Ning Yu and David Bird - Iron Orchid (New Focus)
What comes through with clarion intensity in Iron Orchid, a collaboration between composer & producer David Bird and pianist Ning Yu, is material. The through line is metal, but a transmogrified metal, embodied in timbres that shift and evolve in real time from the familiar to the surreal to the non-real. The metal of piano wires takes on a life of its own, as in “Iron,” where the rough scraping of piano strings lay atop a gorgeous pillow of sine tones. Despite the album’s considerable electronic element, Bird and Yu embrace the full timbral range of the piano as an acoustic instrument: from the crinkling tactility of fingers on wire; to resonant sotto voce melodies; to the murky and microtonal piano tremolos that comprise the dark but fecund soil of album opener “Garden.” Because these sounds feel like the genesis for Iron Orchid’s electronic components, the intermingling of piano and production is utterly fluid. Complex, faint overtones from a muted piano string are replicated by sine tones and echo off into nothingness; pitches crack and collapse unexpectedly; pulsing, stuttering synth sounds combine with the twisting, tortured scraping of wire.

Iron Orchid began in 2019, with the interactive multimedia sculpture “Echo Chamber,” a collaboration between Bird, Yu, and sculptor Mark Reigelman. The 11-foot-tall sculpture was constructed of stacks of 56 metal tubes, each with an audio speaker inside. Scattered materials from Echo Chamber are woven into the fabric of Iron Orchid, which could be thought of as a guided aural tour of the sculpture. The sculpture is simultaneously absent and yet omnipresent. Stasis and momentum evoke motion through an imaginary environment, one haunted by a foreign and unknown object freighted with immense mass, and operating under its own logic.