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Friday, December 19, 2014

Paul Osterfield, Sound and Fury, Chamber Music

Perhaps the thing that most perplexes the novice listener to high modernist music (and advanced jazz, for that matter) is a puzzlement about affect. Pop songs have lyrics that tell you often enough how to feel. And the romantic era utilized affect codes at times, especially when the music was programmatic, that gave you often enough a range of emotional states you could pin onto the sounds, especially in opera. Minor key is sad, Beethoven's Fifth is about fate (or is it really?), Requiems, lost love, etc. It was always pretty clear where affect in La Boheme could be found, though that's perhaps a more extreme example than the norm. Not that it was always all that simple but a listener who needed some immediate grasp on feeling in the music could generally lock onto something pretty quickly, whether or not it did full justice to the music and what it "meant."

High modernist music is generally a complex response to the modern age we live in. The music in a way makes a representative model for all the complexities and complications of the industrial and perhaps post-industrial worlds we experience, getting stuck in traffic queues day-after-day to go to jobs connected to a whole in complex and often enough in unclear ways, being in one's home space and experiencing the various technologies that both simplify and make complex our recreational lives....being subject to authoritative force without necessarily being able to identify those driving all of it....Nothing about modern life is exactly simple, and the modernist musical experiencing of it both models it all and gives out with a complex affect that is often deeply ambiguous and not always a matter of clarity.

What puzzles or irritates the novice is what perhaps most interests the confirmed listener. One does not seek to label every passage with x or y feeling, though sometimes there may be something thematic about the music that does that regardless--in the religious music of Messiaen, for example. But even then the complexities express a complex of affect that does not in all its fullness give you a simple feeling key. Late Romanticism often enough had those complexities--a Mahler symphony can be a bundle of feelings expressed at times obliquely. But high modernism is also often enough an abstraction, with real life in there somehow, but not in any literal, monolithic way.

So we turn today to an anthology of high modern chamber music which by its title seems to give us a key to affect. Sound and Fury (Navona 5978) it is named, a worthy grouping of four compositions by Paul Osterfield. The album is titled after the piano trio that leads off the program. The music there is quite declamatory, dynamic, perhaps at times filled with a generalized "fury"--at times a complex of direct hits in a boxing match with inertia, perhaps. But Osterfield is no literalist, so the fury here is not especially referential to something outside as much as it is a part of the internal musical workings of note-against-note and note-with-note. After all, and this is key, Shakespeare has one of his characters tell us that life is a "tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." So in a way the music is about the complexity of meaninglessness as we experience it today, perhaps.

A little bit about Osterfield: he was born in Nashville in 1973, began playing the cello early-on and gradually turned to composing. He studied with Donald Erb among others, composing as he went and earning the various degrees that enable him to teach (at Middle Tennessee State University) while he continues to build his reputation and output as a composer of note.

The four works here sound quite good, thanks to the excellent abilities of the Blakemore Trio, pianists Caleb Harris and Lynn Rice-See, violinists Michael Jorgensen and Andrea Dawson, and Angela DeBoer on horn. They realize the music with care and feeling.

All four works have a dynamic charge, a full into-the-fray sort of excitement. They tend toward the outer edges of tonality and beyond. And the works each have a sort of individual stamp to them which is in part a matter of instrumentation, and as much or more a product of Osterfield's high inventive imagination. So we get the piano trio driving our attention with "Sound and Fury," the virtuosic clout of the "Etudes for Piano, Book 1," the abstraction in sound for violin and piano which is quite well done and fitting to the subject matter in "Kandinsky Images," and the concretely whispy, sometimes folksy modern matter-of-factness of violin, horn and piano on "Smoky Mountain Autumn."

There is much to explore here and the explorations pay off with an ever heightening appreciation for the highly wrought, master craftsmanship and art in the pieces. Osterfield is a modernist natural. This music shows a ready brilliance of sorts that comes off convincingly as no mere exercise in advanced sound, but with an organic centered quality that shows the sure hand of a composer of talent. Affect? It is here. This is music with feeling, but not simply so.

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