists with an electronic tape remix of a Ferneyhough multi-percussion solo; a chamber ensemble of five winds and five strings; and a third for solo piano. But they also display an inherent consistency, as parts of each could easily function as eerie soundtracks for episodes of The Twilight Zone. Then there's Applebaum's Fractured Fairy Tales 2-channel tape remix of snippets of John Zorn and Naked City's already bent "Snagglepuss," demonstrating just how far Applebaum will take a joke. This quick wit and very engaging sense of humor runs throughout Catfish.

By G.E. Light

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