Review by Colin Clarke
THE POETRY OF PLACES • Nadia Shpachenko (pn, toy pn 2 , voc 2 ); Joanne Pearce Martin 1,3 (pn); Nick Terry 1 , Cory Hills 1 (perc) • REFERENCE 730 (77:32)
NORMAN 1 Frank’s House. MELTZER In Full Sail. VAN ZANDT Sí an Bhrú. LASH Give Me Your Songs. KIRSTEN 2 h. o. p. e. MATHESON Alone, in waters shimmering and dark. SPRATLAN Bangladesh. YOUNG 3 Kolokol
The idea of reacting to spaces is the thread that snakes through this fascinating recital. Programming is clearly a strength of Shpachenko, as her disc Quotations & Homages (Fanfare 41:6) spoke of a similarly adventurous spirit. The superbly produced booklet gives fine background information to the pieces and composers, in tandem with a selection of photographs worth the price of the disc alone.
Scored for two pianos and two percussionists, Andrew Norman’s Frank’s House is a whirring, whizzing cornucopia of Modernist quirkiness. The percussion department might, on this occasion, literally be the “kitchen” department, for some of the sounds are made using industrial materials used in the making of the structure that inspired the piece: Frank Gehry’s Santa Monica home. So it is that chain-link fence and plywood turn out to have a musical part to play. Layering the music seems to inspire Norman to reference different musics; a four-hand piano waltz appears as a distant memory of times past.
The title In Full Sail refers to the sail-like appearance of Gehry’s IAC Building; a critic has referred to its appearance as “a ship in full sail.” Harold Meltzer’s piece is an attempt to explore the building both as a dynamic space and also from the perspective of an external passer-by. The quirky, sectional nature of the piece is intriguing. Shpachenko’s performance is little short of brilliant, the playful aspect almost seeming to capture glints of light from the building as one passes by.
Employing piano and fixed electronics, Jack Van Zandt’s Sí an Bhrú is a celebration in sound of the Neolithic Newgrange, from 3200 BCE, an ancient monument designed to work specifically with the light of the Winter Solstice to illuminate a central alcove for some 17 minutes per year. Jack Van Zandt’s excellent notes for his piece refer to the monument as “an encyclopedia of Late Stone Age artistic practices, and engineering, scientific, and agricultural knowledge.” Comprising a number of sections, this is a poignant portrayal of the slow onward movement of time as reflected in the equinoctal precession, the movement of the stars, the ever-onward tread of the seasons and, indeed, the flow of the nearby River Boyne. Shpachenko’s pianism is perfectly attuned to this soundworld, particularly perhaps the more pointillist passages. The electronics perfectly complement the argument rather than dominating the piano. There are various sections, the first of which, “Spirals and Zigzags,” is an homage to Boulez, while the central “Dance of Renewal” is ritually based around the Winter Solstice itself. After a brief return to the opening (“Eternal River”), the work closes with a rapt evocation of a “Starlit Night.” Beautifully written and beautifully imagined, this piece works on a deep emotional level.
The relatively simple opening to Hannah Lash’s Give Me Your Songs posits a different narrative entirely. Here a song-like melody is held up and turned, as if in a kaleidoscope. The building behind the work is Aaron Copland’s upstate New York residence; both the living room, which seems to “float on air,” and the deceptive nature of the building’s internal layout (it’s easy to get lost, apparently) inform the way the material twists and turns—actually most fetchingly, as there is much sonic beauty to this piece, underlined by the excellent recording.
The fascinating combination of piano, toy piano, and voice (all managed via the one performer) forms the basis of Amy Beth Kirsten’s h.o.p.e., inspired by the Baltimore American Visionary Art Museum and its Big Hope show in 2015–16. Inevitable echoes of John Cage via the sound of the toy piano are here, but so is that thread of hope that links every note of this piece, along with a light, humorous touch.
The music of James Matheson was similarly featured in Nadia Shpachenko’s previous disc covered here, Quotations and Homages (a piece simply called Bagatelle; Fanfare 41:6). Matheson’s Alone, in waters shimmering and dark is accompanied by a sepia/black-and-white photo of a house on an island in the middle of a lake in Pine Plains, NY. The position the composer adopts is that the view from the island itself might be different. An exploration of the shades of difference between the two states of loneliness versus solitude, Matheson’s tripartite work concludes with a 2016 piece, “To Sky,” written in memory of his teacher, Steven Stucky; the present work is an expansion of that so that it sits in a larger suite. Just as we look at the house from different perspectives, so we see two sides of Stucky: generous externally, the lone traveler internally. Matheson’s writing throughout is poignant, but nowhere more so than in this final piece.
A stunning photo of Louis Kahn’s complex of buildings for Bangladesh’s National Assembly (on the shore of a lake, so one is also able to admire the building’s refection in the waters) accompanies Lewis Spratlan’s Bangladesh—a portrait of, in order of appearance, the people, buildings, and water of that area, followed by a musical account of the building of the Assembly and finally an examination of that building’s place in the lives of the people of Bangladesh. Spratlan assigns F♯ as the “key of the people”; Nature, its opposite pole and therefore a tritone away, is held by the pitch class C. Tightly organized, there is nevertheless a feeling of freedom in the music’s trajectory. Virtuosity is a primary consideration, too, and Shpachenko excels, providing white-hot energy in addition to technical excellence, just as she does in projecting the Nature moments of almost primal power; elsewhere, the music shimmers as if in a heat haze.
Finally, there comes Nina C. Young’s Kolokol for two pianos and electronics. The inspiration here was a study of Russian Orthodox church bells, and the work is actually based on the 17 Danilov Bells at Harvard University (bells that originally hung in the 13th-century Danilov Monastery in Moscow, and were returned to Moscow in 2008; replicas at that point replaced the originals). There are four movements, each named after a traditional Russian bell-ringing practice. The composer’s own field recordings of the bells at Harvard feature here in the electronic component. The work’s 17 distinct harmonic areas are derived from the spectral characteristics of each bell. All of this is a long introduction to music that is compelling; bells have long informed Russian composers (Mussorgsky and Rachmaninoff, for example).
The keyword to this disc is in its title: poetry. There is visual poetry in the images, compositional poetry in the responses that form this program, and performance poetry via Shpachenko. One might even argue that there is a generally unnoticed poetry in the excellence of the recording, which is magnificently managed. Colin Clarke