Yet more great reviews of Cygnus Ensemble and Harold Meltzer’s new disc, by Fanfare Magazine
New York-based composer Harold Meltzer (b. 1966) has received significant attention in the past few years; in addition to a Guggenheim Fellowship and a residency at the American Academy in Rome, he was awarded the 2008 Barlow Endowment Prize (to compose a new string quartet) and was one of two Pulitzer Prize finalists in 2009 (for Brion). Though Meltzer began his career as a composer (studying at Cambridge and Yale), he took a brief detour to law school; after practicing law for several years, he returned exclusively to music. He has since worked as a freelance composer in New York City, founded the Sequitur new music ensemble, and is now a faculty member at Vassar College. If Meltzer was even half as good a lawyer as he is a composer, he was a great loss to the legal field; regardless, I am extremely pleased that he was “reclaimed” by music!
Though Meltzer’s work has been performed with frequency, this is the first CD devoted entirely to it and is thus a very welcome release. The most notable property of Meltzer’s musical language is an extensive use of ear-catching and unusual timbres. However, these timbres are always deployed in the service of a compelling musical argument; there is never the sense of “sound effects.” Meltzer also tends to focus, at any given time, on a subset of instruments from the larger ensemble of a given work. The overall result is a very personal blend of immediate lucidness and sonic creativity that produces an extremely compelling result.
Distinctive timbres are demonstrated very well in the disc’s opening work, Brion (2008), which is scored for the unusual configuration of the Cygnus Ensemble: two plucked instruments (in this case guitar and mandolin), flute, oboe, violin, and cello. The piece is inspired by the Brion-Vega cemetery (near Venice), the 1970s work of Italian architect Carlo Scarpia. In the booklet notes, Meltzer describes the form of the piece (which consists of three movements of uneven length: 6:13, 10:33, 1: 00) as mimicking his visit to the cemetery: “I explored much of it for an hour, took a break, then went back in for another spell, almost twice as long, seeing the things I hadn’t seen and retracing my steps to some of the places I’d seen before. Then, after a second break, I had a last look around.” It is an extremely beautiful and often very delicate piece.
Despite using a single accompanying instrument (cello), the striking Two Songs from Silas Marner (2000–01) abound in colorful sounds. For the first movement, the cello plays almost entirely in harmonics; in the second, an interlocking two-voice cello texture (sounding often like a viola and cello in duet) is created through extensive use of double-stopping. Though the smallest work on the disc, it is my personal favorite. Sindbad (2003), an extended work for narrator and piano trio, uses excerpts from a short story by Donald Barthelme as its text; Barthelme’s story tells of a hapless night-college professor who imagines himself as the Sindbad of legend. Works with narrator are notoriously hard to write effectively, but Meltzer achieves admirable integration of the story’s drama with the music; he employs a vignette-like musical structure, in which an array of striking musical ideas pass by extremely quickly but never get in the way of the recitation. Exiles (2001) is a diptych for tenor and ensemble based on a poem of Conrad Aitken and a translation from the Chinese by Hart Crane. The work is largely dark and elegiac in tone.
The performances are all superb. The Cygnus Ensemble has long distinguished itself as one of New York’s finest new-music ensembles (and has brought about a remarkable amount of excellent music for its unusual configuration). The other fine performers include NYC new-music mainstays like Elizabeth Farnum, Gregory Hesselink, and James Baker. Sindbad is narrated by the very distinguished English bass-baritone John Shirley-Quirk, now retired from singing, but thankfully still performing. This disc presents an excellent introduction to Harold Meltzer’s work, and it is music that is well worth hearing indeed. Carson Cooman
This article originally appeared in Issue 34:4 (Mar/Apr 2011) of Fanfare Magazine.
Harold Meltzer has not, as far as I know, written a large body of work, but he seems to write pieces of scrupulous craft and exceptional freshness, which makes each seem like an important contribution. Part of the trick (I think) is that Meltzer needs to find a unique take on any piece, and in particular its sound world, before he can write. (I remember attending a presentation where he played the recording of a solo flute piece written for Patricia Monson, which rethought the instrument from the inside out, without indulging in manneristic extended techniques, only necessary ones.) As a result, his music projects a consistently distinct character.
And that character is? Well, it tends to feature brightly contrasted colors that simultaneously aren’t flashy. Rather, they provide delight in their well-calibrated contrasts one to another. The little low-register piccolo lick at the start of the 2008 Brion is an example—I still can’t get it out of my head a few days later.
Another aspect I hear throughout is an ability to take simple, clear ideas and enliven them by putting them in a new context. Sometimes this is the aforementioned mix of colors. At other times it’s more complex modernist textures. At still others it’s a dreamlike archaism; one feels as though one is hearing music from a distant time through a glass darkly. He’s also unafraid of repetition, but also not obsessive, as in some Minimalist musics. And finally, there’s a lovely recurrent danciness. All these point toward Stravinsky as a progenitor, and indeed annotator Andrew Waggoner makes the apt comparison to Agon as a model. The good news is not just that Meltzer should gravitate to such a classy piece, but that he also doesn’t write a simple knockoff. The music’s energy and play are entirely his own. This is particularly true of Brion, which is a three-movement evocation of a visit by the composer to the Brion-Vega cemetery designed by Carlo Scarpa, near Venice. The seamless blend of modern and ancient tropes in the architecture is mirrored precisely in the music.
The rest of the program is vocal music, and this was a realm of the composer’s work I hadn’t known before. The Silas Marner songs (2000–01) take unpromising prose, and with a sinuously “weaving” cello accompaniment become quite direct and engaging, in such a way that deeper meanings seem revealed.Exiles is from 2001, and sets two texts, one by Conrad Aiken, the other a translation from the Chinese by Hart Crane. It’s probably the most conventionally modernist work on the program, though its accompaniment of glistening, revolving pitches, a little like wind-chimes, gives it a hushed and intense air.
But pride of place goes to Sindbad (2004–05), for narrator and piano trio. When I saw the title, I thought: What? A children’s piece? A fairy-tale fantasy? No, rest easy. The title is from the eponymous story by Donald Barthelme, the master of New York deadpan surrealism. Starting in full flower with the swashbuckling tale, it then suddenly veers into the first-person experience related by a timid professor, confronting students whose contempt for him is all too evident. Over time, it actually becomes clear that the entire text is speaking to the need of everyone to discover his/her own inner adventurer, and confront demons. But the message is never didactic, and the text has moments that are hysterically funny (at least to me, a professor). Meltzer’s music is unassuming but simultaneously fully in tune with the spirit of the text. It stands up as a parallel commentary, never serving as mere cues. John Shirley-Quirk embodies the double persona of the story with a plummy English accent, flamboyant at one moment, timid at the next. The genre of music with narration is one that has a checkered track record; this piece is a success.
This is the music of a strong voice, mature and focused, but never tripping up on over-seriousness. It gets a reservation for possible Want List inclusion at year’s end. Robert Carl