September 29, 2011


Jeffrey Ryan: The Linearity of Light (2003); Equilateral—Triple Concerto for Piano Trio and Orchestra (2007); Symphony No. 1—Fugitive Colours. Gryphon Trio (Annalee Patipatanakoon, violin; Roman Borys, cello; Jamie Parker, piano); Vancouver Symphony Orchestra conducted by Bramwell Tovey. Naxos. $9.99.

Hubert Howe: Clusters (2010); Inharmonic Fantasy No. 2 (2007); Timbre Study No. 7 (2008); Pi (2011); Macro Structure 2 (2006); 19-Tone Clusters (2010); Groans (2007). Ravello. $12.99.

Axiom: Music of Michael Boyd, Joo Won Park, Israel Neuman, Liviu Marinescu, Jay C. Batzner and Peter Van Zandt Lane. Navona. $16.99.

Neil Thornock: No Stopping, Standing, or Parking; Traptalk; Syncrasy; All the Goods Are Stolen; moon garden; Fractured Compound. Navona. $16.99.

William Vollinger: Raspberry Man; Emmanuel Changed. Juventas Ensemble. Navona. $9.99.

     Music has always been intended to communicate something, but what it transmits from composer to listener has changed dramatically over time. Even the notion of program music, intended to convey a specific story or specific emotions, has changed significantly, reaching a point in many modern compositions at which it is necessary for listeners to know what the composer wants them to experience for the music to make any sense at all. And as what music communicates has changed, how it communicates has changed as well, through the use of new musical language, new instruments, and new concepts of what the very word “music” means. Only one of these new CDs more or less meets the traditional definition of classical music, but each of them is intended to use music of some sort – under some type of definition – to communicate in some way.

     The composer here who comes closest to using traditional classical models is Jeffrey Ryan (born 1962), who was composer-in-residence for the Vancouver Symphony for five years and remains closely associated with the orchestra. This is one of Canada’s fine and underrated regional orchestras that is likely to be heard more often on the new Naxos Canadian Classics series, in which the Ryan CD is the first issue. Most of the music on the CD is light-inspired, not connecting sound with light in the manner of Scriabin (who had synesthesia) but using light as a formative element of the sonic environment. The Linearity of Light does this in a specific way, by trying to use pitch combinations to suggest the brightness of light. This is not a completely unheard-of approach: as far back as the Classical era, certain keys were considered “brighter” (C and D major, for example), while others were considered “darker” (the minor keys), and composers chose keys and constructed their music accordingly. But those “dark” and “light” concepts were not tied specifically to perceived light – they were emotional labels as much as anything. Ryan actually tries to make the audience see or experience forms of light through his choice of pitches and instruments. A willing audience will likely perceive (or at least try to perceive) things much as Ryan wants it to, although listeners unaware of the work’s structure would have no particular reason to associate it with brightness. Ryan’s first symphony, Fugitive Colours, is light-inspired in a nearly opposite way, being based on the notion of colors that fade when exposed to light. The work’s third movement is actually called “Light,” while the second and fourth are labeled with colors (magenta and viridian, respectively). Whether audiences unaware of Ryan’s structural principle will find anything particularly blue-green about the finale, for example, is doubtful. The extent to which the first movement (“Intarsia,” a knitting technique involving multiple blocks of color) makes the others more coherent is also arguable. Ryan handles his orchestral forces well, and there are a number of interesting instrumental effects in this symphony, which (like all the music here) is played with strength and close attention to detail. But only people who know in advance of the symphony’s intended connection with color will likely react to it on the basis that Ryan desires. The third piece on this CD, paradoxically the most emotionally complex and the easiest for audiences unacquainted with its underlying foundation to appreciate, uses the same forces that Beethoven employed in his Triple Concerto: violin, cello, piano and orchestra. But Ryan’s work is less classically poised and more emotional and meditative, its elements of lamentation and joyfulness being clearly expressed and relatively easy (and satisfying) for an audience to respond to.

     Audience reaction will likely be very different to new Hubert Howe and Axiom CDs, which in some ways stand at opposite poles from each other. Howe, professor of music at the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College, is an unreconstructed and unapologetic computer-music creator. The titles of the seven works on the new Ravello CD are interchangeable, really – except for the title Pi, which ties into the work’s length (exactly 3.14.16 minutes). Howe’s explanations of his music sound much like those given by electronic and aleatoric composers in the middle of the 20th century. Inharmonic Fantasy No. 2, for example, he says, is “based entirely on sounds containing inharmonic partials, that is, overtones that do not so much create a timbre for the sound as they create a kind of cluster above the fundamental.” As for Clusters, it is a piece in which “the overtones are all clusters of five-note chords duplicated through three to four octaves above the note. In other words, harmony becomes spectrum.” Will any listeners actually hear any of this in the music? A few, perhaps, but certainly not many. This is music written for Howe himself and for other initiates into his approach, more than for listeners in general; the works tend to come across as shimmering soundscapes without any particular momentum or direction.

     In contrast, the six composers on the Axiom CD offer six different styles and a wide variety of influences. As in any anthology, their works bear little relationship to each other – the disc will be of most interest to people who want to hear something of what their local region is producing (Jay C. Batzner from Dubuque, Iowa, for instance, and Michael Boyd from the Baltimore/Washington area). Boyd offers Bit of Nostalgia… (including the ellipsis in the title); Joo Won Park has a Florida orientation with Gainesville Soundscape; Israel Neuman present Turnarounds; Liviu Marinescu takes a firm-for-this-group classical approach with Bach Variations; Batzner goes for the abstruse in Blue Jaunte (whispers of Gouffre Martel), whose title refers to pioneering speleologist Édouard-Alfred Martel; and Peter Van Zandt wraps things up with Triptiek. The works have little in common thematically, harmonically, structurally or technically; each composer brings a different sensibility to his piece. What each communicates, and how effectively, will depend entirely on resonance – not the resonance inherent in the scoring or instrumentation, but that between composer and listener.

     Neil Thornock draws on multiple influences for his music and offers a variety of ways of connecting his musical thoughts to the audience. There is electronic music here, but also orchestral and instrumental music, and Thornock seems as comfortable writing for a chamber ensemble as for a saxophone quartet. The titles of his works show that they are clearly intended to make listeners see or feel specific things. Syncrasy, for example, has as its title a non-word that is part of “idiosyncrasy,” and includes two movements called “Helix” and “Clunk.” Amusing – but how exactly does Thornock want listeners to react to the piece, and how will listeners react to its strictly aural (rather than verbally explained) impact? In what different way will listeners hear moon garden, whose title uses no capital letters, in comparison with Fractured Compound, whose title does use them? Thornock absorbs inspiration from many sources and surely intends to present what he has felt or experienced to listeners: No Stopping, Standing, or Parking, for example, is a response to and interpretation of highway travel. To communicate in a variety of ways, Thornock not only writes in different genres but also uses a range of instruments, from flute to keyboard. But whether the messages he intends to put forth are the ones that listeners will take away is by no means certain; it is not even clear that it matters all that much, provided that these works evoke some response.

     William Vollinger, on the other hand, wants something very specific from those who hear Raspberry Man and Emmanuel Changed. These pieces, like Thornock’s, take off from real-life occurrences, one involving a man who made a loud raspberry noise outside a New York bar and the other about a troublesome chorus student. In both cases, Vollinger uses lyrics to guide audience response: Raspberry Man is for narrator/singer with flute, clarinet, two pianos and two percussionists, while Emmanuel Changed is for narrator, saxophone and piano. Vollinger’s idea is to take the first impressions that he had (and that the audience would likely have had) of each person profiled, and change those reactions by imaging the subjects’ personalities and the motivations that could have led them to behave as they did. Vollinger does not get into deep or musically extended territory here – the whole CD runs only 13 minutes – but he tries, within two short-form pieces, to guide listener response in clear ways. The words certainly help: they provide an anchor that is altogether missing in, for example, the work of Howe. Listeners will nevertheless have very different reactions to what Vollinger has produced, depending largely on how deeply involved they become in the narratives and how interested they are in the subject matter in the first place. In a sense, all musical communication is always different from person to person; but in the works of contemporary composers, the whole notion of shared experience seems different from what it once was, with audiences not necessarily hearing the same thing at all when they listen to these works – whether the color-inspired ones of Ryan, the amorphous ones of Howe, the more classically based ones of the Axiom composers, the wide-ranging ones of Thornock or the carefully directed ones of Vollinger.

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