Sadly I have not yet heard Volume 1 of Thomas’ music the one for orchestra: Nimbus Alliance NI 6258
. I say sadly, because in the light of what I have encountered on much of this disc I like what I have heard. She is chair of the board of the American Music Centre and clearly, although her music has not consistently reached the UK, she is a major figure in American music.
Immediately I was struck by the first track Scat
for oboe, string trio and piano. I found myself remembering the high-octane energy of Magnus Lindberg. Its six minutes are well packed with little time to breathe. First performed in a prison it demonstrates some modern jazz influence, even down to its angular lines. The “instruments wrap themselves around each other just like scat singers”. It makes an exciting start.
A set of Piano Etudes
comes next. There are six of these and each is in homage to a twentieth century composer. You shouldn’t think that these are pastiches of Berio, Bartók, Messiaen, Boulez, Feldman and David Rakowski. Few composers would do that, let alone quote from them, as I know from experience in my own Shadows
for solo piano - published by Fand. The chosen precedent simply informs the music and is therefore a reflection of the creating composer’s interest. The last, ‘Twittering Machines’, a homage to Rakowski — an American composer new to me — brings the set to a exciting conclusion but also manages to sound like the Augusta Read Thomas we have already heard: angular lines and jagged rhythms, which we also find in ‘On Twilight’, a homage to Boulez. Her penchant for quiet bell-like sounds is superbly realised in the first Etude to Berio, ‘Orbital Beacons’ and in the Feldman, ‘Rain at Funeral’. These are all obviously virtuoso pieces and Amy Briggs carries them off with aplomb and passion.
A Circle Around the Sun
may have been composed to a commission by the Children’s Foundation but it is not childish music. In fact, in its amazingly compact five minutes, with its two connected movements, it manages a tight ternary structure proliferating from a repeated G. It gathers pace in a pointillistic and humorous manner with a sort of tense and brittle energy. Scored for piano trio it comes out as unique and dynamic.
The next two pieces are very short. Double Helix
is for two violins that intertwine expressively and with some tension but the piece was written for the opening of the Mansueta Library at the University of Chicago. The brilliant fanfare Ring, Flourish, Blaze
is for thirteen brass instruments and three screaming, flutter-tonguing piccolos. An original and exciting sound. Pity it’s so short.
Listening to Pilgrim Soul
scored for cor anglais and two violins is indeed something approaching a spiritual experience. The tension I have detected in the earlier pieces is prevalent here in the way Thomas uses harmony, dynamics and counterpoint. The cor anglais seems at times to anticipate the violin lines or to initiate them. The work is based on a poem of Yeats and is the most reflective on the disc.
The CD booklet has a lovely, smiley portrait of the composer on it back cover. The enthusiastic booklet writer, Paul Pellay, often comments, as he does with the Toft Serenade
on “Thomas’ smiling musical face”. This piece, written as a wedding anniversary present for the Toft family, although quite gripping, is not especially smiley. Each of its movements exhibits that same tension and tautness mentioned above.
On either side of the Serenade
are two substantial piano works. First Makiko Hirato plays Traces.
This work certainly smiles. As with the Etudes
each is in homage to a musician the composer admires but this time each piece has two names: one from the world of the classical repertoire and one from jazz. Don’t be misled: neither style is at all obvious. In fact what we hear is often pointillistic, dissonant and in no key. Number one, a ‘Caprice’, is subtitled ‘Like Scarlatti’s Baroque ornamentation crossed with Art Tatum’. The rather wild ‘Impromptu’ is “Like Thelonious Monk crossed with Chopin’. ‘Reverie’ is “Like Schumann ‘The Poet Speaks” crossed with George Crumb”. It’s all very novel but I’m not sure how much it really manages to communicate. No better interpretation could surely be made than through the brilliance of Hirato.
The last work is the longest, the single movement Starlight Ribbons
for solo piano. Thomas has commented that some of the composers we have met — like Messiaen and Thelonius Monk — are woven into the sound-world but for me the piece is basically post-Webernesque and lacking in character. In fact it made me realise that I connect less with Thomas’s piano works than with the instrumental ones. This is why, I have promised myself to listen to the earlier CD as mentioned above. I will add however that Daniel Schlosberg brings out every detail and nuance in this complex score.
Unusually, no information is supplied as to when and where the recordings were made but they are remarkably consistent in sound quality and volume. All the performances are wonderfully prepared.