TOD MACHOVER: ‘…but not simpler…’ & other works – Bridge Records

by | Feb 28, 2012 | Classical CD Reviews

TOD MACHOVER: ‘…but not simpler…’ = ‘Sparkler’ for orchestra and live electronics; ‘Interlude 1 – After Bach’; ‘Three Hyper-Dim-Sums’ for string quartet; ‘Interlude 2 – After Byrd’; ‘…but not simpler…’ for string quartet; ‘Jeux deux’ for Hyperpiano and Orch. – Odense Sym. Orch./ Michael Chertock, Hyperpiano/Paul Mann, cond./iO String Quartet – Bridge Records 9346 (Distr. by Albany), 53:30 ***:
For me, Tod Machover’s music has never been an “easy” listen. I first became acquainted by way of his sci-fi opera Valis and some of his later chamber music with electronics, like Spectres. Always interesting, Machover’s music is rarely “harsh” although it certainly begs thoughtful, analytical listening.
I approached this album with a general idea of what to expect and was a bit surprised. I first went straight to the “concerto” for Hyperpiano and orchestra, Jeux Deux, mostly because I was dying to find out what a “hyperpiano” is. Specifically, a Hyperpiano is an electronic piano (in this case, a Yamaha Disklavier Grand) fitted with “Hyperinstrument” software created by MIT. In general (and to the limits of my understanding) the software seems to enable a player working with an acousto-electric keyboard to create new intensities of volume, range and presence that a traditional piano cannot achieve. This truly interesting work also pays homage to the Debussy ballet, Jeux, about three young people playing tennis and some resultant romantic interplay. This work was written for the Boston Pops – another interestingly unexpected aspect – and is structured like a concerto with a spritely waltz-like first section, a very melodic and ornamented middle and a bombastic finale in which the Hyperpiano technology gets to show off some amazing volume levels and a disintegration of the electronic textures into the whole of the orchestral palate. This is a most interesting work!
Sparkler for orchestra and live electronics provides its own surprises with its very lush, calm beginnings and the presence of three keyboard synthesizers. The delicate electronic timbres interact with each other (and are partially controlled by the performers) but also with a very “sparkling” set of orchestral colors. The percussion section is especially noteworthy with everything from glass wind chimes to a thunder sheet. Sparkler was composed for the American Composers Orchestra as part of a larger work in progress, his Toy Symphony (intended, as is Sparkler, to evoke the feelings and memories and ranges of emotion of childhood). All by itself, this twelve minute piece does hold the attention and contains many interesting moments where timbre is the star of the show.  In both Sparkler as well as Jeux Deux, the Odense Symphony and conductor Paul Mann play with energy and conviction.
Machover has written often for string quartet, he being a cellist by training. His two Interludes were composed for the Ying Quartet and each seeks to create a spectral, vaguely “familiar” sound within a traditional context. For example, the Interlude 1After Bach is based on some transcriptions of Bach written for the Ying quartet. Interlude 2 – After Byrd takes a similar approach. In this case, portions of the Byrd Mass in Four Voices are transposed, interspersed and placed on top of each other to form a very different, but effective, type of polyphony. Machover’s Three Hyper-Dim-Sums provide a different approach to string quartet writing. In this case, the “dim sum” is a reference to the small, tasty appetizers indigenous to Chinese cuisine. The three movements to this Hyper-Dim-Sums characterize their feel by their titles: “Glade”,”Winding Line” and “Punchy”. The “hyper” is a reference to the computer program, used to help compose the work. Each short movement has a clever feel of its own and the whole is quite effective.
The “big” string quartet represented here is …but not simpler…. The fascinating title is from a well known quote by Albert Einstein, “One should always make things as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Machover’s work characteristically seeks to represent the struggle for meaning and calm in a world filled with tension, pressure and anxiety but without losing the essence of one’s purpose (or so it seems). This extended work is full of complex and technically demanding passages for the strings but with some sublimely serene passages. This is a clearly difficult work to perform and challenging to listen to but with ample rewards. The iO quartet featured in all of these works plays tremendously well and one can hear the effort involved!
I admit, I knew just enough about the work of Tod Machover to have a generally positive opinion and to think that I knew his “style” with its heavy reliance on electronics (as one writer declared him to be “America’s most wired composer.”) However, I am grateful for hearing this album and learning more about the very complex but fascinating nature of his work.  This is still heady stuff. I suspect that the uninitiated listener might enjoy Sparkler or Jeux Deux. The string quartets may require a few listenings. I recommend this – and any of Tod Machover’s music – to anyone wanting to expand their horizons a bit and try something new; just not simpler.
—Daniel Coombs

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