, August 2011
It is not every day that the publicity blurb for a CD opens with a quotation from Jean-Jacques Rousseau (“Anger produces menacing sounds. But the voice of tenderness is softer”), or any other philosopher for that matter. For the same disc to also offer the chance to hear what nipple gongs sound like, and more importantly music—let alone a work for percussion—written by a composer at the age of 100, the curiosity rating is almost off the dial. Yet this latest addition to the gargantuan ‘American Classics’ series from Naxos offers just that, and more: five medium-sized, mainly 21st century works by mature US composers for various combinations of often exotic percussion.
Elliott Carter’s Tintinnabulation was commissioned by the New England Conservatory and first performed in 2008. It consists of three main sections, for unpitched wood, metal and finally ‘skin’, with each of the six percussionists assigned one or more instruments—of which there is an amazing array—from each grouping. The work is typical Carter, best described as an orgy of tone colour, with few concessions to the unexpecting listener even in his ‘late’ period!
England-born Peter Child’s Refrain is another NEC commission, again for six percussionists, but this time with a considerably downsized arsenal, mainly wood and metal. The meaning of the title is not clear from the music, but this is a rhythmic, approachable piece with some inventive contrasts in colour and dynamics especially.
Edward Cohen’s Acid Rain introduces a pair of pianos with imagination, enriching the texture of the two glockenspiels, vibraphones and chimes. The overall effect of the piece is of drive and noise and excitement—not what anyone would normally call “clangorous”, but the Naxos blurb does—as well as a fair amount of repetition, but without resort to lazy minimalism. Memorable.
Back to six percussionists for John Harbison’s three-movement Cortège, and a third commission by the NEC. Written in memory of Harbison’s friend, the composer Donald Sur (1936–99), Cortège is another battery of exotic sounds, one of which, the conch, is not even percussion. The piece is enigmatic rather than melancholic or morbid, and has an improvised feel about it that adds to rather than subtracts from the interest.
Finally, Fred Lerdahl’s innovative work, The First Voices, for eight percussionists and soprano, mezzo-soprano and alto, provides—possibly—the justification for the trite opening quotation by Rousseau, whose long-winded Essay on the Origins of Languages (not “Language”, as printed in Lerdahl’s liner note) posited the co-evolution of music and language. Yet another NEC commission, The First Voices is a striking mixture of forceful percussive rhythms from Africa and contemporary American singing.
The NEC Percussion Ensemble turn in fine individual performances under the redoubtable Frank Epstein, as do the three female voices. Sound quality is generally excellent, the only exceptions being a few mysterious, barely audible clicks about halfway through Tintinnabulation, the older recording of Cohen’s work, which is a bit flatter, and the sudden appearance of background hiss in the final movement of Cortège. The editing could have been better: after fading to silence, the very ends of tracks contain a momentary ‘flare-up’ of volume indicating the imminent start of the next work.
Percussion sections often get a poor deal in CD booklets, but in this case every instrument used for however short a time is listed in some detail, and there is almost certainly something there for everyone to look up, from the guiro, guica and rain stick, to the lion’s roar, temple block and darbouka!