Starry Night Project: Music Based on Visual Art
Matthew HARRIS (b.1956)
Starry Night - Seven Paintings for Violin, Cello and Piano (1984)
(Van Gogh: Starry Night; Rousseau: Sleeping Gypsy;
Picasso: Harlequin; Ensor: Masks Confronting Death;
Matisse: The Piano Lesson; Dalí: Persistence of Memory;
Mondrian: Broadway Boogie Woogie) [22:05]
Art Suite for Cello and Piano (1999)
(Breughel: The Kermess; Degas: Dancer; Seurat: A
Sunday at the Grand Jatte; Rivers: Washington Crossing the
Black Birds, Red Hills - A Portrait of Six Paintings of Georgia
O’Keeffe for B-flat Clarinet, Viola and Piano (1996)
(Pedernal Hills; Black Rock; Red Hills and Sky; A Black Bird with
Snow-Covered Red Hills; Looking) [9:49]
Andrew LIST (b.1956)
Noa Noa: A Gauguin Tableau for Violin, Clarinet and Piano (2008)
(Where Do We Come From?; What Are We?; Where Are We Going?) [16:23]
MONTAGE Music Society: Sarita Uranovsky (violin); Marc Moskovitz
(cello); Stephen Dyball (viola); Bruce Creditor (clarinet); Debra
rec. May 2008, Rogers Center for the Arts, Merrimack College, North
MSR CLASSICS MS1264 [62:44]
Sight and hearing meet in one's mind. Parallel input from the eyes and the ears, when carefully prepared, may result in much more than the sum of its parts. Ballet and opera explore one possible way to combine the visual and the audio. But why not set music to a picture? That's what the Starry Night Project is about. It presents music of contemporary American composers, written about paintings. Most of the color reproductions (regrettably, not all) are printed in the booklet in good quality, so you can enjoy the compete experience; for the rest, you have your memory - and Google!
The four sets by four composers are diverse and attractive. The disc opens with the Starry Night suite by Matthew Harris, for violin, cello and piano. The mood of Vincent van Gogh's Starry Night is marvelously conveyed in the opening piece. As the composer says in the sleeve notes, "The piano and the violin create the dizzy, swirling sky of oversized stars while a plaintive cello melody reveals the painting's inner torment". And believe me, he does not only say it: he really means it. This is Music, not just an illustration to a picture! Without a break we move to the Sleeping Gypsy by Henry Rousseau (le Customs Guy). Still rather impressionistic, the piece reflects the picture's naïve style and dark, mystic color palette. This night is calm, without van Gogh's distress.
The 20th century rushes in with Picasso's Harlequin. The music is built of simple blocks, just like the cubist picture. Still, it does not describe the painting - but the character, with his unhinged movements, careless laughter and, hidden inside, a thoughtful, observing soul. It's like Mussorgsky's Gnomus, which adds dimensions to a simple drawing by Hartmann. The next picture is Ensor's Masks Confronting Death. The horrid, grotesque Venetian masks attempt to scare the Death itself; and, I daresay, in the music they probably succeed. At least, if I were Death I would run away. It becomes really creepy towards the end.
But some of us may remember the next thing as the scariest ever: The Piano Lesson, to a painting by Matisse. Especially when the teacher scorns and corrects you after every your fault, as he does here! This is a tiny genre scene - like the Limoges Market, if we continue the Mussorgsky analogy. It must be difficult to add something to Dalí's Persistence of Memory: it has so many layers already. This could be a task for a large-scale work; in three minutes we get one slice, one impression. Somehow, it matches well with the persistence, the memory, and the limp clocks. There are waves, ticking clocks, recurrent motifs, and liquid, melting transformations. It could be a nice idea to play it in the background at some Dalí exhibit.
Finally, Mondrian's Broadway Boogie Woogie brings us to the crowds and dancing lights of Times Square. Suddenly we look up - and see the starry sky from the first movement: a nice touch to unify the cycle. As a whole, the suite is well conceived and executed, the composer is not afraid to go further and deeper than the image on the painting. And, what is important, he does it differently each time, so it does not become boring. The three instruments are used smartly, like three actors changing their masks to play many roles. I enjoyed this set immensely.
Stephen Paulus has adapted his vocal cycle Art Songs to cello and piano and called it Art Suite. The texts are in the booklet, so you can easily match them to the music. The first tableau is Brueghel's peasant dance at a fair (The Kermess), and the music is a swirl, with clamping and stomping, but staying in one plane - maybe because of its origin as a song. Degas' Dancer comes next - actually, slides in like Saint-Saëns Swan. The dance (or exercise?) becomes more energetic, and we enter a Grande Valse, which ends up in a few wide gestures and a graceful cool-down. The music is humorous, as is the underlying poem.
Seurat's Grande Jatte is a long monologue of the cello over the impressionistic glittering of the piano. It is a lazy idyll, reflecting the sunny calmness of the painting. The cycle is closed by River's Washington Crossing the Delaware: appropriately heroic. Apart from the Seurat piece, which definitely has musical value on its own, the parts of the suite seem to be derivatives of the paintings, and don't really open new horizons. More or less, they are art-songs without the text being sung, and this is very much being felt. The text could give different meaning to lines; without it they are monotonous.
There is no impressionism in Libby Larsen's Black Birds, Red Hills, with a subtitle A Portrait of Six Paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe. The parts here are better viewed together as a whole. In contrast to other works on this disc, here the paintings were created during the composer's lifetime. Accordingly, the musical style is drier, sparser, its lyricism is simple - just as Georgia O'Keeffe sang the beauty of a single line, a pure color, a small and simple object. It seems fitting that the creator of such paintings as Blue and Green Music herself rouses musical inspiration. Although there are remarkable moments, the work as a whole is not as memorable as other works on the disc. Georgia O'Keeffe's are has its king of magic. The music does not rise to these heights, but it goes in the right direction, and sets the mood which is really close to the mood created when contemplating O'Keeffe's artwork. Simple, serene. pure.
The work that ends the disc - or, I better say, crowns it - is Andrew List's Noa Noa: A Gauguin Tableau for violin, clarinet and piano. The three eternal questions of Gauguin's picture - Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? - are interpreted by the composer "as representing three facets of human consciousness". I hope the Mahlerites won't kill me if I describe the parts as "What the body tells me" (aggressive, determined, forceful - our Past), "What the mind tells me" (ever-changing, fluent, searching - our Present), and "What the soul tells me" (spiritual, peaceful, and blissfully beautiful - hopefully, our Future). This last movement is sublime. It also serves as an answer to the unsettling questions of the first track, the Starry Night by Gauguin's friend van Gogh. If you know these moments when the music ends and you stay in silent awe and then exhale "Aaah!.." - this is one of them.
I cannot imagine a better performance of these works than by the MONTAGE ensemble members. They seem to blow life into every note. Technically and emotionally, the performance is perfect. The recording quality is very good. The booklet is excellently done: the composers themselves supplied revealing notes about the works, and the reproductions are high quality. In my opinion, the works by Harris and List stand head above the rest - but the entire disc is like a modern "Pictures at an Exhibition": a wonderful, unforgettable journey.