STEPHEN BARBER “Astral Vinyl” – Soloists/Meridian Arts – Navona Records

by | Sep 9, 2011 | Classical CD Reviews

STEPHEN BARBER “Astral Vinyl” = STEPHEN BARBER: Chanson Round Point; Conversatio Morum – Movement I; Marbles; Elvis and Annabelle- Movement I; Multiple Points of View of a Fanfare; Conversatio Morum – Movement II; Elvis and Annabelle – Movement II; Multiple Points of View of a Fanfare II; String Quartet No. 1; Les Mots; Elvis and Annabelle – Movement III; The Killing – Tosca Strings/American Repertory Ensemble/Lucy Schaefer, soprano/Stephen Barber, piano/Darren Dyke, steel drums/The Boiler Makers/The Meridian Arts Ensemble – Navona Records NV5850 (Distr. by Naxos), 51:49 ***:
According to the bio on his website, Stephen Barber is “part West Texas renegade, part classical composer, part poet, and part rock-n-roller. His work is a convergence of Renaissance and Baroque musical literature, Episcopalian church influence, a lifelong love affair with rhythm and blues, and a near overdose of rock and roll.” He composes in a manner that he describes as holding ‘an inner conversation free from constraints’. Barber had previously performed and collaborated with the likes of David Byrne, Keith Richards, Kosta Kolev, Josef Zawinul, Ornette Coleman, Jennifer Warnes, Gilberto Gil, Miguel Bose, Shelley Duvall, and many more. (This certainly explains what I felt was the very eclectic nature of his music).
This new disc is, essentially, a collection of several short works of Barber’s including some movements or renditions of thematic works with many parts. I found something to admire and to enjoy in each piece here, but it is absolutely not possible to place Stephen Barber into a niche or to find clearly identified trends that surface in each of his works. For me, it was rewarding in itself to discover the variety of these works. For example, “Chanson Rond Point” that opens the set is a very short, somewhat ‘medieval’ sounding (as the title would imply) work for strings that meanders beautifully in modal and contrapuntal fashion and is quite pleasant.  The tone changes nearly abruptly in “Conversatio Morum – Movement I” for strings, piano and percussion.  The “Conversatio Morum – Movement II” featured later in the disc – and for the same combination – continues what is another take on modality through a bit of blues or jazz filter. The sounds are lush and have a somewhat ‘film score’ feeling to it. I found it helpful to listen to the CD as a program, in order, but then go catch the works that have “movements” or parts to the same motive. (Like “Conversatio”, “Elvis and Annabelle” and “Multiple Points of View of a Fanfare” do the same thing).
“Elvis and Annabelle” (movements I, II and III) is a truly jazz/rock-inspired ensemble piece written for the Boiler Makers under the direction of Caroline Beatty. This very laid back and jazz- inspired work features some really nice saxophone work and tight ensemble playing. Listening to each “movement” back to back does make it seem like the three sections form a cohesive whole. The jazzy feel is maintained throughout – in fact the “movement III” is really the most pronounced foray into what could pass as something entirely different. The composer indicates that the piece is intended to pay homage to Frank Zappa and is quite attractive with or without finding this connection.
The last multiple movement work represented here is “Multiple Points of View of a Fanfare” is written for brass ensemble and seems to come from a totally different world as Barber’s other works. “Multiple Points” 1 opens with a breathing, partial set of tones that evolve and emerge into a very staccato, fanfare-like pronouncement that shifts tonalities in and out of consonance rapidly. “Multiple Points” 2 opens with similar rumblings and chords emerge slowly, deliberately until they become something that sounds a little like Gabrieli in a nightmare (sounds are altered electronically in part, as well), but the effect is fascinating. The Meridian Arts Ensemble has a great cohesive sound and contributes well to the overall effect.
There are four other pieces in this collection that also have a very distinctive character. “Marbles” for soprano, piano and steel drums is a very ethereal, pretty and other worldly feel. The text is a bit of surreal soliloquy comparing a bag of marbles to decisions made, loves lost and so forth. This is a very pretty work and soprano Lucy Schaefer conveys the words well. Barber’s “String Quartet No. 1” is a short straight forward and fairly atonal, almost macabre approach to quartet writing. There are moments of some ‘film music’ feel in this piece too (a bit of Bernard Hermann perhaps). It is strange, but quite interesting.
“Les mots” for strings presents an altogether different experience. This is a short plaintive, beautiful work with familiar relaxing tonalities and a very nice solo violin line. The work ends surprisingly with a tremolo and leaves a very nice impression. “The Killing” which closes this set is another of Barber’s works that really has a ‘film noir’ sound to it. Performed sensitively by the American Repertory Ensemble, it features some great interplay between piano and strings in a truly jazz inspired rather dark world, almost in reference to something happening – whether or not a killing.
I do enjoy Stephen Barber’s music. In fact, I rather enjoy the eclectic and unpredictable nature of it. I think his “style” is best thought of as that of a number of new American composers who have learned from many different people and been influenced by many different approaches. Therefore there isn’t a neat, clean ‘cubby hole’ in which to place his music. But I do find it fascinating; I think most listeners would as well. Besides, I’m pretty envious of anyone who has actually gotten to hang out with David Byrne!
— Daniel Coombs

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