twelve prayers [44:50]
untitled 10 pieces [21:36]
the passing of a king [4:46]
the many latitudes of grief [24:57]
untitled quintet #2 [3:11]
untitled quintet #3 [5:36]
Sandro Ivo Bartoli (piano)
Szymon Marciniak (double bass)
Wolfgang Fischer (timpani)
Johannes Kronfeld (trombone)
rec. 20-22 May 2016, Reitstadel, Neumarkt i.d. Oberfalz.
SOLAIRE RECORDS SOL1003 2-CD [71:25 + 69:21]
Most of us can be excused from having heard of Jeffrey Roden. As Tobias Fischer describes in his text Instead of a Biography, Roden emerges as a figure for whom PR is the lowest of priorities and as “a man who no longer lives in any of the typical centres of the art world, but has far more stories to tell than those who do.” You wouldn’t guess at a background in jazz and rock’n roll from the music on this substantial collection, but there is no limit to the extremes of Yin and Yang and long may it so remain.
There isn’t much in the way of information on the works here, so the comments here are mostly my own subjective responses. CD 1 is devoted to solo piano works, and Roden’s twelve prayers is an extended and deeply poetic exploration into silence and quiet piano sonorities. The comparison with Arvo Pärt has to be made here – not that I wanted to initially, but there are passages such as the opening of ‘four’ that appear to be almost direct quotations. Another handle that might help is Morton Feldman, found in Roden’s willingness to communicate with just a few repeated notes. Fischer makes the point that this “is not music that is easily consumed”, and while it is immediately apparent that twelve prayers isn’t out to stretch any avant-garde boundaries, it isn’t, either, the sort of thing you can put on just to create an atmosphere.
untitled 10 pieces might perhaps be heard as a continuation of the prayers, though with darker sonorities and a greater inclination towards the abstract. Tonal centres are still a strong element, often suggested as much as stated, but certainly not moving in the realms of atonality in the intervals chosen. Roden suspends resolution, for instance having the mind seek a low C to complete the world he creates around E-flat in five, delivering it only in the idée fixe chord that dominates six. There is plenty of hidden psychological nagging going on in this music, and this is part of what makes it so fascinating. CD 1 ends with a stand-alone piece called the passing of a king, an enigmatic piece that creates its air of mystery with just a two-part line.
With CD 2 we enter a different space, with the chamber music perspectives of strings, and in the case of the many latitudes of grief the unusual combination of string quintet, piano, timpani and trombone. This opens with the funereal tread of the drum and low piano notes, maintaining a mournful gloom with sparing scoring, but with lines from the trombone and strings that might even be called lyrical. If the piano works hold up a magnifying glass to Bach, then this might be said to hold a magnifying glass up to Schubert, possibly even Brahms in the leanings suggested by four. These are not by way of quotations or even so much in the classic sonorities of the strings, but in the associations I take away from the listening experience, in the mental connections that flow from the past, through these pieces and into the listener. Your associations may be entirely different, indeed, I would hope that they are, but this is the kind of music that exists in the shades cast by history and tradition, separating off into its own direction but still with a glance over the shoulder of the composer into that other country that we imagine we know, though we are also aware that we can never return to it.
The untitled quintet #2 keeps up this atmosphere of suspended time, moving slowly and with translucent elegance, but resolutely withholding conventional cadence while, at the same time, playing with consonance and dissonance. untitled quintet #3 develops close-harmonies over a repeated pedal tone, the sounds emerging and receding like the tides of the sea; at its midway point the violin takes on the role of a bird on the wing, its rocking motif supported by the other strings into a coda-like vanishing point.
By far the longest piece on this second disc, the string quintet, leaves, initially had me wondering if it was going to turn into John Tavener’s The Protecting Veil with its rising figure in the violin. The piece goes in an entirely different direction, of course, working through those “subtle, precisely placed sounds [painted] on a canvas of breath and patience.” You have to suspend expectations of conventional development and time, though there are moments in which these hand-holds seem almost to be willed into existence. Around 8:32 into the piece, the violin introduces an open-sounding, repeated melodic phrase under which an accompaniment starts to take life. This vignette is rolled up and put aside, however, to be replaced by another, and another. Are these variations or miniatures? Either way, the musical narrative has its own logic, but you have to accept its inner boundaries and recognise its transitions as part of the whole. Keep faith with this piece, and you will find its rewards revealing themselves somewhere in its golden-section proportions.
To draw on a cliché, this recording is a voyage of discovery both of Jeffrey Roden’s remarkable sound-world, and inevitably into your own perceptions of music, of time and of the psychology of your own response and interaction with what is presented. Roden’s choices are happily not based on a perverse withholding of musical deliciousness, but his esoteric balancing of intellect and timeless wonder creates its own unique tensions – tensions that you will find are set up within yourself as much as by the music. Superbly performed and recorded, and published with Solaire Records’ now trademark glossy opulence, this is another object to treasure and explore over time, though like all those missing dates I suspect its secrets will never entirely be divulged.