Muses Nine: Eight American Composers Plus One Pianist
Diane THOME (1942-)
Spiral Journey (1995) [7:18]
Molly JOYCE (1992-)
Medium Piano, from Preludes of Pace (2010) [3:50]
Emma Lou DIEMER (1927)
Toccata for Piano (1979) [5:23]
Marion BAUER (1882-1955)
Six Preludes, Op 15 (1922) [12:59]
Ellen Taafe ZWILICH (1939-)
Lament (1999) [6:06]
Amy BEACH (1873-1944)
Dreaming, Op 15 No 3 (1892) [4:20]
Honeysuckle, Op 97 No 5 (1922) [2:36]
Scottish Legend, Op 54 No 1 (1903) [2:53]
From Blackbird Hills, Op 83 (1922) [4:32]
Libby LARSEN (1950)
Mephisto Rag (2000) [7:35]
Margaret BONDS (1913-1972)
Troubled Water (1967) [5:22]
Becky Billock (piano)
recording info unlisted
This is strong medicine. Pianist Becky Billock offers a smart and punchy essay with this CD explaining her desire for the music world to no longer talk about “women composers”, but, simply, “composers”. “Women’s music is music”, she says; “my goal is to produce a new generation of pianists that do not ask, when seeing the name of an unfamiliar composer, ‘Who is he?’”,
So this recital is entitled Muses Nine: Eight American Composers Plus One Pianist, and then you flip over the slipcase and see the diverse assembly of composers offered here, most of them lamentably little-known, whether they are living (Diane Thome, Molly Joyce [born 1992!], Emma Lou Diemer, Ellen Taafe Zwilich, Libby Larsen) or not (Marion Bauer, Amy Beach, Margaret Bonds).
Certainly any sexist crank who thinks women should be kept in their pigeonhole will be challenged by the music here. There are still such people; when I was in university just two years ago, a violin performance student expressed to me his belief that women can never play piano as forcefully as men can. It’s caveman thinking, and based on her performance here Becky Billock will have more than a few words for that kid.
Others will be challenged by this music too, though. It’s not a walk in the park and there’s nothing gendered about it. Diane Thome’s Spiral Journey is not an easy nut to crack, characterized by a descending chromatic sequence which is then wound into ‘spirals’ some tightly wound and some more open. Molly Joyce’s Medium Piano is one of three preludes written in 2010, when she was 18; it brings to mind Debussy, in a darker later mood, perhaps, although does the central climax (which disobeys the dynamic marking I assume appears in the title) quote ‘DSCH’? Emma Lou Diemer’s Toccata is a spooky work with a particularly effective fade-out ending which asks the performer to pluck the strings occasionally. That may have been novel when it was composed in 1979, but it’s a bit of a cliché now, and the piece is redeemed by how fluid and unforced the switches from keys to strings feel. Marion Bauer’s six preludes date from the 1920s, when the publisher wanted them to be titled “modern preludes”. They’re chromatic and assertive, with bits of American folk and French impressionism, but not many such bits. Bauer’s voice is mainly her own, and a forceful one.
For me the highlights of the disc are all in its second half, beginning with Ellen Zwilich’s Lament. Zwilich is a major musical voice who can write in the full range of human experience; her fantasy inspired by the comic Peanuts is one of the great examples of wit and playfulness in contemporary music (listen on Naxos). The Lament here, by contrast, is very simply written, and very effectively; it’s a moving tribute to a friend and colleague felled by cancer at age 56.
Next up is Amy Beach, the oldest composer on the program, and probably the most familiar. “Dreaming” is a romantic masterwork in miniature, the kind of thing you’d put on a disc alongside Rachmaninov’s “Daisies” and “Lilacs”, Debussy’s “Clair de lune” and Mendelssohn’s songs without words. The other three Beach miniatures are in the same vein, but less distinctive.
Libby Larsen’s Mephisto Rag is what it says on the tin: a ragtime fantasy on Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz, with a section imitative of jazz ‘scat’ singing, although you’d be hard-pressed to find actual quotations of the Liszt themes: Larsen keeps these well-hidden. The disc ends with possibly my favorite track, Margaret Bonds’ Troubled Water (1967), a free fantasy on the African-American spiritual Wade in the Water. The year in which the work was composed should give you an idea of the tone the piece has, of something very important on the cusp of being achieved.
Becky Billock’s playing throughout is very good, and her sympathy with the composers is obvious both on disc and in her excellent introductory essay. There’s applause at the end of the last track, but otherwise no indication is made on this beautifully-presented album (terrific cover) of when or where the music was recorded. The recording is very close, maybe even a little cramped. I’m not sure how it took so long for this disc to reach us at MusicWeb International — Billock’s website says it was released in April 2010! — but the discerning listener curious to try things bold, new, and fiercely intelligent should give this a try. I must confess to being a romantic at heart and preferring the works by Zwilich, Beach, Larsen, and Bonds to those of their more abstract colleagues, but this is really a tasting menu, isn’t it? And it’s one worth trying.
An adventurous recital of eight interesting composer, played by a ninth; for those keen to explore music from 1892 to 2010.