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Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Rory Cowal, Clusters, American Piano Explorations

Sometimes the world seems far from ideal these days, in terms of a breeding ground for the new, for the musical, for the creative. And over here in the US, perhaps on some levels things are even farther from perfection than they have been in some time. Yet new music, new recordings are continuing to come out, thankfully. And there is no shortage of good ones.

Today we have a chance to talk a little about the recent anthology album Clusters: American Piano Explorations (New World Records 80800-2). It consists of eight compositions for solo piano by seven American composers, played by pianist Rory Cowal. The period covered is fairly long, 1931-2018, or in other words much of the Modern Period. The works are either unheard or little known, or only now just written, with the "ink" still perhaps a bit damp. All in some way exemplify the kind of local iconoclasm of the titular Father of Modern American Piano Music, Charles Ives, though none sound exactly like they were written with his model in mind, as much as he might have had one. The composers here are determined to go their own way and they do.

There is a common thread to this music that seem best served by the subtitle term "explorations." That does not mean that the music was composed according to some set paradigm then current, or for that matter now-current. All undoubtedly are Modern in the sense of being melodically and-or harmonically less classical in some old-Europe way, though the influence may never be entirely absent as an assumption. But then "Jazz" might also be assumed at least some of the time. Some are a bit on the edgy side, some kind of home-spun without being self-consciously so. All are waywardly themselves, not orthodox in some channeled typicality. And expression seems upper-most on the agenda in this music. Nicely so.

So first off I am happy that the title work "Clusters" starts off the program. It's from 1931/36, in six short movements, written by Johanna Magdalena Beyer (1888-1944). It is confident music, well determined to be exploratory. But who is this? The liners tell us. "Clusters" was brought out of obscurity by Rory. He gave maybe only the second known performance of it in 2013. Beyer was an accomplished pianist who wrote a few piano suites and individual piano works we should probably hear all of. She was friend and pupil of the illustrious Henry Cowell, from whom she took the idea of complex dissonant simultaneities, "clusters." Nice.

I am very happy the anthology contains works by two pianists-composers who have been key figures in "Avant Jazz," namely Muhal Richard Abrams (1930-2017) and Kris Davis (b. 1980), the former the AACM giant, the latter emerging on the scene right now and a little before now.  Abrams' "Etudes Op. 1, No. 1" (2000) and Davis's "Eight Pieces for the Vernal Equinox" (2018) are well worth hearing and hearing, performed with dedication by Rory Cowal.

The same can be said for James Tenney's very brief "Variations in A (on a theme by my father)" (1955).

By the same token, all of this music seems pretty essential, far from superfluous. All of it is engaging and well-presented. And that includes additional works by Thomas Peterson (1931-2006), Daniel Goode (b. 1936), and two by David Mahler (b. 1944).

Everything is valuable and has the freshness of the unheard-by-most-of-us, perhaps all of us. There is not a note wasted. And Rory Cowal chooses well, then comes through with committed poetics. Bravo! Hear this. Do it. No fear.

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