SMITH Hearing Links.1 Links.2 Links: No. 2;3 No. 3;4 No. 4, “Monk”;5 No. 5, “Sitting on the Edge of Nothing”;6 No. 6, “Song Interiors”;7Read more class="ARIAL12b"> No. 7, “New England Night Weave”;8 No. 8, “Confessions—Witness to 48 Things”;9 No. 9, “Mosque”;10 No. 10, “Who are we? Where are we?”11 No. 11, “Regions I–XXI”12 • Sylvia Smith (spkr);1 Masako Kunimoto (vib);2 Steven Sehman (vib);3 Bill Sallak (vib);4 Steven Schick (vib);5 Aiyun Huang (vib);6 Justin DeHart (vib);7, 10 Jude Traxler (vib);8 Berndt Thurner (vib);9 Ayano Kataoka (vib);11 Chris Leonard (vib);12 Dale Speicher (vib);12 Matthew Apanius (vib);12 Fabio Oliveira (chimes);6 Aiyun Huang (glockenspiel);6 Katalin Lukács (pn);7 Gisela Mashayekhi-Beer (fl)9 • NEW WORLD 80690 (2 CDs: 90:02)
As annotator (and vibist) Steven Schick suggests in the program book, though composed over a 20-year span (1974–94), these 11 pieces for vibraphone (with occasional augmentation) by Stuart Saunders Smith (b. 1948) do give the impression of comprising a single-minded, inter-related effort—although that of a chain rather than a large multi-movement entity. Schick describes the music’s unchanging tonal perspective and formal spontaneity as “a vocabulary of continuity” deriving from the composer’s roots in New England transcendentalism, a result of “the inward gaze of the personal spiritual exploration.” Smith himself cites the poetry of William Carlos Williams (Paterson) and Charles Olson (The Maximus Poems) as analogies to his music—poetry that, through free-associative and collage methodology and frequent use of found material, attempts to locate and identify an individual sensibility within an often-ambiguous sense of time and place. This may account for the seething tranquility that the music displays, as if agitated by outside forces, but controlled and following a line of thought that is sometimes introspective (the cautious tread of Links No. 2, for example) and sometimes dramatically expressive (Links No. 8).
Despite the unifying philosophical and musical threads that run through all 11 Links, there are distinctive qualities that separate them. Most apparent are the additional instruments—the offstage glockenspiel and chimes in Links No. 5, which on disc confuse the listener’s sense of space and texture; the flute, which could be alter-ego or partner, in Links No. 8; the piano that inhabits the same space and merges with the vibes in Links No. 6; and the blending of three vibes in Links No. 11, increasing the intensity, density, and surface detail. But there are also subtle shifts in attitude that are revealed over time—the bright melodic logic, alternately crisp and muted in tone, of the first three Links (notably without subtitles) contrasts with the crystal-like development that emerges in Links No. 5, expands and contracts in Links No. 9, and is compressed, like an enigma, in Links No. 10. Though not the longest, nevertheless the most extravagant is Links No. 4, dedicated to jazz pianist Thelonious Monk and implicitly mindful of Monk’s punctuation of chords, brittle phrasing, and percussive, jabbing attack.
It’s surprising, initially, that 10 of the 11 pieces are performed by different artists, but they have in common a probing, undemonstrative approach that provides each piece with a full measure of lyricism, while avoiding dazzle for its own sake. Sylvia Smith contributes a prose poem about her involvement with the music, which sets the tone for the program nicely. There are discoveries to be made here—as in the poetry of Williams and Olson—gradually, with familiarity and contemplation.