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Susan Botti: Gates of Silence

Botti / Blakemore Trio
Release Date: 09/10/2013 
Label:  Albany Records   Catalog #: 1436   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Susan Botti
Performer:  Carolyn HueblAmy DorfmanSusan Botti
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Blakemore Trio
Number of Discs: 1 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BOTTI Lament: The Fallen City. 1 The Journey Without Her. 2 Dido Refuses to Speak 2,3 1 Carolyn Huebl (vn); 1 Amy Dorfman (pn); 3 Susan Botti (s); 2 Blakemore Tr ALBANY 1436 (65:42 Read more Text and Translation)

Sometimes it’s interesting to hear two composers of the same era and essential training periods in succession. In this case, I followed the music of Laura Elise Schwendinger with this album, titled Gates of Silence, of music by Susan Botti; although both are modern composers, and use similar harmonic and melodic techniques, the overall feel of their respective work was as different as night and day. Schwendinger’s music builds around a sharp angularity of line and an almost explosive method of development, whereas Botti’s music—though occasionally explosive—is more lyrical overall and has, within its atonal modern harmonies, a more legato style and an easier to follow flow and development. To put it very briefly, and this is not a complete description but merely one that I feel most readers will understand, Schwendinger is more like Webern and Segerstam, while Botti is more like Ellen Taaffe Zwilich.

Perhaps this has to do with the fact that the composer is herself a soprano, and sings on the last work in this album. Nevertheless, there is also more of a penchant—perhaps an inner drive on her part—towards continuity of line and development, whereas Schwendinger rejoices in angular, unexpected lines. The composer’s own liner notes tell us that these three works, inspired by Virgil’s Aeneid, “are connected but independent,” each representing “a ‘passage’ which echoes with reverence today—in our fallen cities, in our physical passages, and in our personal interactions with each other and with our destinies.” Thus the opening work, Lament: The Fallen City, connects Troy in Botti’s mind with New Orleans, Baghdad, Port-au-Prince, etc. Despite some turbulent explosions, the music is primarily lyrical, starting out in almost a Meredith Monk mood but also including some outbursts that in style and mood reminded me of some of Zwilich’s best music. Thus in this work one also hears the piano as a lamenting and tenderly expressive instrument, and to that extent one must praise highly the work of Amy Dorfman. Her rich, full tone, her remarkable rang of muted colors, and especially her creative use of pedal all contribute to the overall sound.

The middle piece, The Journey Without Her, adds a cello to the violin and piano (this, then, is the complete Blakemore Trio). Here Botti tries to emulate Aeneas’s “two perilous sea journeys,” the first leaving Troy and the second leaving Carthage. The hectic, turbulent nature of those escapes is perfectly mirrored in her music, and once again it is Dorfman’s wide-ranging and chameleon-like pianism that sets the tone and directs the moods. This is not to exclude praise of the playing of violinist Huebl and cellist Wang, only to say that their musicality is more score-directed. What I hear from Dorfman is musicality that is inner- directed, i.e., playing that is highly sensitized to not only the letter but the spirit of the music. It is she who binds everything together in terms of feeling rather than merely playing notes. This piece is even more ingeniously developed, being quite diverse and incorporating several themes, some of which converge into very complex counterpoint in the middle of the work. Soft, swirling piano passages, invoking the undercurrent of the sea, sweep the violin and cello onto the shores of Carthage.

This extended suite concludes with Dido Refuses to Speak, in which the composer participates as soprano soloist. The text was written by Linda Gregerson, who explains her theory (possibly her psychoanalysis) of Queen Dido in the PC language of today, which I find meaningless drivel: “We are less interested in elaborating the story of erotic passion for its own sake than in using that passion as a vehicle for exploring the stress fractures of inherited memory and collective longing.” (What on earth does this mean? And how can an individual express “collective longing”?) It is, then, to be expected that Gregerson’s text is verbose, convoluted, and written in the university Techno-Psycho-Babble of today. But no matter. The composer herself participates in this piece, and her performance conveys far more emotion and power than the lyrics. Botti has an essentially pure voice, a somewhat more soft-grained counterpart to Meredith Monk, and she sings the music at times in a semi-parlando style, at other times draining the voice entirely of its richness and power (which she possesses) in order to sound, perhaps, more vulnerable, more stressed. Her diction is fairly good, but perhaps the occasional obscuring of it is due more to the overly roomy acoustic in which she was recorded (which sounds different from that of the instrumentalists). But it’s good to hear a composer singing his or her own work, and except for Monk I can’t recall any other composer who had a good enough voice to act as his or her own muse—at least not within recorded history (there’s always Purcell, but we have no idea what he sounded like). Botti’s interior feeling of identity with the character of Dido enables her to make a very strong connection with the mood, which often overrides the overly verbose quality of the lyrics. This is especially powerful on Section Five of this work, in which Dido considers burning the oars of Aeneas’s boat so he won’t be able to leave, and locking up “the winds in my cellar” (another silly simile that no sane person, even one on the edge of her stress fractures of inherited memory and collective longing, would come up with). The remarkably malleable quality of Botti’s voice, working against and yet in conjunction with the Blakemore Trio, expresses far more than one would ever guess from just reading the words. She is undoubtedly an outstanding singer as well as a fascinating composer.

Gates of Silence is one of the most remarkable suites I have heard by a composer of today: expressive, fascinating, and very well-written music of extraordinary quality, at times challenging, at others easy to absorb, but always fascinating and evolving in the mind of a remarkable woman. I cannot recommend this one highly enough.

FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
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Works on This Recording

Lament: The Fallen City by Susan Botti
Performer:  Carolyn Huebl (Violin), Amy Dorfman (Piano)
The Journey without Her by Susan Botti
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Blakemore Trio
Dido Refuses to Speak by Susan Botti
Performer:  Susan Botti (Soprano)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Blakemore Trio

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