About this Recording
8.559660 - MELTZER, H.: Brion / Sindbad / Exiles (Cygnus Ensemble, Peabody Trio, Sequitur, Shirley-Quirk, Baker, Hostetter)

Harold Meltzer (b. 1966)
Brion • Two Songs from Silas Marner • Sindbad • Exiles


The four works on this disc are representative of a unique sensibility, a profound imagination, and an inquisitive musical mind, one quickened both by the things of the world and by a wide range of musics all too inaudible in today’s sonic landscape, among them the works of Franco Donatoni and the Stravinsky of Agon. Taken together Brion, Two Songs from Silas Marner, Sindbad and the song cycle Exiles constitute a virtual three-dimensional portrait of Harold Meltzer.

Composed in 2008 for the New York-based ensemble Cygnus, Brion is the most recent work on the program. Its impetus was a visit to the magical Brion-Vega cemetery, in the countryside east of Venice, designed by Carlo Scarpa in the early 1970s. The composer writes:

In the spring of 2005 I made a pilgrimage to the Brion-Vega sanctuary, Scarpa’s last work, in San Vito d’Altivole. The music describes, not in real time, but proportional time, the several hours I communed with its sculpted concrete walls, reflecting pools, and unexpected traces of bright primary colors. I explored much of it for an hour, took a break, then went back in for another spell, almost twice as long, seeing the things I hadn’t seen and retracing my steps to some of the places I’d seen before. Then after a second break I had a last look around. And that’s the form of the piece.

Three distinct sections, each carrying its own version of the ritornello with which the work begins and each cross-referencing elements from the others, trace our movement through this remarkable space. The cemetery itself rises so effortlessly from its setting, melding a recognizably modernist point of view with both materials and shapes that echo classical antiquity, that it confounds current notions of both modern and post-modern. The music does that, too, and it is here that Meltzer’s debt to Agon is most apparent. This is no retread, however, nor is it an eighties-style pastiche: like Stravinsky before him, Meltzer finds subtle and arresting textural combinations (the opening passage scored for piccolo in its lowest register becomes emblematic of the work as a whole) that serve to provide us with dazzlingly different views of a small set of musical materials. Like the physical environment that inspired it, the music moves through a series of juxtapositions that, while unanticipated, always feel integral. Commissioned with a grant from the Barlow Endowment for Music Composition, Brion was a Finalist for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize in music.

The Two Songs From Silas Marner were composed in 2000–01, one for Dora Ohrenstein and Greg Hesselink, the other for Mary Nessinger and Madeleine Shapiro. The two passages from George Eliot’s much over-assigned and hence overlooked masterpiece were chosen more for their resonance and transformation of imagery (the motion of the loom into the beating of the heart; the piles of gold into the handfuls of golden curls; the overall transformation of material treasure into love for a child) than for their inherent singability. It is a measure of the work’s success that its vocal lines render the texts with absolute clarity, finding in them a musicality not apparent on a casual reading. Meltzer dispenses with pointing our ear toward every poetic gesture, focusing instead on the repetitive action of the loom in the first song, and an erratic, emotive heartbeat in the second. These two kinds of physical motion create a context within which the voice is free to float, to explore, and finally to find the specific emotional gravity of the words. Voice and instrument converge in the luminous color of the whole; the physical actions in the text are experienced as interior, remembered, as felt rather than heard. Rather than a text-painted picture of the loom, the gold pieces, or the sleeping child, the piece gives us a window into Silas Marner’s heart.

A similar approach to text prevails in Sindbad, commissioned in 2003 by Meet The Composer for the Peabody Trio, on a short story by Donald Barthelme, though the words in this case are declaimed rather than sung. Works for narrator and ensemble often can seem perfunctory, existing uneasily in two worlds at once, the texts grafted onto a musical body that may reject them at any time. Meltzer’s response to these occupational hazards has been to treat the text as music, such that the voice flows freely into and out of the instrumental texture, the instruments following suit and pursuing the voice into its own realm, tracing its contour, imitating and re-shaping its sense of rhythm. The result is a seamless, at times hallucinatory, always dramatic presentation of excerpts from’s uniquely touching (and hilarious) portrait of a hapless community-college literature professor whose own personal mythology centers on the swashbuckling hero of Arabic folklore. As with the Silas Marner Songs the music rarely chases after the onomatopoetic. Instead, the pace ebbs and flows; the ghost of a waltz is heard; grotesque, galumphing gestures are passed between violin and cello as Sindbad plays tennis with two cyclopses; some semblance of a pop music that has never existed floats through as the students mock the professor during his first foray into daytime teaching. One of the work’s strangest, and most moving, moments occurs at the evocation of the yellow, sulphureous lights of the college parking lot at night. Taking the form of a gently polychordal chorale, framed by held notes in the violin and cello and yielding an unanticipated major triad at odd moments in the phrase, the passage is inexplicably haunting, giving us a sense both of the teacher’s loneliness and of the powerful magic that resides in his nighttime re-imaginings of the Sindbad tales.

Exiles confronts us with, by far, the darkest music on the disc. Completed in 2001 for tenor Paul Sperry, who commissioned the work, the piece makes use of two poems, one by Conrad Aiken and the other, drawn from a Chinese source, by Hart Crane, both called “Exile”. Meltzer writes, “Exile, for Aiken, is the absence of lifeblood, a denuded and bleached landscape. For Crane, it is intimacy denied, nocturnal, cold, bright.” The imagery in both poems is stark, astringent, and shot through with loss. Aiken conjures a place in which “…the men who live here / Are small and withered, spider-like, with large eyes” while Crane speaks of a love that only grows in separation, “starving and alone.” He concludes, “A dove’s wings cling about my heart each night / With surging gentleness…” There is in this music not a trace of melodrama, no anguished shrieks, no banging clusters. Meltzer sets up a chilly atmosphere of quiet longing right from the start, with the strings playing ponticello (on the bridge of the instrument) tremolos, intercut with sustained, piercing harmonics. The tone is hushed and elegiac, and remains so for the duration. The result is, as in the other vocal works on the program, an evocative space within which to hear the texts themselves, free of editorializing on the part of the music. The music does its job of illuminating and seeming to amplify the poems through an immaculately paced harmonic and textural progression from light to dense, high to low, static to pulsing (with repeated notes in the flute coming like exhausted breaths), and back again. On the surface this music may seem quite different in places from that of Brion, but give a listen to both pieces back-to-back. You’re hearing one persistent voice, very much in the process of becoming more and more itself.

Andrew Waggoner

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