ROBERT PATERSON: ‘Star Crossing’ – American Modern Ensemble – American Modern Recordings

by | Nov 21, 2011 | Classical CD Reviews

ROBERT PATERSON: ‘Star Crossing’ = Sextet, The Thin Ice of Your Fragile Mind, Star Crossing, Embracing the Wind, Elegy, Skylights, Quintus – American Modern Ensemble – American Modern Recordings AMR1032, 60:21 ****:
Robert Paterson is a Buffalo NY native trained at Eastman, Indiana and Cornell and, while originally a percussionist, he has learned a vibrant engaging style of composition from some of the country’s biggest names—including Christopher Rouse, Joseph Schwantner and Steven Stucky. This is a bracing, must-hear collection of some of Paterson’s chamber music which suggests that he will be more widely known in short order!
Some will hear traces of everything from Adams or Torke to Stucky in Paterson’s music but, ultimately, his style is hard to describe—pretty unique and a joy to listen to. The Sextet, for example—for winds, strings, piano and percussion—is, by Paterson’s notes, inspired by some of those “Cops” style TV shows. Certainly, the police whistle that begins the work followed immediately by some swirling and punctuated winds and piano is evocative of a crook on the lam! This fairly brief work pulses forward with a somewhat jazzy feel and is great fun to listen to.
The Thin Ice of Your Fragile Mind – one of the better titles ever – is inspired by the composer’s visits to Arcosanti, an architectural and ‘new age’ haven in the middle of the Arizona desert envisioned and built by futurist artist and architect Paolo Soleri. The intent of the installation is a symbiosis of ecology and architecture and Soleri is known for making and selling thousands of unusually shaped metallic bell shaped wind chimes. (Been there; have one!)  Paterson’s music, heavy on a very minimalist inspired piano and wind texture with all sorts of metal percussion, like crotales and finger cymbals inserted into the texture, is both vibrant and plaintive. A beautiful and delicate piece, the title refers to moments within the work that are icy, detached and surreal but which are surrounded by an overall warmth. This is a great piece and was premiered at Arcosanti.
The CD’s title work, Star Crossing is a reflection of the feelings Paterson gets while staring at a clear, star-filled night sky. He states that he was inspired by his thoughts regarding what it might feel like to travel through space. While nothing in this pretty, lucid work is anything stereotypically “space” sounding, there is an other worldly feel to the writing helped by some very clever interchange between the winds and the vibraphone. Star Crossing received the Tampa Bay Composers Forum award after its premiere.
All of Paterson’ music is seemingly based on, or inspired by, specific imagery; very creative imagery at that. Embracing the Wind, for example, is inspired by Paterson’s imagining an Olympic runner pushing against the wind. Made of small cells of melody that tend to repeat and recycle at various tempi and various textures, this a fairly minimal sounding work that has some beautiful alto flute and cello interplay against a harp. This, too, is a very attractive and compelling work.
Elegy for two bassoons and piano is, in many ways, different from the other works in this collection. First, the work quotes the Bach Fifth Cello Suite; the reason being that this Elegy is written in memory of the father of Charles McCracken, a prominent cellist friend of Paterson’s. The quotes from the Bach Suite No. 5 are played against quotes of the Bach Third Suite; providing a symbolic dialogue between one of the father’s favorite works against one of his son’s. While there is some light humor in the middle section of this work; it is mostly a very pretty and very personal work that – among other things – provides a terrific addition to a small collection of works for two bassoons and piano. Appropriately, and fortunately, Paterson has also written a version of this work for two celli and piano. The music is restful and reminiscent throughout but for the short playful central section.
Skylights is based on another intriguing premise. Paterson states that this work is all about society’s tendency to bring light into dark areas and to lighten physical things (like planes or cars) to make them more efficient. Written specifically out of inspiration from the use of skylights at the Atlantic Center for the Arts, this work makes ample use of some sparkling and “light” wind writing against a denser, lower pitched piano canvas. The use of light versus dark is similar here to what Paterson was doing in his Star Crossing.
This collection concludes with Paterson’s Quintus for clarinet, violin, cello, piano and marimba. This is both the shortest as well as the technical of the pieces represented here. As Paterson points out, there are some difficult extended techniques at work here, including some multiphonics and interior piano. A little more “abstract” than Paterson’s other works; this is still a very engaging piece that poises some propulsive, melodic writing against the sparser, more ethereal sounds.
I truly enjoyed all the works on this disc, especially Star Crossing, Skylights and The Thin Ice of Your Fragile Mind. The recording is excellent and the American Modern Ensemble, based in New York, specializes in contemporary American music and their playing is superb! Rob Paterson is a new name for me but I am excited to learn and hear more. I find his music exciting, creative and accessible. I believe these works will engage the traditional classical listener as well as stimulate the new music “purist”. I think he is an important voice in contemporary American music and this disc is a great introduction to his output!
—Daniel Coombs

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