Cold Water Dry Stone: New Music with Traditional Roots

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Music of the ages meets contemporary thinking head-on in a series of classical releases from the past year.

Recent scholarship having uncovered deep thematic interconnections between Bach’s works for solo violin (in particular, the “Six Sonatas and Partitas”) and his choral writing, leave it to ever-courageous ECM producer Manfred Eicher to illustrate these findings with a project of stunning sonority. Pairing the burnished tones of violinist Christoph Poppen with the ethereal voices of the Hilliard Ensemble, the resulting set, entitled Morimur, becomes a map of Bach’s innermost musical thinking. But instead of dry intellectualism for the experts, we get a series of epiphanies for our troubled times, a confluence of spirit and emotion that re-energizes as it bathes the synapses. In a nutshell, this music for world-weary meditation is Bach’s consolation across the centuries. The baroque never felt so timely.

Meanwhile on the New Music scene, some of the latest recordings foreground the interplay between early (as in pre-baroque) and postmodern motifs. Terry Riley’s Requiem for Adam, for instance, draws on a world of musical sources to create a string quartet landscape invaded by electronic samples and Balinese gamelan. In places, it has an almost primitive simplicity, with the kind of unwavering attention to melody that John Cage achieved in his minimalist string quartets. And in others, there’s a fascination with non-Western sounds (e.g. the gamelan sonorities and rhythms of the second movement, “Cortejo Fúnebre en el Monte Diablo”) or a dirgelike religious drama that echoes the quartets of Shostakovich (in particular, the culminating funereal movement, where grief pushes everything toward stasis). The Kronos Quartet plays it all with conviction and clarity, giving the finale a thrust and parry worthy of Genghis Khan.

Added on for good measure is a lovely performance by Riley himself of “The Philosopher’s Hand,” a short interlude-memento from one of his drifting, droning evenings of piano meditations.

From the opening strings of Ingram Marshall’s “Kingdom Come” (the title work of a new, and rare enough, collection of his expansive writing), we’re thrown back into the late 19th century, with an unmistakable reference to Sibelius’ tone poem “The Swan of Tuonela.” But soon the overriding romanticism gets cut up and blended with atonal choral forebodings — excruciating reminders of the aftermath of violence.

Also in the mix are some taped documents of Croatian Catholic liturgy and Bosnian Muslim singing, so that when the disc segues into “Hymnodic Delays,” a four-part piece for voices sung by Renaissance motet specialists the Theatre of Voices, the two works seem part of a whole. And in a way they are. Marshall combines early music a cappella singing with American 20th century minimalist repetitions and suspensions, making the historical “moment” of the singing impossible to determine — as if these same voices have been singing and accumulating musical strategies for many centuries.

This eerie sense of multiplicity continues in “Fog Tropes II,” Marshall’s reprise of his 1982 orchestral work (here for string quartet and tape) that superimposes the lonely, distant foghorns of ships over the threnodies of the string ensemble. Kingdom Come is a brilliant CD, but not recommended as a pick-me-up for the post-apocalyptic blues.

Evan Chambers — one of the bona fide composer geniuses of the University of Michigan department of music — gives new meaning to the layered approach on his latest release, Cold Water Dry Stone. The title track drops a klezmerlike clarinet into a jazz-inflected Albanian village celebration, and the excitation that ensues is a meld of peasant enthusiasm and modernist chaos.

But when soprano Jennifer Goltz leans beautifully into Chambers’ disarming “Three Tannahill Songs,” there are other combinations at work: Echoes of the vocal pieces of Ives and Barber bounce off Scottish folk and Zen pillars; Americana meets the wide world and pauses to consider. And there’s a hush at the core of “Crossroads Songs” (for saxophone, piano and percussion) that leaches into the rest of this impressive disc, whether the multitude of cultural cues (Irish, Asian, American jazz, Albanian) lead to intense exuberance or stillness. In that quiet center floats the impulse to include, to accept, to welcome everyone, all places and all times, in.

George Tysh is Metro Times arts editor. E-mail him at gtysh@metrotimes.com.

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