I don't quite understand why some people need brand-name cachet when it comes to art or the guarantee of a Genuine Masterpiece. Art seems to me at best a tough, risky business. I don't expect every new work I see or hear to open up new worlds or overwhelm me. Indeed, this seldom happens, but it doesn't stop me from listening. Collections like this of new music especially draw me, especially when I don't know the work or even the names. With the exception of Aaron Rabushka, I'd never heard of any of these folks before, and I'd never heard any of their music. This collection is definitely a mixed bag, not that one can reasonably expect otherwise.
The good news is that all these composers orchestrate wonderfully well. Snyder's Namdaemun takes off from pentatonic Asian (more specifically, Korean) music and post-bop jazz. Rhythmic emphasis provides the link, although I found the jazz more convincing than the Asian tribute, which rather palely reflected the music of the likes of Hovhaness and Harrison.
The problem with Mark Winges's Aural Colors is aptly summed up by the composer himself: "AURAL COLORS is concerned with the large palette of sounds available in the modern symphony orchestra." Unfortunately, that's all I got from it. I found no memorable gesture or tune in the work. The score marking incisive seemed at odds with the aimless nature of the music.
Patterson's Hermit's Blue is one of several pieces the composer based on the song of the hermit thrush. Apparently Patterson intends it as program music, for he includes "a Native American legend" in his remarks. The piece makes some lush, atmospheric sounds, but it's really a "safe" work. The composer takes very few risks compared to other "bird" composers like Vaughan Williams, Stravinsky, Messiaen, or for that matter Beethoven, and, I must say, reaps very few rewards. The good news and the bad news is the same news: it's short. At least Patterson doesn't try to inflate the slender material, but the length offers no scope.
Portrait… by John M. Kennedy is the sort of musical Olestra they used to write in university composition departments during the 60s and 70s. Apparently, they're still at it. Kennedy studied at the University of Michigan (where I did my graduate work), and without looking, I could name his teachers. Whatever individuality Kennedy may have had initially seems to have been checked at the classroom door. Nevertheless, I am impressed - no kidding - by the composer's craft. This is not easy stuff to write, but the difficulty is, of course, no justification.
Of course, the name Aaron Rabushka initially attracted me to this CD. I know Aaron through his posts to Internet musical discussion groups, and I wanted to find out about his music. I thought I had some fix on his musical style, based on the other composers' works, but he turns up as the Joker in the deck. He sounds like nobody else. An individual voice isn't everything, of course. In one sense, it's pretty easy to find an original manner. But it is indeed hard to be both original and compelling, and it's something that really no teacher, however encouraging, can teach you. You have it from the start, like Mussorgsky, or you spend years and sweat working for it.
Rabushka wrote his harp concerto at roughly 20, so he seems to have been blessed. The harp is hell to write for. It's undoubtedly one of the oldest instruments known to man (that, the drums, and the conch shell), and - let's face it - music has changed in 20,000 years. The harp has changed very little. Even the addition of mechanisms in the 19th-century has only slightly altered its basic character.
I've read and re-read the seventeen pages in Piston's Orchestration on the instrument, and I still haven't a clue as to what constitutes idiomatic writing. First, the instrument's "natural" key is Cb, which most other musicians encounter only slightly more often than chicken lips. Despite its full name of "chromatic harp," it is essentially a diatonic or modal instrument. During performance, a harpist can alter pitch in one of two ways: first, by applying a tuning key to the pins at the top of the instrument; second (and more usual), by a group of seven foot pedals set around the instrument's base. Each pedal has three positions: "flat," "natural," and "sharp," ranging from "relaxed" to "tauter" stretch on each string. Taking the Cb string: "flat" gives you the pitch Cb, "natural" the pitch C, and "sharp" the pitch C#. A chromatic scale consequently takes some fancy footwork from the harpist.
Since most 20th-century music is highly chromatic, there hasn't been a lot of work featuring the instrument solo - at least, not written by non-harpists. Most composers cop out and write for the instrument as an orchestral "color." The composers brave enough to try their luck have taken one of two paths. First, they accept the nature of the instrument and write diatonically or modally. In this category, we find Debussy, Ravel, Rodrigo, Tailleferre, Damase, Hovhaness, and Hindemith. Second, they brilliantly create the illusion of chromaticism: Ginastera, Britten, and Krenek (who wrote an amazingly effective dodecaphonic sonata). In Britten's "In Freezing Winter Night" from Ceremony of Carols, for example, we find chords that sound like clusters of three adjacent chromatic pitches, but it's a brilliant trick on the ear, since at least one of those intervals always turns out to be a whole, rather than half step.
Well, it's an awful lot to keep straight. That Rabushka wrote so effectively at such a young age for an instrument not his own (he's a trombonist) argues volumes for the true nature of his calling. The orchestra begins in D and the harp joins in at Eb (a key requiring fewer pedal changes). Rabushka even builds this into a dramatic feature, when at the first movement's recapitulation, the orchestra and the harp fight it out as to which key they will end in (they end in both). The music itself sounds as if it longs for the Middle East - more melodic than chordal. Throughout, the orchestration is light enough so that even the low notes of the harp can sound out. The slow movement follows attaca with a recitative for solo double bass reminiscent of cantorial chant. The harp enters in a modal c minor, which means, among other things, that the performer doesn't have to change pedals from Eb. Still, the music is more than mere felicity for the harp. The chant broods with real power. A sudden outburst of bright, piercing color at the end not only balances the gloom, but bridges to the third section, a dance, again, that would seem at home in the Middle East. Rabushka's liveliest counterpoint occurs here and strong rhythms pulse throughout. My only carp - and it's a minor one - is Rabushka's overreliance on drone. But this is a feature of the music on which the movement is based, and the change of stasis point always surprises me. Nevertheless, a very impressive work and one that makes me want to hear what Rabushka's written in the nearly twenty years since.
Rabushka has stated his gratitude for the quality of the performance, important to the acceptance of new work. To me, it's either a bland orchestral performance (the harpist is fine) or the engineers seriously under-recorded - probably the latter. It's like listening to the orchestra from the lobby. This afflicts the Winges and Kennedy works as well, so it's probably no fluke that the Snyder and Patterson come from the same engineers. Still, the performances are all professional quality, so you're not listening to game tries.
Copyright © 1997, Steve Schwartz