January 24, 2019


Stas Namin: Centuria S-Quark Symphony. London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Lee Reynolds. Navona. $14.99.

John Psathas, arranged by Omar Carmenates: Percussion Project, Volume 1. Navona. $14.99.

Matthew Burtner: Glacier Music—Ecoacoustics of Glaciers. Rivanna Quartet (Daniel Sender and David Sariti, violins; Ayn Balija, viola; Adam Carter, cello); Albemarle Ensemble (Kelly Sulick, flute; Shawn Earle, clarinet; Katy Ambrose, horn; Greg Howard, Chapman Stick); Brandon Bell and Trevor Saint, percussion. Ravello. $14.99.

     The pleasures of hearing some compositions lie primarily, if not entirely, in the way the music sounds. Even when a traditional orchestra is used, even when a work has an intellectual framework and reason for being, sometimes what is most attractive about it is simply the way in which its composer brings instruments together and uses them to produce particular effects. That is the case with Stas Namin’s Centuria S-Quark Symphony, a single-movement, 47-minute work heard on a new Navona CD as played by the ever-reliable London Symphony Orchestra, here conducted by Lee Reynolds. Namin has produced a percussion-heavy orchestral work, filled with fanfares and multiple themes that are scattered around a piece written more or less in sonata form. But even though the form is discernible, even though the early part of the music is tonic and leads into greater and greater dissonance and atonality over time as Namin tries to communicate a rising tide of discord, the music works best when simply heard as a very extended presentation of multiple themes and sections – sometimes by instrumental groups, sometimes by individual instruments – in which the composer explores the very wide variety of sounds that a symphony orchestra is capable of producing. Namin wants the piece to be fraught with meaning: the title combines a word for “prediction” with a reference to subatomic “strange quarks.” His basic idea, structurally, is to introduce theme after theme, explore each individually and in combination with others, then eventually have the themes overlap to such an extent that they are virtually bereft of individuation and become, in effect, a massive gout of mixed sound. Having built to this point, Namin stops everything – literally: the orchestra goes silent. And then he starts things all over again, as if to indicate that even if matters deteriorate to the point of explosive dystopia, something new and presumably better will arise from the ashes and maybe, just maybe, lead to a better conclusion. It is very philosophical and all that, but the music does not really support the underlying thesis particularly well. Namin extracts a wide variety of sounds from his large orchestra, and the basic progress (if it is progress) from tonality to atonality, from concord to discord, is clear enough. But the symphony goes on and on, extended far beyond the point of audience involvement, and it rises to so many climaxes – punctuated again and again by vast percussive outbursts – that it becomes difficult to figure out its overall arc. On the other hand, if listened to simply as an exploration of orchestral timbre, without regard to the underlying meaning that Namin is trying to convey, the work is reasonably effective: it becomes a series of episodes, each building to a climactic point, none having inherently greater importance than any other. Listening to Namin’s Centuria S-Quark Symphony this way may undermine the composer’s intentions in writing it, but it makes the work’s considerable length and its episodic nature much easier to accept and enjoy.

     Sound for its own sake is also very much the province of the collaborative Percussion Project, Volume 1, in which Omar Carmenates arranges a variety of works by contemporary Greek composer John Psathas for various forms of percussion. Two of the pieces, Corybas and Aegean, were original for piano trio. There is a Piano Quintet that Psathas intended as a tribute to four other composers: Arvo Pärt, Alfred Schnittke, Jack Body, and J.S. Bach. There are four Drum Dances (originally for drum kit and piano), Muisca (originally for guitar), Matre’s Dance (originally for violin solo), and Jettatura (a piece whose title refers to a Greek superstition about the “evil eye” and is itself a work that Psathas says was intended to protect him against it). The various performers handle the percussion-ization of all this material with considerable skill. Carmenates himself is a major participant, playing vibraphone, percussion and marimba at various times. Others featured are Daniel Koppelman (piano), Justin Alexander (drum set), Ryan Patterson (marimba), Emma Gierszal (marimba), and Justin Lamb (marimba and vibraphone). This Navona CD will clearly appeal to listeners already familiar with Psathas’ music and interested in hearing some of his works in novel instrumentations. But it will be less clearly appealing to an audience that does not already know Psathas. Some of the percussion arrangements are affecting and quite successful: Corybas, based on a Macedonian dance with very complex rhythms, is fascinating. But some of the arrangements are at best capricious and unconvincing, such as the Piano Quintet. Others are all right but not especially compelling, such as Drum Dances. The three movements of Muisca offer a pleasant but ultimately over-long opportunity to hear the interwoven sounds of vibraphone and marimba. Matre’s Dance is nicely rhythmic, but it too overstays its welcome. Jettatura, whatever its talismanic properties, is another interesting exploration of marimba and vibraphone sonorities, while Aegean has a pleasant delicacy about it but lacks the rhythmic inventiveness of Corybas. As a whole, the disc is best listened to as a sonic exploration: anyone who is not already a fan of Psathas’ music will at least find here some nicely balanced and often interestingly conceived percussion mixtures that are intriguing to hear on their own, whatever their original provenance.

     Sonic display is the whole point of Matthew Burtner’s Glacier Music on a new Ravello disc. These five electroacoustic works combine acoustic and electronic instruments with recorded sounds of glaciers from Burtner’s native Alaska. Burtner sees this music as a celebration of glaciers and an appeal to preserve them despite a warming climate that is causing them – some of them, anyway – to disintegrate more quickly than they otherwise might. To environmental activists, the sounds of water and snow, intermingled with those of the instruments (including the Chapman Stick, which is a bit like a guitar, a bit like a piano, a bit like percussion, and electronic into the bargain), may represent a clarion call to conservation. To others, the sounds of running and trickling water are as likely to seem intrusive into the instruments’ audio (and may make those with full or weak bladders head for the bathroom). Two of the works here are very extended indeed: Muir Glacier, 1889-2009 lasts 26 minutes, and Sound Cast of Matanuska Glacier goes on for 23. The overall sound of the music is minimalist, with very slow or no development; indeed, much of Burtner’s material is difficult to classify as music at all, consisting as it does almost entirely of recorded natural sounds. The shorter pieces come across somewhat better simply because they do not drag on and on at a pace best described as, well, glacial. Sonic Physiography of a Time-Stretched Glacier runs 11 minutes; Syntax of Snow goes on for only nine; and Threnody (Sikuigvik) lasts a mere five. It is easier to imagine these pieces accompanying films about glaciers or museum exhibits on the water-and-ice cycle than to think of them as concert works in any meaningful way. As tributes to Alaskan glaciers, they are effectively imitative and interpretative; as environmental works, they are unlikely to convince the not-yet-convinced or to show those committed to Burtner’s way of thinking anything specific to be done about glaciers. Heard simply as sound, though, they certainly have their moments. Syntax of Snow is aurally the most interesting piece, combining a glockenspiel with amplified sounds made by touching, grabbing and performing gestures on and in snow. As a whole, this is a CD of very limited audience reach: only those who pick up on its environmental message – and who also appreciate minimalist, background-style music – will be likely to find it appealing.

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