William Susman’s Collision Point


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I first encountered this man’s music in a concert by the San Jose Chamber Orchestra (reviewed here).  I subsequently reviewed his album Scatter My Ashes .  Now fresh off the presses is the present disc which is a collaboration between Mr. Susman and Piccola Accademia Degli Specchi, a chamber ensemble specializing in new music.  It is a delightful and engaging journey to a region stylistically inhabited by the likes of Mikel Rouse whose post-minimalist chamber works on the Made to Measure label were a revelation to this listener in the early 90s.  What always perplexed me was why I had been unable to find more writing like this.  Well, here it is in all its glory.  These are standard concert length works (15-20 min range) which engage and sustain the listener easily leaving anything obviously experimental behind while also touching an artistic depth that satisfies.  Is there an untapped genre of well written post-minimalist chamber music?  If so, this disc belongs there.

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The disc contains four works, two from the 90s and two from 2010.  The first, Camille (2010) is the three movement work that opened the lovely Scatter My Ashes album from 2014.  Like the second work on this disc (the seven movement Clouds and Flames for violin, cello, and piano also from 2010) it utilizes a very personal take on post-minimalist ideas creating music of a quasi romantic nature with echoes of Brahms as well as Lou Harrison.  By which I mean to say simply that they seem to be a mature integration of what the artist has learned in school and since then as well.

So now to immaturity, so to say.  In the last two works listeners get a glimpse of music from an earlier stage of the composer’s development.  None of that description should be read as leaning to the pejorative in any way.  These works are like studies toward the later stylistic realms of the first two works from nearly twenty years later They can, for the sake of genre, also be subsumed generally into the post minimal.  Motions of Return (1996) for flute and piano along with The Starry Dynamo (1994) for flute, alto sax, violin, cello, and piano are both single movement works. This listener is left to conclude that this artist’s maturity continues to deserve our attention.

As this is a collaborative effort it is only fair to discuss the collaborators Piccolo Academia degli Specchi :
“Piccola Accademia degli Specchi (Little Academy of Mirrors) is a chamber ensemble, based and founded in Roma (Italy) in late 2000, specializing in the performance of contemporary classical music. Its original and characteristic instrumentation (piano 4 hands, cello, violin, alto/soprano saxophone, flute/piccolo), similar but different to the common Pierrot ensemble set up, and the outstanding musicianship of its members provide its unique sound and groove.

Current members are Fabio Silvestro (piano), Assunta Cavallari (piano), Rina You (cello), Giuliano Cavaliere (violin), Claudia Di Pietro (alto/soprano sax), Alessandra Amorino (flute/piccolo). ” (reproduced from the ensemble’s website accessed on 28 Dec 2019)

This album is the result of a ten year collaboration between the composer and the ensemble.  Cited influences include Allen Ginsberg, Colum McCann, and Francis Bacon.  I will leave it to literary scholars to opine as to the influences here but I can say this is some great music and great music making.  Bravo maestri!!

Classical Protest Music: Hans Werner Henze “Essay on Pigs” (Versuch über Schweine)


German composer Hans Werner Henze (1926-2012) left Germany in 1953 because of his dissatisfaction with German intolerance of both his leftist politics and his homosexuality. He settled in Italy where he lived with his partner and had a long, prolific career composing music for orchestra, chamber ensembles, theater, soloists and film. Much of his music was an expression of his politics.

The “Versuch über Schweine”or in English, “Essay on Pigs” of 1968 is scored for woodwinds, brass, strings, percussion, “beat organ” and electric guitar with vocal soloist. It was created at one of the composers most overtly political periods which included the Sixth Symphony (1969), El Cimarrón (1969-70) and Das Floss Der Medusa (1968). Indeed there was much political conflict in the world at this time.   The musicians have a challenging instrumental score to interpret but this is no ordinary vocal part as it calls for the extended vocal techniques of the singer for whom it was written. Henze was reportedly very impressed with having heard the Rolling Stones and this encounter appears to have influenced his musical sound as well.

As near as I can determine the work was performed only once on February 14, 1969 with Roy Hart and the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by the composer and subsequently recorded with those forces. The vocalist in the Deutsche Gramophone recording is Roy Hart as well and he appears to be an early practitioner of what we now call ‘extended vocal techniques’. He precedes the likes of Cathy Berberian, Diamanda Galas, Julius Eastman, Joan La Barbara and Meredith Monk. Monk’s students like Robert Een, Andrea Goodman and Anthony De Mare (among others) also carry on the tradition but I know of no one who has attempted this piece since Hart.

English: Photo of Gaston Salvatore

English: Photo of Gaston Salvatore (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Essay on Pigs is a setting of poetry by Chilean poet Gaston Salvatore (1941-  ) who collaborated with Henze on several works. The music reflects the angry and sometimes hysterical tone of the poetry making this anything but easy listening.

I recall a musicologist, Dr. Richard Norton, who had corresponded with Henze, playing this piece in its entirety (some 20+ minutes) during one of his classes (at the University of Illinois Chicago in the mid-seventies). I always felt that was a sort of revolutionary act to do that. From what I recall I think I was probably the only person in the class who was already familiar with the work. The reaction of confusion or stunned silence from my fellow students was what one would expect from anyone who had not heard the piece before.

I have been unable to find any critical reviews or reports of audience reactions to performances but this is a piece that has the potential to clear a room or provoke anger.  It must have been quite a show. The piece certainly deserves a revival and I think it is a very significant piece of political music whose expressionism reflects well the issues of the times.  The problem is finding a vocalist to navigate this highly unique and unusual piece..  Any takers?

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