ARLENE SIERRA, Vol. 1 = Cicada Shell for chamber ensemble; Birds and Insects, Book I, for solo piano; Surrounded Ground for sextet; Two Neruda Odes for soprano, cello, and piano; Colmena for 14 players; Ballistae for 13 players – Vassily Primakov, piano (Birds and Insects)/ Charles Neidich, clarinet/ Stephen Gosling, piano / Susan Nanucki, soprano/ Raman Ramarkrishnan, cello/ Daedalus Quartet / International Contemporary Ensemble/ Jayce Ogren – Bridge 9343, 72:30 [Distr. by Albany] ***1/2:
Insects and Paper Airplanes: Chamber Music of LAWRENCE DILLON = String Quartet No. 4, “The Infinite Sphere”; String Quartet No. 3, “Air”; String Quartet No. 2, “Flight”; What Happened – Daedalus Quartet/ Kyu-Young, piano/ Jessica Thompson, viola/ Raman Ramarkrishnan, cello/ Benjamin Hochman, piano – Bridge 9332, 72:35 [Distr. by Albany] ****:
Critical reaction to these two contemporary composers, Arlene Sierra and Lawrence Dillon, demonstrate that there’s a significant difference between wit and humor. A publication of the American Academy of Arts and Letters describes Arlene Sierra’s music as “by turns. . .urgent, poetic, evocative, and witty.” Meanwhile, the notes to the recording of Lawrence Dillon’s chamber music ascribes to it “Passionate lyricism, bone-rattling power chords, rustic charm, chilling non-sequiturs, quiet introspection, [and] rollicking humor. . . .” among other attributes. I would concede that Sierra’s music exhibits wittiness in the dictionary sense of “clever ingeniousness.” As I listened, however, I didn’t crack a smile once, but it’s hard not to do so while listening to the sometimes endearingly wacky music of Lawrence Dillon.
Part of the searching ingeniousness of Arlene Sierra’s music inheres in the influence that Luciano Berio had on her work. According to Richard Whitehouse’s introductory notes to the recording, like Berio’s compositions, Sierra’s “fall into self-contained groups whose inter-connections are as much conceptual as musical.” One such group is Sierra’s series entitled The Art of War, which includes the individual works Surrounded Ground, Cicada Shell, and Ballistae. According to Sierra, Surrounded Ground is an attempt to address the issues of “present-day American militarism and its consequences for the world.” Well, that’s a pretty tall order for any piece of music, and I can’t say as I hear a political diatribe here—just a bunch of well-turned notes. The title comes from Sun Tzu’s classic The Art of War in which surrounded ground is described as “where the entrance is narrow, the exit circuitous, allowing the enemy to attack his few to our many.” The music follows several of Sun Tzu’s scenarios and dicta, including a feigned retreat (second movement) and the egress from the surrounded ground (third movement), as the beleaguered troops fight their way out in the most nervously aggressive music of the piece.
Cicada Shell pays tribute to Sun Tzu’s “Strategy 21: Slough off the cicada shell,” which counsels that warriors should use ruses and deception to put one over on their enemies. The same nervous energy informs this music about avoiding detection by various shape-shifting stratagems.
In fact, I find that for all the different instrumental forces employed in Sierra’s music (solo piano, chamber ensemble, sextet), there is a dully redundant approach to her compositional style: tiny syncopated musical cells that repeat and repeat with growing restless kinesis. Richard Whitehouse calls attention to Sierra’s principal teacher, Jacob Druckman, as the source of “the pristine clarity of her music’s textures,” but the twenty-first century angst and perturbation of soul in her work remind me more of another of Sierra’s teachers, Oliver Knussen. Like Knussen, Sierra writes intelligently and even movingly for the voice; the Two Neruda Odes may be my favorite music on the disc. But for me, there is simply not enough variety in the music on offer here to suggest “the arrival of a significant composer.” Maybe Volume 2 will bring further enlightenment. If it includes such stylish performances and recording as we have on the present disc, the composer should be pleased with the results.
The same sorts of clever extramusical considerations inform the music of Lawrence Dillon, but Dillon seems to be content to take himself much less seriously. Each of his six string quartets is based on some witty (in the sense of ingenious) conceit or other, but the results are sometimes overtly humorous, as in Quartet No. 4. Inspired by philosopher Blaise Pascal’s imagining of an “infinite sphere, whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere,” Dillon plays off the musical ideas of round and rondo, creating a “two-movement rondo structure (ABAC-ABA) in which surface details reflect the wheels-within-wheels form.” It all sounds deadly serious, but in execution, Dillon’s piece appears to juxtapose country fiddling and rock-n-roll progression against Classical scherzo, the latter exploding in “a comically unwinding transition that evokes a wheel spinning to a halt. . . .” The second movement starts with a ghostly round dance, punctuated by nervous tremolos, before the loopy rock music of the first movement returns in true rondo fashion. It’s an appealingly lively mishmash—I hesitate to call it a fusion!
The other quartets on the disc celebrate further musical ideas, Quartet No. 3 dedicated to the air/aria. Besides the obvious tributes to opera, the piece begins and ends with a fanciful flight through that other type of air, the one made of widely spaced molecules. Again, the juxtaposition of a musical evocation of soaring together with a sultry habanera-like aria, sung by violins and viola in unison over cello pizzicatos, elicits a smile, plus respect for the composer’s craft.
Quartet No. 2 is based on a conflation of fugue with its derivation from the Latin fuga, meaning flight. The six movements play off a variety of flying objects: birds, insects and paper airplanes, stars (which give the illusion of flying across the night sky), swing sets, and those aerialists of old, Daedalus and Icarus. Movement 4 is a “celebration,” if that’s the right word, of Professor Samuel P. Langley’s ill-fated experiment of 1903 with the steam-powered unmanned aircraft called the aerodrome. Full of sound and fury, it plunged ingloriously into the Potomac River without ever gaining the air. Dillon’s music is a pretty apt evocation of the scene, and the composer does right as well by his other representations, including that of Daedalus and Icarus, who get treated to an ambitious “double-fugue with contrasting subjects: first Daedalus, the creative muse of flight, followed by Icarus, the ambitious, aggressive manipulator of flight.”
What Happened for piano quartet again features quirky juxtapositions: a seriously intentioned, sonata-form first movement against an off-kilter central anthem and a mad, galloping finale that seems designed as the musical accompaniment for some twenty-first-century silent movie. Somehow, it all works.
It’s of course helpful that Dillon has performers like Bridge’s house quartet, the Daedalus, and pianist Benjamin Hochman in his corner. They play with polish and real affection, to the great benefit of the musical experience. Arlene Sierra may be on a hotter career track right now, but based on these two discs, Lawrence Dillon gets my vote for a recording that offers a second helping of representative music. What about it, Bridge?
— Lee Passarella
A rich reflections into Rachmaninoff’s oeuvre