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Book Of Horizons / Joseph Kubera

Bryon / Eastman / Smith / Kubera
Release Date: 03/11/2014 
Label:  New World Records   Catalog #: 80745   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Julius Eastman"Blue" Gene TyrannyStuart Saunders SmithMichael Byron
Performer:  Joseph Kubera
Number of Discs: 1 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BOOK OF HORIZONS Joseph Kubera (pn) NEW WORLD 8745-2 (63:02)

EASTMAN Piano 2. TYRANNY The Drifter. S. S. SMITH Fences, In Three Tragedies. BYRON Book of Horizons

Joseph Kubera’s recital not only shows off his technical prowess, but also his taste as a curator of Read more programs. All four pieces on this release share certain characteristics. All but one are quite dense and multi-layered. They feel as though they are often modeled on some sort of “state of nature,” i.e., constantly changing on a local level, yet also self-similar on a larger one. While deep background changes do occur, they tend to be more gradual, following a Minimalist model. And each composer seems very much an “outsider,” in that the music of each doesn’t fall into any easy category, and indeed they seem to work to avoid a clear identification with any aesthetic camp. And finally, all these pieces are to one degree or another raw. Sometimes they are abrasive, but often, even when at their most Impressionistic and lovely, they still refuse to indulge in a sort of polish that reassures the listened that “this composer really knows how to write music!” If the vision demands simplicity, naïveté, or an “unidiomatic” technique, so be it.

Julius Eastman (1940–1990) was the poète maudit of American postwar music. Gay, black, haunted by demons of addiction, and eventually dying young in destitution, he was a natural musician and a volcanic performer. (Some may remember the original American release on Nonesuch of Peter Maxwell Davies’s Eight Songs for a Mad King . Eastman was George III in the work, one of the most harrowing vocal parts in the literature.) I’ve reviewed an extraordinary compendium of his music in Fanfare 29:5 (also on New World—80638-2), and so I’ll refer readers to that if you want more detail and commentary on his life and work. Piano 2 (1986) is a “bare-boned” work: by that I mean it is made of lean lines, starkly proclaimed, often in octaves. It’s the most unapologetically “unpolished” work on the program. I admit I find it at times a little plodding, through its combination of spare texture and relentless even rhythms (eighth-notes in the outer movements, quarters in the middle). (I find the keyboard works on the earlier New World release more fully realized and compelling). But it does have strong motivic profiles and a forthright character, all of which I respect.

“Blue” Gene Tyranny is the stage name of Robert Sheff (b. 1945), a fixture for decades on the Downtown music scene. Many will recognize him as the pianist in Robert Ashley’s video opera cycle Perfect Lives . Tyranny has been at the intersection of experimental music and jazz, even more precisely cocktail music. He’s a fluent improviser and a compelling performer in his own right. The Drifter (1994) certainly reflects this experience and aesthetic stance. The music is lushly meditative. A cantus of sorts opens the work, and is recurs throughout, its combination with harmonic progressions we’ve heard earlier changing their perceived meaning and character. Once you get past an “easy listening” surface, the piece is gently compelling in its quiet scrupulousness. It’s thoughtful music where every note sounds considered, but not in a fussy way.

Stuart Saunders Smith (b. 1948) is also a percussionist, and his conception of the piano is colored by his experience with mallet keyboard, which tends to be more linear than piano (which can move towards a greater “wash” of sound). His 1998 Fences, In Three Tragedies is in three movements, but played without pause (in fact it’s hard to distinguish where one moves into the next, it’s so fluid). At first, the piece sounds almost like a piece of European integral serialism from the 1950s, with several registral layers of complex rhythms spinning against one another, all in an atonal harmonic world. But after an explosive middle, almost out the its own depths, fragmentary hints of some sort of tonal hymn or song start to emerge, until by the end there’s the distinct sense that something that’s been “haunting” the music (the program notes suggest that one source is the song The Days of Wine and Roses ). The effect is Ivesian, and this is one of the most successful works of the composer I know.

Michael Byron (b. 1953) is represented by Book of Horizons (2009), incidentally the title of the CD. I’ve actually reviewed him before in 32:5—his Dreamers of Pearl for solo piano, in fact, performed by Kubera. Byron is another genuinely uncompromising composer, but with a twist. Each of the five movements of this piece is essentially an extended state with a consistent character; they suggest to me the “ergodic form” advocated by Byron’s teacher, the late James Tenney. Basically two-part counterpoint, the parts are nonetheless so involved and complex that the music sounds far more rich than it appears on the page (a nice feature of the notes is that score samples are provided for each piece). At first the effect is controlled chaos, and I was reminded of Nancarrow’s fiendish player piano figurations. But then the second movement is as limpid and modal as the first was aggressive and chromatic. What quickly emerges is that Byron is suggesting that an “algorithmic” approach to composition (driven by powerful underlying axioms and processes) can be applied to any harmonic or stylistic template (a little like his friend Larry Polansky, who has been creating mensuration canons that use any possible sound source). The third movement returns to the more Modernistic/experimental world, though it’s almost like nothing I’ve ever heard—splatters of clusters and micro-glissandos, in a polytonal context that defies an evident harmonic parsing. The fourth movement is triadic and Romantic in spirit, though its arpeggios make it more like a big wind chime than a song. And the last takes us into a realm of nervous but gentle pointillism, a bit aviary, a bit spring shower.

I mentioned Kubera’s taste and curational skill above. As for his pianism, it’s stunning, though it never shows off in an obviously virtuosic manner. In fact, it’s only after listening for a while that you start to realize just how demanding most of this music is, since he plays it so fluently and without evident strain. The thing that I find most impressive technically is his ability to delineate layers of material so deftly that it sounds as though more than one player is involved. This is a mastery of contemporary contrapuntal practice at an often thrilling level. Again, it’s so natural that you need to tune in to the issue to start to realize how masterful Kubera’s prowess is here. A worthy addition to the discography of one of our major interpreters of new music.

FANFARE: Robert Carl
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Works on This Recording

Piano 2 by Julius Eastman
Performer:  Joseph Kubera (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1986 
The Drifter by "Blue" Gene Tyranny
Performer:  Joseph Kubera (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1994; USA 
Fences, in Three Tragedies by Stuart Saunders Smith
Performer:  Joseph Kubera (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1998 
Book of Horizons by Michael Byron
Performer:  Joseph Kubera (Piano)
Written: 2009 

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