28 November 2016

BEST CONTEMPORARY MUSIC RECORDING OF 2016: Jeffrey Roden — THEADS OF A PRAYER, volume one (Solaire Records SOL1003-2)

BEST CONTEMPORARY MUSIC RECORDING OF 2016: Jeffrey Roden - THREADS OF A PRAYER, volume one (Solaire Records SOL1003-2)JEFFREY RODEN: threads of a prayer, volume oneSandro Ivo Bartoli, piano; Bennewitz Quartet; Szymon Marciniak, double bass; Wolfgang Fischer, timpani; Johannes Kronfeld, trombone [Recorded in Reitstadel, Neumarkt in der Oberpfalz, Germany, 20 – 22 May 2016; Solaire Records SOL1003-2; 2 CDs, 140:50; Available from Solaire Records and major music retailers]

Casting aside semantics and etymology, how does one really define music? It seems obvious enough: combinations of melody and harmony manipulated in specific ways produce music. What, though, does this truly mean? Patterns of notes, rests, dynamics, tempi, and key signatures make music of arbitrary lines and scribblings on a page, of course, but what makes music significant in an artistic sense is the way in which sounds transcend the mechanics of physics to become audible emotions. To hear sound is one of the most basic functions of being human, but to hear emotions is an essential tenet of humanity, one not possessed by all members of the species. Hearing threads of a prayer – volume one, Solaire Records’ new release dedicated to music by American composer Jeffrey Roden [volume two will be forthcoming in 2017], adds dimensions to the meaning of music in the simplest but most profound ways, asking each listener not to observe and react but to participate, to discern within his own experience the origins of each note, the places in the psyche from which the notes are ripped, still pulsating with life. This is music that speaks not in individual chords, bars, or phrases but in extended paragraphs, in great swaths of thought that seem neither to begin nor to end, and it cannot be played or discussed in conventional ways. As acknowledged in Tobias Fischer’s wondrously literate liner notes [his essay in lieu of a dates-and-facts biography of the composer is fantastic] and by Dirk Fischer’s immaculately-engineered acoustics, this is also music that must not be presented to the listener with the modern recording industry’s slick, assembly-line indifference. Like Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony and Schönberg’s Verklärte Nacht, the works on this first volume of threads of a prayer redefine music with insights as illuminating but ungraspable as sunlight. Like the touch of the summer sun upon one’s face, Roden’s music is as much felt as heard.

From the opening bars of the first of the twelve prayers that begin disc one, it is apparent that Roden is as gifted and communicative a composer for piano as Chopin was and that Italian pianist Sandro Ivo Bartoli is as keenly insightful an interpreter of Roden’s work as Artur Rubinstein was of Chopin’s. The splendors of Bartoli’s technique are never doubted, but spiritual virtuosity is the hallmark of his playing here. The rhythmic precision of his executions of Roden’s pieces is no less impressive or vital than in his previous Solaire recording of music by Franz Liszt, but, unlike the heartbeats that propel Liszt’s melodic lines, Roden’s rhythms are footsteps, cautiously placed but ambivalent. Are they the performer’s own steps, or is he retracing someone else’s? The prayers need no programmatic context, but they might be interpreted as abstract portraits of Christ’s apostles, each man in his turn revealed as a crumbling façade of ceremonial—and sometimes sanctimonious—faith behind which humor, doubt, anger, and pride lurk. Perhaps they are representatives of the dodecagonal tone row or the artificial calendrical divisions of a year. Subtly but slyly contrasted, the prayers are at once appeals to all and to no deities: nothing is either as pure or as putrid as it first seems, in life or in music, and these pieces sputter and sigh with half-told truths. Bartoli understands that striving to impose finite interpretations on the prayers would be to obstruct the connection between composer and listener.

The untitled 10 pieces that follow the twelve prayers are of a vastly different character but exhibit the same devotion to giving emotions audible essences that can be molded according to performers’ and listeners’ unique psychological identities. Bartoli’s pianism is here like a microscope, examining the individual particles of Roden’s musical molecules and revealing the stunningly beautiful landscapes within the stark tonal topography. Each of the ten pieces is its own microcosm, but they collectively function as a compelling entity, lodestars within a galaxy near enough to be perceived but too distant to be wholly scrutinized. Bartoli again fuses rhythmic tautness with elasticity of phrasing, maximizing the impact of each melodic unit without jeopardizing each piece’s structural integrity. There are very discreet allusions to sonata form in the interplay of principal subjects within and among the pieces. Bartoli is alert to every motivic device, emphasizing even the relationships intimated by measured silence. To assert that these pieces are not bountifully tuneful in the manner of music by Brahms or Dvořák is to overlook their greatest achievement: rather than overtly stated, their wealths of melody are suggested, cunningly inspired in the listener’s mind and therefore different for every pair of ears. Indeed, the pieces as recorded here seem to change with every hearing, a powerful testament to both Bartoli’s astonishingly skills as a musical storyteller and Roden’s creation of a musical language that is comprehensible regardless of the dialect with which it is delivered.

Conceived in homage to the late B.B. King, the passing of a king is equals parts elegy, raucous New Orleans jazz funeral, dialogue with a silenced voice, and coming to terms with an altered reality. It is said that imitation is the highest form of flattery, but Roden disavows that platitude with a tribute to a musical legend shaped not by quotations from his works but by reminiscences of the feelings evoked by King’s music. Whether or not his style is one’s proverbial cup of tea, it is impossible to steep in B.B. King’s music without surrendering to its propulsive energy. The same can be said of Roden’s the passing of a king and Bartoli’s playing of it. The pianist’s performance draws the listener into the embrace of the music, and the unaffected sincerity of the composer’s writing fills the listener with wistful recollections. Any musician should be honored to be so lovingly remembered by a colleague. This music reveals that the most exalted mode of flattery for an artist is serving as the foundation upon which other artists erect their own monumental works.

Composed for an octet comprised of two violins, viola, cello, double bass, piano, trombone, and timpani, the many latitudes of grief is a work of such deeply-considered emotional honesty that it sometimes seems too intimate for public performance, as though an exchange between confessor and sinner were conducted in music. Joined by Bartoli, double bass player Szymon Marciniak, trombonist Johannes Kronfeld, and timpanist Wolfgang Fischer, the musicians of Bennewitz Quartet—violinists Jakub Fišer and Štěpán Ježek, violist Jiří Pinkas, and cellist Štěpán Doležal—engage with Roden’s music not merely as professionals realizing their parts but as fellow travelers on the journey of coping with loss. There is perhaps no greater fallacy in modern psychology, especially in America, than the concept of closure. For all of society’s efforts at compartmentalization, life is not a book in which grief is written upon a page that is subsequently turned and forgotten. Just as the abundance or absence of water sculpts physical landscapes, torrents of grief carve recesses in human hearts, canyons that resound with reminders of voices that can only be heard in the memory—or, Roden discloses, in music. Wielded by Kronfeld with piercingly accurate intonation, the trombone startles, mourns, and consoles with equal force, and the piano and timpani form an unlikely confederation of safety and insecurity. Like the grieving process, nothing in the many latitudes of grief is predictable. Relative tranquility is interrupted by unexpected, unstoppable agony, and the paralysis of uncertainty suddenly gives way to the sure footing of even-measured acceptance. Like all of the pieces included on this pair of discs, this is groundbreaking, fresh music that nonetheless immediately sounds familiar. John Milton and William Styron wrote of ‘darkness visible’: in the many latitudes of grief, Jeffrey Roden wrote of darkness audible.

The differences between the untitled quintets #2 and #3 are as significant as they are understated, but Roden’s craft in the works on these discs is guided by making bold statements with delicate expressions. As performed here, the quintets capture the fleeting effervescence of champagne: they sparkle alluringly, ignite the senses, and are rapidly but satisfyingly consumed. Unlike many composers past and present, Roden was endowed with intelligence and sagacity that prevent him from lingering over even the most fecund of ideas. Not one concept is extended beyond the music’s inherent ability to sustain it. The quintets are Existential pieces, however. Each note has its own importance, and each note contributes to the cumulative impact of the music. The musicians comprehend and highlight this, often playing as though they were a single organism. Likewise, leaves for string quartet is magically played by the Bennewitz Quartet, the shifting textural profiles of the music given unanticipated dimensions that expose the skillfulness of Roden’s part writing like complex stitchwork held under a magnifying glass. Listening, one feels the pierce of the needle, the pull of the thread, and the exhilaration of gaps closing. These are not works to be heard passively: like the heroine’s ribbon in Claude Berri’s film Manon des Sources, these works become affixed to the listener, not like garments slipped on but like appendages that grow with every subsequent sound.

When writing about a composer’s work, especially that of one whose compositions are not yet familiar like Beethoven’s symphonies and Chopin’s nocturnes to virtually every listener apt to be interested in them, comparisons with other composers are tempting and sometimes helpfully informative. To state that a Vivaldi opera is like a Händel opera without the flashes of emotional insight is to provide the curious reader with a point of reference from which to launch an exploration of his own. The composer who denies having been influenced by fellow tunesmiths cannot be trusted, but comparing Jeffrey Roden’s music to that of any other composer in any genre would be a disservice to this artist and the originality of his work. Composition cannot be a vocation for Roden, something that he pursues at certain hours and in certain places, jotting down notes like the minutes of a meeting between himself and his muse. No, music must be second nature for Roden, an alternate comfort zone in which he contemplates, reasons, and dreams. As our world continually invents new means of communicating, we forget how to listen, how to truly hear and absorb the confounding cacophony that engulfs us. With the pieces on this first volume of threads of a prayer, all superbly performed, Jeffrey Roden reminds us that there is music even in our most unassuming thoughts and actions. We need only switch off our devices, silence our tongues, and let music happen.