Wednesday, September 12, 2018
Cassandra Miller 'Just So' - (Another Timbre)
Cassandra Miller 'O Zomer!' (Another Timbre)
The second installment of the Simon Reynall-curated Canadian Composers Series has arrived and it's a rich batch of work. Two of the releases contain the amazing music of the currently London-based composer Cassandra Miller, the first two recordings devoted to her work, as near as I can determine. Long overdue, I'd have to say.
Miller's music is absorbing for any number of reasons. She makes use of aspects of various branches of modernism including minimalism and, in some pieces, a kind of structural stasis but almost always also references traditional forms and techniques, from Bach to folk songs to Ives and more. 'Just So' collects four pieces for string quartet, performed in typically beautiful and rigorous fashion by the Bozzini Quartet, two shorter works bracketing two longer ones. The title composition is a lilting affair, recalling some kind of village gig or reel, the strings pitched high, dancing, the rhythms just this side of irregular, the cello coming in for some wonderful underpinning in the final few moments. A bracing, joyous number to open the set. 'Warblework', as the title implies, concerns itself with birds: three thrushes and a veery. To my ears, not birdsong as much as tracing the paths birds make in flight and very movingly so. The strings swirl and skitter in brief bursts for the Swainson's thrush, alight for a moment, then take off once again while the hermit thrush swoops a bit more, stays lower to the ground and the wood thrush grunts and pushes its way through the underbrush before standing still to survey its surroundings, which are filled with lovely, dry harmonies. The veery, another kind of thrush, does seem to make a doleful call amidst grainy streaks, the calls multiplying, a little anxious as though espied. Here, as in other pieces, Miller makes subtle use of approximately iterated cells of music, a near repetition of clusters that nods to minimalism without ever falling into rote usage--this is an especially fine work.
'About Bach' is the longest work presented here and kind of a centerpiece, illustrating the sort of structural tack that Miller seems to enjoy and that, in a way, she elaborates in her marvelous composition, 'Duet for Cello and Orchestra', commented on below. Here, if I'm not mistaken, one violin (maybe sometimes both?) plays a very highly pitched, seven-note ascending "scale" throughout the piece. Readers with more musical knowledge than I might identify it, but I was reminded, oddly enough, of the scale sung by the lead tenor at the conclusion of Glass' 1979 opera, 'Satyagraha'. It's very poignant in and of itself, gathering strength and weight and, indeed, poignancy as it's repeated again and again. The lower strings, in an almost conversational manner, reflect with phrases that seem obliquely derived from Bach, though with an entirely modern hesitancy and questioning aspect. Toward the end, it attains a clear dimension of solemnity. There's a type of stasis in effect, pinioned by the violin(s) but also enhanced by the general self-similarity of the interposed phrases, though they in fact vary at all times. The sense of overhearing snatches of discussions in a large room pervades, dreamlike. Just a deep, marvelous and affecting work, brilliantly performed. The disc concludes with 'Leaving', another work that appears to have folk song roots, maybe a sea shanty, lolls in place like an old docked boat gently buffeted by small waves. Each of the strings seems to carry a related tune, melding together at times, drifting apart at other moments. It's an immensely satisfying, soft kind of almost-lullaby, a fine ending to a superb recording.
'O Zomer!' also contains four compositions, but for instrumentation ranging from the ensemble Apartment House (on this occasion consisting of Chloe Abbott, trumpet; George Barton, vibraphone; Simon Limbrick, marimba and crotales; Anton Lukoszevieze, cello; James Opstad, double bass; Christopher Redgate, oboe; Heather Roche, bass clarinet; Philip Thomas, piano; and Jack Sheen, conductor) to a piano/whistling duo (Thomas and Clemens Merkel) to solo violin (Mira Benjamin) to full orchestra (the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Ilan Volkov). It's yet another astonishing and spectacular set of music.
I get the idea that Miller likes the notion of partitioning her works into parts, often halves, leading the listener down one path of expectations only to offer a surprising (but entirely appropriate) shift. The beginning of the title piece (I discovered that "zomer" is Dutch for summer, but don't know if that's the allusion in play here) displays that idea in a nutshell: eight quick, steady taps of the same note on a marimba (underlaid by a bowed chord by, I think, cello) followed by a held tone of roughly equivalent length, maybe a tad shorter, by...hard to say--a muted trumpet? The marimba gradually slows down, though remaining steady. It's very pure, even pristine, eventually accompanied by single notes from the piano. Suddenly, four minutes in (halfway), the music erupts in a bright, clattering, bleating explosion of sound, extremely colorful, wonderfully arranged, that surges and pulsates for the remainder of the work. Two worlds, the serene and the gorgeously chaotic. 'Philip the Wanderer' opens with low, brooding piano rumbles, the left hand way down there, grumbling, the right stabbing at mid-range notes, almost forcing them out, the entirety bearing an anguished, troubled mien. Again, about halfway through its 14 1/2 minutes, the atmosphere breaks for several seconds. Then, very surprisingly, we here the piano tracing a lovely single-note, halting melody offset by thick, chorale-like chords, very regal though still retaining some of that tortured feeling. More surprising still, and marvelously moving, is the emergence of a whistler (Clemens Merkel, normally the lead violinist of the Bozzini Quartet), limning a sad, wistful tune, low in pitch. He only stays for a minute or so but has imparted an important layer, or several, to the music. After his disappearance, the piano takes on a more joyful guise, cascading raindrops in a higher register, before coalescing around a simple, rising eight note pattern that repeats for a minute or two. 'For Mira' uses kernels of repeated lines, gnarly, stretched and involute with elaborations shooting off like tendrils from a vine. The language is almost Romantic; one can imagine it being formed from shards of cadenzas severed from a late 19th century concerto. The line is fairly long and involved, long enough that one might not realize it's repeating, albeit with short breaks and augmentations. On the whole, it's a keening, wrenching, grinding piece, fraught with longing and desire, extremely heartfelt.
And then we come to 'Duet for Cello and Orchestra'. I'll say at the outset that this is one of my single favorite pieces of music heard over the past several years. We hear Charles Curtis bowing two dark tones, seesawing slowly, growling them out, infused with grain. I was immediately taken back to an event I witnessed several years ago in Paris when Curtis, along with Carol Robinson and Bruno Martinez, performed Éliane Radigue's 'Naldjorlak I, II & III', the first third of which, lasting about 45 minutes, was Curtis playing a single "wolf tone". We were sitting about six feet in front of him and the effect was overwhelmingly powerful. After four iterations of this "simple" pattern, there's a flowering of trumpets, a small, fluttering fanfare that appears, bounces about and ends with a little, humorous curlicue. This form is essentially repeated throughout the first half of the 32-minute work, with both the complexity of the lines and their instrumentation expanding to the full orchestra, the cello maintaining its grim, slow-stepped progression. The orchestral pattern matures into the form of that flutter of arabesques followed by an extended, steady chord, again sometimes ending with that wry flourish. I had the impression of the flocking of three or four different birds, their patterns varying and intersecting, rising from trees, settling. I also sensed a faint allusion to the orchestral parts of Ives' 'The Unanswered Question'. The pure sound color aspect of Miller's writing (and, I suspect, of Volkov's conducting) is an absolute joy, as is tracing the complex but individuated lines; I really can't say enough about how glorious it is. The cello, while maintaining the basic pattern, seems to stretch it out a bit now and then, acquiring a greater sense of dolor, of inevitability. Around that halfway point, the orchestra subsumes the cello entirely (it may be continuing underneath, difficult to tell for sure) but the ensemble has been bent to the solo instrument's will, adopting its back and forth motion, though writ large (glimmers of John Barry's score to 'Moonraker' as reconfigured by Fenn O'Berg spring briefly to mind). The whole conglomeration sways and rocks like an old ark making its slow, steady journey through heavy water. Just when you think that this is the way it's going to end, in an indefinitely cyclic eddy, the music quiets down and we once again hear the cello, buried for the past 10-12 minutes, emerge with a new demeanor, playing an oddly lilting line, high notes, sad but sing-songy, like a lost bird making its way home. The work ends with an ironic iteration of that winking flourish we heard earlier.
Just a phenomenal recording, huge congratulations to all involved. I can't wait to hear more from Miller.