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.