Sound Heard: Mark Gustavson—Dissolving Images

Sound Heard: Mark Gustavson—Dissolving Images


Dissolving Images
by Mark Gustavson
(Albany Troy 1424)
Lisa Moore - piano
Edward Gilmore - clarinet

While Dissolving Images is the first full-length CD devoted to the music of Mark Gustavson (a self-released EP featuring his 2010 Chiftetelli for clarinet and strings was released that same year), the five works collected here date back to the 20th century (one work was composed as far back as 1986) and two performances on the disc were actually recorded in the 1990s as well. So to say this recording is long overdue is an understatement, but it was certainly worth the wait. Hearing these five works collectively reveals a unified compositional aesthetic, one which seamlessly blends heady structural rigor with emotional intensity and humor. Although each of these five pieces—two solos and three chamber works—is strictly notated, some of the material hints at the musical vocabulary of improvisatory traditions ranging from early jazz to Middle Eastern maqam and other non-Western idioms. But just like standard repertoire warhorses which are constantly revisited because of the numerous interpretative possibilities they yield, Gustavson’s compositions feed off of the energy of the performers. The musicians featured on the current disc, who are in the top echelon of new music practitioners, are clearly reveling in this material.

The opening work which lends its title to the entire CD, Dissolving Images (1986), is an emotionally intense virtuosic solo piano composition (here played passionately by Lisa Moore) inspired by “Pensando, enredando sombras” from Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s 1924 collection Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada. (An English translation of the poem, “Thinking, Tangling Shadows,” can be found here.) Gustavson’s response to Neruda’s romantic words is a relentlessly developing series of variations that emanates from an ominous ascending minor third motive, which announces itself three times completely unadorned at the very beginning of the piece and is then immediately woven into a denser harmonic palette. Focusing on a specific interval is a hallmark of Gustavson’s compositional process—it’s a technique he describes as a “signature interval.” These designated intervals operate in his music similarly to the way a key is used in music governed by functional tonality; they are points of gravity that keep the listener focused on the sonic narrative.

Jag (1991) is scored for a “Pierrot” quintet of flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano with the addition of a trombone, an interloper which significantly changes the balance of this ubiquitous new music combination. (It was initially composed for a now defunct German ensemble featuring that somewhat unusual instrumentation and is here performed by members of Either/Or conducted by Richard Carrick.) The signature interval here is an ascending major sixth. It is first announced by muted trombone and then immediately answered by the cello playing the inversion of that interval—a descending minor third. Material based on these two manifestations of the interval is then woven through another chain of variations. While this might seem a bit intellectually erudite, the textures are remarkably lucid as Gustavson exploits the broad range of timbral possibilities available to him, juxtaposing solo, duo and full ensemble passages in a constant stream of polyphony.

The heftiest work featured herein is a Quintet for clarinet and string quartet composed in 1993. This beautiful instrumental combination has been a source of inspiration to composers since Mozart and has yielded extremely important works by composers ranging from Brahms and Reger to Morton Feldman, Osvaldo Golijov, and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich. Gustavson, too, clearly gives into the extremely satisfying blend of reed and bowed string here. In choosing the perfect fifth as his primary interval throughout each of the work’s four movements, he weaves expansive music that is open-ended and almost rapturous. Another compositional device that Gustavson explores throughout is creating the illusion of multiple tempos through gradual acceleration and unstable polyrhythms. The first movement is a slowly unfolding set of continuous variations—variation form is clearly another Gustavson hallmark. The second, which is much faster, is underpinned by an insistent cello throb on a perfect fifth at the bottom of its range. The third movement pairs a rhapsodic solo clarinet melody with a dense rhythmic canon in the strings. In the final movement, which is inspired by a slow Turkish dance, the clarinet plays seductive phrases periodically laced with quartertones against a percussive backdrop in the strings—the pizzicato cello suggesting the sonority of the doumbek, an hour-glass shaped hand drum found throughout the Islamic world. The extremely idiomatic performance by the group Contempo, and in particular clarinetist Edward Gilmore, is very convincing.

In Trickster, a solo clarinet showcase from 1997, quartertones are explored even further, as are slides and other extended techniques. (In addition to his compositional activities, Gustavson is also active as a clarinetist, although Edward Gilmore is an exceptionally impressive soloist on this recording.) In choosing the tritone as the primary interval for this piece, Gustavson fashions music that is inherently unstable, an ideal sonic parallel to the trickster of Native American mythology from which the piece’s title derives.

Finally, A Fool’s Journey (1998), scored for the standard Pierrot plus percussion sextet configuration (with clarinetist doubling on bass clarinet and flutist doubling on piccolo and alto flute), is a diptych focused on the interval of the major second that is inspired by two Tarot cards—the Fool and the Magician. (It is here performed by one of New York City’s long standing Pierrot group, Parnassus.) In the first movement, there are only three instruments—piccolo, piano and sleigh bells. According to the disc’s booklet notes, this is an attempt to directly musically convey the physical appearance of the Fool card—on the card the fool (piccolo), who is wearing sleigh bells, is accompanied by a small barking dog (which is aurally translated into a series of piano chords). In the second movement, the remaining members of the ensemble join in to portray the Magician who is able to make objects multiply or disappear—which is what now happens here to the thematic material of the first movement. At one point, there is a quotation in the clarinet and piano from Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, the first composition scored for its namesake ensemble. But that oblique reference quickly dissolves without elaboration other than guffaw-like utterances from the flute—the fool, who ultimately has the last laugh.

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