CD Review: “A Quiet Madness” elicits delightful yet elusive cohesiveness

A Quiet Madness

music of William Susman
Belarca Records
Release date: January 20, 2021
William Susman, piano; Karen Bentley Pollick, violin; Francesco Di Fiore, piano; Patricia Zuber, flute; Stas Venglevski, bayan accordion

Olivia Kieffer | 05 FEB 2021

On January 20th, 2021, Belarca Records released A Quiet Madness, an album of music written by the American composer and pianist William Susman. The featured performers are violinist Karen Bentley Pollick, flutist Patricia Zuber, bayan accordionist Stas Venglevski, and pianist Francesco Di Fiore. All four of these artists have been enthusiastic performers of Susman’s music for over a decade, and their time-honored understanding of the music shines brightly in their performances. Susman, a longtime Bay Area resident but a Chicago native, has been a pianist and a composer in both jazz and classical traditions since his youth. Notable are his scores for independent films such as Native New Yorker, and he is the bandleader and keyboardist for the 8-piece contemporary ensemble OCTET. His latest stylistic period, which emerged in the early 2000s, moved away from a minimalist-based approach to a multi-genre landscape which encompasses Afro-Cuban clave rhythms, jazz harmonies, post minimalist gestures, and even hints of Impressionism. Susman’s voice as a composer is unique and immediately recognizable.

The six tracks on the album alternate between chamber music and solo piano. The opener sets the tone for the whole album, in form and in content. Aria, for violin and piano, is a series of miniatures that are played without break. It features contemporary violinist Karen Bentley Pollick, with the composer on piano. Pollick’s pacing of vibrato often fits rhythmically with the evenly-shifting musical landscape. Susman predominantly uses two different clave-based rhythms in this piece. There is an echo of American composer Alan Hovhaness throughout this work, which is fitting given Hovhaness’s global musical influences. The piece doesn’t sound like an aria in the opera sense, where the vocalist is the point of focus – though the piece is an excerpt from his in-progress opera, Fordlandia. This Aria is a solid duet; the parts are imperfect and incomplete without each other, and Susman and Pollick work beautifully together.

Tracks 2, 4, and 6 are from Susman’s solo piano studies, Quiet Rhythms, Book 1. Susman wrote the first book of Quiet Rhythms in 2010. Books 2 through 4 were written between 2010 and 2013. Each book contains eleven Prologues and Actions (as a set, considered 1 piece) for a total of forty-four pieces.

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Susman’s Prologue and Action sets function similarly to the more traditional Prelude and Fugue, in that the Prologue sets up the upcoming harmonic rhythm in the Action. The pieces in Book 1 are harmonically based in the geometry of the beginning of the Fibonacci series (each number is added to the one before it to create quickly expanding numbers), 1 1 2 3 5 8 13 and beyond. All this math, with nary an odd time signature!

Italian pianist and composer Francesco di Fiore, a longtime champion of Susman’s music, performs three of the Quiet Rhythms pieces from Book 1; numbers 1, 5, and 7. Di Fiore’s performances are subtle and energetic, with an eye for clarity; not a single note gets lost, even in the washy moments. At times it almost sounds like 2 pianists playing; one using pedal and one without. These are truly impressive and thoughtful renderings of the Quiet Rhythms.

As with Aria, Seven Scenes for Four Flutes is on one track, so the scenes are presented as a whole. Patricia Zuber multi-tracked all four flute parts, and skillfully did so. Often, multi-tracked chamber music sounds stiff and the distance in the parts can be heard. This is not the case here; Zuber plays the four parts almost as though she is four different characters in her own chamber ensemble. Each of the seven scenes is evocative; geometric shapes come to mind. Movement 1, “Build,” contains the same thematic material as the last track of the album, Quiet Rhythms No. 7. There is a sense of hopeful rising and falling. Movement 2, “Swirl,” is very short and is filled with fast arpeggios. The third movement, “Echo,” uses one of Susman’s familiar clave patterns, bounced around like in a house of mirrors. There are micro and macro patterns here; augmentation and diminution of the rhythms. Movement four, Weave, consists of sinuous lines interspersed with a repeating flute staccato, like a ticking clock.

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Movement five, “Drift,” uses a regular clave pattern, with quick shifts in harmony. The sixth movement, “Jagged,” is very short, and all staccato. The last scene, Shimmer, is a rhythmic procession through several chords, first staccato, then legato, then both combined. I wouldn’t be surprised if most of these scenes were inspired by the Quiet Rhythms; they share a localized dialect.

Stas Venglevski, an accordionist born in the Republic of Moldova, now living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, steals the show on the fifth track of the album. Zydeco Madness, written in 2006 in response to Hurricane Katrina, is the most exciting and spirited piece on the album. Venglevski is a globally celebrated bayan artist. The bayan, or “button” accordion, has many rows of buttons on each side of the instrument, and the sound, timbres, and range are far greater than the more common piano accordion, which has buttons on one side of the instrument and a piano-style keyboard on the other. Susman makes full use of the bayan, bringing out all the organ tones intrinsic to the instrument. From the highest quietest flute tones to the lowest and loudest reedy growls, Venglevski certainly “pulls out the stops” for this virtuosic and energetic piece! Susman, who tends to handle formal changes gently in his other music, makes Zydeco sound almost manic in comparison.

I recommend listening to the album in one sitting. The music is a six-sided structure, like a hexagon. While each piece stands on its own, there is a delightful yet elusive cohesiveness to the full album experience. In line with Susman’s attraction to mathematical structures, he released the album on January 20, 2021: the palindrome 12021. The album’s title certainly comes from the “Quiet” of Quiet Rhythms and the “Madness” of Zydeco Madness, but like the layers in Susman’s music, it would be a worthwhile endeavor for the listener to search for their own interpretation of the deeper meaning. I have always found Susman’s music to be an energetic and healing balm for an anxious soul. This album is no exception. The rhythmic and harmonic changes that happen in Susman’s pieces often feel hopeful, and as in life, there is often hope hidden in the changes. ■

Listen to the entire album dree on Bandcamp:

Olivia Kieffer is an American composer, percussionist, and educator. A native of in Wisconsin, her compositions have been described as “immediately attractive,” “like a knife of light” and “honest, to the point, and joyful!”