Howard Wershil | 14 NOV 2022
Visit flutist Jennifer Grim’s website and you will instantly behold an alluring photograph of a musician magically suspending her chosen instrument deftly in mid-air. And so, the tone is set for the magic that comes from a beguiling CD of music for solo flute, multiple flutes, and flute and piano by composers spanning up to half a century of style and experience.
Each of the composers featured here – Tania León (b. 1943), Alvin Singleton (b. 1940), Julia Wolfe (b. 1958), David Sanford (b. 1963), Allison Loggins-Hull (b. 1982), and Valerie Coleman (b. 1970) – has a unique voice to offer, expressed through finely honed compositional technique and personal musical taste.
Alma (2009) by Tania León is a delightful piece cloaked in a style that, during a particular mid-20th century era, perhaps typified the sound of American solo flute music.
As it progressed, I would have been content to be engulfed and enchanted by solo flute exclusively. Yet, I was surprisingly greeted with accompanist Michael Sheppard’s ably performed piano incursions that enhanced the quality of the composition without detracting from the spell woven by Grim’s sensitive performance and León taste and restraint.
Over time, the piece becomes more dramatic, but the balance between piano and flute remains constant, as does the composition’s spell. At one point, in an effortless glide into a surprising change of pace, the piece becomes more conventionally harmonic and rhythmic, almost to the point of being danceable, before returning to a more calm, dreamlike freedom of expression that slowly, carelessly melts away.
Alma is one of the newer compositions on this CD, provided by one of the more established composers represented. Perhaps the piece’s ease of expression suggests an ease of compositional creativity that only experience and maturity tend to provide. León’s self-assurance in providing a familiar style in current times echoes the confidence of a J.S. Bach offering baroque musings in an age drifting rapidly towards classicism.
Unlike León’s Alma, Alvin Singleton’s Argoru III (1971) seemed more jubilant and playful, even purposefully erratic, yet somehow maintaining the impression of thematic consistency throughout the piece. Excellent use is made of the flute’s wide range, with leaps between registers creating a viable impression of a multi-voiced instrument. While the musical language is predominately atonal, cohesion and contrast are provided to the materials through judicious use of motifs and variations, and the groupings of tones within each. Jennifer Grim’s interpretation is wonderfully insightful, and her execution of the range and variety provided by the materials is flawless.
In Ghanaian Twi, “argoru” means “to play.” Depending on interpretation, this phrase could be considered an opportunity for joy and entertainment or a call to performance and expertise. In Argoru III, and perhaps the rest of Singleton’s “Argoru” series, we are rewarded with opportunities for the best of both.
Julia Wolfe’s Oxygen (2021) is the kind of musical experience you come away from feeling practically born again.
A piece ostensibly rooted firmly in the genre referred to as post-minimalism, Oxygen offers a rare sonic experience, exuding an extraordinarily plentiful variety of glorious, gorgeous, celebratory sonorities within the premise of providing a “wall of sound” for the listener to enjoy.
It makes terrific advantage of contrasts of dynamics and registers available to the instruments utilized, and even varies its harmonic language from time to time, providing the semblance of some bit of conflict and resolution that minimalist compositions usually don’t contain.
I particularly enjoyed Wolfe’s use of the alto flute and, especially, the bass flute. These are instruments exploited far too seldomly by talented composers and performers. Both instruments offer warmth and depth above and beyond the sound of a traditional flute that needs to be welcomed and appreciated more often.
I did feel somewhat disappointed that, on my own sound system, the “wall of sound” promised was not successfully achieved, with most of the sound ecstatically bouncing between speakers, but seldom adequately filling in the space between them. In fact, today’s amplification systems have so many variations of sound environments to choose (THX Cinema; THX Music; Unplugged; PLIIx Music; etc.) and so many kinds of speaker delivery systems to utilize (Dolby Atmos; 5.1 or 7.1 Surround Sound; etc.) that achieving that “wall of sound” may take some inspired system tweaking to achieve.
As a former high school/college rock and roller, the implication of a “wall of sound” may have set me up with completely unrealistic expectations. Perhaps the reference to a “wall of sound” is best left unsaid. Without it, the power of the piece better persuades without undue expectation. Or perhaps I need to hear the track on a different sound system. Or maybe I’ll have the uncanny opportunity someday to hear the piece live through a system utilizing multiple speakers and extreme amplification. Wouldn’t that be exceptional?
Some might argue that minimalism, or perhaps even post-minimalism, is “too easy” a compositional endeavor; that all you need to do is select a phrase or two that pleases you, then vary those phrases through expansion, attrition, tempo change, transposition, or use of any number of compositional tools available to the imagination.
This assumption reminds me of the popular notion that, upon viewing a Jackson Pollock painting, we should all have the realization that our 5-year-old could accomplish the achievement just as well.
Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. The challenge of minimalism could perhaps be considered as an endeavor to bring as much meaning as possible to as little material as possible, while post-minimalism endeavors to cautiously expand the amount of material considered and carefully reduce the amount of repetition employed while still maintaining a degree of self-imposed limitation and reserve.
That said, for those who prophesize the imminent end of minimalism and post-minimalism, I think there’s far more still to be tapped within its rich vein. I enjoyed Oxygen immensely, and I will guardedly maintain a belief that Wolfe agrees with me in my assessment of the further potential of this style of music. After all, doesn’t every composer hope for each ensuing effort to be the greater endeavor over the last? Julia Wolfe’s post-minimalistic approach has yielded a result that aspires to another, higher level. Its “plentiful variety of glorious, gorgeous, celebratory sonorities” begins to speak of a coming musical language.
Klatka Still I and II (2009), by David Sanford (one of the younger composers represented on this CD), was by far more dramatic and ebullient than many other compositions. As such, it may well have required more attention and coordination on the part of the performers than the others. The piece challenges both flutist and pianist technically, not only to perfect the required nuances of their individual performances but also to perfect the nuance of their collaborative performance.
Klatka Still I surprised me with its use of a musical language unexpectedly similar to that of Messiaen and perhaps other French composers of the time and beyond. Klatka Still II varied the genre a bit from Katka Still I, relying instead on crisp ostinati to drive its purpose, but still retaining a veiled reference to the language of Messiaen, especially in the latter part of the movement. Regardless of the reference to a prior atonal language (at least to this reviewer’s ears), the harmonies were nevertheless beautiful, and the overall effect of both pieces quite breathtaking.
Allison Loggins-Hull’s Homeland (2018) was perhaps the most original and personal composition on the CD, containing a lyricism and ease of flow not often found in a musical listening experience. The musical language is uncomplex and refreshing, primarily using diatonicism to fulfill its purpose and just a peppering of performance effects (flutter tongue; pitch bend) to enhance its expressiveness.
Neither minimalist nor post-minimalist nor atonal, it is a piece that seems to spiritually harken back to simpler times, but certainly not to simple thoughts or trivial notions. Being one of the newer pieces on the album by one of the younger composers, I found myself wondering, warmly, pensively, if this composition might represent the positive result that an extended inclusiveness of personal music experiences can have on a composer’s creative freedom.
Wish Sonatine (2015), by Valerie Coleman, oddly alludes to times both past and present, containing a rare combination of a predominance of the dramatic atonality of David Sanford’s Klatka Still I and II with a teasing bit of the diatonicism contained in Allison Loggins-Hull’s Homeland, plus a peppering of populism interspersed throughout. At this point, having infrequently encountered the results of such an unusual compositional approach, I can only applaud its intrigue and adventurousness. There is certainly a story being told here, and a meaningful one at that, narrated in a fashion perhaps new to many classically trained ears. Truly a “no holds barred” approach to delivering the message. The piece invites further listening occasions to provide complete clarity of purpose.
Offertory I and II (2021) are additional offerings from composer David Sanford representing compositions written 12 years later than Klatka Still I and II. Unlike the other compositions, Offertory I provided a more prominent opportunity for the pianist to be featured. However, the piece’s overall effect was quite lugubrious, as one might feel crawling through a tight cavern, darkly and forebodingly. Offertory II, on the other hand, was quite a bit more dramatic, again driven, at times, by crisp ostinati, as occurred in Klatka Still II, suggesting either a formulaic approach on the part of the composer or, perhaps more advantageously, a desire to evolve familiar personal stylistic elements over time.
I certainly felt the power of the drive and drama, but at moments here and there felt a bit like I was in the midst of a film score, which I found to be at odds with my expectations. Still, Sanford’s compositional toolbox is clearly quite full and used to great advantage to provide a wide range of expression and persuasion. And a listener’s expectations can surely be subject to challenge on the part of a composer, for the benefit of the illumination such challenge can provide, can it not?
Anthony Barone, an historical musicologist and associate professor at the School of Music, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, does a marvelous job with the program notes supplied with the CD, outlining the qualifications, experience, and commitment to new music performance of both flutist Jennifer Grim and pianist Michael Sheppard, as well as providing additional insight to the background and experience of the featured composers plus additional perspective into their compositions.
Composers need performers to realize their vision. Performers need composers to illuminate their gifts. A piece may tell a story, express a purpose, or have a valuable message to convey. But every piece relies on the talents of its performers to provide substantiation, even when the situation requires the composer to become the composition’s sole performer.
Every composer on this excellent (and excellently recorded) CD has a significant voice to share. But without the skills and dedication of outstanding performers like Grim and Sheppard, the superb stories and messages provided by the voices of the composers featured on this CD could easily have been abandoned to disperse in the ether. ■
- Jennifer Grim: jennifergrim.com
- Micheal Sheppard: sheppardarts.com
- Tania León: tanialeon.com
- Alvin Singleton: alvinsingleton.com
- Julia Wolfe: juliawolfemusic.com
- David Sanford: davidsanford.org
- Allison Loggins-Hull: allisonloggins.com
- Valerie Coleman: vcolemanmusic.com