GREGORY HALL: ‘Compositional Improvisations – from The Mysteria, Vol.1’ = Reflects dans le soleil; Introduction to “The Mysteria”; Thouros and Phosphoros; Mabou; Appledore; Symbolist Minimal; Apotheosis – Gregory Hall. p. – Ravello Records RR7870, 71:45 (Distr. by Naxos) (8/27/13) ***:
Composer-pianist Gregory Hall is a very talented performer, have no doubt. A graduate of the Curtis Institute, he studied composition with Ned Rorem and he has made his mark with what he calls “compositional improvisation.”
The term is a bit self-explanatory as these are seven of the many live stream piano improvisations that Hall has created very much on the spot. His style draws from many diverse and musically significant resources. Throughout these pieces, one will hear moments that are reminiscent of Debussy, Rachmaninov, Tcherepnin and, perhaps most significantly, Alexander Scriabin.
Hall acknowledges a link to Scriabin’s final, unfinished mammoth work, the Mysterium. In fact, much of the harmony that Hall utilizes in his works does lie in the drifting, polytonal realm somewhere in between Debussy and Scriabin. In a way, what the Ravello press material calls “sprawling-yet-contained passages” comprise what, for me, was both the strength as well as the weakness in these works.
Hall’s music, much like Scriabin’s, does contain some luxurious harmonies and a very transcendental flow that evokes other worlds. In fact, there are sections in each of these works that are quite lovely. As mentioned, Greg Hall is clearly a very fine pianist and I wonder if his pieces like this were fully written out so that others could, theoretically, duplicate the sound; would it be so? Nearly all true improvisation, classical or otherwise, is dependent on both the skillset as well as the imagination of the performing artist.
Hall, in referring to Scriabin’s Mysterium, mentions that Scriabin’s vision was that that piece was to be monumentally long, “apocalyptic” and to become increasingly more improvisatory throughout. Hall’s music seems to progress the same way. Pieces begin sounding fairly structured, with a core harmonic sequence or a section of melody that acted on until the music strays into very complex territory and, yet, we hear the origins. I felt all of these traits were the most perceptible in his Thouros and Phosphoros.
If there is a problem, it is that sprawling notion. One has to listen attentively to where these improvised works are “going”; which does take a while and the conclusion seems to kind of creep up on the listener, in a fairly unforeseen way. The other issue is – to an extent – that there is a sameness of tone to the whole collection. Certainly, there are differences in mood and in choice of harmonic palate from work to work but the whole album sounds more like one giant improv; “background music” in a way that may dissuade the hard core classical listener. (Even to think of this as an example of “contemporary classical piano” music would be pretty misleading.)
So, the effect of Gregory Hall’s piano music, for me, is a little mixed. This is a nice, pleasant and – somewhat – cerebral experience but this is really a sort of sophisticated background listening; neither typical, tightly structured “classical” nor new age/easy listening/whatever. It forces your attention much more than that but definitely not in the same way as say some of the Scriabin Etudes.