SCHWENDINGER High Wire Act 1. Nonet2. Rumor 3. Sonata for Solo Violin4. Two Little Whos5 • 1BrightMusic; 2The Chicago C Musicians; 3Christina Jennings (fl); Read more class="SUPER12">3Greg Sauer (vc); 4Katie Wolfe (vn); 5Duo46 • CENTAUR 3098 (59:04)
The music of Laura Elise Schwendinger, Professor of Composition at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Director of the Contemporary Chamber Ensemble at that institution, is a far cry from what one might normally expect; and I say that not in the sexist sense of “women’s music” as it has come down to us through the centuries, but in the sense that not a single moment in her works sounds contrived, formulaic, or artificial. It is all very intensely and strongly “alive” in the sense that one cannot expect what comes next. Note follows note and phrase follows phrase in a remarkable journey of exploration that includes a great deal of risk-taking.
The title of this disc is High Wire Acts: Chamber Music by Laura Elise Schwendinger, and that is just about as appropriate a title as I can imagine. The opening work, written for a combination of flute, violin, viola, cello, and piano, focuses around the upper reaches of the first two instruments. Sparse, angular, often stabbing lines emerge and recede; at first, it sounds as if the music is setting a mood and nothing else; but eventually it dawns upon the listener that Schwendinger has a pattern, that this pattern has a meaning, and that despite the music’s sparse quality it develops in its own unique way. The second movement, titled “Tight-Rope Walker,” has a more “regular” meter and noticeable pulse, set mostly by the cello with occasional assistance from the piano, yet even here the music—and particularly the upper lines—are broken and jagged. Sharp outbursts from the flute introduce the third section, “The Aerialist,” while string tremolos from violin and viola provide an uncomfortable-sounding safety net. Sharp pizzicato figures on the strings and occasional sprinkles from the piano then disperse the net. Our aerialist is on her own; I hope she has a balancing rod to hold her steady! The imaginative listener can easily imagine what the next piece, “Trapped Bird in a Circus Tent,” sounds like. “Troupe Finale” almost sounds jolly, and conventional, by comparison with the music that precedes it.
Her Nonet, composed in 2003 on a commission from the Fromm Foundation, is her homage “to the exuberant tutti style writing of Bach’s Brandenberg Concertos and Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks.” Well, anyone who attempts to roll up Bach and Stravinsky together is all right in my book! My perception of Schenwinger’s style, by this point, was that although she uses and includes strings in her pieces, the sharply-etched contours of her music lend themselves more easily to the winds and piano. Once again, angularity of rhythm and what some listeners would perceive as “chaotic” harmony are hallmarks of her style. In the last movement we do indeed hear a relationship to Stravinsky, but for the most part I’d say that Schwendinger’s writing style owes something (perhaps unintentionally) to the aleatoric or “chance” tonality school. In fact, her audacious use of both harmony and rhythm inhabit a world somewhere in the midst of Webern, Segerstam, George Russell, and the two Monks (Meredith and Thelonious). She has a sense of melodic structure when she chooses, as in the central movement (Tenderly) of her Nonet, but more often than not she is most comfortable pulling the rug out from under our expectations. If you let yourself and your expectations go and immerse yourself in the spirit of her music, it carries its own inner logic and makes sense; but as soon as one attempts to analyze it—which can be done if you chose to—it loses its magnetic charm. It’s like the most exquisite and complex magic trick you’ve ever seen. A fellow-magician can tell you how it’s done, but perhaps when you know that, the surprise and the overall impact of the trick vanishes. That is the music of Laura Elise Schwendinger.
Rumor, the shortest piece on this disc at 5:25, is described as a “conversation” between flute and cello. Well, this is a very high-minded and intellectual conversation, starting with broken, repeated phrases in the cello, after which the flute plays a melancholy lament as answer. Eventually the two instruments, each in its own lamenting fashion, set up their dialogue in counterpoint, yet each instrument, remarkably, retains its own individual “voice.” This was the one piece that I thought closest in style to Leif Segerstam, whose own chamber music “speaks” in equally strange ways. Oddly, the counterpoint that Schwendinger introduces into this piece does not bring the conversationalists any closer together, but rather emphasizes their individuality. Eventually the counterpoint relaxes and disappears, the two instruments continue their strange dialogue in their mournful way, and then fade away to nothingness … drifting off, one supposes, into an imaginary sunset.
The Solo Violin Sonata (1992) is the earliest piece on this disc and, perhaps because of this or perhaps due to the inherently lyrical nature of the instrument, more melodic in character than any of the other pieces. Of course, this doesn’t mean that Schwendinger’s musical statements are uninteresting, or that they don’t morph or change; she seems constitutionally incapable of standing still in any piece she writes, or of lapsing into conventionality. Thus, in the first movement, the violin moves gradually from its “Lullaby Espressivo” into more angular lines, with pizzicato and spiccato effects to wake us up, eventually “wailing” in the upper register. Apparently, this lullaby has the effect of sending its listener into a nightmare! But Schwendinger knows, as even Stravinsky and Berg did, that at heart the violin is a lyrical instrument, and so the last part of the first movement relaxes again into lyricism, and the central Arioso is essentially quiet and expressive. In the last movement Schwendinger returns to her explosive, angular style, and she seems almost relieved to be back in her “home” environment.
Two Little Whos, in which Schwendinger combines the “lyrical” violin with the more “percussive” guitar, provides her with excellent musical ideas. What starts out as almost lyrical (at least, in the violin part) soon becomes one of her most abstract pieces, as single-note playing by the guitarist “feeds” the violin, though the latter instrument keeps trying to get the guitar to behave itself and go back to being a nice accompanying instrument. Well, of course you can guess by this time what happens—the violin fails in its task, the pizzicato guitar spurs the violin on to some wild high string tremolos, and in places it almost sounds like a wilder, more atonal version of the jazz dialogues between Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli.
This is an absolutely remarkable disc, which I highly recommend.
High Wire Act, for flute, violin, viola, cello & pianoby Laura Elise Schwendinger Performer:
Christina Jennings (Flute),
Amy I-Lin Cheng (Piano),
Katie Wolfe (Violin),
Matthew Dane (Viola),
Gregory Sauer (Cello)
Brightmusic (Chamber Ensemble)
Period: Contemporary Written: 2005 Date of Recording: 03/17/2007 Venue: Mills Hall, University of Wisconsin Scho Length: 13 Minutes 11 Secs.
Rumor, for flute & celloby Laura Elise Schwendinger Performer:
Christina Jennings (Flute),
Gregory Sauer (Cello)
Period: Contemporary Written: 2004 Date of Recording: 11/16/2005 Venue: Morris Pitman Recital Hall, Norman, OK Length: 5 Minutes 25 Secs.
Sonata for Violinby Laura Elise Schwendinger Performer:
Katie Wolfe (Violin)
Period: Contemporary Written: 1992 Date of Recording: 10/04/2006 Venue: Mills Hall, University of Wisconsin Scho Length: 15 Minutes 28 Secs.
Two Little Whos, for violin & guitarby Laura Elise Schwendinger Orchestra/Ensemble:
Period: Contemporary Written: 2006 Date of Recording: 10/04/2006 Venue: Mills Hall, University of Wisconsin Scho Length: 7 Minutes 17 Secs.
Average Customer Review: ( 1 Customer Review )
Wonderful and Colorful WorkJuly 24, 2013By R. York See All My Reviews"I was surprised when I first heard this recording that I had not heard of Schwendiger's music before as it is impressive. The writing for flute is especially effective and the colorful orchestration is wonderfully realized. The first piece on the recording is of her With Wire Acts, a delightful suite of short movements that we are told by the liner notes are inspired by circus figures, and indeed the imagery is well captured by Schwendiger. The three movement nonet, is vibrant and has a very lyrical middle movement. The violin work, duet for flute and cello and violin and guitar are somewhat different in tone but again well written and played beautifully. I find Schwendiger's music powerful and often touching. I recommend this recording to atone who likes Ravel, Stravinsky or Frank Martin. The music is terrific."Report Abuse