May 20, 2021

(+++) AS PERSONAL AS POSSIBLE

Carson Cooman: Organ Music, Volume 14. Erik Simmons, organ. Divine Art. $17.99.

Music from SEAMUS, Volume 30. New Focus Recordings. $16.99.

Curtis J. Stewart: Music for Violin, Vocals, and Electronics. Curtis J. Stewart, violin. Bright Shiny Things. $17.99.

     To get a sense of just how prolific a composer Carson Cooman is, consider that the latest Athene release of his organ music – scarcely the only type he writes – is the 14th in a series. Erik Simmons is methodically working his way through a great deal of Cooman’s organ oeuvre, focusing in this case on sacred and secular works dating to the last decade. Although organ music is itself something of a niche preference, it clearly resonates, both literally and metaphorically, for Cooman (born 1982), who has a fine sense of the organ’s capabilities and a clear comprehension of the many styles that can be used for organ works. Cooman’s poise and classically inflected style show here in Fantasia canonica (2019) and Two from the British Isles (2013), the stately Prelude on “Kingsfold” and animated Postlude on “Hyfrydol.” Impressionism comes to the fore in Three Autumn Sketches after a Watercolor by Maria Willscher (2017), the first quiet and moody, the second more dissonant and featuring clever use of the instrument’s sonic capabilities, and the third chordal and crepuscular. Simmons fully explores the tonal and emotional colors of these pieces and, indeed, all the works on this disc, next offering the strongly emphatic A St. Patrick Silhouette (2020), then the equally strongly accented St. Michael Antiphonies (2015). After this come two entirely secular works from 2020, Desert Marigold (featuring delicate tone-painting) and Preludio del ricordo (whose boldness makes for an effective contrast). The disc concludes with a return to the classical poise of Fantasia canonica by presenting Suite circulaire (2018) – a well-built Praeludium, contemplative Ricercare, and suitably virtuosic final Toccata. Cooman moves without apparent effort between tonality and considerable dissonance, between comparatively strict adherence to old forms and fantasia-like development of newer ones. The organ used for this recording – a 2014 instrument at a church in Billerbeck, Germany – fits the music particularly well, and Simmons’ comfort with and advocacy of the material comes through consistently. Fourteen discs (so far) of contemporary organ music are, by any measure, a very considerable library – and testimony both to Cooman’s skill in creating the material and Simmons’ in performing it.

     The ultra-modern offerings of the Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States have been offered as recordings for even longer than has Cooman’s organ music – and SEAMUS’ composers and compositions remain as divisive and polarizing as ever. The 30th volume of these pieces, issued by New Focus Recordings, includes nine works created between 2018 and 2021, and their provenance, sound and intentions are about as far as can be imagined from those of Cooman’s organ music of the same time frame. It is fair to suggest that only listeners who are very, very well-versed in the electro-acoustic world will be able to distinguish among these composers and these works based on the titles and/or sounds. Christopher Biggs’ Monstress (2019) for piano and electronics is based on comic books. Elizabeth Hoffman’s clouds pattern (2021) explores computerized acoustic production and modification. Joo Won Park’s Func Step Mode (2019) is an extended, aurally painful set of feedback rhythms and dripping-water perceptions. Julie Herndon’s A Long Postlude (2018) combines text about Alexander Graham Bell with Mormon prophecies, all mixed with considerable vocal processing. Mei-ling Lee’s Giant Dipper (2019) melds roller-coaster sounds and the voice of an eight-year-old girl in such a way as to complicate, through electronics, a forthrightly joyful experience of youth. Jiayue Cecilia Wu’s For Tashi (2019) attempts to explore coping with miscarriage through a combination of outdoor sounds, human voices and pure electronics, with everything modified and intermingled. Kelley Sheehan’s Talk Circus (2018) uses two percussionists as the basis for electronics that are drawn directly from the percussion instruments through the use of contact microphones. Heather Stebbins’ things that follow (2018), also for percussion and electronics, mixes sounds in ways that begin with intensity and end with greater lightness, if not levity. And Lyn Goeringer’s waterside (2020) proffers comparative calm through ebbing and flowing liquid-like sounds. All these works are determinedly intellectual exercises, even though some – notably Wu’s – flow from highly emotional circumstances. For all the near-infinite variety of available electronic sounds and electronic modifications of acoustic ones, the pieces have a sameness about them that makes it very difficult, except perhaps for the cognoscenti, to hear the relationships between the works’ titles and intents, on the one hand, and their sonic world, on the other. This is not music that reaches out beyond a core group already committed to its standards and practices: the techniques of specific pieces differ considerably, but their overall effect does so to only a small degree.

     A new Bright Shiny Things release featuring Curtis J. Stewart is also an extremely personal and personalized experience – one that will communicate effectively only to listeners who find themselves very much in tune (so to speak) with Stewart’s motivations and forms of expression. Stewart, an African-American classical violinist of considerable skill, here tries to incorporate his skin color, and its implications, into a musically derived narrative involving everything from traditional classical compositions to jazz to reggae to the experiential nature of being a caretaker for his mother. This is a lot to ask of music, any type of music, and the extremely self-referential nature of Stewart’s personal narrative practically guarantees that the disc will be unable to connect with listeners in more than a general way: only someone with Stewart’s particular set of experiences and concerns will fully resonate to the material, which basically means the CD is for Stewart himself and only incidentally for anyone else. There is nothing wrong with this: Bach wrote his Goldberg Variations for a single individual, Mozart his Magic Flute largely for his fellow Masons. But certainly these pieces and many others reach out and connect with far, far more people than they were originally intended to touch. Stewart’s approach here, however, is not to compose meaningful music that may or may not connect with others, but to alter and reinterpret existing music in highly personal ways – on the basis that the interpretations/reinterpretations will themselves reach out effectively. This is all very earnest, very determined, and on a strictly musical basis is very unconvincing. But the music here is more a means to an end than the end in itself. For example, a track labeled Beethoven 2020, very loosely connected to the “Les Adieux” sonata, has piano in the background while, in the foreground, Stewart talks and talks about healthcare concerns and complexities – ending with the line, “I really have no f***ing clue what I’m doing.” The narrative relates vaguely to departures, hence (presumably) the choice of musical snippets, but the music is not what matters here. When Stewart plays the violin rather than narrating and playing piano, his musicality and communicative ability come through far more effectively, as in Improvisation on Paganini Caprice #11 – in which, however, the inclusions of electronic sounds and modifications via digital workstation come across as distractions from the music rather than additions to or expansions of it. The underlying musical material here is by no means entirely classical: Stewart incorporates material from Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Stevie Wonder and others in addition to works (or bits of works) by Bach and Ysa├┐e. The journey on this disc is only incidentally a musical one; the CD is in a sense nonmusical, in another sense meta-musical. As an expression of Stewart’s own thoughts, feelings, concerns and worries, the CD is an impressive achievement in reaching out for meaning through music and other methods. But as an attempt to connect with other people – if that is even a factor here – the disc is just too self-centered and self-involved to be the sort of emotional touchstone that Stewart apparently wants it to be.

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