With and Without Memory
Some music sticks in the memory on first hearing. Some takes a while to “hear into,” and its images become recognizable only with repetition. Some music is too complex to be remembered in detail, though general traits might be distinctive. The music on this disc spans a wide range of memory types, though it all came into existence because of single pianist. A highly emotive performer with an atmospheric stage presence, Lois Svard has become a leading interpretive champion of New York’s Downtown music, a pioneer in repertoire that until recently as performed mainly by its composers. Her taste in new music is as superlative as her pianistic technique, as is shown by these works she commissioned and premiered by three of New York’s most outstanding musical figures.
“Blue” Gene Tyranny (b. 1945) is one of the finest improvising pianists of our time, a genius at whipping up complex structures in which every note feels right. It is a tribute to Svard’s place in new music that this is his first piano solo work recorded by someone other than himself. As its title connotes, Nocturne With and Without Memory evokes an evening mood. “With and without memory” is a multi-layered qualifier. On one level, it refers to the piece’s division into sections that use the sustaining pedal (which “remembers” the notes played) and those light, dry, non-resonant sections that don’t. More globally it points to the images from the first movement that recur in the second and third, passages where memory is elicited versus those in which nothing is recalled.
The piece is generated from three images, or “characters,” all found in the first movement. The first character is a series of descending chords, in which one note is sustained (remembered) from each sonority. The second is a quick, mercurial melody, the third a texture of repeating arpeggios. Tyranny’s harmony is dazzlingly versatile, ranging from easy-going jazz sonorities to impressionism to brittle dissonance. In the second movement (a “dusty mirror,” the composer calls it), the images of the first reappear in roughly backwards order. The arpeggios, for example, return in mid-movement as isolated bitonal fragments. The third movement brings back the piece’s seminal ideas in simplest form, without development, often in spare single notes or octaves. The marvelous thing about Tyranny’s compositions, as about his improvisations, is that he opens up the music to give you a glimpse of a complex creative mind at work.
William Duckworth (b. 1943) has been called the modern Robert Schumann, for his beautifully unified sets of character pieces. If his widely celebrated Time Curve Preludes is his Carnaval, then Imaginary Dances is his Kreisleriana. Also recorded on Lovely Music, The Time Curve Preludes is a cycle of 24 pieces based on the “Dies Irae” chant, a quotation from Satie, and accelerative numerical processes. If Imaginary Dances lacks the Preludes’ kaleidoscopic variety, it is more supple in its technique, more subtle in its devices, and jazzier, too. The micrologic of Duckworth’s technique fools the ear into hearing a regularity that isn’t there; the dances are engagingly simple, and lively because they’re more complex than they sound.
The first and third dances, for instance, use bluegrass and jazz patterns to change five-beat phrases into four-beat ones and vice versa, a transformation that passes by blithely in the scintillating texture. A continual major/minor ambiguity, such as the one that threads throughout Dance No. 4, is Duckworth’s trademark. Dance No. 5’s languid Southern charm comes from having G minor in the right hand and G major in the left. Much of Duckworth’s music is composed from small modules, cadential images, that get recombined in patterns that either stretch out expansively, as in Dance No. 6, or contract (like many of the Time Curve Preludes). Dance No. 8, with its bass and treble melodies against shimmering thirds in the middle, is designed to make the pianist sound like she has at least three hands.
The seventh dance is a quintessential example of Duckworth’s postminimal fusion of techniques. The piece’s jazz rhythm results from a medieval device called isorhythm, in which the same rhythm returns over and over. Against this eight-note rhythm, Duckworth imposes repeating pitch strings of first 28, then 26 notes, which go out of phase with the rhythm. The resulting melody never repeats literally, though there’s a strong sense of running through the same material again and again. Meanwhile, the melody slides up and down inside its octave with the slippery irregularity of an Indian raga. Jazz rhythm, medieval technique, Hindu melody -- the dance combines all these elements, but weaves them so tightly together that only the musicological mind would be tempted to separate them. The less analytic listener hears an intricate dance of sensual joy.
Van Cao’s Meditation is a rare instrumental work by the late 20th century’s most influential and innovative opera composer, Robert Ashley (b. 1930), best known for his ground-breaking operas Perfect Lives and Improvement (Don Leaves Linda). The piece was inspired by a photograph in the National Geographic magazine for November, 1989, of Van Cao, the composer of North Vietnam’s national anthem, sitting at one of Vietnam’s two grand pianos. Ashley tried unsuccessfully to raise funding to go meet Van Cao, who before the war was a successful writer of cabaret music. Instead, he imagined Van Cao improvising in his studio and humming to himself. He carried around this image until Svard asked him for a solo work, whereupon he quickly wrote Van Cao’s Meditation.
In Ashley’s imagination, Van Cao plays an endlessly ruminative line of single notes, using only five pitches - B-flat, C, D-flat, E-flat, and F-flat - played in octave-arpeggios with unvarying legato. Keys in the bass are held down silently to allow overtones to resonate, and the pianist sometimes hums along. The line is softly punctuated by octaves on A-flat, which, because of the changing tonal context, never seem to be in the same place twice. The B-flat-to-F-flat tritone breathes a constant air of mystery, and the quiet of the undulating curves never settles into calm. If Duckworth’s piece recombines images in shifting permutations, and Tyranny’s lets its images gradually reveal themselves amid a barrage of notes, Ashley’s work is one long, sustained image, starting over at zero with each phrase. Feel free to listen with memory – or without.
— Kyle Gann
Kyle Gann is a composer, music critic for the Village Voice in New York, and author of The Music of Conlon Nancarrow (Cambridge).
A classically trained pianist with a post-modern sensibility, Lois Svard’s special focus on contemporary music has included the work of European as well as American composers. She has recorded several works for CRI, and has presented concerts in the US and Europe, many of which have been broadcast on radio. Lois Svard is currently on the piano faculty at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, PA.
• Nos. 1-10: Thomas Lazarus, engineer; Saundra Palmer, 2nd engineer; Thomas MacCluskey, producer; BMG Studio A, NYC; March 24-45, 1993; Sony 1630, DMR 4000; Steinway no. CD327; microphones: Sennheiser MKH40 Cardioid (close), Sennheiser MKH20 Omni (distant)
• No. 11: Robert Spangler, engineer; Robert Ashley, producer; Weis Center for the Performing Arts, Bucknell University, Lewisburg, PA; June 18-19, 1993; Panasonic 3700; Steinway No. 134676; microphones: Neumann U87 (close), Crown PZM (distant)
• Nos. 1-11: Editing: Thomas MacCluskey & Lois Svard, Sonic Solutions at Classic Sound, NYC, NY; Mastering: Thomas MacCluskey at BMG Studios, NYC, NY
Photos by: Silvia Otte
This compact disk was made possible through the generous support of the Association for the Arts, Bucknell University, Lewisburg, PA.
Art Direction and Design: By Design
Copyright © 1994 Robert Ashley/Visibility Music Publishers (BMI), William Duckworth/Monroe Street Music (ASCAP), Robert Sheff (BMI)
© P 1994 Lovely Music, Ltd.
LCD 3051 [D] [D] [D]