Emanuele Arciuli, Defining a Genre: Walk in Beauty


walk in beauty

Innova 255

This 2 CD set virtually defines a genre.  Following in the traditions of such notable compilations as Robert Helps’ “New Music for the Piano”, Alan Feinberg’s wonderful series of discs on Argo records among many others we see Arciuli displaying his grasp of music in the tradition of the gentle musical anthropology found in the music and scholarship of Peter Garland.  The album’s title comes from Garland’s lovely multiple movement Walk in Beauty (1992) released on New World records in the 1990s.  The present collection is both nostalgic and forward looking reminding us of great past efforts and introducing us to new work.  It is a look at a loosely defined style of mostly late 20th century American piano music through the lens of a non-American artist.

Garland’s interest in Native American myths and music inform his post minimalist ethic and the additional pieces chosen for this two disc set reflect similar artistic sensibilities.  Emanuele Arciuli is an Italian pianist whose interests range from the Second Viennese School to the unique compositions of Thelonius Monk.  He also has a strong interest in classical music from Native American traditions which puts him very much in sync with Garland’s work as well.  Here he has chosen music which he clearly understands and which appear to have deep meaning for him.

There are 28 tracks on 2 discs representing 13 composers.  Five of these composers are explicitly affiliated with their respective Native American traditions and the remaining eight composers take their inspiration at least in part from the rich music and/or mythology of those cultures.  The bottom line here is that these are carefully and lovingly chosen works which open a window on one fine musician’s perception of a certain Western/Native American/New American style which, at worst, holds up a mirror and, whether we like it or not, it tells us something about who we are and from whence we came.

Connor Chee‘s “Navajo Vocable No. 9” opens the album and sets the tone.  This is one of a series of piano pieces by this fascinating composer/pianist whose star is deservedly rising.  His work celebrates Navajo culture and is informed as well by his training in traditional western art music.

This is followed by Peter Garland‘s “Walk in Beauty”.  This piece is representative of Garland’s post-minimalist, impressionistic style.  It was previously recorded so wonderfully by Aki Takahashi on the eponymously titled New World Records album from the early 1990s.

Garland’s music is fairly well documented but deserves a wider audience. (Curiously he does not have a dedicated web site.)  His scholarship and promotion of new music also serve to place him very highly among this countries finest artists and scholars.  In addition to his compositional output he is known for his Soundings Press publications and his papers are now held by the University of Texas at Austin.

Kyle Gann is, similarly, a scholar and a prolific composer.  He has for many years demonstrated a keen interest in Native American myths in his diverse and creative output.  Gann is here represented by his “Earth Preserving Chant”.

Michael Daugherty is known for his incorporation of pop culture in his work and has been recognized with no fewer than three Grammy Awards.  His work is rooted in pop Americana and “Buffalo Dance” is his homage to Native Americana.  And if his homage seems a bit P.T. Barnum at times, that too is Americana.

John Luther Adams, a recent Pulitzer Prize winner for his orchestral work, Become Ocean, is a prolific composer who derives much of his inspiration from the mythology of Alaskan natives.  Adams spent many of his creative years in Alaska working with ecological projects as well as musical ones.  “Tukiliit” is representative of this work and pays homage to Native American/First Nation peoples.

Raven Chacon is an emerging composer who has produced a great deal of work though little appears to be available on recordings.  “Nilchi Shada’ji Nalaghali” (Winds that turn on the side from the Sun) is an electroacoustic work serves as a little sample of this artist’s work and its inclusion in this fine collection alone suggests that the remainder of his work deserves to be explored.

Martin Bresnick is an honored member of the American Institute of Arts and Letters and his work is fortunately well known.  The present piece, “Ishii’s Song” is a reference to an American Indian, the last of his tribe who lived out his life under the protection and scrutiny of anthropologist Alfred Kroeber at the University of California Berkeley.  His spirit still seems to linger in the Bay Area and this piece is a sort of homage to him.

This set contains two works by Louis W. Ballard (1931-2007) who was a Native American composer that composed classical concert music.  His work is steeped in Native American mythology and deserves to be better known.  Leave it to a non-American to point out this deficit.  Arciuli makes a strong case for listeners and for other musicians to embrace this neglected artist.  Disc Two track 2 contains the “Osage Variation” and Disc two tracks 13-16 contain his “Four American Indian Piano Preludes”.

Jennifer Higdon is a star already very much risen on the musical scene and she is here represented by a substantial piano piece called “Secret and Glass Gardens”.  Higdon, also a recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, is one of those composers who manages to be friendly and accessible as well as modern.  Arciuli seems to perceive similarities in her vision that make this work fit in convincingly in this collection.  Hers is seemingly a similar romanticism and nostalgia and Arciuli has convinced at least this listener of the kinship of this piece in the vision of this collection.

Arciuli introduces another composer unknown to this reviewer, Peter Gilbert.  This young composer with an impressive resume is the co-director of the composition program at the University of New Mexico.  The offering here is his set of four “Intermezzi” for piano.

The inclusion of Carl Ruggles‘ “Evocations-Four Chants for Piano” seem at first to be a strange choice but following the Gilbert Intermezzi one gets the impression that the Americana that is Ruggles is a part of the provenance of this collection.  Ruggles coarse and famously racist attitudes hardly fit with the generally romantic vision of this collection but Americana as perceived by a non-American need not edit the unsavory from the overall picture.  The music is what this is about and these are indeed masterful little essays and a part of the American grain.

Another new name is given a brief appearance in the “Testament of Atom” by Brent Michael Davids.   This young composer’s clever website lists a plethora of works whose titles resemble many of the pieces on these discs.  Again we must trust the artist that his inclusion of this work is representative of his vision of this version of Americana.

For his concluding track Arciuli does a wonderful thing by including the work of Talib Rasul Hakim (1940-1988), another too little known American composer.  Born Stephen Alexander Chambers, he changed his name in 1973 when he converted to Sufism, a spiritual sect of Islam.  The music, “Sound Gone”, is a fitting finale to this beautiful, challenging, and ultimately inclusive collection of Americana.  Bravo, Mr. Arciuli and thank you for the gift of showing us some of the best of how we Americans look to you.

 

 

Black Notes Matter: Lara Downes’ America Again


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Sono Luminus DSL-92207

The lovely cover photo for this album by San Francisco born pianist Lara Downes is reminiscent of any number of socially conscious folk/rock stars of the 60s and 70s. It would seem that this is no accident.  This delightful album of short pieces by a wide variety of American composers takes its title from the Langston Hughes (1902-1967) poem, Let America Be America Again (1935).  By so doing the pianist places this interesting selection of short piano pieces firmly in the context of black racial politics and the artistic expression of black America as well as those influenced by this vital vein of American culture (both musical and literary).  It is a graceful and deeply felt effort and I hope that the metaphor of the title of my review is not too tortured a one to reflect that.

This is also a very personal album.  Downes seems to share some deeply felt connections with her materials.  This artist, born to a white mother and a black father, invokes a careful selection of short piano pieces steeped sometimes in jazz and blues but also the political directness (and optimism) which was characteristic of the inter-war years that brought forth the Hughes poem.  There is both sadness and celebration in these virtuosic and technically demanding little gems (most apparently recorded for the first time or at least the first time in a while).  The pianist’s comments on each individual piece are also critical to the understanding of this disc as she shares the impact and meaning that the music has had for her.

There are 21 tracks by 19 composers in all and the selections themselves are quite a feat. They range from the 19th to the 21st centuries and are composed by both men and women of a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds.  All seem to share the sort of  populist charm befitting the idealized America yearned for in the poem which is to say that they represent a kind of idealized or hopeful nationalism.  Downes is well acquainted with a large variety of American music and recognizes no distinction between classical and so-called “vernacular” traditions.

In fact none of these things are atypical for this artist.  Her previous albums Exiles Cafe (2013) featured music by composers exiled from their homelands, A Billie Holiday Songbook (2015) celebrated the life of this iconic black artist and her American Ballads (2001) demonstrated her deep mastery and affection for populist (but not jingoistic) nationalism.  Her tastefully issue oriented albums define a very individual path and the present album appears to be a very logical and well executed next entry into her discography.

This disc shares a similar heritage to that of Alan Feinberg’s four discs on Argo/Decca entitled, The American Innovator, The American Virtuoso, The American Romantic and Fascinating Rhythm: American Syncopation.  Another notable antecedent is Natalie Hinderas’ groundbreaking two disc set of music by African-American composers.

And now on to the music:

Morton Gould (1913-1996) was a Pulitzer Prize winning composer and conductor with a style informed by his study of jazz and blues in a vein similar to that of Bernstein and Copland.  He is represented here by American Caprice (1940).

Lou Harrison (1917-2003)  was a composer, conductor and teacher.  He was a modernist and an innovator in the promotion of non-western musical cultures.  His New York Waltzes (1944-1994) are three brief essays in that dance form.

The traditional folk song Shenandoah (apparently in the pianist’s transcription) is next.   This tune will be familiar to most listeners as a popular selection by choral groups and the melody is a common metaphor for things American.

Amy Marcy Cheney Beach (1867-1944) was one of the first successful female American composers.  Her “From Blackbird Hills” Op. 83 (1922) is representative of her late romantic style and her incorporation of Native American (Omaha) elements in her music.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) is a English composer with Creole roots, a black composer, known as the “African Mahler” in his day.  Deep River (1905) is his setting of this spiritual which also was one of Marian Anderson’s signature pieces.

Dan Visconti (1982- ) was commissioned by the International Beethoven Festival to write his Lonesome Roads Nocturne (2013) for Lara Downes.  It receives its world premiere recording in this collection.

Swiss-American composer and teacher Ernest Bloch (1880-1959) is certainly deserving of more attention.  His At Sea (1922) is used here to represent the sea voyages of the many immigrants (willing and unwilling) whose journey defined in part who they were.

George Gershwin (1898-1937) mastered both the vernacular tradition (as one of the finest song writers of the 20th Century) and the classical tradition in his too few compositions written in his sadly abbreviated life.  His opera Porgy and Bess (1935) is contemporary with the Langston Hughes poem mentioned earlier.  Downes most arrestingly chooses the arrangement of “I loves you, Porgy” by the classically trained iconic singer, musician and civil rights activist Nina Simone (1933-2003).  Quoting from Downes’ notes (Nina Simone expresses what she knew) “…about being a woman, being black and about being strong and powerless all at the same time.”  Indeed one of the most potent lines of the Hughes poem reads, “America was never America to me.”

Angelica Negrón (1981- ) was born in Puerto Rico and  now lives and works in New York. Her Sueno Recurrente (Recurring Dream, 2002) is a lovely little nocturne which is here given its world premiere.

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) held credentials as composer, conductor, teacher and ardent civil rights supporter.  His Anniversary for Stephen Sondheim (1988) is one of a series of Anniversary piano pieces he wrote.  Bernstein did much to help modern audiences (including this reviewer) comprehend the vital musicality of jazz and blues. Like Downes, he drew little distinction between popular and classical and celebrated all the music he believed was good.

David Sanford (1963- ) is a trombonist, teacher and composer who works in both classical and jazz idioms.  His work Promise (2009) was written for Downes and this is the world premiere recording.

Howard Hanson (1896-1981) was a conductor, teacher and Pulitzer Prize winning composer (though not at all an advocate of ragtime, jazz or blues).  His brief but lovely piano piece Slumber Song (1915) is a nice discovery and one hopes that it will be taken up by more pianists.

Scott Joplin (1867/68-1917) was discovered largely due to the scholarship and recordings of musicologist Joshua Rifkin (who incidentally did some arrangements for folkie Judy Collins) whose three volumes of piano rags on Nonesuch records introduced this wonderful black composer’s work to a wider audience once again.  Marvin Hamlisch famously incorporated Joplin’s music into his score for the motion picture The Sting (1973).  Downes chooses the Gladiolus Rag (1907) to represent this composer.

Irving Berlin (born Israel Isidore Baline 1888-1989) is another of the greatest song composers this country has produced.  In another characteristically clever choice Downes chooses the arrangement of this hugely optimistic song, “Blue Skies”(1926) by the great jazz pianist Art Tatum (1909-1956).

Florence Price (1887-1953) was a black female composer (the first to have one of her orchestral works programmed by a major symphony orchestra) whose work is only recently getting some much needed exposure.  Her Fantasy Negre (1929) is based on a spiritual, “Sinner, Please Don’t Let This Harvest Pass”.  Price was involved in the New Negro Arts Movement of the Harlem Renaissance and was professionally connected with Langston Hughes among others.

Aaron Copland (1900-1990) is perhaps the most iconic American composer.  Dubbed the “Dean of American Composers” his earliest work has strong jazz influences and his later work created the American romantic/nationalist sound incorporating folk songs and rhythms.  For this recording the artist chose the first of the composer’s Four Piano Blues (1926) which also appeared on her 2001 album of American Ballads.

Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington (1899-1974) was a composer and band leader whose sound virtually defined the Harlem Renaissance during his tenure at the famed Cotton Club.  Melancholia (1959) is the piece chosen here, again a nice little discovery.

Roy Harris (1898-1979) was, like Copland, a populist but the Oklahoma born composer studied Native American music as well as American folk songs.  His American Ballads (1946) was included on Downes’ American Ballads album.  Here she includes an unpublished work from a projected (but never finished) American Ballads Volume II.  This piece is a setting of the spiritual, “Lil Boy Named David”.

The album concludes with one of the ultimate hopeful dreamer songs, Harold Arlen’s (1905-1986) Over the Rainbow (1939) from his score for The Wizard of Oz (1939).  The adolescent yearning of Dorothy for something better than her dust bowl farm life touched a chord in many over the years and it is a fitting conclusion to this beautiful and hopeful collection.

As mentioned earlier the insightful liner notes by Lara Downes complement this production and tactfully position its politics.  She shares a personal journey that is as American as the proverbial apple pie.  The album is dedicated to the artist’s ancestors in recognition of their struggles as well as to her children in hopes that dreams for a better future can become their reality.

This beautiful sound of this album is the result of work of Producer Dan Merceruio and Executive Producer Collin J. Rae along with Daniel Shores and David Angell.  The lovely photography is by Rik Keller and as with the previous release Skylark: Crossing Over (reviewed here) the graphic design by Caleb Nei deserves special mention for its ability to truly complement this disc.

It is scheduled for release on October 28, 2016.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A shamanic effort to raise consciousness and further socially progressive ideas.