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Flux Flummoxed: New American Music For Violin And Piano

Johnson / Hughes / Shepherd / Sung
Release Date: 06/11/2013 
Label:  Albany Records   Catalog #: 1422   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Derek JohnsonCurtis K. HughesChristian A. GentrySean Shepherd
Performer:  Benjamin SungJihye Chang
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews



FLUX FLUMMOXED: New American Music for Violin and Piano Benjamin Sung (vn); Jihye Chang (pn) ALBANY 1422 (72:41)


JOHNSON _fragments. HUGHES _insult to injury. GENTRY Flux Flummoxed. SHEPHERD Dust


Writing new music for the violin is a true act of faith on the Read more part of a contemporary composer. Believe me—I am a violinist, and I know lots of them, and 99 percent of them want to stick to the same sonatas by Brahms, Beethoven, Franck, and Mozart that the other 99 percent are playing. That’s why I write a lot of music for wind players, who are much more receptive to new music. Yet the violin is a beautiful instrument—my favorite of all instruments—and composers will continue to write for it as long as they and violinists exist.


Thus, Albany has presented us with a recital of new works for the violin by four young, intrepid, and highly talented composers. My description of “young” in reference to these composers is confirmed in the notes in the case of Hughes, whose birth year is listed as 1974, and my knowing Johnson. I am assuming it for the other two composers.


The first work heard here is by Derek Johnson, who did graduate work at Indiana University, where I got to know him (he was my “go to” guy, as I was beginning to learn the Finale music-writing system). I’d lost touch with him for a number of years, so I’m happy to read of his present work with the Bang on a Can Summer Institute, as well as his current composition faculty position at Ball State University. His fragments has been compiled from movements from other of his works for solo piano, voice, and chamber ensembles. Its opening movement (or “motto”) is a striking cascade of crystalline notes in the upper register of the solo piano, meant to portray the composer’s reaction to looking at stars. Other movements, “A Song of sorts (w/o words)” (gently and atonally lyrical), “Blues for Anton” (the composer’s tribute to Webern), “Fantasy” (a busier movement that generates considerable excitement), and “Liquidation” (given to insistent repeated chords in the bass, over which the violin has a quasi-improvisatory line), explore the ranges and timbres of the two instruments. I had to listen to the piece twice in quick succession to begin to fathom all that this inventive composer was bringing to my ears. Sudden interjections, undulating figures, pointillistic writing, and colorful effects, such as sul ponticello and harmonics, permeate this piece to produce an aural feast.


The insult to injury of Curtis Hughes follows, and (a hint to Albany) much too closely on the heels of the Johnson piece. The two composers’ styles are similar enough that it wasn’t at all obvious that one work had ended and another had begun. Hughes is on the composition faculty of the University of Boston, having studied at Oberlin College and Conservatory, as well as at the New England Conservatory, which honored him with its Outstanding Alumni Award. The composer describes this work as a “volatile mix of aggression and introspection,” and “perhaps my most emotionally naked piece of chamber music.” I cannot improve upon that description. The two-movement work is raw in its power and brutal in its emotional impact. Both of the instruments struggle to reach a pinnacle of intensity, and having successfully done so, subside into a calm resignation. Its first movement ends with the suggestion of a beating heart, probably achieved by damping the lower strings of the piano with the hand, and the second begins with an unexpected jig of sorts in the violin which is assaulted by dissonances in the piano. The composer’s unbridled imagination with such sorts of things keeps the listener’s interest level high throughout the course of the work.


The recital continues with a work by Christian Gentry with the interest-piquing title of Flux Flummoxed. The idea of the title seems to be derived from the composer’s desire to move in and out of stylistic boundaries. Along the way, he felt flummoxed by various ideas (interjecting gestures, sudden stillnesses, etc.), and the phrase “flux flummoxed” kept coming into his mind. Googling it, he discovered that it was a title of a paper given by Phil Stauffer, a hydro-geologist. I guess there’s no telling what one can find on Google—and thus the piece acquired its name. Its four movements include “Entropic March,” (sounding absolutely nothing like a march, except perhaps one that has undergone extreme entropic disordering to produce disjunct rhythms and gestures), “Momentum Perpetuum” (obsessively rhythmic throughout, utilizing much pizzicato and staccato chords), “Electrostatic” (slow and static), and “Flux Capacitor” (nervously energetic throughout). Gentry’s music has been performed and recorded by Canyonlands New Music Ensemble, Arsenal Trio, East Coast Contemporary Ensemble, and Juventas, among others, but there is scant biographical information about him in these notes otherwise. The music is what counts, though, and this piece is certainly a strong one. It is also the most tonally-centered work on the CD, although I wouldn’t really call it tonal.


The recital closes with Sean Shepherd’s Dust. Naturally, I was looking for the opportunity to make a pun along the lines of this work leaving the others on this recital in the dust, but I didn’t find one; maybe next time. In any case, Shepherd is the Daniel R. Lewis Composer Fellow of the Cleveland Orchestra, and is another graduate of Indiana University (I did not get to know him). He also studied with Stephen Stucky and Roberto Sierra at Cornell University. Dust was squeezed in between the composition of works for larger forces, and was originally intended as a two-movement sonata. However, the first movement turned out to be so long that its composer, after several unsuccessful attempts to add a second, has decided to let the piece stand as is. It features a soft extended section high up on the G string (the lowest string) of the violin, which provides a thick and tonally diffuse sound. Eventually, the violin lines cross over to the E string (highest and brightest) of the instrument, soaring to heights impossible on the G. A middle section contains gestures that nervously flit around a good bit, and the two instruments seemingly compete for the material that the composer provides. The piece ends quietly with a musical question mark.


Violinist Benjamin Sung is gratefully honored in this quarter as one of the 1 percent of violinists who is willing to explore, and superbly bring to life, new music. Three of the pieces on the present recital were written for him and pianist Jihye Chang, who is a most capable partner in these demanding works. Both artists reach all of the emotional heights required, and very convincingly (I have no recourse to scores for these works) meet all of technical demands. I can at least state that Sung’s intonation and tone production is impeccable. This well-recorded CD, containing brilliant performances of four superb works, is a winner all around and is strongly recommended to those who are interested in adventurous chamber music of our time.


FANFARE: David DeBoor Canfield
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Works on This Recording

1.
Fragments by Derek Johnson
Performer:  Benjamin Sung (Violin), Jihye Chang (Piano)
2.
Insult to injury by Curtis K. Hughes
Performer:  Benjamin Sung (Violin), Jihye Chang (Piano)
3.
Flux Flummoxed by Christian A. Gentry
Performer:  Benjamin Sung (Violin), Jihye Chang (Piano)
4.
Dust by Sean Shepherd
Performer:  Benjamin Sung (Violin), Jihye Chang (Piano)

Sound Samples

Fragments: Motto I. Star Music
Fragments: Motto II. Song of Sorts
Fragments: Motto III. Blues for Anton
Fragments: Motto IV. Fantasy
Fragments: Motto V. Liquidation
Insult to Injury: Tirage - Plateau - Retreat
Insult to Injury: Travesty - Cadenza - Epilogue
Flux Flummoxed: I. Entropic March
Flux Flummoxed: II. Momentum Perpetuum
Flux Flummoxed: III. Electrostatic
Flux Flummoxed: IV. Flux Capacitor
Dust

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