Maurice SAYLOR (b. 1957)
The Hunting of the Snark (2004) [46:11]
Publicity Pays (2009) [9:54]
Phil CARLUZZO (b. 1980)
Stolen Goods (2009) [9:03]
Andrew Earle SIMPSON (b. 1967)
Too Many Mammas (2007) [8:49]
Cantate Chamber Singers, Holton-Arms Lower School Chorus, Snark Pit-band/Gisèle Becker (Snark)
The Snark Ensemble (other tracks)
rec. Holton-Arms School, Maryland, 8-10 June 2009 (Snark): John Paul Hall, Catholic University of America, Washington DC, 9 June and 21 December 2009 (other tracks)
NAXOS 8.572685 [73:59]
David del Tredici must be kicking himself. There he is, casting around for yet another Lewis Carroll verse to set to music; and here comes Maurice Saylor, taking the most substantial of all Carroll’s poems and running away with it. Carroll’s “Agony in Eight Fits” is a tour de force of comic narrative verse, with an undertow which implies allegory but which Carroll denied had any meaning at all. Actually what Saylor sets here is not the whole of Carroll’s 141 stanzas, in fact rather less than half of them; and it is with his employment of the text that the main problem with this disc arises. Saylor sets the texts he does use for chorus, and the whole point of his wittily syncopated setting is lost if we cannot understand what the chorus is singing about. Although the accompanying booklet finds room for two pages of the composer’s musical analysis (actually very valuable) and a complete list of all the members of both choirs taking part, there is no text provided. The Naxos website is no help either.
In order not to discourage potential listeners – and they should be encouraged, for this is thoroughly worthwhile music – I will itemise the sections of Carroll’s original text which Saylor omits. It can be downloaded from other sources. He sets the whole of Fit the First describing the landing and the members of the Bellman’s motley crew. From Fit the Second he omits stanzas 2-7 and 10-13. He sets the whole of Fit the Third uncut. From Fit the Fourth he omits stanzas 2-6 and 9-17. From Fit the Fifth he omits stanzas 10-26 - incidentally making nonsense of its title The Beaver’s Lesson since the whole of the passage describing the hilariously abstruse instruction given by the Butcher to the Beaver is missing. He omits altogether Fit the Sixth and Fit the Seventh, substituting instead two very short movements entitled “Brief Snarkestral Outburst”. Then he sets the whole of Fit the Eighth uncut. The description of the piece on the back of the CD describes Carroll’s poem at a “nonsense text” – but in fact some Saylor’s omissions come close to destroying what is in fact a very carefully and logically worked-out plot. The logic may be nonsense, as it is so often in the Alice books; but Carroll’s nonsensical logic was after all the work of a mathematician. He was always careful to make it cogently plausible.
What really matters here is what Saylor does with the remaining verses which he does set. What he does is really good fun. The words are always treated with care and a sense of their meaning. There are two very brief passages for solo voices; otherwise all of the text is given to the chorus. They are given real lines to sing with a good sense of what voices can and cannot be expected to do in putting across meaning. The orchestra is a riot, made up of all sorts of miscellaneous instruments which the composer describes as “rejected by society at large and people of good taste and common sense”. This collection of multifarious winds, keyboards, accordions, banjo, harmonica (the mouth-organ type, not the glass harmonica) and a solitary amplified violin should come across as a collection of ill-assorted specialists hardly on speaking terms with one another. In fact they cohere splendidly without ever losing their own quirky characteristics. The music itself, which the composer subjects to some extremely strict technical analysis (with music examples) in the booklet notes, is obviously very carefully worked out. That said, it never ever loses its sense of good humour. In his note the composer says: “I warn you, the first couple of minutes are a bumpy ride.” The warning is totally unnecessary. The opening ‘Snark’ theme is a corker whose wavering between major and minor comes across as a perfectly natural theme which you will find yourself whistling for days if you are not careful. David del Tredici’s Alice pieces are often great fun – but this is even more so.
The fill-ups on this disc are just that: fill-ups. They are all pieces written for performance at showings of silent movies. The piece by Saylor is a set of variations on Pop goes the weasel – oddly enough, a very close relative of the ‘Snark’ theme which opens that work. The other two pieces are really jazz rather than classical pieces, and highly enjoyable although hardly original.
Saylor himself plays a number of reed instruments in the silent movie pieces. The players of the Snark Ensemble obviously thoroughly enjoy themselves. So do the choirs in the main work. They make what is clearly some quite tricky choral writing sound not only easy but delightful. Two solo singers with very short parts are drawn from the choir and are adequate to their contributions. From the advertisements inside the booklet for other discs in their catalogue Naxos clearly regard this as a children’s record. One would suggest that Saylor’s Hunting of the Snark is a work of more seriousness than that categorisation would infer.
The booklet gives no dates of composition for any of these works. Those given above have been compiled from a number of different sources on the internet, where you can also find a clip from Stolen goods with Phil Carluzzo’s music.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
David del Tredici’s Alice pieces are often great fun – but this is even more so.