like many composers removed from their home turf, has that keen sense of
objective nostalgia which reinforces whatever national voice they may or
may not have been nursing while working as someone inside, and looking out
from beyond his native shores.
Southern Lament is
based on Negro spirituals and ballads which the composer recalls from his
childhood on the borderlands of Florida and Georgia. The opening is explosive
and angry, the quoted songs which include ‘John Henry’ and ‘Go Down Moses’ are
fragmented and transposed into angular chunks of pianistic pyrotechnics.
The piece is in two movements of roughly equal length, with the second using ‘Nobody
Knows the Troubles I’ve Seen’ and ‘I am Troubled’, both laments which express
the heartfelt and deeply moving sadness of the cotton slaves. This second
section is slow and atmospheric, with some harp-like stroking of the piano
strings, and Monica Acosta’s voice emerging like a ghostly echo, doubling
the melody from the piano – a moving and effective piece.
Many of the shorter
works on this CD are from two collections, Five Easy Pieces and Autumn
Leaves (1998-2003), which are ‘occasional’ pieces written as presents
for friends and relatives. While concise in duration, these are certainly
not negligible in content. Just to pick on a few, Chorale for a Millennium
Sunset has the piano opening with a simple, almost Schubertian descending
fragment, which is joined by a string quartet which extends the notes to
form streamers – an austere and engaging effect. The following piece, Headless
Horseman, is a fun gallop accompanied by wind and storm sounds on tape. Something’s
in Grandma’s Attic is played entirely on the piano’s casing, and if the
noises are anything to go by, Grandma might be advised to check on her insurance.
These are a super collection of little musical sketches, showing the composer
at play, relaxed and enjoying flexing his creative muscles in miniature diversions
which often provide surprising and remarkable results.
Of the other pieces, Haiku consists
of some fairly new-agey electronic drifting around. For Merce C. at the
Barbican was written for a prepared piano set up to perform works by
John Cage, so almost inevitably sounds like an addition to that composer’s ‘Sonatas
and Interludes.’ After Ives… is a suite of six studies, of which four
are presented on this disc. The composer says, ‘My studies use some of Ives’s
source material, but – unlike Ives’s – include larger chunks of the original
tunes: the result is that mine develop more like bizarre arrangements of
a whole tune, rather than short melodic fragments in a larger compositional
tapestry.’ The results are widely varying, from the mad, thumpingly virtuosic Songs
of Childhood, to the desolate atmosphere of Wayfaring Stranger which
would make excellent dustbowl film music. Forever JPS has the ‘Stars
and Stripes’ in a version which out-Horowitz’s Horowitz, and applies Ives’s
clashing marching bands as a finale.
I’ve lived with
American composers messing around with pianos on and off for years now. Taking
one of my old teachers Frederic Rzewski as a gritty and somewhat unforgiving
reference, I find Stephen Montague’s relatively clean-living and humorous
touch to be refreshing and unpretentious. This won’t be everybody’s cup of
tea, but there will be many who will find Montague’s post-post-modernist
reflections on life at all ends of the spectrum fit neatly into what they
seek in contemporary music. There is challenge and familiarity, some jokes
and some tears, virtuosity and simplicity, tough brutalism and elegant nuance.
All in all, a package which is hard to resist.