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Robert ERICKSON (1917-1997)
White Lady (1975) [8:01]
Garden (1977)* [18:23]
Piano Concerto (1963)** [17:13]
Pacific Sirens (1969) [14:03]
Laura Martin (violin)*
Keith Humble (piano), University of Illinois Contemporary Chamber Players**
Cleveland Chamber Symphony/Edwin London
rec. Waetjen Auditorium, Cleveland, 29 March 2001 (White Lady) and 8 April 2001 (Pacific Sirens). Drinko Hall, Cleveland, 28 September 1999 (Piano Concerto), and 17 April 1974, Smith Hall, Urbana-Champaign, Illinois (Pacific Sirens).
NEW WORLD RECORDS 80603-2 [69:58]

Robert Erickson’s music is well served by the New World Records label, and the enquiring, exploratory and always thoughtful work of this composer becomes the more rewarding the better one becomes acquainted with it, from orchestral work to string quartets. White Lady, for wind ensemble, is an archetype of Erickson’s work with timbre, with chords shifting or remaining the same in terms of harmonic content, but always emerging in subtle contrasts of instrumentation. The effect is of a landscape over which clouds are constantly being blown, the moving shadows across fields and trees hiding and then highlighting shapes and details.
Garden for violin and orchestra is the most recent end of a spectrum at which the Piano Concerto stands at the opposite end. This is not a typical violin concerto though comparisons are inevitable. The soloist rises above contemplative sounds from the orchestra in ways which might have turned the work into a modern ‘Lark Ascending’ but Erickson’s individuality takes us into different realms, of “elegant, quiet, reflective joy… [singing] of gardens spread over the California hillsides… revelings in the pure magic of sound…” Alan Rich’s booklet notes are informative and descriptive in the best way.
The Piano Concerto is more rough-and-ready as a recording, with narrow if any stereo imagery, level meters pushed into the red here and there and an energetic, spontaneous feel to the performance. This is an entirely different world, and with explosive gestures from soloist and the accompanying chamber ensemble more what one might expect from the more angular end of the mid 20th century avant-garde. The composer states that he “would be pleased if the listener were unable to tell where (except for the cadenzas) the written music leaves off and the improvisation begins.” This is rendered even more realistic through the somewhat twangy piano used and the rather foggy nature of the recording when attempting to reach in and hear more subtle details, but this serves as an introduction to a side of Erickson’s creativity which surprises if one recalls the contrapuntal rigours of the 1950 First String Quartet and pensive later works.
Erickson experimented with electronics and tape composition for a short time, and Pacific Sirens is an interesting departure which unites adapted natural sounds to those of of a chamber orchestra. Sounds of the sea, ‘tuned’ through a variety of pipe lengths to give them a certain amount of pitch, echo almost menacingly through the sustained notes of the ensemble whose elongated tones in turn form a pre-echo or Erickson’s later focus on timbre through more conventional means. The ultimate effect is like the inhalation and exhalation of nature, with bow strings across cymbals and other effects enhancing the work’s sense of heavy atmosphere. If it were to start raining indoors while this music sounded, one feels the sense of surprise would be almost absent: such is the feel of rolling sea and driving wind which pushes towards you from your speakers.
This is a bit of a mixed bag as a programme, but a fascinating one nonetheless. The opening of the booklet quotes Robert Erickson: “…I think that what composers do now and have always done is to compose their environment in some sense.” With Pacific Sirens this is pretty close to literal, but Erickson also responded to his musicians empathetically in the creation of his own environments, and those collected here deliver some remarkable statements in sound.
Dominy Clements