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Donald Crockett: Night Scenes

Crockett / Firebird Ensemble
Release Date: 07/12/2011 
Label:  New World Records   Catalog #: 80718-2   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Donald Crockett
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Firebird
Number of Discs: 1 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

CROCKETT Night Scenes. To Airy Thinness Beat. Wet Ink. Scree Firebird Ens et al. NEW WORLD 80718 (58:18)

This disc presents the music of Donald Crockett (b.1951), whose works have previously appeared on the New World, Albany, ECM, Doberman-Yppan, and Laurel labels. His music is described in the liner notes as quintessentially “American music,” and so it is. It is also music of great expression, sharp contrasts of mood, and original ways of thinking about conventional groups of instruments.
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The piano trio, Night Scenes, is a case in point. Rather than treating the instruments in the conventional piano-trio way, which is to say playing together in harmony, alternating lines, or counterpoint, he uses them as a sort of small orchestra, focusing on tone color and the specific expressive qualities of each instrument within the very narrow scope he has to work with. Thus, the piano acts, more often than not, as both harmonic and rhythmic underpinning, sometimes cooperating with the strings but more often than not going on a separate course. Crockett also plays a great deal with dynamics, sometimes using repeated chords in varying degrees of volume, which gives them less the feeling of staccato repetition and more the effect of reverb. The strings, on the other hand, play mostly together in tandem, and often in their lower range, but they also attack sharp chords and angles with a bracing attack when called upon.

Crockett states that the four movements are film music for movies that don’t yet exist. Their titles are “Scatter the Barbarians,” “The Blue Guitar,” “Midnight Train,” and “Night Hawks.” You can probably imagine, from the titles, what the mood of each piece is like, and you’ll probably be right. Nevertheless, Crockett is able to keep our interest up because a general feeling is not a specific musical journey, and he continually finds ways to make the music sound varied and interesting. This is even truer in To Airy Thinness Beat, conceived as a chamber concerto for solo viola and six instruments. Again, Crockett manages to find original and intriguing ways of conveying his musical message, such as the very opening where the viola plays very high in its range while the cello and piano give it underpinning.

Since I did not have my CD player in sight while listening to the disc, I almost thought that the beginning of this movement was a part of Night Scenes, even though the mood was even more eerie and lonely. This feeling of loneliness, I discovered in the notes, was entirely purposeful, as the work is based on a poem by John Donne, A Valediction Forbidding Mourning , in which separating from his lover is compared to the almost magical ability of gold to change form without losing its integrity. The second movement, “Heavy and energetic,” is not really as heavy as you might think, despite the use of timpani on the offbeats, but it is somewhat edgy. The third movement begins in a fast, almost violent mood, but soon changes to slow and lyric, though later in the movement the eerie edginess of the first movement returns, then the edgy theme of the second movement returns as well, alternating uneasily with the new lyric theme. Which one will win out? Crockett keeps us in suspense, and I don’t want to give away the ending!

The violin-piano duo Wet Ink, on the other hand, is an entirely playful piece, with both instruments engaged in a staccato dance. As with all the music on this disc, Crockett’s harmonic language is modern, often with clashing harmonies, but not atonal. The piano dances around the different tonalities in staccato chords, eventually settling on one you wouldn’t imagine. The violin’s interplay with the piano sometimes allows it to take the lead, sometimes gives it contrasting themes either lyric or rhythmic. This sort of playful interplay continues through to the end.

Scree begins with what sounds like the chime of a cuckoo clock—checking the notes, it turns out to be a coil spring. Later on, the percussionist also plays a brake drum and other metals, a log drum, and also marimba, vibes, and congas. The cello and piano play convoluted, winding lines in the first movement, the music here particularly unsettled and uneasy in tonality. After the second movement, however, the music winds down in tempo and mood, eventually coming to a rest in quietude.

This is a highly engaging disc of new music, and I am thoroughly captivated by the essential inner quality and delicacy of Crockett’s music.

FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley


Donald Crockett is a Californian and teaches composition there, as he has done also on the East Coast. He has written a deal of music, including a dozen orchestral pieces, but here we have music written for chamber forces, expertly played by the flexible Firebird Ensemble.

Night Scenes is for piano trio — Gabriela Diaz (violin), David Russell (cello) and Cory Smythe (piano) — written in four movements of which two of the titles have pictorial inspirations, or at least reference points; The Blue Guitar and Night Hawks. If this suggest a Picasso-Hopper axis then I won’t argue but the music realisation is perhaps less dramatic. The opening movement is terse, with a staccato quality, before the piano arpeggios imitate the guitar of the movement’s title; a cicada-rich reverie, with burnished textures. Midnight Train is jazzy cum railroad rolling, alongside which we find resinous folk inflected passages. The Hopper finale offers a duskier view, with a jagged central panel, and an element of Messiaen about things.

We have to keep to airy thinness beat in lower case. The lines came from Donne’s A Valediction Forbidding Mourning. The work is, in effect, a chamber concerto for viola, played by Kate Vincent (director of the Firebird Ensemble), who gave the work its first performance. The tentative melodic statements of the opening movement contain plenty of silences and hesitations; contemplative stasis too. Strong contrast comes in the succeeding movement with its tough, terse accents, whilst in the finale we move from vital energy through harmonic warmth to elegiac writing.

Wet Ink is an ebullient ritornello, sectionally broken up, with a long central panel. It’s written for violin and piano (Diaz and Smythe). Finally we arrive at the oldest of the quartet of works, Scree, written in 1977 for cello, piano and percussion (Russell, Smythe, and Jeffrey Means). The percussion imparts an obviously jazzy element but there is some near diaphanous writing in the third movement, which contains some of the best of Crockett in this disc, with the cello’s lyric line rising, in effect, to a melancholic lied. I liked too the quality of romantic reverie to be found in the finale.

The performances are admirable and the notes helpful.

-- Jonathan Woolf, MusicWeb International
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Works on This Recording

Night Scenes by Donald Crockett
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Firebird
to airy thinness beat by Donald Crockett
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Firebird
Wet Ink by Donald Crockett
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Firebird
Scree by Donald Crockett
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Firebird

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