Eric MOE (b. 1954)
Superhero (2006) [13:57]
Eight Point Turn (2001) [12:30]
Kick & Ride (2008) [28:59]
Robert Schulz (drum set) [Kick & Ride]
Boston Modern Orchestra Project/Gil Rose
rec. Merrimack College, Maryland, 12 March, 7 May 2008, 23 May 2009
BMOP SOUND 1021 [56:19]
It is a tried-and-trusted technique for critics who find themselves out of sympathy with the contents of the work they are reviewing to pick holes in the publisher’s blurb. In the case of this disc it is impossible to avoid doing so. Five pages of the booklet which comes with this issue are taken up with an article by “award-winning writer” Andrew Druckenbrod, who writes for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Eric Moe, the composer featured on this disc, lives and works in Pittsburgh. Surely he must feel a sense of due humility whenever in the course of his daily life he meets the writer of such lines as this: “To listen to the music of Eric Moe is to re-affirm one’s faith in the future of art music … His musical language is informed by major compositional trends, but he’s in no camp, not even the big ones such as post-minimalism, neo-tonal, indie-classical, or eclectic. No, Moe sleeps in his own tent off in the nearby woods, but the glow from his campfire often lights up the entire valley.” It would take music of towering and overwhelming genius to live up to this sort of vapid endorsement, and unfortunately for us all it is not supplied here.
Once one gets away from the large claims, what we actually get is quite enjoyable if not terrifically profound. The composer himself contributes a note on the music of one-and-a-half pages which is wryly humorous and attractively self-deprecating, and makes a much better impression than the other essay here. The disc opens with Superhero, a work the composer describes as related to Ein Heldenleben, but “affectionate and serious, not ironic.” The section of Strauss’s score which the piece most invokes, however, is Strauss’s very ironic portrait of his critics – a witty babel of conflicting woodwind voices, mirrored here by a six-piece ensemble with prominent flute and clarinet. The earlier score Eight Point Turn inhabits much the same sort of world, with a rather larger number of players. The comparison by Druckenbrod of this “brilliant” score to “an energetic version of a rotating Morton Feldman composition” is so totally wide of the mark as to beggar belief or comment.
The best piece here is Kick & Ride (the ampersand is apparently obligatory), the latest, and the only one to employ a full orchestra although a leading part is taken by a ‘drum set’ played by Robert Schulz. This is consciously based on patterns of rhythmic drumming – Druckenbrod informs us, breathlessly, “a source transformed into something equally compelling” – and the second movement Slipstream begins, so he then goes on to tell us, with “a quote of the famed ‘Wipeout’ rhythm from the Surfari’s iconic song.” Well, we will accept this, though the quotation is so well camouflaged as to be unrecognisable. He then goes on to claim: “Here again, Moe is sincere in his fascination for how a simple accent can change everything (not unlike Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring).” And this is palpable nonsense. One (of many) innovations in Stravinsky’s Rite was the composer’s ability to take constantly changing rhythms and patterns of sound and forge them into something which not only challenged the listener but also made the irregular accents of the music sound totally natural. Moe’s music here has no irregular rhythms to naturalise; it stays throughout in a totally regular 4/4 distinguished only by a slight acceleration or deceleration of tempo, adjusting syncopation within the unchanging bar in a manner derived from jazz. It sounds ‘simple’ and natural, all right; but then it has no need to ‘change’ because it has never pretended to be anything else.
Enough of attacking Moe for not being what the booklet claims him to be, and quite probably not what he claims to be either. What have we left? Well, it’s fine enough in its way provided one doesn’t have one’s anticipations set too high. The works for chamber ensemble have plenty of life and energy, and are superlatively well played here if set in a slightly less than ideally resonant acoustic. The Showdown with evil twin which concludes Superhero has the right sort of over-frenetic quality that the title would lead one to expect, but is a bit unrelenting in its assault on the ear. One is reminded uncomfortably of a massively scored Hollywood blockbuster score that has been reduced for chamber ensemble, and one also feels uncomfortably that maybe this is not the sort of association that the composer would welcome.
The orchestral performers under Rose’s direction in Kick & Ride respond energetically to Schulz’s virtuoso performance in what is effectively a percussion concerto. The rather thin string sound - although twenty-eight string players are listed in the booklet - is presumably what the composer wanted, and it allows the woodwind lines to come through clearly in what is however a slightly claustrophobic acoustic. Throughout one has the uneasy feeling that a greater degree of distancing would have been of benefit; the players are sometimes very close indeed. Schulz has great fun with his cadenza towards the end of the first movement.
Moe in his own booklet note, reproduced in larger type inside the gatefold sleeve, describes the three works here as “cantankerous sisters”, which is fair enough comment. The cantankerousness conceals a rather loveable nature; this music bubbles with good humour and joy, even if it does not live up to the grand claims made on its behalf. The particularly revolting and poor imitation comic-book cover does not perhaps give the right impression of music which even when at its most rhythmically unrelenting is always enjoyable and listenable.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
Music which even when at its most rhythmically unrelenting is always enjoyable and listenable.