Electric bassist Steuart Liebig (a.k.a. “Stig”) is a big fish in Southern California’s avant-garde scene, and Sulphur is the second release by his chamber quartet Minim. The first, Quicksilver (2004), featured a lineup of flute, violin, bass and percussion. But here we have Andrew Pask on clarinet and bass clarinet, Sara Schoenbeck on bassoon and Brad Dutz on drums, percussion and marimba. Liebig doesn’t simply play bass, he plays “C, Eb, 12-string and prepared contrabassguitars.” The group is worth hearing for its sonic richness alone. Texturally, it’s not far afield from Wayne Horvitz’s Gravitas Quartet, in which Schoenbeck also plays.
Sulphur turns out to parallel Quicksilver closely in terms of structure. The first piece, “Kaleidoscope,” is a 45-minute work inspired by haiku, much like the earlier “Mosaic.” Spanning 23 relatively short tracks, it’s followed by a 17-minute piece called “The Cherry Blossom Is Only Perfect When It’s Falling From the Tree,” based on terza rima, a poetic form first used by Dante and Chaucer. The final cut, “Necrological Pieties,” the most abstract of the lot, is just over four minutes. In concept and execution, the album is captivating from start to finish.
Liebig’s writing has a dense, Schoenberg-meets-Hemphill quality, with a fluid boundary between notation and improv. The lines and harmonic colors call for a high order of virtuosity and ensemble cohesion, and that is what Liebig gets. During “Kaleidoscope” the group breaks into every variety of duo and trio; before it’s over, each player gets an unaccompanied feature as well. “The Cherry Blossom” is less fragmented, more of a sustained four-way dialogue, a welcome contrast. Dutz, who provides a stunning array of percussive timbres on the first piece, plays marimba all the way through the second, thickening the melodic and harmonic palette.