About this Recording
8.559619 - ZAIMONT, J.L.: Chroma: Northern Lights / Symphony No. 2, "Remember Me" (excerpts) / Stillness (Slovak National Symphony, Trevor)

Judith Lang Zaimont (b. 1945)
Chroma – Northern Lights • Ghosts • Elegy • STILLNESS


The music of American composer Judith Lang Zaimont is often cited for its immediacy, dynamism and palpable emotion. Her largest ensemble works especially capture her expressive strength, as in the four orchestral works here, each employing a wide, nuanced palette of instrumental colors used to clarify her characteristic rich and imaginative textures. Written over a span of more than two decades, the four works heard here center in common on Zaimont’s lifelong engagement with issues of memory and of artistic and personal heritage.

In Chroma – Northern Lights (1985) the changing patterns of light and color become a comparable musical display to the polar Aurora’s continual visual shift. Using altering meters, kaleidoscopic instrumentation and breaks of tempo the music is by turns atmospheric, lush, edgy and exuberant, restrained only by the smaller forces of chamber orchestra. Its rounded form (with a sharp off-kilter dance at the center) features a lyric three-bar melody heard several times, both complete and in fragment. Chroma was commissioned by the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra and later awarded First Prize in the Statue of Liberty Centennial composition competition.

Ghosts (2000) is one of three independent movements for large string orchestra composed near the turn of the millennium. Here Zaimont visits with six other composers, all commingling in a mercurial structure where one morphs into another in unexpected ways. The music is by turns bold, dissolving, distant or fresh while tonalities appear fully-formed only to be interrupted, or disappear into mist. Zaimont often divides the orchestra into more than its usual five standing string sections, incorporating two added violin soli throughout plus additional small solos from within each section. One of the composer’s personal motifs at times joins with those of her six congenial ‘ghost composer’ companions—Scriabin, Britten, Ravel, Berg, Christopher Rouse and Laurie Anderson.

Elegy (1998), another of the memory works for massed strings is plain in expression yet intensely felt. It unfolds in long arches supporting continuous song. Several semi-cadences (half-closes) lend an intentional British cast because the movement is dedicated to the memory of the composer’s aunt, Mildred Barrett- Leonard Friedman, who was of British heritage.

Symphony-length STILLNESS (2004) is an exotic “poem” for full orchestra written to explore means to progress over time without necessarily moving forward using traditional harmony and melody. It is the fruit of Zaimont’s study of the works of Morton Feldman and Frederick Delius, and her inquiry into how each manages the art of “staying in place” even as their music progresses. Consequently, its outward features combine Feldman’s quiet with the harmonically stagnant yet busy-surfaced textures characteristic of Delius, while the colorworld encasing these is quite Zaimont’s own. STILLNESS was written at Copland House during Zaimont’s residency there (a component of a 2003 Aaron Copland Award).

An equilibrium of threes unites the triptych’s three panels, slow–fast–slow, each panel claiming a particular register (high–low–high) and a distinct type of musical activity. Tonality operates by establishing a central pitch, specific in register, which orients and stabilizes its panel. Panels 1 and 3 interpret “stillness” as dappled quietude: Time here appears halted. Colorized veils grow, dwell, then dissolve one into the next as the orchestra “breathes”; tempo is a ribbon of steady-state flow, at times punctuated by nervous ripples which, however, soon dissipate. Phrases slowly drape downward from a high plateau then clear away upward as the principal pitch, G sharp, floats in treble.

Panel 2 contrasts with its neighbors, permitting the nervous undercurrent to dominate. Fast, highly pulsed, and centered on A natural in the bass, it interprets “stillness” as rapt readiness to act, holding immobile as if just before a pounce. Its fast beating stays in character for more than four unbroken minutes until, at the segue to Panel 3, a serenity of aspect and the layered exoticism of the opening are recovered. The original high G sharp returns with new veiling—at one point a soft cluster in violins and violas dilutes from bowed string into human hum; time again appears halted—and STILLNESS concludes with an upward dissolve to a single high harmonic.

Jeffrey W. James

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