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CD Review

Carlton Vickers

Over from Silence

  • Mario Davidowsky: Synchronisms #1 for Flute and Electronic Sounds
  • Jörg Herchet: Komposition 1 and Komposition 2 for Flute Solo
  • Arthur Kreiger: Intimate Exchanges for Flute and Electronic Tape
  • Donald Martino: Quodlibets II for Flute Solo
  • Kaija Saariaho: Laconisme de l'aile
  • Friedrich Schenker: Solo II for 1 Flutist
Carlton Vickers, flute
Context 11012 69:13

Summary for the Busy Executive: Sound the flute! Now it's mute!

I'm not all that fond of music that mixes tape and "real" instruments. I'm not fond of the sound of a solo flute. That said, the CD surprised me somewhat. I liked it a lot better than the paper specifications would have promised. All the pieces come from what Charles Rosen might describe as the "hard" wing of contemporary music, and yet when you hear the pieces, you realize immediately how useless such a description is. Almost all the composers on the program came into prominence in the Sixties and Seventies. None of them follow a Comintern monolithic line: they don't really sound like one another and, as in any other music, they use general techniques more or less well than some. A brief glance at the titles on the CD reveals an aura that hung around compositions very much a part of its time: abstract, pseudo-philosophic, pseudo-technological. After all, when you come down to it, what exactly is a "synchronism" or a "laconism," other than an ugly piece of jargon that has a perfectly good equivalent in real English? Why should the listener have to translate from English to English or from French to French simply because a composer has a thesaurus on his desk? Although one can easily make fun of the titles, titles aren't music. As with other CD collections, no matter what the period, I liked certain works. Other works either impressed me very little or I actively disliked.

The hero of this CD is really Carlton Vickers, a pupil of, among others, legendary New York Philharmonic principal Julius Baker, and he manages to make real music out of everything he plays, even out of the pieces I don't particularly care for. Vickers has specialized in contemporary music, but even so it can't be easy, despite how "natural" and "right" his interpretations sound. You would think the music had no problems at all.

Argentinean-born Mario Davidowsky at the time of recording (1997) was teaching at Harvard. He may have retired since. To let you know how old I am, I remember him as a young Turk. Both of us got older. Synchronisms #1 is first in a series of similarly-named pieces, all of which pit a solo instrument against some sort of ensemble – here, multi-track tape. The composition mixes the sound of the flute with synthesized sounds, most of which, interestingly enough, have some relation to the real flute. It's a very imaginative, though brief, piece (4 minutes) and not simply because of its sounds. The tonal similarities of the two actors lead to some fascinating byplay, and Davidowsky structures the piece as a series of surprises and sharp contrasts: a languorous song suddenly gives way to ecstatic dancing or bright chatter. You may find yourself wanting it to last longer. Vickers is so in synch with the tape, that at a certain point it felt like two human actors. I forgot the machine entirely.

Jörg Herchet, an East German before reunification, found himself in trouble with his country's official arbiters of art. However, he also picked up a growing international rep as a Hot Prospect. Komposition 1 and Komposition 2 both are seen by the composer as abstract music without following a traditional form, like rondo, for example. This is, of course, hardly new. The only new – that is, culturally new -thing about them is the drabness of the titles the composer chose. For me, the titles and the pieces themselves have all the spirit and charm of cinder block – row-like riffs, with very Seventies sound effects thrown in now and again. The obfuscatory liner notes by the composer fail to help his cause. Indeed, they mainly reinforce the impression of mediocrity trying to get by on pretension. There's probably a difference between these two works and aimless noodling around, but the composer gives me no reason to want to spend time finding it.

Arthur Kreiger studied with Davidowsky, among others. Intimate Exchanges in general does what Davidowsky's Synchronism #1 does, but they are hardly the same piece. Kreiger to me has a more sensuous artistic personality than Davidowsky. The electronic sounds are both delicate and sonorous, the flute line almost Debussy-Impressionistic, like the classic Syrinx. A beautiful work. Again, Vickers finds an artistic "groove" with the tape – tight where he needs to be, and loose enough to give the impression of Mengelbergian rubato.

American composer Donald Martino indulges in a bit of ironic humor with his title Quodlibets. As you know, a quodlibet contrapuntally mingles independent tunes, like "Humoresque" and "Way Down upon the Swanee River." Bach's final Goldberg variation is probably the best-known example of the form. How does one do this for a single-voiced instrument? It turns out that a secondary use of the term denotes a composition in which "one damn thing follows another." Even so, this counts as another irony, since Martino has composed a highly-organized work. Finally, quodlibets generally imply light fun. One can tell from the movement titles, if from nothing else, that Martino's pretty serious. The second movement, "In Eius Memoriam" ("in his memory"), Martino wrote as an elegy for fellow composer Seymore Schifrin. The liner notes, by Vickers, call the work "suave and dramatic," which pretty much sums it up. It's also a work of quick swings of mood and difficult as hell to play. Again, Vickers pulls of the miracle of making it all sound "natural."

At fifty, Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho is the youngest composer here. Laconisme d'aile ("terseness of the wing") seeks to capture the flight of birds and in the process turns the flutist into a kind of Bobby McFerrin one-man band. The flutist not only gets to pull off such effects as multiphonics, microtones, overblowing, having the keys tap without breath, but also to recite lines of French poetry by St. John Perse. Spoken French is a closed book to me (I do read it), and it might have been nice to include a translation for me and other dullards, rather than testimonials to Vickers's playing, patently astonishing all on its own. The piece lasts close to twelve minutes, and I'd be lying if I said "never a dull moment." Nevertheless, a lot of it does keep my interest, beautifully poetic, with subtle hints of the old modes in the flute's song, with only an occasional lapse into stuff I already got the point of.

Friedrich Schenker, a pupil of both Eisler and Dessau, uses piccolo, C flute, and alto flute – one for each of the three movements of his Solo II. The first movement, for piccolo, actively annoys me, with ear-splitting jabs from the instrument's extreme heights for no good reason, as far as I can tell. The second movement, for C flute, is in contrast as bland as a bowl of tapioca. The finale, for alto flute, seeks to combine the elements of the previous movements, with the results one would expect: boredom and irritation. This is one piece that not even Vickers's virtuosity and incredible musicianship can rescue. Why Schenker thought this would interest anyone other than a player and himself is a question I can't answer.

The sound is very good indeed, encompassing a huge dynamic range with no discernable distortion.

Copyright © 2002, Steve Schwartz