The Ukrainian-American composer Virko Baley displays his keen ear for tone-color and mystery in Dreamtime perhaps his finest work. Written for the redoubtable new music group the California E.A.R. Unit, the work’s title can suggest Australian aboriginal creation theory, or a dark and unsettled night. The latter is certainly the case, but the former can’t be ruled out either; Baley’s musical imagination includes flights of Polynesian-inspired fantasy (the brilliant “Manao Tupapao”), ancient Ukrainian dances (the knuckle-busting fiddle tune “Kolomyika”), and the kind of nearly supernatural night music made by the American composer George Crumb (“The Hour of the Wolf”).
Baley’s musical style is omnivorous, drawing freely from both abstract modernism and from the sounds of world music, jazz and minimalism. Like Crumb, he makes telling use of unusual but effective sounds — a gently tolling piano chord, whispery flute harmonics, a single stroke from his large arsenal of percussion. The first 13 tracks comprise the first half, called “Palm-of-the-Hand”; these works introduce various musical cells and gestures which will be varied, twisted and bent later in the piece. The final six tracks of Dreamtime make up the second half, also called “Dreamtime.” Here the sense of a journey is heightened, and perhaps made more specific: the title “The Hour of the Wolf,” for example, is one that Baley has used for a number of completely different works to represent what we might call the dark night of the soul. The entire work is played with unerring commitment and imagination by the E.A.R. Unit, but if you’re looking for a place to start, the tracks named above, along with the softly clangorous “Tears,” would give you an idea of the subtlety and scope of Baley’s sound world.