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Mary Ellen CHILDS (b. 1957)
Dream House (2004) [65:13]
Ethel (string quartet), Neverwas (sound collage)
rec. The Clubhouse, Rhinebeck, New York, July 2006. DDD.
Premiere recording.
INNOVA 672 [65:13]
Experience Classicsonline

Mary Ellen Childs’ Dream House was originally designed as an evening-length multi-media piece combining live string quartet with prepared sound collages and video projections. Childs was inspired by the process of building a new home, with all the stresses, joys and noises that entailed. She expanded the piece by offering the mirror image of demolition and destruction of a house. Video images of demolition and rebuilding were projected during performances, while sound collages by Neverwas - the professional name of Christopher Cunningham - were assembled from the noise of hammering and construction equipment. The present Innova CD eschews the video, but preserves the live music and interpolated collages to impressive effect.
The first movement, “Hocket,” is stern, questioning music unfolding in the pattern of an obsessive rhythm. The hocket - each note of the rhythm half the length of the preceding note - drives the music forward, often with one instrument holding or repeating a single, focal tone. The music’s foundations vary between tonal and modal. “Destruction” features mournful dissonances and glissandos in the strings, which are gradually overtaken by a montage of ominous building demolition sounds. The strings retreat to high, mechanical harmonics at the end of the movement. The following movement, “After Dust,” returns to the questioning mood of the first movement, but in a more settled, less severe manner. Childs draws some intense and expressive phrases out of a minimalist/alt-rock vernacular.
The fourth movement is “Bass Line,” and as the title suggests, it is a passacaglia, with variations over a chord progression in the bass. The chords move slowly, in parallel harmonies, making it sound like Gregorian chant. But the first variation presents skittish rhythms played with the wood of the bows alternating and overlapping with passionate lyrical phrases. The second variation amplifies the chords into snarling distortion. The following “Chimewerk” is a sound collage of brightly ringing mechanical noises. “Pizz Hocket” comes next, featuring plucked strings and a return to the hocket rhythm, which is never far away throughout the work. I love the daring of the players in Ethel here. They strike the pizzicato notes with great force, daring to knock the instruments out of tune in their pursuit of expression.
“Welding” is an exhilarating, primarily rhythmic scherzo that serves as a fulcrum between the work’s halves. The clattering beats are surrounded by clouds of glittering mechanical noise, courtesy of the interpolated sound montage. The montage takes over completely for the brief eighth movement, “Toweling,” featuring the distorted sounds of sweeping and scraping. “Waiting” offers plaintive music of forced patience. The uncertainty and active unease which Childs seems to mine for inspiration gives this movement, and the whole work, metaphorical resonance that takes it far beyond the specific. Here the mood is not merely someone waiting on a house to be built, but anyone waiting on something that may never come: Dreams, success, survival or whatever one may imagine.
The sound montage “Breath” leads into “Very High,” a movement full of mysterious high harmonies that bring on a strange, disembodied feeling. The dream state coalesces in the affecting emotional peak of the work as the instruments begin falling down into their lower registers, leading to “Strum,” the piece’s twelfth movement. While the music remains in a minor key, the guitar-like groove expresses relief with a quietly dancing joy. The last big push forward comes in the thirteenth movement, “Saws,” where minimalist arpeggios are used like buzz-saws to propel the music forward, though more lyrical sections begin to appear. The work ends with “Shavasana,” a quiet, prayer-like piece that hangs between major and minor, capturing the warmth and the doubt of mixed keys. It takes its named from the “dead pose” used to both begin and end yoga sessions. With hopeful uncertainty, the music fades off into nothingness.
The recorded sound is close and rich but clear, except where it is intentionally distorted for aesthetic effect. The sound collages add dense layers to the sound in places, but Childs wisely varies her layers of density in the quartet music, allowing for a sense of space that is captured beautifully in the recording. Despite lasting over an hour, the music never becomes wearing on the ears.
This work lives in the same land that the New York string quartet Ethel has been exploring in recent years, a frontier where modern classical and alternative rock meet and mingle. One could note Childs’ apparent influence on the players in Ethel in some of their own compositions on the recent album Light, particularly first violinist Cornelius Dufallo’s “Lighthouse.” Like that album, Dream House strikes a balance between accessibility and challenge, sounding utterly of its time without having an expiration date stamped on its side. This is music that has potential appeal for both the open-minded classical listener and the rock music fan who enjoys the daring edge. If this sort of thing keeps up, modern classical music could become — dare I say it? — relevant to more than just a handful of aficionados.
Mark Sebastian Jordan


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