Notes and Editorial Reviews
MUSES NINE: Eight American Composers Plus One Pianist
Becky Billock (pn)
MUSESNINE (no number) (64:49) Available from beckybillock.org.
Dreaming. Honeysuckle. Scottish Legend. From Blackbird Hills.
This fascinating and remarkable disc surveys the music of eight women composers, ranging from the famous (Amy Beach, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, and Libby Larsen) to the arcane (the others). As pianist Becky Billock puts it in her liner notes, she was simply so exhilarated the first time she played an entire recital by women composers, she thought she “would explode with pride.”
an atonal but strangely moving piece, was composed to honor Ruth Gerberding, a major supporter of the University of Washington’s school of music. Thome writes of her piece that the title “describes certain structural features of the piece … suggesting a spiral.” Yet one can easily enjoy this as a fine modern concert piece without knowing of the dedication, the sure mark of a fine composition.
is a series of three brief preludes based on different tempos: “Medium Piano,” “Fast Piano,” and “Slow Piano.” The three pieces are played uninterrupted, suggesting a single evolving piece rather than a suite.
Emma Lou Diemer’s Toccata is fast-paced, beginning with whirling figures, involving some plucking of the piano strings, and some effects that sound like one hand holding down the strings while the other plucks them. But the piece quickly moves off into more adventurous and, I daresay, darker feelings, as the repeated bass notes rumble like the rush of a subway train.
Marion Bauer’s interesting set of preludes, although primarily tonal, often blur the distinction of tonality in her constant use of chromaticism. Although not the most remarkable or inventive pieces in this set, they are played lovingly by Billock and reveal her deep care for this music. Not a detail is too small or intimate to be overlooked; the pianist treasures, even caresses, the contours of this music with subtle and well-judged gradations of sound. This is especially true of Prelude No. 5, appropriately titled “With Deep Feeling,” but Billock’s loving commitment to this music is felt in the other pieces as well. As mentioned in the notes, Bauer was a composer who was trying, at the time, to combine both French and American styles of music into her own personal fusion. The music is constantly leaning to one side or another in tonality, never fully shifting there but keeping the listener in suspense.
was written in memory of Judith Aaron, a name even I can recall, as a real sparkplug for both saving Carnegie Hall and expanding its artistic vision. Despite the relative sparseness of the music, Zwilich keeps up your interest with the way she erects and breaks down its little building blocks. Also remarkable is the way Zwilich manages to keep building tension, almost solely through changes in dynamics, as the music remains relatively sparse, evolving only occasionally. One follows the contours of this music, in which the pauses and silence seem to be as eloquent as the notes actually played, with great fascination.
Beach’s four pieces, composed between 1892 and 1922, cover a fairly interesting spectrum of moods, from the romantic, Chopinesque
to the Native American-inspired
From Blackbird Hills.
In between is
which is also somewhat Chopinesque, but this time not so directly connected; it sounds like the “Minute” Waltz, turned on its ear and infected with chromatic harmonies. Oddly enough, the one waltz-tempo passage in this piece is the one spot in it that
sound like the “Minute” Waltz! Despite its title,
uses no genuine Scotish folk tunes, but has that sort of “My Bonnie Lass” or “I Lay Me Down and Dee” feel to it. The Indian piece used in
is an Omaha tribal tune sung and danced by children. This is a particularly interesting piece, which breaks off in the middle for a slow, reflective passage that Beach said portrayed “the ghosts of long-dead Indians … looking sadly over the shoulders of the happy children at play.” Oddly, the Indian tune has a sort of cakewalk feel to it. Perhaps some sort of cross-cultural influence came into play there.
is based, albeit somewhat loosely, on Liszt’s famous
as only a few themes are actually taken from Liszt’s piece. Indeed, most of the piece is rather bitonal in harmonic structure and constantly varies the beat, not staying with the ragtime rhythm for very long. Some sections of the piece resemble stride piano; others are merely fast-tempoed classical rhythms. The basic motif is a 10-note phrase, repeated in different keys and rhythms, in which Larsen modifies the musical texture in various ingenious ways. Eventually, one reaches a pregnant pause in the music, after which references to stride piano come into play, but with greatly varied harmonies and eventual disintegration of the rhythm. Another pause, and the piano plays short rhythmic fragments, after which the piece explodes, rhythmic and harmonic fragments being strewn across the keyboard. Then comes a highly virtuosic coda, playing on shifting colors and rapid chromatic runs to a breathless finish.
Billock’s recital ends with
by Margaret Bonds (1913–72), an African-American composer who used gospel references in her music. This piece is based on the spiritual
Wade in the Water
, yet it is much more through-composed than many other such pieces. Like Larsen, Bonds creates a multitonal backdrop against which the piano splashes elements of bitonal color, returning again to the rhythm and melodic contours of the spiritual. What I find particularly interesting about this piece is the way Bonds keeps building the music to a powerful climax, rooted in the spiritual’s rhythm yet transcending it.
There is just one little glitch to this CD. At the end of
an audience is heard breaking out in applause, yet nowhere on the CD, or at the artist’s website, can one find any information as to where this was recorded. Was it only that one piece that was done live, or the whole album? Youth Wants To Know!
Overall, this is a wholly remarkable and fascinating disc, and I recommend it wholeheartedly. Start building a collection of women’s music today!
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
Works on This Recording
Toccata for Piano by Emma Lou Diemer
Becky Billock (Piano)
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1979; USA
Mephisto Rag by Libby Larsen
Becky Billock (Piano)
Written: 2000; United States
Troubled water by Margaret Bonds
Becky Billock (Piano)
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1967; USA
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