Robert SHECHTMAN (1939-2002)
Moons and Ancestors
Ancestral Songs (1998) [15.17]
Paul Austin (horn); Gregory Crowell (organ)
Water from the Moon (1993) [34.25]
Christina Fong (amplified violin)
Variations on the Huang Chung of the Eleventh Moon for amplified ensemble (1992) [12.50]
rec. dates and venues not given
OGREOGRESS PRODUCTIONS 884502163056 [62.52]

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 the presence 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. This church has an excellent Casavant organ and what seems to be an impressive acoustic space which enhances this instrumental combination. 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 to understand 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.

Gary Higginson