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Monday, September 14, 2015

Song Cycles, Composers Concordance, Pritsker, etc.

Modern classical contemporary song cycles are perhaps among the least integrated forms within the received general culture out there. That's so as compared with the symphony, or even some forms of chamber music, solo piano coming to mind. Or at least that's my impression. Song cycles remain more or less firmly a part of the "high culture/low culture" dichotomy, as part of the former, though there's no inherent reason why they should be considered "elitist" in any set way. Anyone with a musical ear can appreciate them, I think, at least the good ones.

Composers Concordance, both a label and an institution, has taken an iconoclastic stance on the high-low division. Their new anthology Song Cycles (Composers Concordance 0029), contains some of those good song cycles, and for all that does not overtly set out to break down the division in this case, but along the way does not advocate either a "purist" or an "elitist" stance on the matter either, instead giving us music written in the present tense, incorporating whatever high-low elements that seem needed for a particular cycle. So for example Gene Pritsker's four-movement "Music from an Airport Bar" brings in blues-jazz elements both lyrically and musically. Is that a "low" element? No, of course not, but on the other hand it still seems meaningless when you take account of the whole of that cycle and how it comes across, which is convincingly. Like Gene's recent opera.

There are six cycles included in the anthology, with "Carefully Try Balance" broken into three parts, each taken by a different composer: David Gotay, Zach Seely, and Thomas Carlo Bo, respectively. The rest of the cycles have a single composer each, Pritsker as mentioned but also Patrick Hardish, Luis Andrei Cobo, Eleanor Cory, and Lester Trimble.

All are contemporary-modern sounding without being in any way formulaic. All of course feature a singer, sopranos for the most part, but also a tenor-baritone (for the Pritzker cycle). A piano accompaniment is central to four of the cycles; "Carefully Try Balance" adds a flute part; Lester Trimble's "Four Fragments from the Canterbury Tales" uses flute, clarinet and harpsichord as instrumental accompaniment (the Circadia Ensemble).

The vocal parts are generally quite well sung, though on occasion the use and width of the vibrato for the soprano seems like it could be lessened productively.

At any rate these are song cycles that withstand close, repeated listening and hold together as significant and pleasurable compositions.

It may not be the record of the year but it holds a worthy treasure of new music from the Composers Concordance group. Anyone with a penchant for post-romantic song cycles with find this a welcome addition. It undoubtedly captures a moment in what is happening on the US scene, and does it memorably.

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