October 15, 2015
(+++) GAINS AND LOSSES IN WORDS AND NOTES
Robert Aldridge: Keillor Songs; Jorge Martín: A Cuban in Vermont; Glen Roven: Two Millay Songs from “Poetic License”; Herschel Garfein: The Divine Image. Jennifer Rivera, mezzo-soprano; Myra Huang, piano. GPR Records. $14.99.
Frances White: She Lost Her Voice, That’s How We Knew. Kristin Norderval, soprano; Elizabeth Brown, shakuhachi. Ravello. $14.99.
Masatora Goya: Dream of Sailing and other chamber music. Ravello. $16.99.
McCormick Percussion Group: Plot—Music for Unspecified Instrumentation by Stuart Saunders Smith, Robert Erickson, Johanna Magdalena Beyer, James Tenney, Herbert Brün and Earle Brown. Ravello. $14.99 (2 CDs).
The art song is alive and well, or at least something approximating the traditional lied is alive and well, in the hands and minds of contemporary composers – that is, it may be alive and well, unless composers decide to stretch its concept to and beyond the breaking point, thus creating a kind of “anti-art” art song. The more-traditional art-song approach comes through effectively in four works, two of them newly commissioned, sung by Jennifer Rivera on a new GPR Records release. One of the new song sets, Robert Aldridge’s Keillor Songs, is particularly effective in its echoes of the lieder tradition coupled with Americanizations that flow naturally from Keillor’s poetry. There are five songs here: “Guardian,” “Table Grace,” “Unification,” “Fatherhood” and “Wedding March.” All have the combination of straightforward expression and homespun wisdom for which Keillor is known, and Rivera and pianist Myra Huang perform them with just the right blend of simplicity and expressiveness. Equally effective, in a different way, are the five songs by Jorge Martín to his own lyrics. A Cuban in Vermont, a title that refers both to Martin himself and to the general experience of an immigrant in a new land, includes “Frutas,” “Sol y Brisas,” “Nocturno,” “Amor brujo” and “En el fin.” Naïve in expression but hinting at depths of feeling – notably in “Frutas,” which is written in a mixture of English and Spanish – the poems have the underlying theme that “your sweetness then is not your sweetness now,” conveyed by Martín in music that draws on Cuban style without ever being subservient to it. The other two song groupings on this disc are less immediately appealing. Glen Roven’s two Millay Songs are “Love Is Not All (Sonnet XXX)” and “An Ancient Gesture,” both set rather straightforwardly. Herschel Garfein’s seven-song cycle, The Divine Image – to poems by William Blake – is equally forthright, but the choice of especially well-known poems somewhat undercuts its effectiveness. This cycle, the second of the two newly commissioned works here, includes “The Tyger,” “The Divine Image,” “The Garden of Love,” “Eternity,” “Never Pain to Tell Thy Love,” “A Poison Tree,” and “Jerusalem.” Although the music is fine, it is scarcely revelatory – it is probably inevitable that contemporary Blake settings will be measured against William Bolcom’s masterly Songs of Innocence and of Experience and found wanting. Here, though, it is not only the music but also the poetry selected that makes this more of a surface-level work than it could be. Garfein could, for example, have used not only “The Divine Image” (from Songs of Innocence) but also its companion poem from Songs of Experience, “The Human Abstract.” As is, this Blake sequence never quite plumbs Blake’s depths either philosophically or musically – although here as throughout the CD, the performances are heartfelt and well-considered.
At the opposite end of modern art-song creations are works such as Frances White’s She Lost Her Voice, That’s How We Knew, now available on a Ravello CD. Written for soprano, shakuhachi (Japanese flute) and electronic sounds, this is vocal music in which the vocalizing is essentially irrelevant – like a vocalise. Or, to put it more clearly, Kristin Norderval’s voice is not so much absent as it is present in a non-vocal way. This is essentially a theatrical work, a piece presenting sound more than one presenting what most listeners would regard as music. But it is theatrical without a script: there is no overt narrative, although there is a sort of interior monologue/dialogue/multi-logue, which is to say that Norderval’s voice represents a multitude of inner voices such as a singing voice, a voice of memory, a voice that has been silenced, and more. In addition to being the voices, Norderval listens to the voices, and her own voice is wrapped in non-vocal sounds that are intended to open the audience’s thoughts to multiple interpretations of the production, which was written and directed by Valeria Vasilevski. All this is oh-so-sincere and oh-so-self-referential and oh-so-avant-grade and oh-so-self-conscious. The production runs just 44 minutes, but seems much longer as it crawls from nowhere in particular to nowhere else in particular. Nordeval actually has a fine voice, capable of many nuances of feeling and expression, but even though her vocal contribution is crucial here and the sounds she makes (whether she is singing sounds or actual words) are often beautiful and always expressive, the whole production comes across as a compositional exercise in self-indulgence and self-importance. It constantly teases the ear with notions of comprehensibility, only to fall back again and again into meaninglessness.
Masatora Goya’s Dream of Sailing is at something of the opposite extreme. Its basic topic is the same: the meaning of life and our own path within it. But the six chamber works on this new Ravello disc are all inspired by specific real-world matters: the life and death of the composer’s father. The specificity of the inspiration here stands in stark contrast to the intended generality (and thus hoped-for universality) of White’s work – but because Goya’s music deals with an aspect of the human condition to which listeners can readily relate, it reaches out more effectively than White’s more-abstract production. Goya’s father, Masahiro, was a marine engineer, so the ocean is a recurring element of this music, nearly omnipresent as background even though these are works without vocals and the presence of the sea must therefore be inferred rather than explicitly heard. The CD opens with Distance (2013) for solo viola (Carlos Boltes), a work intended as a meditation on death and the purpose of existence. Next is Dream of Sailing (2011) for alto flute (Melanie Chirignan) and guitar (Scott Hill), an imaginary final journey out to sea in a fading dawn. Inner Voice (2013) for flute and stomping (Chirignan) is in two movements, Impulse and Epiphany, the first bouncy and bright, the second longer and more percussive and rhythmically uneven. Next is Where It Begins, Where It All Ends (2014), for cello (Susan Mandel) and guitar (Kenji Haba) – another meditative and questioning work, but this time one that intends to carry listeners into contemplation of their place in the cosmos. Sound of Life (2013), for flute (Chirignan), viola (Conway Kuo) and guitar (Oren Fader), is the longest work on the disc, its four movements exploring elements of everyday life and ending with “Acalanto” (“Lullaby”) – which may, in this context, have to do with hoped-for peacefulness at life’s end. Finally, Sunset on the Hudson (2013) is a work for guitar solo (Fader) that picks up on some of the feelings of “Acalanto” and is intended to offer comfort and quiet at day’s (or life’s) end, but not without some feelings of uncertainty and concern. Several of these pieces are effective in and of themselves, but their connection to Gora’s father is mostly in Gora’s own mind: there is nothing in the works that connects listeners in general to Gora’s specific concerns and feelings, although some of the music does call up emotions such as warmth, worry, somberness, uncertainty, even loneliness. The music will not have the specificity of association for listeners to the CD that it has for Gora himself, but there is enough here that is affecting so that the overall emotional content of the material comes through, even if imprecisely.
The emotions expressed and perceived are much more varied on the latest Ravello release from the McCormick Percussion Group. The two-CD set includes eight works by six composers. The pieces are Bones and Winter by Stuart Saunders Smith; Nine and a Half for Henry (and Wilbur and Orville) and Pacific Sirens by Robert Erickson; Percussion by Johanna Magdalena Beyer; Percussion Responses by James Tenney; Plot by Herbert Brün; and December 1952 by Earle Brown. The variegated instrumentation is much of the point in these works, with the ensemble constantly pushing the boundaries of percussion by using computer-generated scores, taped elements, improvisation and similar techniques. The nonmusical material sometimes fits very well: the two Erickson pieces both involve sounds such as engines and machinery, for example, although of course these works – which are from the 1960s – are merely drawing on a tradition dating back to Edgard Varèse, whose Amériques (1918-1921, revised 1927) and Ionisation (1929-1931) had long before explored similar territory. But the cleverness of the electronic and aleatoric elements is actually less interesting than some purely musical matters here, notably the inclusion of Percussion, which dates all the way back to 1935 and is one of only eight known percussion-ensemble works by Beyer (1888-1944). None of the computer-generated material, none of the fancy compositional systems, none of the forays into chance and other modernistic techniques really has much meaning unless it is put at the service of musical communication that actually reaches out to an audience and tells listeners something or involves them in some way. Beyer’s piece, which is in five short movements, shows how creativity and originality can communicate more effectively than all the tricks and electronics can. The McCormick Percussion Group plays everything on this release with its usual skill and enthusiasm, and listeners who simply want to hear a considerable amount of very well-performed percussion material will find this set a real bargain, with its two full hours of music. The fact is, though, that much of the best material here is the most traditionally constructed: the cleverness of computers and of works that never sound the same twice (because their page order is chosen by the musicians, who then improvise within the picked pages) is just that – cleverness. It does not effectively communicate in any specific way with an audience, even though it may be great fun for the performers tossing material back and forth among themselves.