Sounds Heard: Amy Williams—Crossings: Music for Piano and Strings

Sounds Heard: Amy Williams—Crossings: Music for Piano and Strings

by Amy Williams
JACK Quartet
Amy Williams
Jeffrey Jacob
The Bugallo-Williams Piano Duo

Being a Suzuki-trained violinist myself, it’s rare that music listening inspires me to reach for a score, but that’s what I found myself wishing for while unpacking the layers of sound that comprise Amy Williams’s Richter Textures (2011). (I soon discovered that the composer has helpfully posted it to her website, and so I was able to explore the piece’s construction in more detail.) In this opening composition on her new Albany CD of chamber music, Williams conjures in sound the character of seven Richter paintings and the JACK Quartet brings them to remarkable life. The seven-movement work proceeds without pause, which further heightens the impact of the assured passing game the quartet members run throughout the piece. No examination extends longer than four and a half minutes, but each movement builds up a translation of Richter’s visual medium ranging from frozen to frantic. Williams employs a full bag of colorful string techniques to accomplish this, but none that show any evidence of pushing the players beyond their comfort.

In total, the music included on the disc spans some ten years of compositional activity, and Williams’s experience as a pianist and her work in The Bugallo-Williams Piano Duo has likely contributed to her sensitivity and skill when it comes to composing chamber music. Williams’s comments in the brief booklet notes highlight her interest in using points of inspiration not as material for quotation but as “a structural model, abstract reference or starting point for a particular compositional process.” (A sentiment which somewhat harkens back to Arlene Sierra’s comments on her own working methods.)

In some instances, her influences are seemingly audible, as in Brigid’s Flame (2009), a solo piano work composed in memory of Williams’s late father-in-law. The piece features a number of dense running piano lines which easily link up with the images of flickering firelight suggested by the title. The Brian Philip Katz poem that inspired the composition of Falling (2012) written for Ursula Oppens is reprinted in the booklet, but the sonic connections Williams draws out are arguably less directly presented and instead perhaps more personally infused into the slow drift of the music. Both brief works are performed on this recording by the composer herself. From here, the emotional tone of the album takes a sharp left as Jeffrey Jacob launches into the intricate, rapid-fire keywork required in Astoria (2004), a piece rooted in Astor Piazzolla’s Movimiento Continuo (Williams cites its structure, harmonic progressions, and rhythmic patterns as points of intersection) without being terribly obvious about it. It’s an addictive little gem of a piece.

The Bugallo-Williams Piano Duo performs the two remaining piano-focused works, the genesis of both traceable to the music of other composers. According to Williams, Crossings (2009) reaches back to Bach and Abstracted Art (2001-02) to the music of Art Tatum, but the leash of influence seems long and I suspect listeners would be hard pressed to make the associations if the composer hadn’t pointed them out herself. Crossings for four hands unspools along deliberately plotted steps, the exploration keeping largely to the upper register until well past the halfway point and the density only gaining serious weight in the work’s final minutes, Williams’s dynamic finally reaching the bolded and underlined stage. Despite its serious sounding title, Abstracted Art has a lot more play in the lines and isn’t shy about flashing the sass it has to offer.

Arriving at the closing bookend, the JACK is joined by Williams at the piano for Cineshape 2 (2007), one in a series of works inspired by films–in this case the split screen experiment Timecode. The instrumentalists work through the music, sometimes in a kind of soliloquy among the other players and sometimes in conversation with them, the development of various thematic areas punctuated by some startling moments of auditory aggression.

Across the disc, this collection of music stands in dialog with other creative work, whether in the form of stories, images, text, or other music. It is an intimate look inside Williams’s artistic influences, a portrait of what she has seen there and what she has taken away.

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