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Graham FITKIN (b. 1963)
Kaplan (2003) [62:39]
Ruth Wall and Graham Fitkin, keyboards and electronic production.
Recorded at Stoke Cottage, April 2003 DDD
BLACK BOX BBM1086 [62:39]


This is a disc that I popped into the player not knowing at all what to expect. What I discovered was a fascinating musical experience from an artist whom I knew only by reputation. This music is somewhat difficult to critique from the viewpoint of one who is classically trained, as it erases all of the boundaries between styles and genres. This is a disc that could as easily be found in a number of sections in a record store and be correctly filed in all of them. I am not sure that I can really do more than describe what I have heard and what effect that it had on me. Since the music is unique, it would be hard to compare it to similar works and note the contrasts.

First off, let us deal with trying to find a good description of something that is rather enigmatic. Graham Fitkin has composed an hour of music that could just as easily pass for electronic dance music as it does for a serious work intended for the concert stage. It fares better in the realm of a recording, as the countless studio and electronic effects might be rather difficult to reproduce on the concert stage.

The music is based on the fictional life of George Kaplan, the spectral character that is the protagonist in Alfred Hitchcock’s film North By Northwest. The film’s hero, played by Cary Grant, is mistaken for one George Kaplan, and is pursued by the authorities. It isn’t until half-way through the picture that the audience realizes that George Kaplan does not exist at all, and is just a fabrication of the U.S. Intelligence Agency. Fitkin uses this character metaphorically, allowing the listener to decide whether his musical Kaplan is one of the performers, the composer, him or herself, or a member of the audience.

Having spent a lengthy personal purgatory in academia, I have heard my share of experimental electronically generated music. More often than not, I have come away with a giant "so what" emblazoned on my forehead. There are, however, some electronic pieces that work splendidly. Amongst the notable examples are Alvin Curran’s Songs and Views from the Magnetic Garden, and Morton Subotnik’s The Key to Songs. I am going to venture out here and say that Mr. Fitkin’s creation can be added to the list of very effective electronic music.

Can it, however, be called a work of "art music," to use my own term?

Now you may wonder why I might pose this question. The answer is not an easy one. Although the work, which comprises seven individual sections, opens up with sounds that one might expect from a work of electronic music, the listener is quickly rather taken aback by the drum machines kicking in and the segue into what sounds like music that you could hear in any gay bar. Yet there is far more to this than just disco and the influence of 1970s vintage synthesists; Vangelis, Tomita, Andreas Vollenweider and Jean-Michel Jarre are names that come immediately to the fore.

This is a well-structured work. There are themes, tunes and subtle shades of color, nuance and mood. Elements of dance music, disco, rock and roll and jazz are spread throughout. Most importantly though, this is music that engages the listener from the first thirty seconds, and keeps his attention through to the end. One simply wants to sit there and find out what happens next. It is this element more than any other that makes this work a true success, and one that I believe, will appeal to a broad spectrum of musical tastes.

In terms of production quality, there is little to criticize. It is all done in the studio, and is done very well. I have noticed a rather growing tendency, however, for record companies to forego written notes and instead utilize the wonders of the Internet to store information about recordings. There are no program notes or descriptions of the music whatever in the booklet. Instead, the listener is directed to place the disc in his computer, where he will be directed to a web site with complete information. The site is interesting, but more so to a teenager perhaps than a serious adult music aficionado.

There are biographies of the composer, sound and video clips, something that passes for program notes, and a lot of trendy web design through which to plow. If you have the time and inclination, the site has some fun eye and ear candy, and is well put together. Although this sort of thing is ecologically correct, I am not certain that every buyer is going to take the time to play around on the composer’s web site. I am of a split mind as to the value of the virtual program booklet, and I will only say here that it has both its advantages and disadvantages, and leave the verdict to the jury of the buying public.

If you are adventuresome and want something quite different than the latest rehash of the Beethoven symphonies, then pick this one up. It certainly cannot hurt you, and you may just be turned on to some new and interesting sounds. Recommended for the adventuresome in the readership.

Kevin Sutton

 

 



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