At the composer’s request, we were recently sent a review copy by Innova Recordings, the recording arm of the American Composers Forum, of a just released CD titled, Notes from the Kelp, an album devoted to eight chamber works by the contemporary American composer Alex Shapiro.
As regular readers of Sounds & Fury are aware, we as a rule don’t do CD reviews here, and our interest in and enthusiasm for contemporary classical music is just about nil. But the contemporary classical music works on this CD immediately compelled our attention because of their utter lack of doctrinaire adherence to any of the manifold modern and postmodern isms today floating about in the world of classical music, and gave evidence of not so much as a trace of the obsession with process and sound that so malignantly infects so much contemporary classical music today. It’s not that we imagine the 45-year-old Ms. Shapiro is unaware or ignorant of any of these tendencies, but rather that we sense that her fundamental and overarching concern is with musical ideas and their spinning out to create a coherent musical narrative rather than with musical and quasi-musical effects, which is not to say she’s above using either or both when she determines they’ll serve her musical ideas advantageously and well.
As a happy consequence, there’s nothing in this collection of well-made chamber works — all of it very much of the 21st and late 20th century — that one could call or mistake for avant-garde innovative. All these works are, to use a ubiquitous buzzword in music criticism today, accessible, and absent any of the extreme complicatedness masquerading as complexity that’s part of the working kit of avant-garde charlatans such as Babbitt, Boulez, and Stockhausen and their ilk. If one was forced to chose one adjective to characterize all these chamber works, that adjective would be, beautiful. Even the opening comic piece, “Slipping” — scored for violin, harpsichord, and percussion — is no exception having as it does its own zany sort of beauty. It’s a madcap, half-demented romp through a potpourri of styles ranging from early-‘50s rock-and-roll, to Italian street song; from ‘40s jazz to Japanese koto music in all of which the harpsichord is called upon to impersonate every imaginable plectrum instrument — except the Baroque harpsichord. A thoroughly delightful frolic, expertly and with relish performed by Robin Lorentz, violin (who commissioned the work as a gift for her recital partner, Kathleen McIntosh); Kathleen McIntosh, harpsichord; and Dan Morris, percussion. Perhaps it’s just our mildly weird sense of humor, but we couldn’t help thinking that an integral bookending of this mélange by a single po-faced fragment on both ends in the style of a Bach trio sonata (sans percussion, of course) would have given sharper point to the work’s musical idea, and made the comic wackiness in-between that much more piquant.
Far from comic or wacky is “Bioplasm”, the next cut on the CD. It’s an eerie and curiously haunting tone poem written for flute quartet — 2 C flutes, 2 alto flutes, 2 bass flutes, and 1 piccolo — that incorporates some uncommon flute techniques such as percussive pitched key clicks and pitch bending (the latter sounding just as the words suggest, and both new to this writer) as well as vocalizations by the players while they’re playing (no, we have no idea how that’s done, but we’re assured that no overdubbing was employed, and that none of the four flutists were harmed in the making of the recording), that requires more than one listening to appreciate fully in all its details.
The centerpiece of Notes from the Kelp (for us, at any rate) is “Current Events”, three thematically and musically related essays on the sea written for string quintet (2 violins, 2 violas, and 1 cello). Moving quickly past the cutesy double entendre title which ill serves the sense and depth of the work, the three named movements are “Surge”, “Ebb”, and “Rip”, all referring to ocean tidal currents (“Current Events”, get it?). The musical language shared by all three is richly dissonant and dark-textured; a dense polytonal chromaticism that’s gorgeously and unabashedly romantic and deeply affecting. If there’s but one work on this CD that all will love, this is it, and were it the only work on the CD, it alone would justify the purchase price.
“For My Father” is the fourth movement of Ms. Shapiro’s 1996 five-movement Piano Suite No. 1: The Resonance of Childhood, and the sixth track on this twelve-track CD. It’s an elegy on the inexorable descent of Ms. Shapiro’s father into dementia — an anguished, extended questioning of fate ending in quiet resignation the totality of the movement seeming to echo the sense of the words if not the original meaning of Beethoven’s famous written question and answer on the beginning and ending pages, respectively, of the last movement of his last quartet: “Muss es sein? Es muss sein. [Must it be? It must be.]”
Three reflections on the present state of our species and its relation to our planet are the substance of “At The Abyss”; a work scored for piano, marimba, vibraphone, and percussion. The three named, complexly contrapuntal movements are, “Observe”, “Reflect”, and “Act”. The first is mad as hell, and the second and third, determined not to take it any more. Note the ethereal upper-partial harmonics in “Reflect”. They’re produced not by a glass harmonica as first thought by this writer, but by bowed rather than struck crotales; small (3”-4” diameter), tuned, cymbal-like percussion instruments that can be had in a chromatically-tuned-octave set.
“Phos Hilaron” (Gracious Light) is the second movement of Ms. Shapiro’s 1999 six-movement Evensong Suite, and is scored for flute, clarinet, bassoon, and piano. This lovely Anglican liturgical piece celebrates, within its liturgical Evensong service context, “the last vesper light of a setting sun,” as Ms. Shapiro puts it. But as with all the works on this CD, its putative meaning is malleable, and outside of its liturgical setting one should feel perfectly free to assign to it anything whatsoever it might call to mind.
As preparation for the next cut on this CD, first think of two really big instruments, and then mentally pair them in a lyrical duet.
Bet you didn’t think of a piano and a tuba. But Ms. Shapiro did, then imaginatively named the resulting duet, “Music for Two Big Instruments”. And a more surprising lyrical pairing would be hard to imagine except it be the music of Ponchielli’s “Dance of The Hours” and Walt Disney’s impossibly graceful hippo ballerinas.
Say what? A lyrical tuba?
Betcherass — and beautifully, too.
“Deep” is the last cut on this CD, and the only work to utilize a prepared (by the composer) electronic track over which musically lavish electronic track a solo contrabassoon does its solo turn. It’s a deeply and darkly mysterious work that will make the hair stand up on the back of your neck, we promise you. This is electronics put to proper use in the making of music, and if we hear so much as a whisper of the phrase “movie music” from any of you we’ll write you off as a woodenheaded, hopelessly music-deaf philistine, and have nothing further to do with you.
All the musicians taking part in the making of Notes from the Kelp — and there were some 22 of them if my count is not in error — performed splendidly, and splendid as well were the audio engineers responsible for capturing those performances, laying them down on digital tape, and transferring them flawlessly to CD. Innova Recordings and everyone involved in the making of this CD have much of which to be proud. The CD may be purchased directly from the composer, or individual tracks downloaded, here as can supplementary materials (such as the scores) be downloaded and much information found on the music and the making of Notes from the Kelp. The CD is available as well from Amazon here.
One final word about Notes from the Kelp.
Do not be fooled by the fact that Ms. Shapiro is a regular babe (that girl on the album cover is not a model but the composer herself), nor by Ms. Shapiro’s CD liner notes and her comments on the CD’s web page which might lead one to conclude she’s little more than a utopian, tree-hugging, Left-Coast flower child; a relic of the post-Woodstock ‘70s and all that implies. Listen to the music, not the words. The music says it all. The rest is silence.