Jeffrey Brooks – The Passion – [TrackList follows] – Cantaloupe Music/Innova CA21146, 40:31 [5/10/19] ****:
There is a cycling sensation throughout composer Jeffrey Brooks’ 40-minute, three-track release The Passion, which includes arrangements featuring the Bang on a Can All-Stars, selected members of the Contemporaneous ensemble and conductor David Bloom (founding co-artistic director and conductor of Contemporaneous). The neo-classical album is also the first collaboration between the Bang on a Can All-Stars’ label, Cantaloupe Music, and the Innova imprint (which champions visionary composers and performers). The lengthy pieces (which range from eight minutes to nearly 22 minutes) were specifically arranged for an amplified, large band which combines keyboards, percussion, electric guitar, drums, various strings, voices, woodwinds and horns. The Passion is available as high-quality digital download files and as a six-panel CD Digipak which has a 12-page insert booklet with a libretto, Brooks’ liner notes and assorted artwork. This review refers to the compact disc.
The material is a solid representation of Brook’s past and present, so a cycle of time can be heard. Also, the arrangements frequently use repetition, recurring motifs and minimalism to great effect, so there is also a musically periodic progression which can be experienced. The almost eight-minute opener, “After the Treewatcher,” offers a good example of the record’s foundation of re-evolution. It is inspired by Bang on a Can All-Stars co-founder Michael Gordon’s early 1980s composition, “The Treewatcher,” written for solo rock organ. The composition caused quite a stir among skeptical academics. Brooks re-fashioned what he recalled from Gordon’s work; he maintains the original’s hypnotic trait and glacially incremental changes but otherwise shaped something new and unique. Notable contributions come from guitarist Taylor Levine, pianist Vicky Chow and the massed horns/strings. In a nod (and a wink) at Gordon, Brooks has someone repeatedly hit a hotel registration desk bell, which also ended Gordon’s composition.
The 11-minute “Capriccio on the Departure of a Beloved Brother” is a memorial to English composer Steve Martland, who unexpectedly passed away in 2013. Brooks and Martland were both composer fellows at Tanglewood in 1984 and remained close friends. Brooks’ undertaking is based on Bach’s work of the same name, so the performance evokes nostalgia, memory, remembrance, amity, affirmation, grief and loss. The tune starts and concludes with the sound of old, scratchy vinyl and quickly steps forward to upsurges of electric guitar, drums, stabbing organ and electric bass which echoes Martland’s employment of amplified, hefty and often strongly rhythmic components. “Capriccio on the Departure of a Beloved Brother” also has a tender mid-section with light percussion, droning woodwinds and a loop of the scratchy vinyl noise, which all provide a soothing interval.
The centerpiece is the 21:30 title track, a three-movement opus which adds vocals to the orchestral olio. In his liner notes, Brooks mentions his intention was to devise a modern musical Passion, which traditionally is a musical adaptation related to the Passion of Christ. But instead of a spiritual occurrence retelling the suffering of Christianity’s icon, Brooks wanted to focus on the anguish and afflictions of the people around us: the homeless; ailing and sick people; the mentally ill; exploited and undocumented workers; and so on. The first movement is entirely instrumental and concentrates on the interaction of the amplified and acoustic elements who intertwine round a persistent theme. The text for the second movement is taken from Los Angeles journalist Jefferson Reid’s project where he followed some of the LA community’s unfortunate citizens, including an immigrant worker with a hurt leg and a mentally ill woman who is a hoarder. Rather than using singing, Brooks utilizes three digitally-altered voices which supply a disorienting and robotic tone akin to public addresses in airports and are more confusing since all three voices arise at the same time but in different languages. The third movement’s words were penned by Brooks’ sister, as she was dying from cancer. The lyrics come from a pamphlet she wrote as ‘instructions for living’ for her four children, which comprise mundane topics such as ‘see your dentist twice a year’ to philosophical reminders such as ‘think first, then act.’ The Passion is a definitive and masterful achievement, a mainly hard-charging and multicolored venture which will hopefully put Brooks into the same tiers as parallel composers such as Nico Muhly, John Adams, Max Richter and others.
David Bloom – conductor
Vicky Chow – piano, keyboard
David Cossin, Matt Evans, Amy Garapic, Adam Holmes – percussion
Taylor Levine – electric guitar
Todd Reynolds, Kate Dreyfuss, Finnegan Shanahan – violin
Scott Moore – viola
Ashley Bathgate, Dylan Mattingly – cello
Robert Black – contrabass, electric bass
Fanny Wyrick-Flax – piccolo
Isabel Gleicher – flute
Vicente Alexim – clarinet
Kristina Teuschler – bass clarinet
Ken Thomason – saxophone
Bert Hill – horn
Mikael Darmanie – keyboard
Molly Netter, Lucy Dhegrae, Phlippa Thompson – voice
Zachary Detrick, Charles Van Tassel, John Wallar – sleigh bells
After the Treewatcher
Capriccio on the Departure of a Beloved Brother