, March 2008
‘Uncompromising in its modernity’ is the phrase I used in my recent review of works by Gloria Coates. That is certainly true of this disc of Carson Cooman’s piano music, nearly all of it written this century. But while Coates seems to take her cue from the avant-garde composers of the 1960s and 1970s Cooman’s influences are harder to discern. That said his sound-world – which includes the use of serial techniques – isn’t what you’d call instantly accessible; which is probably why this isn’t as ‘unashamedly pleasant’ as the disc of symphonies and other works reviewed by my colleague Jens F. Laurson (review).
I must confess to some surprise at the 26-year-old composer’s vast output – more than 600 works – but this also made me curious as to whether this was a case of quantity before quality. In particular I was intrigued to hear how Cooman would transfer the distinctive Orkney landscape of poet George Mackay Brown to Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, where Op. 466 was written. In this case the background detail adds little or nothing to the music itself. Maxwell Davies it isn’t, but there is an arresting spikiness to the writing that is hard to ignore. That said the turbulence is shot through with rays of lyricism – listen to that tolling melody that begins at 4:06 – and at times it’s strongly reminiscent of Debussy in marine mode, albeit refracted through the prism of Cooman’s own, 21st-century, sensibilities.
A surprisingly enjoyable appetiser, not quite as uncompromising as I’d expected. And I wasn’t prepared for the wry humour of the Kayser Variations either. Written for a retiring chemistry professor, one Margaret Kayser, this piece is a set of variations on God Save the Queen. Apparently part of Cooman’s method includes Periodic Table in-jokes, but as before this information is not essential to our enjoyment of the piece. It is perhaps a tribute to his training as an organist that Cooman handles these variations with such ease and fluency. But make no mistake he can make this grand old tune boogie and stomp when required. And surely there is a passing reference to Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals in the section that begins at 4:20?
Which brings me to the US-born pianist Donna Amato, who also teaches piano at the University of Pittsburgh. She has a formidable technique and certainly has no trouble with the more powerful, percussive elements of this music. The Naxos engineers have opted for a relatively close balance but the piano has plenty of weight and detail.
According to Cooman his Dream-Tombeau: Crucifixus ‘imagines the time that Jesus was in the tomb – between his death and his impending resurrection’. Reading the composer’s notes – not always as illuminating as I would have liked – there seems to be a musical-spiritual element to some of his writing, perhaps reminiscent of that other great organist-composer Olivier Messiaen. In this work of transformation Cooman makes use of a 12-note set, a chordal sequence and a quote from a Lassus motet. No doubt these elements are present and audible but the abiding impression of this piece is that it evokes a sense of timelessness with its long, sustained notes and sense of stasis. Be warned, the close miking picks up every sympathetic vibration from the piano. Still, it’s a strangely compelling piece.
Cooman’s kaleidoscope of colours and irregular rhythms also contribute to the Messiaen-like flavour of Crucifixus. But welcome shafts of lyricism pierce the dense clouds of dissonance, as at 5:20. And anyone familiar with the music of John Tavener might recognise the single notes struck like bells or Tibetan bowls, which bring a degree of spiritual intensity to the proceedings.
At 21 minutes Crucifixus is the longest piece on this disc and it does come close to outstaying its welcome. But whatever my reservations Cooman is clearly a composer with many faces. He can be whimsical in the Kayser Variations, rigorously academic in Crucifixus and genial in To Gwyneth and Postcard Partita, the latter a collection of vignettes for his friends. The former, a tribute to American composer Gwyneth Walker, is warmly expansive, quite at odds with Dream Etudes, which has more in common with the soundscape of Crucifixus.
Certainly ‘Reflections’ and ‘Ringing’ have strongly percussive qualities – lots of note clusters and manic trills – but sandwiched in between them are the marvellous, bell-like sonorities of ‘Singing’. And what a contrast with Partita, which has a generally relaxed demeanour. That said, Postcard to the North Country is brief but exhilarating, the most memorable piece in this delightful set of miniatures. A Summer Sunrise, with its carillons and dance rhythms, has a strong, improvisatory feel, as if the composer were sitting at the piano making music in good-humoured company.
Not so congenial is the Piano Sonata No. 4 which, despite its descriptive titles, finds Cooman in powerfully dissonant mode. Commissioned by and dedicated to Amato, this piece is the one that listeners may find hard to comprehend. There is none of that compensating lyricism, just a dark and impenetrable forest of note clusters and occasional bell-like sonorities. Cooman explains his method in the liner-notes but I imagine the average, reasonably enlightened, listener will probably find its ‘interlocking canonic structures’ and Chopinesque references hard to spot.
A mixed selection and a mixed bag, too. There is some spontaneous and memorable music-making here, and whatever my reservations about the more abstract – even cryptic – pieces Cooman is remarkably confident for a composer only in his third decade. This disc has certainly piqued my interest in his other works and that, surely, is what adventurous programming is all about.