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Lejaren HILLER (1924-1994)
Sonata No. 3 for Violin and Piano (1971) [14:58]
Sonata No. 5 for Piano (1961) [21:15]
Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano (1955) [15:44]
Conrad Harris (violin), Joseph Kubera (piano)
rec. 2017, American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York City.
NEW WORLD 80799-2 [52:04]

The memorably-named Lejaren Hiller was an American chemist and composer. He was a pioneer of computer-generated music. He collaborated with Leonard Isaacson over the programming of the University of Illinois's ILLIAC computer to generate the score for the so-called ILLIAC Suite. This was in four movements and was later called "String Quartet No. 4". That was in 1957. Again at Illinois, some ten years later, Hiller worked with John Cage over HPSCHD which is scored for "seven harpsichords and 59 amplified channels of taped sound". His LPs haunted my record-hunting days when I drifted, rarely, towards the avant-garde: His Twelve-Tone Variations were included on Turnabout TV-S 34536 and HPSCHD was on Nonesuch H71244. By the way, Lejaren Hiller has nothing to do with Ferdinand Hiller (1811-1885).

The accommodatingly catholic tastes of New World Records in their Anthology of Recorded Music have already taken them into Hiller territory with his A Total Matrix of Possibilities (80694). Now they extended the spectrum with a piano sonata and two quarter-hour violin sonatas. These ante-date and post-date those two prominent computer-generated/related works. James Bohn is Hiller's biographer and is clearly well placed to write the notes (14 pages, in English only) in New World's liner booklet. Bohn tells us that 60 percent of Hiller's music "can be characterized as … absolute music. … Of the forty-some pieces of absolute music that Hiller composed, ten of them are sonatas [with] all but one … for piano, piano and violin, or piano and cello. … it could [therefore] be argued that these three compositions are more representative of his compositional oeuvre than other recorded assemblages of his music."

What of it? First it is good to be ushered in to the least notorious aspect of his creative legacy. What we hear is not, however, soft-centred or simplistically welcoming. The closest approximation to this comes with the work that closes the disc: the Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano (1955). This began its journey as a piece for cello and piano but was then re-fashioned for the present duo. Often Ravel-like, this score traces a smooth, lyrical and dramatic route especially in the outward-facing movements. I am not quite sure what to make of the fact that he wrote it in annoyance when, after the premiere of his Twelve-Tone Variations for Piano (1954), he was asked whether he could write 'normal music'. As a piece written in defiance it shows that, professional to the finger-tips, he could write or be stung into music to prescription. However, the middle movement is harmonically more cast adrift but with soft dissonances in play. He kept the cello and piano score and it remains available for performance.

Compare that Sonata with a product, written after fifteen intervening years: Violin Sonata no. 3. This is angular, harsh, dissonant, rhythmically Stravinskian, coarse, exciting, driven and excoriating. The first movement is well named Furioso. The second is inkily stygian, deeply enmeshed in the bass of the piano, so much so that the pianist is directed to "play clusters inside the piano using a felt tam-tam mallet." It's as if the murmuring depths of The Isle of the Dead had been flayed and turned inside out. The final Prestissimo, while still dynamically grating, responds more fluently to the violin, as does the Furioso. The violin makes some truly abrasive sounds - a rasp drawn down a protestingly resistant surface. The Third Sonata was amongst the works included on that 1970s Turnabout LP. The four-movement Fifth Piano Sonata is dissonant but a model of clarity; Hiller does not disguise what he has to say in the obfuscation of fogged or dense textures. As if further to assert that point, the second movement is an icy statuesque Interlude where pearly arpeggios contrast with the casual nonchalance of the Rondo. Helpfully, the liner note tells us that the Fifth Sonata was premiered by Kenwyn Boldt in 1969, eight years after the work had been completed. Boldt recorded it for an Orion LP in 1975 where it appeared with Boldt's wife (Frina) playing the Fourth Sonata.

Pianist Joseph Kubera has worked with Cage, Feldman, Ashley and La Monte Young so can be taken to be familiar with working at the more feral peripheries. Going by his CV Conrad Harris is also au fait with both new-new music and old-new music. Each seems completely comfortable with Hiller's inspirations, compulsions and ways and means yet with the sense of confronted challenge intact. The recording is full-on and full-fat. There could have been more Hiller on this disc but what we hear is put across with utter conviction. Next time let's hear Hiller's orchestral music.

Rob Barnett

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