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Stuart GREENBAUM (b. 1966)
The Thin Blue Line
Sonata for Guitar (2013) [21.06]
Synthesis (2012/13) [8.45]
Five Tales of Human Endeavour (2005) [10.24]
Rushall Express (1997) [4.55]
Polar Wandering [3.43]
Fairfield Days [5.57]
Ken Murray (guitar)
rec. live, 6 November 2016, 14-15 December 2017
ABC CLASSICS 4816971 [55.07]
Return Journey
Sonata for Trombone and Piano (2015) [21.32]
Sonata for Guitar (2013) [21.06]
Both were recorded live 6 November 2016
Sonata for Trumpet and Piano (2016) [20.48]
Ensemble Three
Konrad Olszewsli (piano)
rec. 2017, Melba Hall, the University of Melbourne
ABC CLASSICS 4816973 [63.33]

These two discs have come out together so it seems sensible for me paint a picture of the composer using both, as they seem to give a useful overall view of the work of Stuart Greenbaum to date.

Stuart Greenbaum comes from Melbourne, Australia and studied there. He has written, it seems over 200 works, including three symphonies although none has come my way I’m sorry to say. His own notes tell us that he is from an enthusiastically musical family mixing popular music with jazz and classical music including contemporary music.

I started by listening to the two shorter works on the Guitar CD, Polar Wondering and Fairfield Days. I have to say immediately that I found them meandering and uninteresting, in addition I was irritated by the fact that the composer in his notes simply gives us a brief quasi-scientific essay on the meaning behind the titles.

But I had probably started in the wrong place. Both discs, oddly, have a recording by its dedicatee Ken Murray of Greenbaum’s Sonata for Guitar a three-movement work with the titles ‘resolute’, ‘mysterious’ and ‘elated’. And the reason why this work is a good place to start is to explain the Greenbaum Sonata Project. The composer writes that his aim is to “create a substantial recital work for all major orchestral instruments, contributing new repertoire for professional and emerging artists…”. When it comes to this sonata, all he tells us however is that it was written ‘by way of celebration” for his friend Ken Murray who had, after several years, achieved a PhD in musicology.

The style is imbued with elements of jazz that is, those typical seventh, ninths and eleventh chords with two bar or four bar passages repeated before moving on and with repetitious accompanimental patterns in, as the composer admits, a sort of minimalist language. Apparently, the sonatas “completed to date seek to push the boundaries of form, notably including minimalist architecture and the fusion of classical, modern and pop languages”.

But back to the guitar disc, Synthesis, says the composer is “a form of dance music” and it adds to the varied mix of ostinati and jazz inflected sequential writing, the percussive ‘battuta’ effect and strumming. It insistent rhythm is quite catchy.

But within the narrow confines of Greenbaum’s language he works ideas and original thoughts. So, Five Tales of Human Endeavour is an eclectic mix of miniatures. The ‘Yellow Canary’ which (used to) risk its life down caves for the sake of miners, ‘Eleven months at Sea’ remembering the endurance of one Jesse Martin with its almost boring harmonic repetition. ‘Light, Sweet Crude’ refers apparently to crude oil and by implication those that mine it. ‘Into the Forest’ recalls the bravery (or cowardice) of 390.000 soldiers who deserted during the American war of Independence. And ‘The Thin Blue Line’ a title which gives the CD its name, is not the TV programme starring Rowan Atkinson of twenty years ago but a reference to the ozone layer, a material hero which keeps dangerous layers of sunlight away from the earth’s atmosphere. However, how far all of these are actually human I’m not fully sure.

Rushall Express refers to a railway station near the composer’s home and as he tried to ‘dash’ off the music it seems to take on the character of train music with its internal propulsion. Again, it was Ken Murray for whom it was written and who was the inspiration and guide behind its progress.

So the second disc listed above opens with the Sonata for Trombone and Piano. Whilst the jazz-infused harmonies suit the guitar, how do they fit into a work such as this? This is in the classical sonata format of three movements and is marginally the longest work recorded. He describes it as “a road trip”, as it was composed on three different pianos in three different places. Don Immel commissioned the work and he is a colleague of Greenbaum’s at the Melbourne Conservatoire. Unlike the other works it seems to have no other programme but the three movements are entitled ‘Travelling’, ‘Floating’ and ‘Energised’.

Movement 1 has a special atmosphere all of its own, with its jazz-inflected glissandi and its oriental sounding, pentatonic harmonies. In the middle movement the sun comes out onto a less austere landscape although the tempo is still on the relaxed side, even slow as the melody ‘floats’ above the trickling semi-quavers. All very evocative and beautiful. As the title of the finale implies we are now fully awake, in one might feel, a night-club. The piano part is strongly syncopated but the trombone part seems a little directionless and intermittent. But the performance surely captures everything that the composer intended.

In searching for the real Stuart Greenbaum I think I eventually tracked him down in the beautiful, even sexy, Trumpet sonata. Here his music is inspired by outer space and a trip to Mars. Its three interconnected sections being ‘Journey to Mars’ with its repetitious, even tedious harmonies in the piano under a languid, floating melodic line then a brief ’Interlude’ for solo piano and finally ‘Return Journey’ with its “different emotional psychology” and having in it the only fast and expectant music in the work. At times I was reminded of Aaron Copland’s. ‘Quiet City’ (if that’s a help). The composer was fortunate indeed to have two such sensitive musicians as Joel Bremen with his elegant tone quality and pianist Konrad Olszewski who record it here.

The CDs come in easily stored cardboard cases with nicely produced booklet notes and photographs. For many listeners this style of easy going cross-over music will make a refreshing change and a relaxing pleasure. Greenbaum is fortunate in the high quality of the recording and the fact that friends, who are also the dedicatees, have recorded his music so sympathetically. For me, the music has not entirely connected and at times I’ve been glad when a piece has finished, but we are all different and I suppose and some are more different than others.

Gary Higginson



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