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Meredith MONK (b. 1942)
Piano Songs
Obsolete Objects (1996) [1:52]
Ellis Island (1981) [2:59]
Folkdance (1996) [4:00]
Urban March (2001) [3:07]
Tower (1971) [1:37]
Paris (1972) [3:09]
Railroad (1981) [2:12]
Parlour Games (1988) [7:31]
St. Petersburg Waltz (1993) [7:03]
Window in 7's (1986) [2:46]
Totentanz (2006) [3:06]
Phantom Waltz (1989) [7:14]
Bruce Brubaker (piano)
Ursula Oppens (piano)
rec. April 2012, Jordan Hall, New England Conservatory, Boston, Massachusetts
ECM NEW SERIES 2374 [47:08]

Meredith Monk is a familiar name to ECM collectors and those attuned to contemporary music, being in some ways 'part of the furniture', and in other ways one of those innovative voices without whom we would be much the poorer. I much enjoyed her Songs of Ascension (see review), and of course found this album of Piano Songs irresistible.

The music here was written between 1971 and 2006, having its roots in Monk's pieces for voice and most being song-like in terms of duration and associations. In the words of the composer, "I delved into different relationships and the possibilities between them; material passed back and forth, dialogues, interlocking phrases, shifts of figure and ground. In some pieces, I emphasized the individuality of each piano, writing for one player as the 'singer,' the other as the 'accompaniment'; in other pieces, I wanted the two pianos to make one large sound."

The actual music often has a minimalistic feel, with repeated and rhythmic pulse underlying a melodic directness which tickles the imagination and invites the invention of one's own lyrics. There are but few moments which go beyond the piano, such as the clapping and shouts which open Folkdance, and part of the fascination is identifying with the character of the music with its title. Paris has a Satie-esque Gallic feel with some Dada random notes thrown in like a free jazz exponent crashing the party. The rolling stock of Railroad is unmistakable, and the playful simplicity of Parlour Games is underpinned from about halfway through with a little bass riff straight out of a Morricone film score - 'For a Fistful of Dollars' unless I am much mistaken.

Amongst my favourites are the more poetic, slower pieces such as Urban March, which builds inexorably, and the St Petersburg Waltz which is almost anything but a typical waltz. The Phanton Waltz is a perfect close. These are all wide-ranging, simple musical ideas which are taken on and explored in directions which are invariably surprising, though each with a sense of logic and process which gives us little insights into the mind at work. One can imagine some of them being composed fairly quickly, but we can also engage with the sense of input and exhaustive completeness poised within each framework.

Ursula Oppens and Bruce Brubaker are ideal partners in these pieces, with Oppens as much a household name in contemporary music as Monk, and Brubaker a recognised performer of American minimalist music. Bruce Brubaker's comments on the music in this album sum up its content in a nutshell: "There's an intriguing balance in Meredith's piano music between simplicity and a kind of music you've never really heard before. It feels familiar and strange at the same time. Some elements can sound almost like folk music, but they can be challenging in the way they fit together. Meredith's music has a wonderful inevitability to it, as if she discovered it as much as composed it."

The recording of Piano Songs was very much done in the spirit of collaboration, with the composer in the studio during the sessions. With such an excellent recording and a spirit of both discipline and spontaneity in every piece, this is the kind of piano disc which we come across but rarely.

Dominy Clements