In all probability, like me, you will not have come across the
name of Robert Shechtman before. He was from West Michigan where
he taught for many years. He was an award-winning composer as
well as a jazz trombonist and bass player.
This CD comes in a slim black plastic case with a small, brief
and rather pathetic single sheet of information about the three
works including just five lines about the composer and this
recording. These are re-mastered archival recordings made in
of the composer by a company also new to me, OgreOgress (no
number and distributor is offered). I’m afraid the details of
the composer’s biography remain something of a mystery
and indeed the music also possesses something of that quality,
seeming to well up out of some untapped ancient spring, strong
on primeval mood.
The first work is aptly entitled Ancestral Voices.
It is for what experience has often taught me might be an unpromising
combination of French horn and organ. Although the CD offers
us no clues I assume that the recording was made at the venue
the work was designed for: Trinity United Methodist Church
in Grand Rapids, Michigan which has fine musical tradition.
church has an excellent Casavant organ and what seems to be
an impressive acoustic space which enhances this instrumental
The primitiveness of the horn is expressed through its oft-repeated
and quite simple material of calls and patterns relating to
the ancient shofar (ram’s horn) used, according to the anonymous
notes, during the “most sacred of religious rituals”.
The pitches are derived from a twelve-note row used quite freely.
These also produce harmonies which are dark and cavernous.
The effect is helped by two superb players who really seem
the music. There is a timeless eternity about the piece which
I found most gripping.
I have to admit that the prospect of listening to a thirty-five
minute work for solo amplified violin did not especially fill
me with excitement but, in fairness, not all of it is amplified
and where it is, the amplification is used sensitively and imaginatively. Water
from the Moon is a Javanese title meaning ‘something
that you can never have’, although the composer used it
to mean “The past is something one can never have”.
It was written for the present soloist Christina Fong and falls
into five movements of which the first at almost eleven minutes
is the longest. This is a rather melancholy but often haunting Sirens’ Song in
which the player is asked to double-stop almost throughout -
a disjointed melody over a drone. The second movement Soft
Shoe reminded me of a child feeling its way, improvising
a simple possibly jazzy idea without much sense of direction.
At four minutes it made a suitably short counterfoil to the first
movement. Sirens’ Song II has more of the anguished,
wailing music that you might expect from the title and even uses
quarter-tones. The fourth section Jitterbug may even
quote Gershwin - I can’t quite decide. Anyway it is mostly
inspired by 1940s-1950s popular music. The final movement, Sirens’ Song
III & One More Waltz mixes acoustic and amplified violin
most beautifully. This results in a thoughtful and nostalgic
landscape which fazed away enigmatically. The thirty-five minutes
passed with interest and, for the most part, pleasure. The performance
brings out the best of the music and seems to be totally note-perfect.
The only other work on the CD is for a combination of violin,
the irrepressible Christina Fong again, piano and percussion
- the group Ethnoeccentric whose other performers are
Glenn Freeman and Paul Hersey. Variations on the Huang
Chung of the Eleventh Moon for amplified ensemble
is a set of continuous and vividly contrasted variants or perhaps
one should say, developments of the Huang Chung, the Yellow
Bell of the eleventh moon, which, the notes say, “is F above
Middle C”. Each performer has a chance to shine and each
is equally technically excellent and totally involved. The recording,
which is mostly of very good quality, was remastered “from
a few decaying cassettes” and was made in 1992; we are
not told where. Shechtman was apparently intrigued by searching
out in music the nature of the spiritual and the nature of
meditation. There is a vague Asian element to the overall sound
of this work
which is created by the percussion and by certain rhythms and
also by a vaguely pentatonic use of melodic material. The final
effect is again, original and extraordinary and for me full
of sounds I had never heard before.
So this is something of a one-off disc. It is something for those
of you fascinated by the little-known and underrated.