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Mark APPLEBAUM (b. 1967)
Magnetic North (2006) [14:18]
The Composer’s Middle Period (2007) [3:25]
Theme in Search of Variations I (2004) [3:46]
Theme in Search of Variations II (2007) [4:39]
Theme in Search of Variations III (2008) [4:33]
Variations on Variations on a Theme by Mozart (2006) [6:09]
Entre Funérailles I (1999) [2:21]
Martian Anthropology 7-7-8 (2006) [14:03]
On the Nature of the Modern Age (2005) [8:53]
Sock Monkey (2007)[9.22]
Florian Conzetti, Christopher Froh, Terry Longshore (percussion); Mark Applebaum (electronics, prepared pianos); Brian McWhorter (trumpet); Meridian Arts Ensemble; sf Sound, The Paul Dresher Ensemble Electro-Acoustic Band; Duo Runedako; Stanford Symphony Orchestra/Jindong Cai, Christopher Jones
rec. 2004-2008, PINK, Stanford University, Theater Artaud San Francisco and Skywalker Sound DDD
INNOVA 706 [71:30]
Experience Classicsonline

It often surprises me how little contemporary music from other countries reaches us here in the UK, and, how few of our very talented composers are known abroad. In the world of the internet one would imagine that international boundaries would be easily crossed, and yet there are so many living composers working in their own ways that it is impossible to hear them all. I always enjoy the opportunity to hear the music of composers I have previously not encountered, and this disc is a highly enjoyable and imaginative collection of music which deserves to be heard.

Innova is the record label of the American Composers Forum, and this disc showcases the music of Mark Applebaum, Associate Professor of Composition at Stanford University. Previously a Ferneyhough student at the University of California at San Diego, his music contains the complexity one would expect without taking itself too seriously. To quote his biography, “Some of his music is composed according to painstaking and thorough, if dreary, techniques defended by sober, sensible and defensible logic resulting in characteristics like authenticity, integrity, depth, merit and seriousness, qualities that tend to make modernists happy, or at least comfortable.”

This well-presented disc, with bright green sleeve and detailed liner-notes, begins with Magnetic North, a piece lasting almost a quarter of an hour for brass quintet, percussion and electronics. This piece explores different notions of making music, with various modes of performance, dramatic effects and experimental ideas. This is clearly an intelligently constructed piece, which challenges the listener at philosophical and musical levels. Applebaum discusses the difference between playing and performing, and suggests that this is a piece to be played and enjoyed. It is a piece I feel requires several hearings to be able to develop a real understanding of its content. The overall effect is theatrical, wonderfully modern and impressively fresh. Applebaum has a distinctive voice as a composer and one that I would like to become more acquainted with.

The Composer’s Middle Period is a relatively short piece which was commissioned by sfSound to accompany Webern’s Concerto op. 24. The sleeve-notes explain that five musical constructs are repeated five times each; one has the sense that this is an intricately put together work. As Applebaum says, however, ‘none of this is particularly helpful information. The point is more succinctly put thus: various materials of contrasting character reappear at unpredictable tempi and for unexpected durations.’ This apparent rebellion against intellectualism in composition is refreshing. Applebaum seems to be making the point that intellectual constructions exist on a compositional level, but do not necessarily need to be detected by the listener, and they should not be the sole meaning of a work. This attitude makes contemporary music approachable to listeners who don’t happen to have composition degrees and are able to take the music at face value, without creating a barrier between the audience and the music. This is to be applauded.

The first of three Themes in Search of Variations opens with surprisingly gentle percussion sounds, which create an eerie atmosphere, especially in contrast to the pieces already heard. The concept is to create pieces which could be responded to by other composers in some way. The first piece, a trio for percussion, was composed as a challenge for his composition students to respond to, by asking them to compose pieces of their own which were then performed in a single concert. The second is heard as a live recording of the premiere performance, and students were given only a week to compose their responses. After a more explosive opening, this uses some hypnotic rhythmic and melodic patterns as the music calms and grows. The third is my favourite of the group, with the combination of flute, trumpet, piano and percussion creating a varied tapestry of timbres.

Variations on Variations on a Theme by Mozart is without question my favourite work on the disc. Full of humour and a magnificent prepared piano sound, Applebaum’s Variations are based on Mozart’s Ah! Vous dirai-je maman (otherwise known as Twinkle Twinkle Little Star). The success of this work comes on many levels. For the well-versed contemporary music listener, one can marvel at Applebaum’s mastery of compositional technique and imaginative use of the material. For the uninitiated and open-minded listener, Mozart’s music provides a welcome route into the world of Applebaum’s music, giving points of familiarity and comfort within a perhaps unusual sound-world. The use of pre-existing material in this way reminded me of Schnittke’s treatment of Bach in his Concerto Grosso; it takes a special talent for this kind of treatment to work well, and Applebaum has proved himself there.

The very short Entre Funérailles I for solo trumpet is part of a series of solo works conceived as interludes to Ferneyhough’s Funérailles, which are two versions of a piece intended to be heard in the same concert but separated by other works. Again with these pieces, Applebaum is considering the nature of concert-giving and how music relates to itself. This piece is once again imaginative and contains much within its two and a half minute duration, providing a virtuoso challenge for the solo trumpet.

Martian Anthropology 7-8-9 comes from another of Applebaum’s thought experiments, which invites participants to choose three objects which, on their own and with no outside references, may give space explorers an idea of life on Earth. The idea, from a compositional basis, is to give greater significance to what the music itself communicates, outside the context of musical history and traditions. It is hard to say how well this works at a practical level, since every listener has their own cultural references which are innately present in every musical hearing. However, the philosophical concept is an interesting one, and one that perhaps all artists and creators should give at least some time to contemplating. Applebaum’s piece falls into three movements, beginning with a duo for violin and bass clarinet with electronic accompaniment. The second movement, for guitar and MIDI controller has a wonderfully ambient and alien sound-world, with long reverbs and an expansive sense of space. This is a particularly enjoyable movement which seems to suspend time and transport the listener into another dimension. The final movement is centred on a vast array of found percussion, accompanied by electronic sounds and live instruments. These three diverse movements create what Applebaum calls ‘meaningful incoherence’ and are highly successful, in terms of their individual merits and their combined effect.

A piano duo with live electronics, On the Nature of the Modern Age is a tribute to UCSD professor John Silber, a revered mentor who encouraged experimentalism in his students. Through a combination of live electronics processing and indeterminacy, this work has multiple possible outcomes while the composer maintains control of the sounds used, maintaining the work’s coherence. Some wonderful sounds emerge from the pianos, with enjoyable motivic ideas, such as a fragment of a plucked chromatic scale and some percussive effects. The electronic treatments serve to further enhance the sound and give an other-worldly dimension to the music. 

Sock Monkey,
the title track of the disc, is an orchestral work of almost ten minutes in duration. The title is inspired by Applebaum’s young daughter, who watched the compositional process with interest. The music falls into five short sections heard in a continuous whole. With a composer like Applebaum, it was particularly interesting to see how he would approach the use of a full orchestra. The complexity of sound he can produce from a relatively small ensemble could be exponentially increased with forces of this size. But here economy of means is the order of the day. The music is well-organised and clearly orchestrated to allow transparency of sound and some beautifully poetic moments.

Carla Rees 
 


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