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Christopher SHULTIS (b.1957)
Openings, for winds and percussion (2004-7) [14:54]*
Songs of Love and Longing, for soprano and piano (2001-3) [29:18]
"A Little Light, in Darkness", for soprano saxophone and woodwind quintet (1995-2000) [17:10]**
Devisadero: Six Preludes, for piano (2002-7) [5:16]
*University of New Mexico Wind Symphony
*Eric Rombach-Kendall
Leslie Umphrey (soprano)
Falko Steinbach (piano)
** Carrie Koffman (soprano saxophone)
**New Mexico Winds (Valerie Potter, flute; Kevin Vigneau, oboe; Keith Lemmons, clarinet; Denise Reig-Turner, bassoon; Patrick Hughes, horn)
rec. Keller Hall, University of New Mexico, 2001**; 2004 [Songs of Love]; 2010 [Devisadero]; Popejoy Hall, University of New Mexico, 2009*. DDD
NAVONA RECORDS NV 5849 [66:38]

Experience Classicsonline

This is the debut CD of American composer Christopher Shultis, who is Professor of Music at the University of New Mexico. Shultis's approach to writing music is unusual - he composes as he hikes. All four works on this disc were inspired by walks, mainly in the New Mexico outback.

Shultis makes great use of both silence and repetition, but if that sounds like a recipe for tedium, Shultis has a further ingredient that makes quite a difference: imagination. He would probably consider himself an experimental post-modernist composer - John Cage is one of his academic specialties, and an early piece of his, Decline of the West, was written for female vocalist and "all-male heavy metal band" and premiered by "Skumbaag" - so some listeners will want to infer an ironic statement from the opening Openings, where the soundworld lies somewhere between John Adams, Kurt Weill and, if it can be imagined, Ray Steadman-Allen! Others may prefer simply to enjoy the splendidly scored, varied, sometimes very tuneful music.

"A Little Light, in Darkness" promised on the CD cover becomes "A Little Light, in Great Darkness" in the booklet - the latter is presumably correct, quoting Ezra Pound's Canto CXVI. Either way this is a substantially different offering from Openings. There is little obvious structure or melody - more a study in silence interrupted by now hesitant, now intemperate atonal chords from the ensemble or different solo instruments, intertwined with fitful, swirling and often shrill comments by the saxophone.

Shultis writes that he composed Devisadero following two walks on a country trail in New Mexico in 2002 and 2007. The Preludes have titles like 'Walking', 'Fly Buzzing, Ant Running' and 'Wind Stopping', and the music is concomitantly minimalistic, reflecting the natural rhythms of the stark environment, but in an atmospheric rather than bland way, including a quiet strumming of the piano strings to represent a rustling leaf. A surprisingly infectious piece results.

The five Songs of Love and Longing were likewise inspired by walks in the American countryside, with Shultis's own texts written on the spot and the music up to two years later. The middle of the five is a Song Without Words, a simple, lovely melody steeped in poignancy that seems to be as old as the hills that occasioned some of them. Shultis's poetry will strike some readers as not really poetry at all, but there is no doubting the power of his music, the simplicity of which transcends any possible banality of text and demonstrates that music does not depend on complexity for profundity. The songs are beautifully sung by Leslie Umphrey, who gave the premiere in 2004 with Falko Steinbach. The only negative is the recording, which struggles to cope with high and loud in the final song, and the piano tone, which is more upright than grand.

Besides Leslie Umphrey, there are creditable performances from Falko Steinbach, the New Mexico Winds and Carrie Koffman. The winds of the University of New Mexico Wind Symphony do not soar to any heights, but in general the playing throughout is enthusiastic and adept.

Sound quality can vary considerably on Navona recordings - an April release, Light and Shadow: Modern Orchestral Works, for example, was significantly compromised by a series of poor recordings (see review). Here the quality is generally pretty good, with the exception of the five Songs, as mentioned above.

Navona usually do not bother with a booklet as such, preferring listeners to keep a computer handy for their digital version, but after breaking slightly with tradition by providing enough information on the case for general use in a recent release (see review), they have now taken a giant step towards user-friendliness - this CD has both! In fact, apart from that digital booklet, there is nothing but promotional stuff on the almost superfluous CD-ROM - gone are the gimmicky 'extras' of previous releases like ring-tones or desktop wallpaper.

The booklet itself, then, has as much information as the purchaser might wish for, including some poems by Shultis to go with his music. There is even a photo, rightly or wrongly, of Shultis kissing a tree. The only fault is the dotting of that information here and there, rather than bringing it all together for easier assimilation - and the fact that some of Shultis's text is in colloquial New Mexican with no translation provided: "My desire is to write beautiful music and to fail at that is, for me, a very important sign of its success. Failed beauty is the condition of the world. Our humanity is rooted in such failure. Because only when we fail are we truly human - and beautiful." In which case, Shultis's music on this CD may be too appealing for his own liking, but everyone outside American academia can safely order the disc and enjoy the fruits of his constitutionals.

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