About this Recording
8.559612 - MOE, E.: Strange Exclaiming Music / Teeth of the Sea / Rough Winds Do Shake the Darling Buds / I Have Only One Itching Desire / Market Forces

Eric Moe (b. 1954)
Strange Exclaiming Music


Of his saxophone trio Rough Winds Do Shake the Darling Buds, Eric Moe writes: “The title has to do with the contrasts between the beautiful quiet music (the mournful alto solos in the second movement, for example) and the rough, raucous stuff. One of the things I love about the saxophone is its ability to deliver such extremes of expression.” Those extremes and others are part and parcel of Eric Moe’s distinctive compositional alchemy. He has fashioned a unique musical language of rare eloquence, grace, force and beauty from what might at first seem the most incongruous of elements, drawn variously from pop, rock, jazz, classical and non-Western musical traditions. His idiom can be edgy and gritty, primal, elemental and visceral, yet is at least as often tender, lyrical and elegiac. It frequently gives off a feeling of spontaneity and effortlessness, as well as a sense of humor that can be gentle and whimsical or mordant and sardonic. Whichever of these aspects comes to the fore at any given moment, Eric’s music is unfailingly and exquisitely controlled in all of its technical particulars: melody, harmony, rhythm, orchestration and form. And while his music may draw crucial sustenance—including many of its salient surface features—from such wide-ranging sources as the virtuoso pianism of Bud Powell, the traditions of African drumming and the Jimi Hendrix Experience, he also loves, reveres and has found essential nurture in his extensive and intimate knowledge of the classical repertory, particularly of works by two of his musical icons, Mozart and Stravinsky. The former provides object lessons in clarity, proportion and formal elegance, and the latter contributes a rhythmic vocabulary of surpassing suppleness and vigor, as well as a spikiness and piquancy born of a more angular melodic approach. The influences of these two past masters do not merely interact with and complement the vernacular elements in Eric Moe’s music, but meld with them, enhance and are enhanced by them. He is able to find the commonalities among these different musical worlds, and what emerges from his discoveries is a seamless unity, which the ear never questions.

Market Forces (2005) is an exemplar of all of the characteristics outlined above. Its obsessive first movement is inflected with bebop, and yet is cast in a concise classical sonata form that recalls both Mozart and Stravinsky, particularly such works as the latter’s Symphony in C and Ebony Concerto. The genius of this is that structure never becomes stricture; it is never worn on the sleeve and could easily go unnoticed on first hearing, but its governance somehow affords the jazzy elements free rein. The slow movement, with its plaintive writing for soprano sax and modal harmonic language, can easily encompass a breathtakingly lovely Debussyan harmonic twist a few bars from its conclusion. The final movement returns to the expressive world of the first, and also confirms an overall tonal center of C sharp minor.

Rough Winds Do Shake the Darling Buds, while sharing a number of surface characteristics with Market Forces, including its crazed roulades, insistent rhythmic patterns, and even its overall tonal center of C sharp, is also subtly different from the later piece in a few respects. Apart from the slightly leaner texture of three saxophones rather than four and the absence of the distinctive timbre of the soprano sax, there are formal distinguishing features as well. Most notable among these is the fact that more extreme contrasts of tempo and expression occur within each movement (particularly the second) of Rough Winds than is the case with Market Forces. Composed in the summer of 1999 at the request of the Raschèr Saxophone Quartet, the work bears a dedication to the composer Lee Hyla. Eric Moe describes the first movement as “energetic and taut in a Stravinskian vein.” It also contains spare, lyrical duets for the alto and tenor saxes, and ends in a somewhat inconclusive manner, the opening repeated-note motive seeming to dissipate its energy, leaving behind only a bare open fifth. That ending is a harbinger of things to come, as the raucous, obsessive music that begins the second movement alternates with the hollow, austere beauty of a doleful alto melody, set off by slow drones in the lower two saxes. The movement drives to its close with a metrically reinterpreted version of its opening music, now in a fast, gigue-like tempo.

The name Teeth of the Sea (2003) literally translates the phrase Denti di Mare, which the composer informs us served as the title of the Italian release of the motion picture Jaws. Though neither that film’s subject matter nor its soundtrack is invoked in Eric Moe’s work, he admits to having “the breathtaking fierceness of the natural world in mind,” adding that “the work is virtuosic throughout.” Besides the considerable demands on the executant, Moe’s compositional virtuosity consists in achieving the maximum variety possible in a work for very limited forces: two different sized drums of indefinite pitch played by a single percussionist. This variety is ensured by means of exploiting various playing techniques, including hand damping, slapping, use of the fingers and other parts of the hand, and producing harmonics to subtly change the pitch of the drums. The piece, commissioned by the percussionist Michael Lipsey, is cast in a tripartite form, its middle section exploiting the quieter, more delicate sonorities available on these instruments. In addition to Michael Lipsey, the composer acknowledges the help of the Montana Artists Refuge, where he composed the work, Anne Appleby, for loaning him her conga drums, and “the rainbow and cutthroat trout of the Missouri, Blackfoot, and Madison rivers, who provided ample inspiration in the form of breathtaking fishy fierceness.”

For down the stream, merrily (2002) again the composer provides an epigraph, this time a line from Wilhelm Müller, set by Franz Schubert in his song cycle Die schöne Müllerin:

Ich hört ein Bächlein rauschen…
(I hear a little brook rushing along…)

Of this little gem Moe writes: “Neither Row, row, row your boat nor the Schubert song is quoted musically, but this short piece seems to bubble along as they do.” Composed for Steve Paysen and Dominick Donato, in the summer of 2002 at the Montana Artists Refuge, down the stream, merrily does indeed bubble along, and like the flowing brook picks up intriguing particles along the way, in this case new notes foreign to the original scale. These accumulate to the point that the original tonal center is blurred, but they are ultimately jettisoned as the stream returns to its initial pristine state and moves on.

I Have Only One Itching Desire (2006), illustrates the exquisite balance between spontaneity and control that is at the heart of Eric Moe’s aesthetic. The main stimuli for this work are the playing of Mitch Mitchell, drummer for the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and the West African drumming tradition. The title is a line from Jimi Hendrix’s song Fire, and Mitchell’s main drum lick from that record becomes a catalyst for much of the piece. Mitchell, while one of the greatest drummers in the history of rock music, came from a strong jazz background and was heavily influenced by such legends as Elvin Jones, Philly Joe Jones and Art Blakey. That foundation afforded him a greater capacity for subtle soloistic interaction with his bandmates than was the norm for rock drummers of the period. This more sophisticated degree of rhythmic interplay also has affinities with the interlocking and overlapping pulses of West African music. Moe’s work is scored for an imposing ensemble comprised of six percussionists. His deployment of these forces, however, is extraordinarily adroit and economical. The “master drummer” in this case (Percussion I) is placed behind what essentially is a trap set, and each of the other percussionists is assigned a limited number of instruments, the most strikingly colorful of which—the Chinese opera gongs, for example, with their amazing pitch bending capabilities—are held in reserve until just the right moment to ensure maximum impact. The individual sections of the piece build logically upon each other and toward an inexorable and thrilling conclusion. I Have Only One Itching Desire is dedicated to Paul Vaillancourt and was commissioned by the Carson McCullers Center for Writers and Musicians for the Percussion Ensemble of Georgia State University at Columbus, Georgia.

Flex Time (2006) is described by its composer as “a merry quasi-perpetuum mobile.” Curtis Macomber commissioned the piece and gave the première in June 2006 at the Institute and Festival for Contemporary Performance (IFCP) at the Mannes School of Music in New York City. Flex Time gets an amazing amount of mileage out of its principal figure, which cycles through a number of different incarnations, touching on various tonal centers, interrupted by perfectly placed long tones and occasional rests.

Strange Exclaiming Music (2004)

Long since the happie dwellers of these vallies,
Have praide me leave my strange exclaiming musique,
Which troubles their daye’s worke, and joyes of evening…

—Sidney, “Ye Goatherd Gods”

Truly one of his most superbly realized works, Strange Exclaiming Music embodies several essential aspects of Eric Moe’s compositional art. Of it he writes: “Strange Exclaiming Music was written for violinist Curtis Macomber, and composed in 2004. The title comes from the great double sestina in Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia. The opening movement, Rhyme Does Not Pay, plays with anticipation on various levels; the two instruments are out of synch throughout, beginning and ending their music at slightly (or sometimes impressively) different times. This asymmetry is reflected at a metric level as well: following a mixed-meter opening, the music comes close to settling down in duple or triple time, but never quite gets there. Not so in subsequent movements: the fiery Alla Breve is relentlessly in cut time (as per the title), loaded with anticipations and syncopation, while The Sorbet of Regret is a slow, palate-cleansing 3/4 aria.”

In this wonderfully passionate and compelling work Eric Moe’s infinitely pliable harmonic language obviates any need to re-fight the culture wars over tonality and atonality. At the outset of the first movement he has the violin playing first an A major triad, then A minor. The piano finally enters with a member of the prevailing A minor chord, but instead of an A (the root of the chord) in the bass, it is sounding an E. This position of the chord—traditionally considered dissonant in tonal music—is a destabilizing factor, as is the music’s seeming inability to settle on a mode. Add to this the asynchronous nature of the individual phrasing of the two instruments and one can easily find common ground between tonal and non-tonal musical materials. Near the end of the movement there is a varied recap of the opening music, with the roles of the violin and piano interchanged. The same A major triad, in the same unstable position as at the beginning, lends a disturbing, unsettled quality to the final bars. The relentless and metrically stable second movement is less obviously tonally centered, but near its conclusion finds momentary security in a bracing E major harmony. Ultimately the center will not hold, the former agitation crashes back in, and the ending seems to break apart, its shards flying. The Sorbet of Regret is in many ways the most masterful (and certainly the most economical) movement of the entire piece, based almost solely on the alternation of the skeletons of two basic harmonies, which seem to suggest G-sharp major and C-sharp minor. The ambiguity arises with regard to which of them is actually the tonic harmony of the movement; depending on how one is listening at a given moment, either one might be heard as a center. The counterweight to all of this is a much greater degree of rhythmic stability than has heretofore been in evidence, and because there is nothing extraneous, every gesture tells, particularly the changes of register in the violin. The first time the richness of the G string is heard, for example, the effect—partly because there are no really low notes heard in the piano—is nothing short of magical. There is a sense of coming full circle at the very end, with the final A minor harmony, its tones spread so far apart in range as to seem unfettered from any familiar context. This time, however, the effect is not disturbing, but beautifully serene.

Hayes Biggs © 2007

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