Daniel ASIA (b.1953)
Purer than the Purest Pure (1997) [10.03]
Why (?) Jacob (1978-9) [12.17]
Summer is Over (1997) [10.57]
The She Set (1981, 2008) [8.42]
Out of More (1997) [9.39]
Sounds shapes (1973, revised 2008) [8.06]
BBC Singers/Odaline de la Martinez
rec. St. Paul’s Church, Knightsbridge, London, 11-12 November 2009
SUMMIT DCD550 [60.01]

There is quite a selection of Daniel Asia’s music available on CD, particularly from Summit Records. That said, he is one of those contemporary composers who have not quite made such an impact in printed review publications. Now Summit has issued a CD of Asia’s choral music. This was recorded in association with the BBC and features the BBC Singers performing seven of Asia’s choral works. Unusually, for a composer who has worked extensively with instruments, these choral pieces are by and large unaccompanied.

Asia is currently Professor of Composition at the University of Arizona, Tucson. Previous appointments have included a professorship at Oberlin Conservatory, Composer in Residence with the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra and a residency in London courtesy of the UK Fullbright Art Awards and Guggenheim Fellowship.

The music spans the 1970s to the present day. The collection opens with Purer than the Purest Pure, seven settings of e.e. cummings for 4-part choir. This dates from 1996 and was written for Ithaca College Chorus. Asia’s style here is immediately apparent and is remarkably consistent throughout all the pieces here. His music is fundamentally tonal, though his chromatic harmony and textures make the sound quite opaque.

The following work is one of the earliest presented. Why (?) Jacob was written in 1979 for his old high school. Though intended as a celebration, Asia chose to commemorate a high-school friend Jacob Rayman who was one of the first Israeli soldiers to die in the October 1973 war. It is written for 8-part choir and piano. The piano plays a long introduction and thereafter provides interludes to the vocal music. The choir sing apparently wordlessly, but are in fact playing on the words Jacob, Yaacov and Yaweh. In the central section the spoken passages overlie babble from the choir, which is intended to ‘evoke imagery associated with Seattle and Israel’, though I must admit that this eluded me.

Summer is Over from 1997 is something of a follow-up to Purer than the Purest Pure, being settings of seven more cummings poems. Out of More also from 1997 is a further setting of cummings. In all three cummings sets Asia tries to evoke cummings’ distinctive use of spacing, punctuation and layout. Whether this is completely possible is a moot point, and whether the pieces are completely successful I am not sure. But the simple act of trying is fascinating: watching an artist in one genre trying to evoke an artist in another very different genre.

Asia set Paul Pines’ poem She for 4-part chorus in 1985 and it was recorded by the BBC Singers as part of a group devoted to American composers. For the present disc, Asia decided to expand the setting by adding other Pines poems. All the texts deal with anxiety at possible separation.

The closing work on the disc, Sounds Shapes is the earliest and latest, being originally written in 1973 and revised in 2008. Asia was 19 when he first wrote it and was interested in incorporating the sound-world of Ligeti’s Requiem and Lux Aeterna into a chorus. The chorus is split into four groups with equal numbers of men and women. pitch-pipes, finger snaps, foot stomps and hand claps are incorporated into the textures. The results are a charmingly naïve exploration of sound for its own sake.

The CD booklet includes an excellent note on all of the music. But for some reason only the words for Purer then Purest Pure and The She Set are given. This is a shame, because the words and their layout (in the cummings) mean a great deal. Whilst the BBC Singers are highly musical, their diction is less than perfect and you do need to look at the words.

Under the confident direction of Odaline de la Martinez, the BBC Singers give exemplary performances. Repeated listening confirmed my initial thoughts, that Asia’s choral sound world, with its opaque texture and not quite melodies, is quite distinctive. His music may not have the transparently luminous quality which makes that of Morten Lauridsen and Eric Whitacre so popular, but it has a particularness which makes it well worth investigating. Choral music may not be central to Asia’s oeuvre, but this collection shows him to have a nice ear and it is a CD worth investigating.

Robert Hugill

Exemplary performances. This collection shows Asia to have a nice ear and it is well worth investigating.