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Friday, May 27, 2011

On Cold Mountain: Songs on Poems of Gary Snyder, by Karen Clark and Galax Quartet

Some ideas simply sound good from the beginning. An example: "Do an album of modern settings of the poems of Gary Snyder." Gary managed to evoke personal, natural and social imagery in a very Zen poetic manner, and it doesn't take a stretch to see that he would be a good choice for song treatment. But has anybody done worthwhile work in this area? The answer is yes.

On Cold Mountain (Innova 795) features settings by four (modern, obviously) composers and each piece is highly evocative. In the hands of contralto Karen Clark and the Galax string quartet, listening is a moving experience. Karen Clark has a very beautiful vocal instrument that she harnesses without undue pathos to the mystically concrete world of Snyder. The Galax Quartet evokes just the right combination of Americana-meets-Cosmicana these pieces bring to our ears and hearts. The results are magical.

And so what of the compositions? Some composers may be unfamiliar to most listeners. The music speaks to us, however, with directness and beauty. Fred Frith (usually known as an improvisational guitarist) turns in a mysterious yet homespun-sounding "For Nothing." Roy Whelden's "Cold Mountain Songs" are haunting. "The Bubble of a Heart" by Robert Morris has a little gossamer and a little modern grit. "For All" finds W. A. Mathieu with a six-song suite that is both declamatory and dramatically diverse, in a reflective and sometimes indignant mood-mode.

The total effect is considerable, lyrical yet tied to earth, filled with exquisite beauty yet also with an over-riding search for meaning in the everyday details of experience. The composers reflect the poet; the performers reflect both. The meld between poet, composers and performers is as close to ideal as you are going to find today. I'd say it's a masterpiece, but people who read blogs might suspect I am overpraising, as bloggers sometimes do. I am not. It's a masterpiece of its kind.

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