December 10, 2020


David Claman: Chamber Music. Albany Records. $16.99.

DRIFT: Society of Composers, Inc., Volume 34—Music by Chin Ting Chan, Bradford Blackburn, Philip Schuessler, Daniel Adams, Tianyi Wang, Paul Paccione, Mary Claire Miller, Andrea Reinkemeyer, Allen McCullough, and Joo Won Park. Navona. $14.99.

Louis Karchin: Chamber Music. Jacqueline Leclair, oboe; Miranda Cuckson, violin; Steven Beck, piano. New Focus Recordings. $16.99.

     Although most contemporary composers claim to want audiences of music lovers for their works, the works themselves often seem directed mostly at other composers, who will understand and admire the craftsmanship evident in the material…or at the academic sphere, where innovation in composition may be prized even if the resulting sound and level of communication do not reach out effectively beyond a small cadre of like-minded admirers. Certainly the music of David Claman, on a new Albany Records CD, and of multiple composers on the latest Navona release featuring the Society of Composers, Inc., is professionally constructed and shows creative capabilities. But nothing on either disc seems particularly concerned with connecting with any audiences beyond those that are interested in now-standard contemporary compositional techniques for their own sake. The Claman disc includes Loose Canons II and, separately, Loose Canons II-IV, for “three electric guitars with sustain devices,” and the self-consciously punny title plus the instrumentation will be all most potential listeners need to know to react to the material – which indeed is neither more nor less than electronically generated and/or enhanced sonic displays. Similarly, The Next Number, “for speaking voices and computer” and utilizing Claman’s own voice, is exactly what would be expected: declaimed words or word parts, numbers, etc., with computer sounds. Ho-hum. Mandeville Pentacle goes a step farther compositionally, being “for speaking and synthesized voices and computer,” but sounds much the same. It is rarely clear, in the many pieces of this sort, whether the words are supposed to matter or are simply atonal tools used to build a soundscape. The effects are a bit different in two works for soprano and piano, From a Dream and Rescue the Dead, but even though here the vocalizations (given standard modern-screechy delivery by Elizabeth Farnum) are more focused on word meaning, the voice and piano parts tend to sound like distractions from each other rather than anything even remotely complementary. So it is throughout the disc, which also includes Variations on ‘Amba Kamakshi’ for alto flute and percussion; an excerpt from Piece of Work “for Max/MSP patch and toy piano samples,” the whole thing performed (if that is the right word) by Claman himself; Avaley Taan for soprano and mezzo with violin, cello, guitar and mandolin; Like This for violin and cello; and Looming and Brit, both for speaking voice and computer. There is nothing unexpected anywhere here – a good thing for listeners devoted to contemporary works for their own sake, but decidedly not for anyone outside the “inner circle” of contemporary composers and their devoted fans. The one piece on the CD with some potential interest beyond a very limited group is Liberties Taken, written for saxophone quartet and using the instruments largely within their ranges and capabilities (instead of trying to force them to produce sounds they were not designed to produce). This work, played by the New Thread Saxophone Quartet, begins with nothing less than a Wagnerian cadence (it sounds like something from Tannhauser), and although liberties are certainly taken with the material soon afterwards, there is at least some sense in which Claman keeps the material grounded in the inherent sound of the instruments – a pleasant contrast to what he does elsewhere. Music of this sort certainly attracts some listeners, but it is hard to see how it reaches out to more listeners than the core group already interested in what Claman and so many other composers produce today on a regular basis.

     Some of those many other composers are the focus of the Society of Composers, Inc. recording. The works here reflect specific techniques and viewpoints, including programmatic ones, without making much of an impact in strictly musical terms: knowing what the pieces are about and how they were constructed makes them considerably more interesting – and that, of course, limits their audience to people willing to invest the time and energy in finding out what the composers thought they were doing and how, largely abandoning listeners who may simply want to hear music for its own sake. Falling Stars by Chin Ting Chan is supposed to reflect Chinese mythology about the death of an important person. Chimera by Bradford Blackburn uses a poem by the composer to look at life in reverse, from adulthood to the time of “kids at play.” Hymn for the Arc Harvester by Philip Schuessler is one of those standard “you pick it, performers” pieces, written for any grouping of pitch-based instruments and using unspecified pitch throughout. Reflecting Pool by Daniel Adams requires complex techniques – another approach typical of many contemporary compositions – such as “tongue slaps and multiphonics” by players of the two instruments (clarinet and bass clarinet); and, also typically, it is filled with metrical and rhythmic changes. Dark Blessing by Tianyi Wang is comparatively straightforward in its exploration of string timbres (it is written for violin, cello and piano), but there is nothing unusual in its attempt to project an ominous sound. Saint John Turned to See the Sound by Paul Paccione is a kind of minimalist vocal sermon, its words in fact taken from a John Donne sermon from 1628, its choral unisons more the point than the words themselves. Cards by Mary Claire Miller is strictly electroacoustic, largely tranquil and static in its attempt to portray summer evenings. Wild Silk by Andrea Reinkemeyer is inspired by an insect, the luna moth, to whose life cycle it is supposed to pay tribute through the unusual instrumental combination of baritone saxophone, percussion and piano. The Ugly Duckling by Allen McCullough is a piano work based on Hans Christian Andersen’s famous fairy tale, the fourth part of a larger (seven-piece) piano suite drawing on myths and legends. And Hungry by Joo Won Park uses words by Jenifer DeBellis for a voice-and-guitar back-and-forth about hunger and deprivation, with electronic sounds intended to represent hunger’s disruptive influence on other elements of life. All these pieces are well-intentioned in their own way – the McCullough and Park, for example, have distinct societal concerns – and all make sense in the context of what the composers want to do and the means they employ to further their ideas. But very little on the disc, which for no apparent reason bears the all-caps overall title of DRIFT, seems concerned with drawing in listeners on an entirely musical basis. The composers seem to speak mostly to themselves and to others in their immediate circles or similar ones elsewhere in the contemporary music scene. Nothing here seems likely to reach out beyond those for whom the material appears originally to have been designed.

     It is not only the young avant-garde, preoccupied with electronics and computers and with extending the range of familiar instruments, that seems less than focused on reaching out beyond a core audience. Highly experienced composers such as Louis Karchin (born 1951) seem to share much of the same temperament, even when using only traditional acoustic instruments. A recent New Focus Recordings release of Karchin’s chamber music includes seven works, two for oboe and violin and the others only for piano and/or violin. Again and again, though, Karchin seems to strive for something beyond music itself, seeking to turn notes into illustrative materials and giving performers a rationale – indeed, a requirement – to push themselves and their instruments beyond the sorts of sounds for which oboe, piano and violin were designed. There is nothing at all wrong with this and, indeed, nothing uncommon about it. But Karchin’s works on this CD, all written between 2004 and 2017, repeatedly hint that the composer could reach beyond a core group of listeners should he so choose – but he does not choose to do so. Thus, Dreamscape and Reflection, the two oboe-and-violin works, revel in violin harmonics and oboe techniques that draw attention to themselves – to how the notes are being played rather than to what they are trying to convey. The titles do not reflect anything particular about the works’ content – indeed, no title on this disc is especially descriptive. Rhapsody, for violin and piano, is certainly not rhapsodic, being jittery and rather scattered-sounding. Dark Mountains/Distant Lights, for solo violin, is insistently virtuosic without being in any way reflective of its titular visual inspiration. Prayer, also for solo violin, has little of the spiritual about it, being more concerned with the heights of the violin’s range than the heights of feeling to which spiritual belief is capable of raising people. The remaining works on the disc are for solo piano. Three Epigrams are epigrammatic enough, each lasting about three-and-a-half minutes, but are not at all reflective of their titles: “Celebration,” “Expressions,” and “Upheavals.” It is necessary to know the works’ inspiration to connect the music with the response it is supposed to provoke – to know, for instance, that “Expressions” is supposed to be a tribute to composer Luigi Nono, and to be familiar enough with Nono’s work to see how Karchin interprets and responds to it. Like so many other modern composers, Karchin insists that listeners do their homework if they are to comprehend his pieces properly; this imposes a kind of self-limitation on the music, since it is scarcely likely that listeners not already enamored of Karchin’s work will pre-invest their time in exploring its reasons for being. Lyrics II consists of two short movements that contrast comparatively slow and serious material with comparatively more-agitated music – without either movement ever delving into anything approaching poetic or sung lyrics or, for that matter, musical lyricism. Karchin’s music is clearly constructed with care: this composer knows what he wants performers to do and how he wants them to interact. But like so many other contemporary composers, Karchin seems much less concerned with what he wants from any potential audience – beyond a presumed group of listeners already familiar with and engaged by his music.

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