Just about every other symphony orchestral instrument has been drafted into service for the diabolically opposed world of improvised music, so why not the bassoon? That’s a question that’s not only been asked but also affirmatively answered, by Katherine Young. Having worked with Anthony Braxton and Faust’s Joachim Irmler, Young started making a name as a solo performer, cradling this long, straight double-reeded instrument with an array of effects foot pedals set in front of her. Young’s use of pedals doesn’t contort the sound of her bassoon beyond recognition, they serve to amplify the unusual sounds she can coax from the instrument, some of which are not what you’d typically hear from that horn, but Young’s got broader goals in mind. Namely, to take the bassoon to places it’s never gone before. She can be alternately mellow or abrasive, metallic or ruminative. No mood, no timbre is out of bounds to Young.
A couple of years ago, she took the bassoon and her strange concepts for playing it to a combo format, a quartet called Katherine Young’s Pretty Monsters. Even here, she breaks cleanly from convention. Consisting of Young, Erica Dicker (violin), Owen Stewart-Robertson (guitars, electronics) and Mike Pride (drums & percussion), Pretty Monsters is a band with a rock-bred, punk attitude rhythm section jousting with the avant-chamber tendencies of Young and Dicker. The seven compositions — all Young’s — don’t seem to follow any discernable structure: some are one or two chord songs, others atonal and rootless. Because Young does this, everyone is allowed more freedom, and are interesting noises and shapes the replace any semblance of what is widely recognized as melody. The interaction among everyone is intimate and critical to the flow of these songs.
“Relief” plays out like a light, quiet conversation among four people, based on a single note, never rising above a murmur. That all changes on the next track, the doom dirge rock bombast of “Patricia Highsmith” (YouTube below), defined by Stewart-Robertson’s skittish lines and Pride’s discreet prowling, with Young and Dicker reacting and providing counterpoints. “For Autonauts, For Travelers” is most indicative of Young’s solo work: it begins with her grunting, gyrating bassoon, and the others fill in the accents with a flighty violin, random electronic chirps and odd guitar sounds until Pride’s percussive effects begins to enter into focus. “Crushed” begins with Dicker’s arpeggiated violin played like a fiddle, going relentlessly until the notes are bled out, and a dreamy sequence led by Stewart-Robertson soon runs into a buzz-saw of dense, pure noise. Pride is finally let off the leash on the final track “Entropy,” determined to stamp out all the ambient-noise sounds generated from the other three.
Nope, there’s nothing at all typical about the bassoon playing of one Katherine Young, and as a fascinating, unbounded extension of her musical personality, neither are her Pretty Monsters. Katherine Young’s Pretty Monsters is a brash, assured first statement from a talented young performer who is poised to do for the bassoon what Tom Cora did for the cello.