November 11, 2021


Graham Lynch: White Books 2 and 3; Absolute Inwardness; The Couperin Sketchbooks; Ay! Paul Sánchez and Albert Kim, piano. Divine Art. $18.99.

Eric Craven: Pieces for Pianists, Volume 2. Mary Dullea, piano. Métier. $18.99.

     There is always a reason, and usually a rationale, for the creation of music. It may be something as simple as being a job requirement: the days of composers being members of royal households are over, but those of being composers-in-residence are very much with us and in some ways not all that different. There can be endless debates about the reasons certain pieces were written – Mozart’s last three symphonies, for example. And composers themselves may contribute to arguments about a work’s reason for being – as with Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 also being performed as a symphonic poem and tone poem, called or not called “Titan,” and containing or not containing the “Blumine” movement. In general, though, composers in the past were concerned about how effectively their works would reach their intended audiences, whether royal employers or paying concertgoers, and less concerned about drawing attention to themselves and their particular compositional methods and approaches. For many of today’s composers, however, there seems to be great concern about focusing on their thinking and their reasons for creating specific works, and less of a focus on listeners – particularly listeners not motivated to delve into a piece’s structure and history before hearing it. How well all this works is a matter of opinion. A new Divine Art release featuring piano music by Graham Lynch, for example, really requires knowledge of Lynch’s compositional thought process for listeners to be able to appreciate the material. Why, for example, are the two extended suites here called White Book? Lynch says he was inspired by the harpsichord ordres of François Couperin, but he also points out differing influences in the six-movement White Book 2 (2008) and the five-movement White Book 3 (2020). Each movement of each White Book bears an evocative title, and it is clear that Lynch has an interest in certain specific forms of expression from what he calls the movements – for example, “Undiscovered Islands” in White Book 2 and “The Hesperides” in White Book 3. The question for listeners who simply want to hear the music is whether they can simply hear and enjoy it, and will find it communicating effectively in some way, if they do not first explore the poems of Federico Garcia Lorca and the art of Henri Matisse (two influences on White Book 2), or the paintings of Christopher Le Brun (a major influence on White Book 3). The answer is that the works, which lie well on the piano and possess strong hints of Impressionism, do in fact “speak” to listeners without their background being known – but may not say what Lynch intends them to say. The last piece of White Book 3, for example, is called “Landscapes with Angels” and is supposed to reflect both a heavenly presence on Earth and the paintings of Le Brun; what it actually does is present a rather pleasantly evanescent sense of delicacy that, to some listeners, may have a flavor of otherworldliness – or may not. And the third piece of White Book 2, called “Dragon,” is unexpectedly flowing and gentle – only listeners familiar with the dragon as thought of in the Orient will hear this vignette as Lynch intends. The CD also includes three single-movement works. The earliest, from 2006, is called Ay! Listeners need to know that Spanish expression of feeling to get the full flavor of the piece, although its dark mood comes through clearly enough (Lynch originally wrote it for harpsichord – an interesting decision). The other single-movement works date to 2020. Absolute Inwardness is intended as a kind of musical navel-gazing, with reference to the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, but comes across as a largely disconnected-from-itself series of stops-and-starts and intermittent focuses. And The Couperin Sketchbooks really does require familiarity with the earlier composer for its full effect, since it includes snippets of his work and has a series of subsection titles that refer to Couperin’s themes and times. This work would have been an interesting one on harpsichord, Couperin’s instrument, but Lynch wrote it for piano, on which it emerges as a series of brief, unconnected sections of varying degrees of pleasantness. The two pianists – Albert Kim plays White Book 2 and Paul Sánchez the other works – both handle the material with engagement, understanding and skill. And Lynch certainly knows how to call for pianistic expressiveness. But his expectations of listeners are not really reasonable: it is one thing to become curious about a work’s provenance after hearing and being intrigued by it, but quite another to need to know why the composer created it and what you are supposed to take from it in order to enjoy it fully in the first place.

     Eric Craven’s piano works on a new Métier CD require even more advance planning and understanding for enjoyment – in fact, the disc says they are “performed and realised” by Mary Dullea, because these 25 little pieces have aleatoric elements that require the pianist to cooperate in creating the music, not merely to reproduce and interpret the composer’s material. Craven goes out of his way to inject himself into the process by establishing a sort of aura of mystery around his life, refusing to divulge his birth year and stating that what he really wants is to work entirely unconnected with other musicians. Well, all right, but if that were really true, he would not connect with performers either, and all his music would exist solely in his own head and/or his own notebooks – which would be fine if that was what he truly wanted. But that is not what Craven desires, since he is one of those composers who have invented their own forms of creation, called (in Craven’s case) “Non-Prescriptive Compositional and Performance Technique.” Despite the elaborate title, it is nothing really new – it simply means that the composer does not fully dictate what the performer will do, leaving some matters of form and substance up to the pianist. Craven subdivides his compositional method into three levels: one gives performers pitch, rhythm and duration; one gives only pitch; and one offers pitch and rhythm in arbitrary order. There is of course nothing “wrong” with any of this – composers create as they wish, using whatever methods they choose, and if John Cage could, as long ago as 1952, define as music a piece in which the performer sits and listens to the audience for four minutes and 33 seconds, then Craven can certainly say that a work giving nothing but pitch and leaving the rest up to the performer is music. But what does Craven want an audience to take away from his piano pieces? Perhaps nothing, or nothing in particular, since he calls these works Pieces for Pianists, not “pieces for listeners.” The specific pianist here, Dullea, clearly believes in whatever Craven is doing, having recorded his music several times. The question for listeners is what they will get out of what Craven offers, or rather what Craven and Dullea offer together. There is an hour of music here, essentially an hour of etudes that range in length from less than a minute to three-and-a-half. There is no way for listeners to untangle Dullea’s contributions from Craven’s, which presumably is the point. Unlike the elaborately titled works by Ludo, these little ones are simply numbered: No. 1 through No. 25. This avoids giving even a hint of any piece’s content; again, this is presumably part of the point. There is a tiny bit of lyricism in No. 1, some stepwise motion in No. 2, some skittering across the keyboard in No. 3, some repetitious delicacy in No. 4, and so on. From a pianist’s perspective, these are not exactly etudes, since they do not appear designed to help develop technique or showcase virtuosity, sensitivity, lyricism or any other element of piano playing. But for listeners, they come across as etudes in the sense of being short, self-contained pieces unconnected to each other and sequenced in some unknowable fashion – no circle of fifths here! It is difficult to figure out what audience Craven wants to reach with this material, and even whether he wants to reach an audience of listeners at all (as opposed to an audience of pianists). This is therefore a CD solely for people who want to know how piano pieces sound when created (in collaborative fashion) by a contemporary composer in recent years (2017-2019), using a compositional system of his own devising, and in part by a performer who also functions to “realise” whatever the composer’s intentions may (or may not) be.

No comments:

Post a Comment