CD review: Lewis Nielson’s Axis

First published in the Guardian on 17 July, 2015

Lewis Nielson, garage rock guitarist turned composition professor at Oberlin College, writes music that loiters on the fringes: almost tangible, nearly lyrical, subversive to a point. Strands of moderate wit and eloquence mix with stylised modernism but are gone just as soon as they’ve surfaced. This disc features three recent-ish chamber works. The JACK Quartet gives an acrobatic account of Le Journal du Corps, all squeaking, bouncing, grunting bows and a ticking clock that makes a heavy-handed metaphor. Another laboured jolt comes when the players start to sing vehement passages of Aime Cesaire over fragile chords. The nervy Tocsin uses six percussionists (a fiery-sounding red fish blue fish led by Steven Schick) to whip up the discord, belligerence and doubt of crowds on the brink of revolution. Axis for percussion (Schick) and string quintet is a sequence of gestures that don’t seem to have much impact on what comes before or after. The take-home message is disquieting, but the JACK’s playing is bright and shimmering.