For readers as unfamiliar with the name Robert Moran as I was,
he was born in Denver and studied with Milhaud, Berio and others.
Whilst teaching composition at the San Francisco Conservatory,
he composed Thirty-nine Minutes for Thirty-nine Autos:
his first city-work for the entire area of San Francisco, incorporating
100,000 performers, 2 radio stations, 1 tv station, 30 skyscrapers,
6 airplanes, dance ensembles in the streets, etc. Because of
the success of this work, his second city-work, Hallelujah,
was commissioned and premiered using 75,000 performers in the
city of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, April 1971. The entire
musical forces of this city were incorporated into the sound-texture,
based upon various tunes of the Moravian settlers of that location.”
He has held composer-in-residence
posts in West Berlin and elsewhere. His musical style incorporates
elements of that of the American minimalists, but his extensive
catalogue of works suggests that he spreads his net quite widely.
The above quote is taken from his website,
where more information is available, though it badly needs updating.
Wanting to hear
the works in chronological order of composition, I began with
Mantra. It was a dispiriting start, but I persevered,
and I encourage readers to persevere with this review! The booklet
notes, some of which seem to have been written by the composer,
tell us only that: “Mantra (1995) is composed for three
choruses, at great distances from each other, no text. This
live recording comes from the 1997 Latvian Radio Chorus concert
…” The work itself is dramatic, with much repetition of syllables
and vowels, the music continuous and with the choirs often outlining
quite recognisably tonal chords. It is all uniformly loud, but
the texture becomes less busy with more held notes in the second
half of the work. There is a brutal fade-out at the end, presumably
to delete the applause. The work put me in mind of the music
of Meredith Monk. It might well have given pleasure, but the
recording is grotesquely bad to the point that the music’s merit
is impossible to assess. There is no sense of the spatial separation
mentioned in the notes, and there are a few coughs startlingly
close. An unprepared listener, presented with the final minutes
of this recording, might not even be sure it was unaccompanied
choral music. The choir, one of the finest in the world, seems
to sing with conviction, but it’s impossible to tell, really.
I tried three times in all, to no avail I’m afraid.
What a relief,
then, to turn to Obrigado, and a recording which allows
the listener actually to hear what happens in the music. And
what happens in this short work for four percussion players
and piano is both interesting and pleasant, if undemanding.
Constant quaver movement is employed, mainly on mallet instruments,
with some triplet movement brought in shortly before the end.
It is essentially tonal music and the work ends abruptly, and
rather unconvincingly, with a (possibly humorous) perfect cadence.
It was written to celebrate twenty-five years’ residence of
the Kennedy Centre in New York by the National Symphony Orchestra.
“Obrigado” means “thank you” in Portuguese.
a Young King is a piece for organ “with the possible addition
of ‘variable’ instruments.” The king in question is the eccentric
Ludwig II of Bavaria, familiar to music-lovers as a patron of
Wagner, and who died, possibly murdered, in 1886 at the age
of forty. As its title suggests, the work is reflective. The
notes tell us that the score “is a basic harmonic structure
allowing the soloist (and others) to semi-improvise. The duration
is open.” Not having seen a score I don’t know how much of what
we hear is Moran and how much is the organist, Robert Ridgell.
It opens with a series of simple chords as if it might be the
parish church organist improvising as the congregation shuffles
back after Communion. The music rises slightly in intensity
in the second half, with some thickening of the texture and
even a few irregular, shorter note-values brought in, but the
mood is only briefly disturbed and four valedictory bell strokes
signal the end of the work. This is an effective and affecting
No less successful
is Processional, another organ piece, written for the
wedding of Robert Ridgell, who plays it on this recording. It
begins with a brilliant flourish suggesting a Widor Toccata
clone, but this is soon transformed into a noble march, rather
baroque in character, full of double-dotted rhythms which, in
spite of the organ’s tendency to thick texture and heavy bass,
contrives to be both serious and joyful. To my surprise it turned
out to be one of those pieces which stay naggingly in the mind
all day; even when I thought I’d succeeded in turning to something
else, there it was again. I should think the organist was both
delighted and moved by this short work.
a further piece is added to the jigsaw picture of this composer.
Hugely sonorous chords from the brass ensemble open the work
in a sound-world resembling that of Hindemith. It is dissonant
though basically diatonic and again, rather thick in texture.
The title evokes some kind of slow-moving procession, but though
the music is certainly slow there is little in the way of pulse
and therefore not much notion of movement at all. It is fortunate
that the tempo is so slow, as I don’t think I have ever heard
a recording in such a resonant acoustic, though it has been
well managed and the work itself was clearly conceived with
that kind of acoustic in mind. It is both satisfying and brilliantly
written for brass.
At the same concert
was given the world premiere of the slow-moving diatonic Da
enstünde ein Engel. For four-part choir, brass and organ,
on a short and impenetrably philosophical text by Meister Eckhart,
this is convincing and again stays in the mind long after it
is also for percussion ensemble, and like Obrigado the
continuous quaver ostinato is first interrupted by the
addition of triplets. This is virtuoso percussion writing, and
the performance and recording cannot be faulted. However, in
spite of two gentler passages and a well-managed and dramatic
finish, the material is not strong enough to support a piece
of this length. One is not surprised to read that it was originally
intended to be an accompaniment to dance. “Kboco” is the name
of a Brazilian graffiti artist the composer particularly admires.
The most recent
work on the disc is also the longest and, arguably, the most
successful. Stirling: It’s Raining Cats and Dogs was
commissioned by neighbours who were friends of the composer
and whose dog was called Stirling. For eighteen percussion players,
it is a rain piece. To quote the insert notes: “The sound of
the rain is not a ‘background color’ but an integral sound-event
from start to finish.” The rain does indeed fall throughout,
uncannily so at certain moments, such as the opening, where,
I imagine, we are listening to Amazonian rain sticks. Other
instruments include the didgeridoo, thunder-sheets – frighteningly
realistic – and “one wine glass (partially filled with whatever)”.
The piece is beguiling, superbly contrived and controlled. I
found it totally convincing.
There is a wide
range of style and content in the works on this disc. Mantra
was disappointing, so the rest was an unexpected pleasure. There
is nothing to frighten the horses here, but it is very out of
the ordinary. Will appeal to those with jaded palates or adventurous