Notes and Editorial Reviews
Of the myriad American composers utilizing electronic media in the past forty years, no one has been more successful than Ingram Marshall in transforming technology to expressive ends. Rather than the cold and freakish abstraction of many electronic compositions, Marshall has consistently managed to create, in part through combination of voice and found sounds with both acoustic and electronic instruments, works that convey a sense of both grace and haunting.
Born in Mount Vernon, New York in 1942, Marshall studied at Lake Forest College and began graduate studies in historical musicology at Columbia University but dedicated much of his time to experimentation at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center with Vladimir
Ussachevsky, Mario Davidovsky, and Ilhan Mimaroglu. Deciding to continue in electronic composition, he studied with Morton Subotnick at the NYU Composers Workshop and in 1970 went west to the California Institute of the Arts, where he served as Subotnick's teaching assistant and as an instructor after receiving the M.F. A. At Cal Arts he came under the influence of master Jogjakartan musician K.A.T. Wasitodipura and spent the summer of 1971 in Indonesia.
In the mid 70s Marshall began to combine his interests in Indonesian and electronic music in live-electronic performance works featuring the gambuh (pronounced gahm-boo) flute and analog synthesizers with complex tape-delay systems. The Indonesian influence is most apparent in his gamelan-inspired piece Woodstone and less obvious in the interlocking structure of less overtly Asian-hued works, including those on this disc.
Marshall went to Sweden as a Fulbright Senior Research Fellow in 1976, interested in the text-sound compositions being explored there. This interest was combined with the aforementioned influences in his breakthrough work, The Fragility Cycles, a convincing anthology of shorter works involving found sounds, gambuh and vocal drones, musical quotation, and text-sound—all skillfully united in a vision at once weighty and, as the title indicates, fragile.
In the early 80s Marshall wrote his most frequently performed works, Fog Tropes (for brass sextet and tape) and Gradual Requiem (for piano, voice, mandolin, and gambuh with tape delay), both of which share with The Fragility Cycles his distinctive aura of solemnity and mystery and fuse acoustic instruments and electronics with great imagination and almost painterly craftsmanship. Voces Resonae (1984) for the Kronos Quartet combined Sibelius and American hymnody, two abiding presences throughout Marshall's work.
In that and other recent works Marshall has turned to more traditional performing ensembles and lyricism. Sinfonia “Dolce far niente“ (1988) and A Peaceable Kingdom (1990) were commissioned, respectively, by Leonard Slatkin and the St. Louis Symphony and Betty Freeman for the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group. Though Marshall is sometimes called a Minimalist, the Sinfonia is more amenable to the “New Romantic“ tag that is also occasionally affixed to his work. A constant in Marshall's music is a dark-Romantic sense of abiding gloom with hints of transcendence, to my ears communicated most originally in his less conventionally scored pieces.
Marshall's work has not received the discographie attention it deserves, and so his first Nonesuch album is a real event. More importantly, it is one of the most moving and distinctive albums in any idiom to appear in recent memory, as Marshall continues to explore an ominous nocturnal realm of haunted spirits that evokes the starkness of Old English elegies (I'd love to hear him set “The Wanderer“ or “The Seafarer“) and Expressionism. The production and engineering are thoroughly successful in dealing with the advanced electronic techniques of the two works, primarily tape-loops in Three Penitential Visions and digital sampling in Hidden Voices.
The first two parts of the opening penitential triptych derive from an earlier work called Eberbach, named after the German monastery, photographs of which by Jim Bengston accompanied the music in performance. Marshall also collaborated with Bengston on Alcatraz, a deleted section of which now serves as the third of the Penitential Visions, entitled “Fugitive Vision,“ perhaps with a hint of self-mockery. Eberbach was constructed in good part of tape loops of Bengston's saxophone playing in the church (continuing the saxophone-tape loop partnership that goes back a quarter century now to Terry Riley's Dorian Reeds), combined with Marshall's always evocative musique concrète (here of churchbells) and, again, his own voice, which hovers over his sonic landscapes like a disembodied but mournfully immanent deity who wishes he'd created some other universe. The first two visions run without a break, the third after a five-second pause, without which the transition from arrhythmic tone-painting towards relative lightness of content and almost perky keyboards would prove bathetic. In fact, on second or third hearing one might want to consider the Eberbach sections as a self-contained unit, without what Marshall views as the “escape“ or “release“ of the final section. I find him more convincing incarcerated than on parole.
Hidden Voices confirms that Marshall is most felicitous when most penseroso. This briefer work—it seems much briefer than both the twenty-six-minute Penitential Visions and its own 19:20—is masterfully paced, building up from a soprano invocation based on “Once in Royal David's City,“ traditionally sung in Christmas Eve processional by the choristers of King's College, Cambridge, to a dense structure of digitally sampled voices that finally seem to rise from some electronic Purgatory rather than the Eastern European and Soviet ethnic recordings from which they are taken. The use of the hymn as well as recordings illustrates Marshall's long-abiding proclivity to quotation, with the original transformed at times beyond recognition by his imaginative recon-textualizing.
Cheryl Bensman Rowe's rich and warm soprano vocalise is a beautifully unifying and humanizing presence amid the electronically altered voices of lamentation, at once joining in their mourning and rising above it in fragile hope. The elegiac mode of much of Marshall's work is exemplified in this piece, which serves on a personal and musical level as a companion piece to Gradual Requiem, in this case an unpremeditated memorial to Marshall's mother a decade after he undertook Gradual Requiem to commemorate his father.
Whatever stylistic or technical affinities Marshall's music has to Minimalism and New Romanticism, it becomes clearer with repeated hearings of this disc how he represents a revaluation of Impressionism and the Old Romanticism of Bruckner and Mahler. In his programmatic, quasi-narrative impulses, combined with his painterly sonic techniques, Marshall may be our finest exponent of electronic tone-poems. Anyone interested in contemporary music should give this disc some undivided attention. Those who on principle avoid music composed during their lifetimes are advised to change their ways.
-- Edward Strickland, FANFARE [9/1990] Read less
Works on This Recording
Hidden Voices by Ingram Marshall
Cheryl Bensman Rowe (Soprano)
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1989; USA
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