Convergence – Music for Piano and Percussion
Chen YI (b.1953)
China West Suite (2007) [13:23]
Brooke JOYCE (b.1973)
Sacred Trees (2007) [16:04]
Marc MELLITS (b.1966)
Tight Sweater Remix (2005/2009) [9:03]
Daniel W. KOONTZ (b.1969)
Soft Stillness and the Night(2007) [18:09]
James M. DAVID (b.1978)
Duo Toccata (2008) [9:10]
Strike (Jefferey Meyer (piano); Paul Vaillancourt (percussion))
rec. Schwob School of Music, Legacy Hall, Columbus, USA 1-5 June 2009; except ‘Tight Sweater Remix’ 11 October 2009

Some of the greatest pleasure to be had reviewing for this site is when a disc creeps up on you and charms and fascinates in the most unexpected way. I cannot say that the shelves of my collection groan under the sheer number of discs of contemporary music for piano and percussion so I cannot claim any huge expertise. However, I have been thoroughly beguiled by every aspect of this disc from packaging and production to performance and repertoire. A big congratulations to Luminescence Records for producing such a fine disc.

The performers here are a percussion and piano duet called ‘Strike’ featuring Jefferey Meyer on piano and Paul Vaillancourt on multiple percussion. These are exceptionally fine players individually and in tandem. As with any recital of works by five different composers there will always be pieces that an individual responds to more than others but the programme here is beautifully assembled to show off the rich diversity of music that has been arranged and composed for this duo. Many of the sounds and textures conjured here are ravishing and the mood of the music ranges from gently reflective and spiritual to boisterously muscular and good humoured. It would be quite unfair on any of the music to single out one work or another as ‘better’ so I will comment on them in the order they appear on the disc. The China West Suite by Chen Yi is a series of four movements written for marimba and piano. Originally composed in 2007 for 2 pianos Dr Yi – she now teaches at the University of Missouri – adapted the work for this duo for this recording. In this form it is stunning. Yi has taken her inspiration from the folk music of Western China – a fact immediately apparent in the lyrical pentatonicism of much of the music. Try around 3:20 into track 2 Meng Songs; the piano part is doubled by gentle marimba trills on the same melodic line creating an extraordinary aural halo and ambience. Credit here as elsewhere to both players and engineers who succeed in achieving a beautifully subtle balance in a lovely natural acoustic – this oozes quality. In the following movement – Zang Songs – Meyer’s playing is a model of neat articulacy around and above flutters Vaillancourt’s beautiful marimba sounding miraculously even and effortless – listen to how the movements evaporates like the morning mist. All the more effective for the bracing energy of the Miao Dances that complete the suite – a rousing end to an excellent work

Brooke Joyce’s Sacred Trees is more overtly contemporary. The inspiration for the six movement work comes from the trees found growing at ancient Native American burial mounds which, as the composer writes in the liner-notes, led him to “reflect on my own sense of ritual memory and spirituality”. Certainly there is a haunted and hugely atmospheric quality to the work. Vaillancourt’s instrumentation is expanded – judging by production stills in the liner – to include multiple gongs, vibraphone, wind chimes, various suspended cymbals and roto-drums and crotales amongst others. Apologies if I have mis-named any of these instruments – as I mentioned before – this is not an area of great expertise! Again, the abiding impression is the skill with which the timbres of the multiple instruments are combined. Unlike the four clearly defined movements of Yi’s work Joyce allows the various sections to overlap. The overall character of the work is reflective and inward-looking. Perhaps it less immediate appeal than some of the other music recorded here but I suspect, indeed expect, that this is one of the compositions that will reveal the most with greater familiarity.

After the repose and spirituality of that work Marc Mellits’ three movement Tight Sweater Remix explodes onto your consciousness as an edgy urban wise-guy virtuoso work. I love a good title so I’m a sucker for any piece whose three movements are called Exposed Zipper, Trans Fatty Acid’s Rein, and Mechanically Separated Chicken Parts. Mellits in his liner-note makes no explanation of these titles but I’m guessing its some reaction against po-faced contemporary composers who call their work Construction VI or even Symphony X (when it isn’t!). An example of the kind of care and attention to detail lavished on this disc is the fact that this work was recorded separately from the others with quite a different set-up. Initially this might sound rather studio-bound and airless compared to the other works. But then it struck me that this is exactly the kind of recording that you used to get on many older jazz recordings. And it is that kind of contemporary/jazz/fusion/hyper-active minimalism that you get here. I love the way both players toss off their complex and demanding parts with cool virtuosity. The three movements have been extracted from a larger work which included a cello but again there is no sense of ‘loss’ at all. Again this is scored for just marimba and piano and although the left hand of the piano does provide a propulsive harmonic energy the sense of the work is as a kind of brilliant latter-day study in two part contrapuntal writing. The interweaving and overlaying of musical lines is simply superb. At times I was reminded of the recordings made by Chick Corea and Gary Burton. Obviously this is composed in a way the Corea/Burton is not but there is a similar spirit of alliance and good-natured musical jousting. There’s a rather lovely photograph from the sessions of Meyer grinning from ear to ear and this sense of happy collaboration is no-where better illustrated than in this work. But there are moments of real beauty too – try the end of track 12. The nightmarishly hard shifting rhythmic patterns of the closing Mechanically Separated Chicken Parts – I just wanted to write that title again – are performed with total ease and assurance. These guys are good! If you have any interest in any kind of minimalist/jazz fusion the disc is worth buying for this piece alone – a life-enhancing work.

Another marvellous shift of mood takes us onto Daniel Koontz’s Soft Stillness and the Night. This title comes from the same passage in The Merchant of Venice that Vaughan Williams set as part of his glorious Serenade to Music. This work was commissioned by and is dedicated to the players here. Vaillancourt uses a range of instruments although the marimba features strongly. Koontz describes it as “arising from sonic fantasies of night and dawn”. Certainly the atmosphere the six brief movements evoke is of the witching hour in the depth of the night with half awake thoughts and sounds scurrying through mainly empty textures. Prepared piano and random marimba notes drip like a leaky tap. I’m not sure Koontz’s night is a very comforting place to be, there’s a gently disturbing quality to the music that is very compelling and all the more effective after the neon-bright certainties of the previous work. A totally different interpretation of the text from the sensual languor of the Vaughan Williams too. We are back to the original recording set up here and again I was struck by the sheer beauty of the sounds being made. The control of dynamics and texture in the many quiet passages is little short of perfection.

The care in the planning of this CD programme is again shown in the choice of the final work. In essence the music has alternated between athletic and reflective so it is logical that this closing piece should be a kind of fusion of the two. Jim David’s Duo Toccata subdivides into two movements; Campanello d’allarme and Aula di tribunale. David’s idea is to focus on different aspects of ‘touch’ – a literal approach to the meaning of toccata – in each of the movements. So the opening section deals with repeated resonating tones from the gongs and bells and piano. The closing movement is more overtly rhythmic based, the composer states, on Afro-Cuban rhythms. The percussion part here has much more of a feel of kit playing – apart from one brief xylophone interlude over a striding piano line - with jazz-influenced keyboard writing throughout.

I mentioned earlier the packaging of the CD. I do like the way Luminescence have broken away from the fragile jewel case format. Somehow the style they have chosen harks back to an age when opening the gatefold of an LP and devouring every little morsel of information was a very important part of the home-listening experience – something else the download will never replace. The cream-coloured heavy card sleeve, once freed from its own clear yellow belt, is covered with wonderfully technical and utterly incomprehensible detailed diagrams of the hammer mechanism of a piano and the correct way to hold a percussion mallet. On the reverse are three unexplained circles with figures and inside a patented wiring circuit. It’s all wonderfully obtuse – I loved it. The CD tucks snugly into a pocket under the wiring circuit and pasted to the left-hand page of the wallet is a brief but beautifully produced booklet. This includes a couple of quite beautiful close-ups of a piano – genuinely artistic pictures - together with quirky composer photographs, biographies and brief descriptions of the works by the composers and session pictures. All of this is prefaced by a kind of ‘testament’ from the two performers. I would like to quote part of what they write; “We could not have been more inspired by the creations [compositions]; the results are diverse in style and character, each with a unique sense of place, time and space, all demanding great creativity on the part of the performers and offering the listener a wide spectrum of experience”. Just so. I do hope this disc achieves as wide a dissemination as possible. The dedication and quality it displays deserves no less. This is not the comfy-chair school of contemporary mogadon-music that I personally loathe; this is serious and significant music all composed and performed with exceptional skill and musicality and no little wit. A disc worth taking a chance on if only to have a piece in your collection called Mechanically Separated Chicken Parts – there, I’ve done it again.

Nick Barnard

Not the comfy-chair school of mogadon-music but serious and significant music all composed and performed with exceptional skill and musicality and no little wit.