January 08, 2015
(+++) MANY-FACETED INSPIRATIONS
McCormick Percussion Group: Between Rock and a Hard Place—Music of Ciro Scotto, John Cage and Dan Senn. Ravello. $14.99.
Heidi Jacob: Winter Light; String Quartet I; Regard á Schubert: a Fantasy Impromptu; Fantasy for solo piano; Salome Revisited. Navona. $16.99.
Mary Ann Joyce-Walter: Immortal Diamond. St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Lande. Ravello. $12.99.
It has become commonplace for contemporary composers to draw their musical influences not only from the classical realm but also from other forms of music once thought to be incompatible with classical construction and sounds. Indeed, this is so common nowadays that it can be difficult to distinguish one composer’s work that draws on, say, rock and Eastern influences, from that of another composer who draws on the same material. Furthermore, as today’s composers use more and more instruments generally associated with other forms of music, the difficulty of distinguishing one person’s work from that of the next is compounded. This may not really matter to listeners – either they like what they hear or they do not – but it complicates the whole experience of listening to modern “classical” music and trying to decide whether to buy and live with works by any specific composer. The latest McCormick Percussion Group CD for Ravello, for example, includes not one but two separate pieces by Ciro Scotto called Between Rock and a Hard Place. One version is designated “Plugged” and the other “Unplugged.” The former, which is separated into four movements and lasts some 28 minutes, incorporates heavy metal into what is supposed to be a classical milieu, ending up sounding not much like either form – although its emphasis is clearly on the heavy-metal side, prominently featuring a drum set as well as electric guitar, keyboards, electric bass and quite a lot of percussion. The latter version is shorter, running less than 17 minutes as a single movement, and includes acoustic guitar and cello – and although it explores some of the same material, it does not really sound much like the “plugged” form of the work. Listeners may prefer one version of this work or the other, but it is difficult on the basis of either form of the piece to decide whether other music by Scotto would be attractive to hear. Actually, this CD is primarily for people who have already decided that they like Scotto’s material, because the three remaining works on the disc are essentially fillers, all having been created without specifying the instruments on which they are to be played and therefore allowing the McCormick Percussion Group to handle them pretty much at will. And so they do: John Cage’s Five features bowed vibraphones, his Composition for Three Voices uses two vibraphones and marimba, and Dan Senn’s Rivus is played on celeste, glockenspiel and vibraphone. It is difficult in all three works to say what makes them “music” rather than “sounds,” and indeed that seems to be part of the composers’ points – certainly Cage’s (he made this point in a great deal of his oeuvre). Listeners who enjoy the specific sounds heard in these three works need to remember that the same works would sound very different on other instruments. In all, this CD is for people looking for an aural experience that intersects the traditional world of music – classical and otherwise – but does not fit entirely within it.
The experience of Heidi Jacob’s music lies in somewhat more traditional venues, although her music certainly sounds modern and makes use of standard contemporary compositional techniques. Jacob’s Winter Light (2012) is an attempt to use violin (played by Barbara Govatos) and piano (played by Charles Abramovic) to expand musically on the themes of Ingmar Bergman’s 1962 film of that name. Certainly the 12-tone and minimalist techniques so beloved of today’s composers are clear here, and certainly the fluidity of the violin contrasts with the more-deliberate presentation of the piano. Whether all this parallels Bergman’s exploration of existence and divinity will be a matter of opinion – as will the question of whether the work will have meaning for anyone unfamiliar with Bergman’s film. Jacob’s String Quartet I (2009) – which is entitled (with ellipses and quotation marks) “…on enameled tablets…” – is inspired by poetry and written in traditional three-movement form, but again seems designed to communicate primarily to people who already know what Jacob is talking about. It is well-played by the Momenta String Quartet (Emilie-Anne Gendron and Adda Kridler, violins; Stephanie Griffin, viola; Michael Haas, cello). Also well-handled, by pianist Abramovic, are Regard á Schubert: a Fantasy Impromptu (2008), which is inspired by Schubert’s C minor impromptu, Op. 90, No. 1, but is less Schubertian than it is demonstrative of harmonic settings from Schubert’s time to the 21st century; and Fantasy for solo piano (2005), which does actually approximate traditional notions of piano fantasies in its contrasts of lyrical and virtuosic passages. Finally, the CD includes Salome Revisited (2006), a work for electroacoustic tape that again takes off from a classical source – here, Richard Strauss’ 1905 opera Salome – but again seems designed primarily to showcase the composer’s virtuosity in the way it makes use of musical themes and spoken texts from the stage work. This Navona disc does show Jacob to be a composer of considerable range within modern compositional criteria, but there is little here beyond a skill at reprocessing that sets her music apart from that of others using similar creative techniques.
Like Jacob, Mary Ann Joyce-Walter looks to the past for Immortal Diamond (1970), a work she wrote in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. The past here is the time of Bach, specifically the St. Matthew Passion, but the musical connection is tenuous at best. Joyce-Walter assembles Immortal Diamond from bits of the Bible and a series of excerpts from poetry by Gerard Manley Hopkins, T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost and others – with a bit of Alice in Wonderland thrown in as well. The textual juxtapositions and orchestral material are intended somehow to show the importance of King to the composer and, by extension, to listeners, but the work comes across more as a hodgepodge of sound than as a well-directed, well-organized tribute. Joyce-Walter seems to see Immortal Diamond as an immersive experience, and certainly Vladimir Lande and the St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra handle the music with sensitivity and compassion. But while Joyce-Walter’s feelings for and about King are no doubt sincere, they do not come through with any particular clarity to an audience beyond the composer herself. There is a self-referential quality to the music on this Ravello CD, a degree of what seems to be intentional obscurity, just as there is in many other works by contemporary composers – a sense that the material was really created for the composer rather than for anyone else who might happen to listen to it. Those who are both strongly devoted to King and familiar with Joyce-Walter’s work may be willing to spend $12.99 for this 30-minute recording, but it scarcely seems to reach out to anyone beyond that core group.