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Maurice Saylor: The Hunting Of The Snark - An Agony In Eight Fits; New Music For Vintage Silent Film Comedies

Saylor / Cantate Chamber Singers / Becker
Release Date: 09/27/2011 
Label:  Naxos   Catalog #: 8572685   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Maurice Saylorphil carluzzoAndrew Earle Simpson
Conductor:  Gisele Becker
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Cantate Chamber SingersHolton-arms Lower School ChorusSnark Pit Band,   ... 
Number of Discs: 1 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

Even more fun than del Tredici’s Alice pieces.

David del Tredici must be kicking himself. There he is, casting around for yet another Lewis Carroll verse to set to music; and here comes Maurice Saylor, taking the most substantial of all Carroll’s poems and running away with it. Carroll’s “Agony in Eight Fits” is a tour de force of comic narrative verse, with an undertow which implies allegory but which Carroll denied had any meaning at all. Actually what Saylor sets here is not the whole of Carroll’s 141 stanzas, in fact rather less than half of them; and it is with his employment of the text that the main problem with this disc arises. Saylor sets the texts he does use for chorus, and the whole point of his
Read more wittily syncopated setting is lost if we cannot understand what the chorus is singing about. Although the accompanying booklet finds room for two pages of the composer’s musical analysis (actually very valuable) and a complete list of all the members of both choirs taking part, there is no text provided. The Naxos website is no help either.
 
In order not to discourage potential listeners – and they should be encouraged, for this is thoroughly worthwhile music – I will itemise the sections of Carroll’s original text which Saylor omits. It can be downloaded from other sources. He sets the whole of Fit the First describing the landing and the members of the Bellman’s motley crew. From Fit the Second he omits stanzas 2-7 and 10-13. He sets the whole of Fit the Third uncut. From Fit the Fourth he omits stanzas 2-6 and 9-17. From Fit the Fifth he omits stanzas 10-26 - incidentally making nonsense of its title The Beaver’s Lesson since the whole of the passage describing the hilariously abstruse instruction given by the Butcher to the Beaver is missing. He omits altogether Fit the Sixth and Fit the Seventh, substituting instead two very short movements entitled “Brief Snarkestral Outburst”. Then he sets the whole of Fit the Eighth uncut. The description of the piece on the back of the CD describes Carroll’s poem at a “nonsense text” – but in fact some Saylor’s omissions come close to destroying what is in fact a very carefully and logically worked-out plot. The logic may be nonsense, as it is so often in the Alice books; but Carroll’s nonsensical logic was after all the work of a mathematician. He was always careful to make it cogently plausible.
 
What really matters here is what Saylor does with the remaining verses which he does set. What he does is really good fun. The words are always treated with care and a sense of their meaning. There are two very brief passages for solo voices; otherwise all of the text is given to the chorus. They are given real lines to sing with a good sense of what voices can and cannot be expected to do in putting across meaning. The orchestra is a riot, made up of all sorts of miscellaneous instruments which the composer describes as “rejected by society at large and people of good taste and common sense”. This collection of multifarious winds, keyboards, accordions, banjo, harmonica (the mouth-organ type, not the glass harmonica) and a solitary amplified violin should come across as a collection of ill-assorted specialists hardly on speaking terms with one another. In fact they cohere splendidly without ever losing their own quirky characteristics. The music itself, which the composer subjects to some extremely strict technical analysis (with music examples) in the booklet notes, is obviously very carefully worked out. That said, it never ever loses its sense of good humour. In his note the composer says: “I warn you, the first couple of minutes are a bumpy ride.” The warning is totally unnecessary. The opening ‘Snark’ theme is a corker whose wavering between major and minor comes across as a perfectly natural theme which you will find yourself whistling for days if you are not careful. David del Tredici’s Alice pieces are often great fun – but this is even more so.
 
The fill-ups on this disc are just that: fill-ups. They are all pieces written for performance at showings of silent movies. The piece by Saylor is a set of variations on Pop goes the weasel – oddly enough, a very close relative of the ‘Snark’ theme which opens that work. The other two pieces are really jazz rather than classical pieces, and highly enjoyable although hardly original.
 
Saylor himself plays a number of reed instruments in the silent movie pieces. The players of the Snark Ensemble obviously thoroughly enjoy themselves. So do the choirs in the main work. They make what is clearly some quite tricky choral writing sound not only easy but delightful. Two solo singers with very short parts are drawn from the choir and are adequate to their contributions. From the advertisements inside the booklet for other discs in their catalogue Naxos clearly regard this as a children’s record. One would suggest that Saylor’s Hunting of the Snark is a work of more seriousness than that categorisation would infer.
 
The booklet gives no dates of composition for any of these works. Those given above have been compiled from a number of different sources on the internet, where you can also find a clip from Stolen goods with Phil Carluzzo’s music.
 
-- Paul Corfield Godfrey, MusicWeb International

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Mention of contemporary musical treatments of Lewis Carroll’s writings immediately brings to mind David Del Tredici’s obsessive and mostly nostalgic Alice-inspired compositions. However, as much as I have enjoyed those, I must say that Maurice Saylor, a composer previously unknown to me, has trumped Del Tredici in sheer imaginative matching of nonsense music to nonsense words. Both Carroll’s epic silliness, The Hunting of the Snark: An Agony in Eight Fits, and Saylor’s setting of large portions of it for Snarkestra, chorus, and children’s choir are cleverly crafted works of their genre, which simply lack the usual courtesy of making sense. That of course is the genius of the verse and the reason that this setting is so much fun.

Maurice Saylor is a Washington, D.C.,-based composer and performer, though by day he is a mild-mannered music librarian at The Catholic University of America. He has been the composer-in-residence for the Cantate Chamber Singers on two occasions, and it was for them that he wrote The Hunting of the Snark in 2004. The original idea was to write for the chorus and chamber orchestra, but, as he explains in his notes, “It struck me that a traditional orchestra would be too straight-laced for Jubjubs and Boojums.” Del Tredici came to the same conclusion with Alice, augmenting conventional ensembles with saxophones, banjos, and accordions. Saylor goes one better and writes for a “pit-band” made up only of “instruments reviled by society at large and rejected by people of good taste and common sense.” These include the same exotic instruments Del Tredici uses as supplements, plus bass versions of the accordion and saxophone, almost every other woodwind, harmonica, amplified violin, a battery of tuned percussion, and a washtub. The result is a truly amazing array of colors; an ensemble that is eccentric, sometime hilariously perverse, and deliciously supportive of Carroll’s witty text.

Thousands of words of learned prose have been published speculating on what that text means, however much Carroll maintained that he had no allegorical intent. The rather academic controversy will not be resolved here, but in nonsense or parody (conscious or otherwise) there is meaning and beauty of expression to be found. Of course, one has to understand the words to appreciate this, and while the diction of the chorus is generally excellent, the backward placement of the singers and the intensity of the accompaniment—not to mention the strangeness of some of the language—make the verse hard to follow. Unfortunately, there is no text supplied, neither in the booklet nor on Naxos’s website. There are, of course, free-access copies online, but following one of those reveals the other problem: the text is heavily cut. In fact Saylor used only 64 of the poem’s 142 verses. No doubt 46 minutes seemed long enough, but lost are many of Carroll’s likely allegories: the Bellman’s blank map and the journey, the elaborate and absurd preparations to do battle with the Snark, the second threefold repetition of a statement as evidence (an oblique Biblical reference?) and the Butcher’s nonsensical proof, the Barrister’s dream parody of a trial, and the Bandersnatch’s attack on the Banker. Saylor tells the core story admirably—it is still a huge amount of text he has set—but something of the point of the poem is arguably lost.

(For those who care to edit their own text sheet, the verses cut are: Fit One: 12, 18, and 19; Fit Two: 2–8, 10–14; Fit Four: 2–6, 9–18 (leaving only four verses intact); Fit Five: most of 8, 9–26, and 29; and Fit Eight: 4. Fits Six and Seven are not set at all, but are represented by short “Snarkestral Outbursts.”)

The performance itself is spirited and undoubtedly a labor of love for all involved. The 13 instrumentalists are superb, and play their taxing parts on multiple instruments with skill and enthusiasm. The choral part sounds comparatively unassuming on first impression; tonal, largely homophonic, nominally four-part with occasional forays into as many as seven, but with a fair amount of the choral narrative itself in unison for textual clarity, sometimes against wordless rhythmic patterns, or with phrases in simple canon. The apparent simplicity is deceptive, however, and with further acquaintance the rhythmic complexity of the vocal writing, with its challenging intervals and occasionally tricky counterpoint, becomes apparent. And then there are the sound effects—ululations, screams, rhythmic laughter and humming, jungle sounds, flutters on pitch, and “unintelligible moaning”—that choruses are seldom asked to make. The choral forces—there is a treble chorus, as well, in the Fifth Fit—acquit themselves admirably under the energetic direction of Cantate Chamber Singers Artistic Director Gisèle Becker. They are, however, so stretched by certain of the music’s demands that ensemble and intonation are impaired. This should be a small matter, though, for the brilliance and whimsy of what Saylor describes as his “magnum opus” emerge undiminished.

The disc is completed with a sampling of another of Saylor’s extracurricular activities. After the experience with his Snark Pit-Band, Saylor formed a trio of composer/performers who write and play new scores for silent film comedies. One score each for a threesome of mid-1920s Charley Chase short subjects is included. The one by Saylor—a reed player in the ensemble—bears more than a passing semblance to his Snark music, while the other two by Andrew Earle Simpson (keyboards) and Phil Carluzzo (percussion and frets) are clever and engaging renovations of period-style jazz. The ensemble, here a sextet, brings the program to a rousing conclusion. Not to be missed.

FANFARE: Ronald E. Grames
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Works on This Recording

1.
The Hunting of the Snark by Maurice Saylor
Conductor:  Gisele Becker
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Cantate Chamber Singers,  Holton-arms Lower School Chorus,  Snark Pit Band
2.
Stolen Goods by phil carluzzo
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Snark Ensemble
3.
Publicity Pays by Maurice Saylor
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Snark Ensemble
4.
Too Many Mammas by Andrew Earle Simpson
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Snark Ensemble

Sound Samples

The Hunting of the Snark: Fit the First: The Landing
The Hunting of the Snark: Fit the Second: The Bellman's Speech
The Hunting of the Snark: Fit the Third: The Baker's Tale
The Hunting of the Snark: Fit the Fourth: The Hunting
The Hunting of the Snark: Fit the Fifth: The Beaver's Lesson
The Hunting of the Snark: Fit the Sixth: Brief Snarkestral Outburst I
The Hunting of the Snark: Fit the Seventh: Brief Snarkestral Outburst II
The Hunting of the Snark: Fit the Eighth: The Vanishing
Stolen Goods
Publicity Pays
Too Many Mammas

Customer Reviews

Average Customer Review:  1 Customer Review )
 "The Hunting of the Snark" - A Marvel of Creativi May 8, 2012 By K.William Harter (Alexandria, VA) See All My Reviews "



5.0 out of 5 stars The Hunting of the Snark - Brilliant. Fun. Must have., May 8, 2012
By K. William Harter "Bassethound666" (Washington, D.C.)
(REAL NAME) This review is from: Saylor: The Hunting of the Snark - An Agony in Eight Fits (Audio CD)
This composition is a marvel of creativity and elegant musical humor; this recording by the Cantate Chamber Singers (with a little help from some small friends), under the baton of Gisele Becker, does it full justice. Oh,and do not forget the accompanying "Snarkestra". I cannot but think that Lewis Carroll would have adored it. I only wish that I had witnessed the recording session; all the artists were obviously thoroughly engaged, having the time of their lives, and the brilliant performance clearly illustrates this fact. A "must have". "
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