February 01, 2018
(+++) THE SALON OF TODAY
Third Coast Percussion: Paddle to the Sea. Third Coast Percussion. Cedille. $16.
Robert Morris: Mountain Steams; Mysterious Landscape. Robert Morris, laptop computer, fixed media and electroacoustics. Ravello. $14.99.
Shadow Etchings: New Music for Flute. Orlando Cela, flute. Ravello. $14.99.
Jason Tad Howard: Piano Sonata No. 2—Nine Short Shorts for Piano; Daniel Perttu: Sonata for Piano. Nancy Zipay DeSalvo, piano. Navona. $14.99.
The salon music of old was, in effect, the elevator music of its time. Intended to remain in the background so aristocratic gatherings could have a pleasant sonic ambience when conversation flagged, this was generally unchallenging music that still has a place in gatherings today – for example, at weddings and conventions where a small ensemble offers live performances to which guests can listen if they choose and that they can ignore if they prefer. And salon music was by no means inevitably “bad” music: great composers, including Mozart and Haydn, wrote their fair share of it, and quite a few Romantic-era piano and chamber pieces fall into the category. Intentionally or not, modern composers also produce salon music from time to time: the minimalist works of Philip Glass and his followers fit the bill very often, although Glass et al. would scarcely describe them as “salon” pieces. A new Cedille release featuring the Third Coast Percussion ensemble shows how much care can be lavished on creating and performing modern salon music while still producing works that tend to fade into the background unless listeners try very hard to focus their attention on them. There is, in fact, some Glass here: the group intersperses its own arrangements of movements from Glass’s Aguas da Amazonia with other material. Also included here, also in interspersed form, are parts of Jacob Druckman’s solo-marimba Reflections on the Nature of Water. Third Coast Percussion cites the Glass and Druckman material as influential on its own composition, Paddle to the Sea, which is music for a children’s film and which is the primary work on the CD – and the only one played straight through rather than broken into segments. Another influence they mention and perform is a traditional Shona song, Chigwaya, in an arrangement by Zimbabwean Musekiwa Chingdoza. The Glass movements are arrangements, too, in their case by a Brazilian group called Uakti, of material originally created by Glass for piano and titled 12 Pieces for Ballet. And where do all the influences and arrangements take listeners? To a sound world that is pleasant, if scarcely compelling; to one where it is easy to imagine the sonic representation of water in various forms, even though there is little connection between specific movements and their putative titles. Thus, Druckman’s “Profound” and “Relentless” are interchangeable, Glass’s “Madeira River” could as well be his “Xingu River,” and there is little in the 10-movement Paddle to the Sea suite to distinguish “Flow” from “Open Water” from “Thaw” from “Release.” Not even “Niagara” sounds as one might expect. The homogeneity of the music itself occurs within exceptional heterogeneity of scoring: Third Coast Percussion’s skill lies in bringing out a very wide variety of percussive sounds both from individual instruments and from combinations of them. There is nothing especially noteworthy in any of the musical material on this disc, and it is quite easy to allow the whole disc to fade into the aural background, to emerge periodically when Third Coast Percussion offers a particularly felicitous touch in a performance of one track or another.
Water is also a theme, and salon/background music a result, in two works by Robert Morris on a new Ravello CD. The water connection is explicit in Mountain Steams – there is even narration at the start, from a Zen Koan, to inform listeners that they are about to experience something liquid-sounding. Both in this work and in the very extended Mysterious Landscape, whose half-hour length seems interminable if listeners try to pay attention to the material instead of letting it float through the background, the material that is electronically manipulated by Morris is drawn from the natural world. Mountain Streams uses sounds of water moving in various forms and various venues to produce its effects, many of which are much like those to be heard if one pays close attention to a tabletop fountain or an unenhanced recording of actual water flow. Mysterious Landscape employs water sounds, too, along with those of birds, frogs, insects, mammals and wind, to produce an environment that is not so much mysterious as it is variegated and generally rather pleasantly unfocused. Listeners who concentrate on Morris’s work may soon find themselves drifting into sleep or at least inattention, and there is nothing wrong with that: this material is intended to comfort, quiet and lull, not to engage listeners’ thoughts or emotions in any significant way. That is why, despite the ultra-modern compositional and reproduction techniques, these works retain a direct tie to the salon music of centuries ago.
Some contemporary composers incorporate what is essentially salon music into works that also include sit-up-and-take-notice elements. This is the case with some of the material on a new Ravello flute-music CD and a piano-focused one on the Navona label. The flute disc features excellent and highly adaptable playing by Orlando Cela in five pieces for solo flute: Le soupir du roseau dans les bras du vent by Jean-Patrick Besingrand, Variations on a Schenker Graph of Gesualdo by Robert Gross, Hang Down Your Head by Dana Kaufman, A Turning Inwards by Edward Maxwell Dulaney, and Self-Portrait by Ziteng Ye. The other two pieces on the CD expand the flute: Skiagrafies II by Stratis Minakakis includes Cela’s playing and the composer’s contribution of piano resonance, while Winter Variations by Lou Bunk has Cela playing alto flute and piccolo and accompanied by Sivan Etedgee on piano. The works have different provenances and reasons for being, of course: for example, Besingrand’s involves variations on Debussy’s Syrinx, Gross’s traces to a Gesualdo madrigal, and Kaufman’s variations are on an Appalachian folk song. And the rationale for the pieces can be quite complex, as is typical in much contemporary composition: for instance, Minakakis talks of two movements in his three-movement work as having melodic lines “whose geometry is liquefied by a multitude of ultramicrotonal inflections,” while Dulaney says his focus is “the liminality between becoming and being.” That is all well and good, but what the listener actually hears in much of this music is neither more nor less than varied flute sounds punctuated at times by some deliberately nonmusical elements (loud breathing, humming, vocalizing and subvocalizing), the totality tending to blend – much of the time, although not always – into a kind of aural soundscape that can easily be allowed to continue in the background while one focuses on something entirely different, and entirely nonmusical, at the same time.
The mixture of salon/background and focused/foreground material appears as well, although to a lesser extent, in the piano sonatas played by Nancy Zipay DeSalvo. It is especially clear in Jason Tad Howard’s work, which includes eight very short snippets (two under one minute and six under two), plus a concluding four-minute overview/summation, all based on the pitch C – although it would be stretching matters to say that the sonata is “in the key of” C. The homogeneity of the movements’ tonal center tends to make the sections blend despite rhythmic differences. It is the “Pensive,” “Dolce e cantabile,” “Sempre cantabile e legato” and “Cantabile” sections that mostly align with a “background” feeling, their impressions broken up by a couple of “Agitato” segments that do insist on attentiveness; the final “Reconciliation” subsumes and expands elements of what has come before. Daniel Perttu’s sonata is more conventional, indeed traditional, in layout, in three movements marked “Allegro maestoso,” “Misterioso” and “Presto” – designations that are tied to those of past sonatas very closely indeed. And this is program music, the sonata as a whole supposed to reflect the mystery and mysticism of Stonehenge. Here there is little that invites or admits of inattention: whether the work succeeds in transmitting an impression of the impressiveness of the ancient stone circle is arguable, but certainly Perttu again and again requires listeners to pay attention to his musical argument – even if one does not know what the argument is about or see any direct Stonehenge connection (or know that there is supposed to be one). One might expect this sonata’s second movement to be quiet, contemplative and perhaps on the order of background music, but in fact Perttu alternates the more-restrained material here with some outbursts that come as a surprise each time they appear. It is actually the finale, which has elements of perpetuum mobile, that superficially seems most like old-style salon music, but here too Perttu continually introduces material that requires listeners to pay closer attention and not allow the music to become simply an element of the auditory background.