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John Aylward’s passion for contemporary music has already manifested in a surprising number of ways for someone barely over thirty. An accomplished concert pianist who champions recent compositions, the Tucson-born, Boston-based Aylward is also a formidable music theorist who has written extensively about Elliott Carter. He’s additionally the artistic director of the modular East Coast Contemporary Ensemble, and in that role founded the Etchings Festival, an annual international forum based in Auvillar, France. But above and beyond all of these things, Aylward is a composer of challenging yet compelling instrumental, vocal, and electronic works, so it is gratifying to hear an entire disc devoted to his music.
Stillness and Change, issued last month on Albany, offers four of Aylward’s chamber works, all composed within the last three years. The disc, which featured definitive performances by members of the East Coast Contemporary Ensemble, is an excellent snapshot of where he currently is as a composer. Although it’s a shame that room could not have been made for at least one of his electronic compositions or live electronic improvisations herein as well. However, folks eager to discover this aspect of his compositional identity can explore links to entire sound files on the music page of his website.
But even listeners whose sole encounter with Aylward’s music will be this new Albany disc should immediately hear that the kind of acute attention to sonority which typifies most electronic music is at play in his purely acoustic music as well. Aylward’s keen sense of instrumental possibilities and how to effectively balance them is perhaps most clearly evident in the opening work which lends the disc its title, Stillness and Change, a 2008 composition for “Pierrot plus percussion”: flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, and percussion. This enduring timbral combination has been a perennial favorite of Aylward, who has previously written at least two other works so scored as well as pieces for subsets of this configuration and a work for mezzo-soprano and “Pierrot”. Aylward’s ongoing experience with writing for this ensemble is a refreshing contrast to most composers who only write a single Pierrot work; as a result, this quintessentially contemporary music instrumentation comes across sounding as inevitable as a string quartet despite several things that Aylward does to intentionally sabotage the blending of layers. Like Carter, Aylward creates multiple simultaneous independent strands and revels in sonically oxymoronic passages that are fast and slow at the same time.
Images of Departure (2009), a de-facto sonata for viola and piano (here performed by Mark Holloway and Stephen Gosling), is a tour de force three-movement showcase for the most unduly neglected member of the string family. The terse energetic opening is followed by a deeply moving “Elegy” whose harmonies, as the composer acknowledges in his program notes, are indebted to Olivier Messiaen. The final movement is an exciting virtuosic romp. Written during the final illness of his uncle William Gerard Aylward, to whose memory the entire disc is dedicated, Images of Departure is a hefty musical statement that very effectively demonstrates that the middle fiddle is as capable of gravitas as its bigger and smaller brethren.
Songs from the Wild Iris is a song cycle derived from five poems by Louise Glück. Glück’s nature-inspired writings have served as the catalyst for many of Aylward’s compositions over the years, including purely instrumental works such as the aforementioned Stillness and Change. (In fact, even the title Stillness and Change comes from a line in Glück’s poem Island.) By avoiding inappropriate melismatic flourishes and keeping the spare instrumental textures that accompany the vocal line relatively unobtrusive, Aylward creates an ideal musical frame in which Glück’s words are always comprehensible. The composition of these attentive settings both predates and postdates the other compositions on the disc, revealing that these poems were in the back of his mind even as he was creating all of the other music herein.
A different kind of spareness informs Aylward’s 2009 composition Reciprochal Accord, which is scored for a duo of violin and cello. Inspired by his analysis of Carter’s Fifth String Quartet, Aylward explores contrasting proportionate tempos between the two players. In a lucid introductory essay accompanying the disc, composer Christian Carey makes some fascinating observations about place in his comparisons between Aylward and Carter. Carter, a lifelong New Yorker, had his great compositional epiphany while working on his First String Quartet in a desert near Tucson, whereas Aylward grew up in Tucson but composed all of the works on the present recording after moving to the Northeast. While Carey eschews the oversimplification of a Southwest/Northwest dichotomy running through the music of both of these composers, Aylward, like Carter before him, creates a thoroughly organic music which clearly and effectively channels multiple places.