View From The East: Moving Music

View From The East: Moving Music

Greg Sandow

I was deeply moved when I heard the premiere of Ingram Marshall‘s Kingdom Come, played by the American Composers Orchestra in 1997, and I wasn’t alone. The piece got an ovation. I left the concert with two members of the ACO’s board. Both had been as touched as I was; one said he’d been in tears.

Now Kingdom Come has been recorded by the ACO on a Nonesuch release, and I can hear it again. If anything, I love it even more. Right from the start, it’s strongly emotional, with a timpani roll leading into an unhappy minor triad, which rises through the orchestra from the low strings to the flutes and violins. Then all this happens once more, though now it’s a different minor triad, entering underneath the first one almost like a shudder.

But then strong emotion is a constant trait of Ingram’s music, growing from—or pervading; this is like the chicken and the egg; which comes first, style or content?—what sounds like tonal harmony. But are the triads really tonal? They sound as if they are, and so do the descending scalar passages, lovingly harmonized, that slowly appear perhaps a minute and 20 seconds into the piece. (They’re really two-note figures, pulling downwards, now filling in the space between top and bottom in the reverse direction, starting at the clear, untroubled top.)

But I don’t think the chords here function tonally. Sometimes, as in those loving scalar passages, chords might connect in what sounds like a tonal progression, carrying an emotional charge remembered from tonality. But moments like these sound, to me, like reminiscences. In longer spans, the chords don’t sound as if they move like tonal chords, responding to the gravitation of a central key. (This is also true in Gavin Bryars‘s music.) Instead they tend to hang there, not motionless, but moving slowly in a weightless space.

The only force they carry is emotional. Anything that might seem too emotional—like the taped choruses, or the high trumpet that starts to sing five minutes after the beginning, or the hymn (or what sounds like one) that comes a little later, more quietly in the lower brass and which urges the trumpet toward a melody—all this gets strengthened by the underlying shudder, which keeps returning like an emotional and musical motif. Some nine minutes in, the shudder seems to fill the music, as if the choral voices were melting on each other and over the orchestral chords. Ingram, as he himself says, is best known as an electronic composer, and here acoustic sounds, even in the orchestra, are piled upon each other like layers of a tape collage. That, too, is an obvious departure from tonal harmony; the notes (or so it seems to me) have lost their structural connection.

Two-thirds of the way toward the end the orchestra subsides, and something troubled buzzes like a stubborn fly. To me this sounds as if it had been spawned by the shudders. I’m not sure what sound the buzzing is; probably some transformation of what Ingram’s liner notes tell me is an old recording of a Bosnian Muslim gusle singer. I hadn’t remembered (or maybe I never knew; did I read the program notes in 1997?) that Kingdom Come is filled with the pain and sorrow of the former (now tortured) Yugoslavia; it’s dedicated to the memory of Ingram’s brother-in-law, Francis Tomasic, who was killed working as a journalist in Bosnia. Maybe that explains the shudder. We often act these days as if we’re frightened of emotion. By “we” of course I mean sophisticates who like new music, and one reason we shy from feeling that’s too blatant or too obvious is that we’ve seen it turn to dishonest sentimental mush in the more commercial regions of pop culture, like pop-song hits and network television. Earlier, our modernist forebears distrusted blatant feeling for similar reasons. And now it’s also not hip to be emotional; when I worked at Entertainment Weekly, one editor blanched when I put feeling into pop reviews, as if I’d revealed myself as some kind of drooling geek.

But as I wrote last month, there really are some problems with emotion, in our present age, or rather reasons why it easily can grow so sentimental. If we think that we can create a good life simply because we have good feelings, then surely we’ve forgotten everything we should have learned from history. There’s painful trouble in the world; we can feel joyful, but if our joy doesn’t also capture the pain that’s inevitably near us (linked through everything we buy, everything we consume, from food to energy to ideas), then it’s empty. Ingram’s music clearly touches pain, not just in Kingdom Come, but in everything I’ve heard from him. The melancholy fog that I associate with him—maybe an unfair generalization of his most famous piece, Fog Tropes, for brass and tapes of foghorns, along with other sounds, like distant seagulls—reads to me like genuine regret for all the things in life that, right now, we don’t know how to change.

Kingdom Come takes just 16 minutes of the CD it’s on, whose full title is Kingdom Come/Hymnodic Delays/Fog Tropes II. The four movements of Hymnodic Delays, for a four-voice madrigal group and digital processing, help demonstrate why Ingram’s harmony isn’t really tonal. They’re based on early New England choral music, and when once or twice they seem to literally reproduce their sources, they seem a little jarring. The rhythms don’t float; the harmony has structure and direction. And that, in Ingram’s context, makes the music seem a little obvious (though in its original setting, it surely wouldn’t).

Fog Tropes II is a reexamination of Fog Tropes for string quartet and the varied twilight sounds on tape. It’s worth studying to see how stabbing chords and tremolos expose themselves without losing any dignity, and how the seagulls—which, along with the recorded sound of waves, are cliché of sentimental new-age music—do as well. Grown-up regret is far from sentimental. Fog still can be evocative (we’d better enjoy it, like everything in nature, while we can). And one function of music ought to be to help us mine our souls.

Ingram seems to mine his depth of memory on Evensongs, a 1997 CD from New Albion, a label that’s recorded him for years. The memories here are, externally at least, both of hymns and classical chamber music. The piece that grips me most is a long (20 minutes) piano quartet, In My Beginning Is My End (a title suggested by T.S. Eliot‘s Four Quartets), played with stunning unashamed passion by the Dunsmuir Piano Quartet. It has a striking, unexpected, almost bouncy, rhythmical beginning, which segues into music that’s more lyrical, and almost sounds as if it could be French (César Franck? Debussy?). Then there’s a harmless-seeming pause, the same kind that separated bounciness from lyricism—and all at once comes something for the strings alone, so high and sad it seems (in context) almost like a child’s premonitions of adulthood.

Rhythmic sections alternate with sadness; the piece starts to sound like a collage again, but this time a horizontal one, of moments juxtaposed without (or, once again, so it seems to me) a structural relationship. The piece, as I hear it, doesn’t unfold like classical chamber music. Instead it reconstructs how chamber music sounds.

The more I hear it, the more astonishing it seems. The second movement, Ingram says, could be called a set of variations, though in a formal sense I’m not sure it really is one, because I don’t hear a theme whose structural elements Ingram systematically elaborates. In his liner notes, he says something that seems very much like this, and puts it in a lovely way—he says the movement “dwells on” two hymns. “Dwelling on them” (returning to them, lingering around them) is more relaxed than “varying” them. The separate “variations”—not separated by formal stops and starts, but still made distinct, as they’d be in Brahms or Beethoven, by sound and gesture—function, once again, as reminiscences, this time of the idea of writing variations.

Though at this point, I can’t help wondering what Ingram would think of what I’m saying, if he’d think my conceit of reminiscence has any meaning in his music. I feel a little helpless, as if I’ve gotten lost in abstractions, and lost my simple love of music. I only know this piano quartet wows me, contents me, and delights me. My only complaint might be with the recording, and with the recordings of every other piece on these two CDs—they all should be more distant. We don’t need to hear the physicality of each separate instrument, and even less the breathiness of voices in Hymnodic Delays. The music, paradoxically, would seem more tangible if its separate parts were less so, if the microphones had stepped back, to let us hear the sounds blending in a larger space.

But that’s a small thing, which didn’t stop me from being utterly absorbed by what I heard. Ingram is a treasure (a master composer, but even more a treasure). I wish he were more widely recognized as one, and I hope that these recordings help.

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