“Sprung Rhythm” = NATHAN LINCOLN-DECUSATIS: A Collection of Sand; Chopin Syndrome; JOSEPH HALLMAN: Three Poems; Imagined landscapes: Six Lovecraftian elsewheres; JUSTIN BOYER: Con stancio; Auguries – inscape/Richard Scerbo – Sono Luminus audio-only Blu-ray

by | Oct 12, 2013 | SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

“Sprung Rhythm” = NATHAN LINCOLN-DECUSATIS: A Collection of Sand; Chopin Syndrome; JOSEPH HALLMAN: Three Poems of Jessica Hornik; Imagined landscapes: Six Lovecraftian elsewheres; JUSTIN BOYER: Con stancio; Auguries (bonus track on Blu-ray only) – inscape/Richard Scerbo – Sono Luminus audio-only multichannel Blu-ray + CD DSL-92171 [Distr. by Naxos], 82:36 (Blu-ray), 73:41 (CD) ****:

This is my first experience with the musical collective inscape, and I’m impressed with them even if not universally impressed with the works they’ve commissioned. I call inscape a “collective” not to disparage but to imply the flexibility of its roster, as cited in the notes to this recording. This flexibility means that inscape can mount a piece, such as A Collection of Sand, requiring the services of twelve performers, as well more modestly scored compositions such as Auguries for four instruments. DC-based inscape is a young group, having been founded by Artistic Director Richard Scerbo in 2004. In this case youth does not equate with callowness; the playing throughout is stylish, thoroughly professional. This is a group you would want to go hear if it visited your city. Or you’d miss out on a most likely enriching experience.

The works on the current program have one thing in common: they’re commissioned or played by inscape. That’s somewhat flip as a critical assessment, but really the three composers represented here write rather different music, the unifying element, besides the inscape connection, is that they all write tonal, nonacademic music with various extramusical influences. So there’s not a Morton Druckman or a Milton Babbitt in the bunch. Another fact to mention is that these are all East Coast composers, Lincoln-DeCusatis and Boyer based in DC, Hallman in Philadelphia. I’m not conversant enough with current styles in classical music to say that they represent a unified esthetic, but for example, there’s no Asian musical influence that so often shows up in composers from the Left Coast.

Beyond that, as I say, the only unifying factor is that inscape seems to believe in these composers and their music. My favorite piece? Without a doubt it’s Nathan Lincoln-DeCusatis’s A Collection of Sand. The composer himself, rather dismissively, calls it “a motley assemblage of three movements, each one embodying a unique harmonic universe.” The strange title of the work cites “an exposition of strange collections held recently in Paris. . .the display of a collection of sand was the least striking but also the most mysterious; that which seemed to have the most to say, even beyond the opaque silence imprisoned within the glass of the vials.” Well, I don’t get a very clear visual image from the description, but the idea of disparate elements yoked together comes across well. And actually, though they may be disparate, the three movements of A Collection of Sand make up a satisfying brief suite, the first rather dreamy and alienating, the second “raucous” and “buzzing,” as the composer describes it. The third movement is for the composer the most idiosyncratic of all, incorporating a melody that he calls “operatic” and one that wouldn’t be “out of place in the most plaintive or late-Romantic symphonies.” The effect, however, is shattered by the intervention of “blips, pops, and squeaks,” mostly from the cymbals and pizzicato strings. Idiosyncratic maybe, yet quite attractive and pretty easy to assimilate for listeners in our post-modernist musical world.

Speaking of idiosyncratic, that would certainly describe Justin Boyer’s Con Silancio (“with impetus”) scored for the highly unlikely combination of string quartet and bass clarinet. The composer likens the clarinet’s presence to that of an “uninvited guest at the party,” though Boyer finally finds a synergy among the players in his little drama. Actually, by the very nature of the instruments involved, the strings always seem more astringent than the liquid but lowdown bass clarinet. Anyway, the results of this forced union are interesting and attractive to hear.

Boyer’s Auguries, offered as a bonus on the Blu-ray disc, shows the composer’s literary leanings and is a bit pretentious at that, referring to a legend recounted by Cicero, the story of Attus Nivus, who lost his prized pig and by divine intervention in the form of bird auguries (bird flight pointing the way) found the little piggy rummaging in his own vineyard. OK. So the ancients were big on birds and the messages their flights conveyed. And if you want to associate this fact to Boyer’s music, that’s fine too. If you didn’t know the program behind the work, you’d accept it as another of Boyer’s strange combos—a quartet for bassoon and strings. I liked it with or without the program.

Of the three composers represented here, I probably had the least sympathy for the work of Joseph Hallman. His imagined landscapes take their inspiration from H. P. Lovecraft, the American fantasy and science fiction writer whose guiding principle, according to Hallman, was “‘cosmicism” or ‘cosmic horror’,  the idea that life is incomprehensible to human minds and that the universe is fundamentally inimical to the interests of humankind.” Not a new idea at all, of course. In art and literature, the Romantics introduced the idea (though they couldn’t entirely but into the truth of a hostile universe), and the Naturalists espoused it full bore. However, that’s beside the point. According to Hallman, the connection with Lovecraft is that the composer had insomnia, put himself to sleep reading Lovecraft (strange choice), and then had dreams filled with weird visions or “landscapes.” I enjoyed the dreamlike quality of the piece; but given the sameness of the musical landscapes, I might have enjoyed it more if there were fewer than six.

According to Hallman, Jessica Hornik, a fairly obscure poet, is one of his favorites and inspired him with her three poems dealing with love—love lost, apparently. The verse ain’t bad, but any poem with the following image must be immediately suspect:

By the pond two cattails, having missed their cue to burst, now stand helpless as popsicles.

Strange that I never thought of popsicles as helpless, but I guess anything that low on the food chain deserves sympathy. Anyway, the music has a kind of laid-back, almost pop-musical quality about it, sort of like one of Joni Mitchell’s mellower ditties, which is appealing in a limited way. Maybe I’m way off base, but though Hornik’s poems speak of snow and cold rain, the overall atmospheric effect of the music is one of sultriness, more the mood behind Knoxville, Summer of 1915.

I don’t really get the argument behind Lincoln-DeCusatis’s Chopin Syndrome, but I like the music, and that’s what counts. The piece was inspired by the composer’s attempt to learn Chopin’s grueling First Ballade and by his obsession with the wild, dissonant bridge between the two main themes. I dutifully listened to the Chopin again, which was helpful in fixing in my mind’s ear the first theme, fully stated in Part Three of the work. But as in the case of Auguries and imagined landscapes, I could have gotten as much as I needed out of the piece without the reference to something outside the musical experience.

All that said, I mostly enjoyed this disparate, appealing collection of composers and their works. I’ve already praised the playing of inscape under Richard Scerbo. The sound, as usual from the Sono Luminus studio, is beautifully atmospheric in Blu-ray and pretty darn good in digital CD as well. I’ll be watching out for offerings from inscape in the future.

—Lee Passarella

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