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Sean HEIM (b.1967)
the night-speech of plant and stone:
the night-speech of plant and stone (2002) [1:48]
sö pa (2000) [6:08]
In The Between (2002) [14:22]
Welcome to the Crash-site of Unrequited Love (1999) [10:22]
Stillness of a Kiss (2001) [4:21]
Blood Memory (2003) [6:56]
Jupiter, the moon, and myself… (2000) [11:27]
California EAR Unit: Dorothy Stone (flute) Marty Walker (bass clarinet), Robin Lorentz (violin) Erika Duke-Kirkpatrick (cello) Vicki Ray (piano) Susan Judy (soprano) Mark Menzies (violin)
rec. 2005, Architecture, Los Angeles with funds from the American Composers Forum - Los Angeles Chapter and Chapman University. DDD
CAPSTONE CPS-8752 [56:00]

Audio samples available

The opening cello solo, the night-speech of plant and stone begins with a sense of simple beauty, which lulls us into a false sense of security before launching into an array of contemporary sounds, which challenge our pre-conceptions about this instrument. There is emotion and drama in this work, all in fewer than two minutes of music. Already, Heim is asking questions of his listeners.
One would perhaps imagine that the dedication of a work to the Dalai Lama would suggest a calm, still piece, possibly suitable for meditation. Once again, in sö pa, Heim challenges our perceptions. According to the composer’s website (, “sö pa is a Tibetan word associated with the ethic of virtue … its literal meaning is ‘able to bear’ or ‘able to withstand’. But the word also carries a notion of resolution”. It is this resolution that we hear in the opening of this work for flute, cello and piano. The cello writing comes straight out of the world of the previous piece, full of drama and impact. There is a real sense of struggle here; an emotional struggle against the forces of evil. There is also an unquestionable sense of resolve which finally defeats its unseen opponent, relaxing into focused calm and tranquillity in the closing sections [4:55]. Played with conviction and energy, this performance captures the spirit of Heim’s message admirably.
In the Between is a more substantial work for piano solo, comprising six short movements and once again drawing on Tibetan philosophy. Making intelligent use of the instrument, the piece is full of contemporary sounds which extend the emotional range. The music here is highly atmospheric and full of contrasts, from the dark rumblings at the beginning of the third movement to the simple beauty of the final movement. The opening makes use of the piano’s percussive elements, and is reminiscent of ethnic sounds. Strongly rhythmic, this contrasts with other works on the CD. The second movement uses the inside of the piano to create a different atmosphere, this time depicting meditative stability. Vicki Ray’s playing is engaging, taking us on a well thought out journey of sounds and experiences. She demonstrates a real affinity with the music and conveys the emotions well. This is a very strong performance which is full of light and shade and unquestionably captures the essence of Heim’s music.
This is followed by a 12 minute violin solo, Welcome to the Crash-site of Unrequited Love, performed here by Mark Menzies. Taking its melodic basis from an Irish folk song (She moved through the fair), this is a set of variations (distillations, as the composer calls them) using an array of influences to filter the tune in different directions. By now used to the contemporary techniques that are so much of Heim’s language, used purely for their expressive qualities rather than merely for effect, it comes as no surprise that the opening of this work is explosive and makes use of unconventional sounds. There are fragments of the folk tune throughout, although one would be hard-pushed to construct the tune in its entirety from this piece. The playing here is highly skilled; Menzies achieves a sense of traditional Irish fiddle playing, but within the context of a contemporary work. As a result, the Irish element is continuously present, without the need to patronise the audience. This is inspired work.
In contrast, Stillness of a Kiss is an exploration of the emotions and atmospheres within a single moment, and demonstrates a very different side to Heim’s writing. Long notes build increasing intensity before one instrument at a time breaks off to explore a melodic idea. This is music which draws the listener in and forces them to listen, and to concentrate. Like the rest of this CD, it is thought-provoking and emotionally charged.
Blood Money, for bass clarinet, is heard over the drone of an electronic sruti box. Heim’s writing is well suited to the sonorities of the bass clarinet, and this performance by Marty Walker is again convincing. The final multiphonic is particularly charged, bringing the work to an intense end.
The final work on this disc is Jupiter, the moon and myself…, a set of four songs depicting nature, taken from different cultural backgrounds. Scored for a quartet of flute, violin, piano and soprano, the opening is perhaps more harmonically simple than we have become accustomed to on this disc, with octaves a regular sound in the first movement, perhaps as a practical consideration to accommodate the use of voice. These songs are full of colour, with the instruments used for their differences of tone as well as to blend. The singing is uncomplicated and emotive. The material becomes more diverse as the movements progress, with the second movement reminiscent, at least in part, of Pierrot Lunaire.
This disc demonstrates why the California EAR Unit has gained a reputation as a world leader in contemporary music performance. The performance of each piece on this recording communicates to its audience, always leaving us in no doubt that the players have a true understanding and belief in the music they are playing. Contemporary music may not always be enjoyed by the general public, but it is performances like these, full of conviction, that give audiences the chance to discover its emotional impact.
Carla Rees


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