American composer John Carbon is not a name that will be known
to many outside the USA. His low profile belies the fact that
his multifarious music has been widely performed over the last
few decades, and has appeared on several recordings, including
monographs. This is his second CD for Zimbel Records - his opera
Benjamin is also available on ZR114 (review).
Carbon wrote the eight gently atmospheric preludes that make up Small Town Memories for a colleague's master-class pupils. Each piece has a two-word title, the first a season, the second either Morning or Evening. They are thus impressionistically descriptive of the great outdoors in different conditions, but also about "growing up playing the piano". Time Out of Mind is, as the title suggests, about the passage of time and the vagaries of fate. The three sections - Time Passing, Passing Time, Elegy for Peg and Crazy Time - are by turn reflective, poignant and frenetic. Elegy for Peg is particularly beautiful, a lasting tribute to Carbon's deceased grandmother.
Six Spanish Lessons and Six More Spanish Lessons are delightful character suites, each consisting of six pieces descriptive of Spanish-themed settings. The former was originally written for harpsichord and the textural clarity and typical rhythms of Domenico Scarlatti are never far away. The pieces were inspired by real Spanish language lessons on hot, sunny afternoons, with depictions including the teacher's Pekingese, the turmoil of grammar lessons and Scarlatti dozing off at the keyboard! The second set describes a ranch and vineyard belonging to Carbon's father, with tone sketches of a Peruvian horse, a duck pond, a valley sunset and marauding wild boar!
The Piano Sonata, Carbon's only one to date, is dedicated to Steven Graff. Like much of Carbon's music, the work oscillates in and out of tonality, but without ever drifting far from shore. It is characterised by an impressionistic style of dreamy wandering, punctuated now and then by punchier rhythmic sections. The Sonata is in fact three minutes longer than the timing given on the disc.
Graff's long but always interesting recital ends appropriately with Ghostly Flickerings, originally used by Carbon to end his Houdini-based opera, Disappearing Act. For a minute the music shimmers and undulates warmly like the fading memory of a ghostly Titanic, and then: silence.
Carbon has known Graff for a long time - they grew up in the same part of Chicago, and have previous collaborations to their credit, including the premiere performance of Small Town Memories. Graff's standard repertoire ranges from Bach to Vaughan Williams, but he also includes contemporary American composers in his programmes. In this recital of wall-to-wall premiere recordings, Graff plays Carbon with a comfortable authority, easily equal to the virtuosity of the Sonata, but with the experience and expressiveness necessary to communicate the timbral and textural nuances of the Spanish Lessons.
A blind listener might be surprised to learn that Carbon is American - his music does not really sound it. Instead it has an introspective depth and haunting quality more typical of a Scandinavian composer, or one from the Celtic fringe of the British Isles. Not elemental, as the punner would doubtless have preferred, but characterised by a kind of lingering modal timelessness.
Sound quality is good, the piano tone appealing. The recording was produced by the composer Carson Cooman. The programme notes are by Carbon himself and give a lucid, detailed description of his works, which are an attractive proposition for anyone appreciative of quality piano music addressing universal themes.
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