Sheer Pluck - Mamlok, Babbitt, Berio, Et Al / Todd Seelye

Release Date: 10/20/1998
Catalog Number: MUA1032
Performer: Todd Seelye
Number of Discs: 1

Physical Format:

Notes and Editorial Reviews
An astonishingly intense and courageous program, brilliantly performed.

This is an astonishingly intense and courageous program, brilliantly performed. While I don't respond equally to every piece, I also must salute Todd Seelye from the outset for his deep musical intelligence and curiosity, qualities that have led him to present a full roster of pieces, any one of which would make ordinary musicians think twice in terms of the challenges presented.

Two works stand at the top of the pack. The first is Luciano Berio's Sequenza XI, which continues the landmark series of solo pieces the composer has written throughout his career. This is by far the work on the program that makes the most overt reference to traditional guitar literature, as Berio takes the idea of a simple strum over the open strings of the guitar as his "sonic icon," from which he spins the entire piece over its 17-minute span. The music is often evocative of flamenco with its figuration and flourishes, and it casts a hypnotic spell through its textures.

The other major work is Elliott Carter's Changes, yet another in the remarkable series of the composer's recent solo works. Carter has become a master of the miniature, and in this work's seven minutes he crams a wealth of detail. It could all become too cluttered were it not delivered with such a perfect feel for registration, such telling use of dramatic gesture, and such clear differentiation of contrapuntal elements (usually via timbral/articulational distinctions). In addition, though the harmonic language is the highly chromatic palette typical of Carter, the composer still manages to create chordal progressions that are quite rich, clear, and evocative, even lovely, at times. The work sounds like no guitar piece ever written before, yet it happily invents its own justification through its sheer imaginative force.

A third work that is highly idiomatic, albeit small in scope, is the Five Intermezzi of Ursula Mamlok. Each movement is a concisely chiseled bagatelle, combining extremely natural gestures for the instrument with clear motivic ideas. Two other works that are not as immediately ingratiating but that grew on repeated listenings are James Dillon's Shrouded Mirrors and Robert Morris's To the Nine. Dillon is one of the younger English composers associated with "The New Complexity," but I've always heard a clear expressive intent in every piece of his I've encountered. This work is striking for its texture: It projects a sense of an elaborate web being woven in real time, with several layers of tiny motives unfolding like layers of crystal, at first almost impenetrable. Over time I found it more and more engaging. Perhaps it's just the associational influence of the title, but it certainly sounds as though there are canonic, or at least imitative, elements in the counterpoint throughout. Morris's work is the only one on the program that is not for guitar alone, as it uses a computer-generated tape as accompaniment. In the tradition of Milton Babbitt's pieces for instrument and tape— with ideas angular and constantly mutating—Morris's piece sustains its interest in large part due to the kaleidoscopic recyling of timbres in the tape, which are constantly changing the context within which we hear the guitar line. It has a genuinely playful sound that belies the intense structuring that I'm sure has gone into it.

The remaining two works move me the least, although they are produced by composers with formidable reputations. Babbitt himself weighs in with Sheer Pluck, the work that gives the album its title (and continues the composer's run of the most outrageous title-puns ever seen in music history). Babbitt's music is concise, concentrated, and it does have a real wit. Nevertheless, it's just too severe for my taste. Unlike Carter's, it tends to eschew any overt drama, relying instead on the jeweled movement of its intensely wrought musical units for coherence and forward movement. Like Cage, it sounds like no one else, and as such seems quite resistant to whether one likes it or not. Wuorinen partakes more of the rhetoric of the grand tradition, and I respect his sober rigor. Nevertheless, this work seems curiously monochrome—literally, in terms of its very restricted timbrai range, and figuratively, in terms of a certain flatness of dramatic affect. As a result, the work flows meanderingly, and the sforzando climactic chords around 13:30 seem strangely unjustified. This is particularly curious, because Wuroinen is a composer who I know can whip things up to a frenzy through powerful musical architectures (take for example Arabia Felix, the Third Piano Concerto, the String Trio, or the Grand Bamboula, to name a few I enjoy). The work was written for Todd Seelye, and I suspect he is delivering it commandingly, so the fault lies either with my ears or the work. As usual, time will tell.

Both the Carter and the Berio have been recorded by their dedicatees—the former by David Starobin on an all-Carter Bridge disc, and the latter by Elliot Fisk on a Music Masters live concert recital. These are great artists, but Seelye's performances are quite polished, full of intense fantasy, and when linked with so much new repertoire, this disc stands out as a special event that can compete. All the remaining works beside Carter and Berio are premiere recordings (the Babbitt of a revised version of the score). This is a must for anyone interested in new guitar music. There are gems here; my only caveat is that each work is so dense with ideas, it is probably wise to listen to one at a time, rather than trying to take them all in at one sitting.

-- Robert Carl, FANFARE
Works on This Recording
1. Intermezzi (5) for Guitar by Ursula Mamlok
Performer: Todd Seelye (Guitar)
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1984–1990 ; USA
2. Shrouded Mirrors by James Dillon
Performer: Todd Seelye (Guitar)
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1988 ; Scotland
3. Sheer Pluck by Milton Babbitt
Performer: Todd Seelye (Guitar)
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1984 ; USA
4. Variations for Guitar by Charles Wuorinen
Performer: Todd Seelye (Guitar)
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1994 ; USA
5. Changes by Elliott Carter
Performer: Todd Seelye (Guitar)
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1983 ; USA
6. Sequenza XI for Guitar solo by Luciano Berio
Performer: Todd Seelye (Guitar)
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1988 ; Italy
7. To the Nine by Robert Morris
Performer: Todd Seelye (Guitar)
Period: 20th Century
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