I admit to some trepidation when I received this 2 disc set of piano music by an unfamiliar composer. Even in the best of circumstances the “double album” concept can be a trying thing even to fans of a given artist. I think I recall some similar trepidation confronting the newly released Elton John Yellow Brick Road double album. I invoke some pop sensibility here in part for humor but also because that sensibility is one of the many threads that imbue this rather massive collection of pieces.
Christopher Bailey is a freelance composer who holds degrees from Eastman (BA, 1995) and Columbia University (MA, 1997 and PhD, 2002). This is the eighth disc to contain his music though only the second to be dedicated entirely to his works (and his first double album).
The first disc is a journey of styles ranging from electroacoustic music (like the opening track which resembles the work of Mario Davidovsky at times) to several whose inspiration seems to venture closer to that of Pierre Boulez and ends with a lengthy sort of post minimalist piece appropriately titled, Meditation. The composer says in his liner notes that this piece is his homage to “ambient music” and in particular, Harold Budd. The second track is a piece which is a sort of deconstruction of a Hall and Oates song, the pop sensibility to which I referred earlier. And, yes, there is some nod to microtonalism as well. Can you say eclectic?
The second disc contains the large Piano Sonata and a host of smaller works in various styles ranging from neo-classical to microtonal.
In the rambling liner notes the composer provides useful clues as to the genesis and intent of some of his ideas. One need not read the notes to appreciate the music but the clarity that they provide was useful to this listener. More notes would have been appreciated though. The composer’s and the pianists’ web sites are certainly useful but I doubt that the average listener will spend that much time researching these things and is then left with gaps in information and consequently in understanding.
The composition dates here range from 1994 to 2013 and embrace a wide swath of styles all with a strongly virtuosic aspect. The second disc starts with the brief Prelude-Fantasy on the So-Called Armageddon Chord (2011). The title is almost longer than the piece and, while it’s a fine work, the placement at the beginning of the disc preceding the major opus of his four movement Piano Sonata (1994/1996/2006) is a bit confusing.
I don’t mean to quibble with such things as track order and such but I was left with a sense of difficulty focusing. Here is a large collection of music which ranges through pretty much the entire gamut of the last 200 years of music and it is presented en masse. I think some re-ordering might have been helpful but that is one of the difficulties with multiple disc issues. I listened numerous times to these discs and find the sheer volume and diversity a bit overwhelming. It is as though this is too much for a single release.
Bailey says that the sonata is an homage to Stravinsky and those neo-classical elements are certainly clear but this listener hears some ghosts of Charles Ives and the polystylism of Alfred Schnittke as well. The Sonata seems to be the highlight here. It is wonderfully complex, kaleidoscopic, loaded with quotation, even grandiose at times, but eminently listenable and it is a highly entertaining piece also because of it’s virtuosity which is ably handled by the performer.
There are apparently three pianists on this recording, Jacob Rhodebeck, Shiau-Uen Ding and Augustus Arnone. The problem is that it is not clear from the labeling or the notes who plays what. This is actually a fascinating and engaging collection, well played, but I was surprised to be unable to attribute the various virtuosities to the deserving performers.
The recording, mastered by Silas Brown, is as good as it gets. Overall quite a collection but one that left me with many questions as well. Perhaps that was, at least partly, the intent but it is my hope that these ambiguities will not distract the listener and that more releases will be forthcoming. This is very interesting music deserving of serious attention.