Sounds Heard: Heather Schmidt—Icicles of Fire

Sounds Heard: Heather Schmidt—Icicles of Fire

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Icicles of Fire
by Heather Schmidt
(Centrediscs 18813)
Shauna Rolston -cello
Heather Schmidt - piano

One of the benefits of my association with the International Association of Music Information Centres all these years has been being able to find out about all of the exciting new music that is being created in the other countries that are part of this network. As part of the work these organizations do on behalf of the music of their respective countries, many have issued significant recordings over the years. I’m always excited when I receive one of the “Zoom In” compilations from the Lithuanian Music Information and Publishing Centre, the latest sampler from the Contemporary Music Centre in Ireland, or the annual chronicle of the Warsaw Autumn produced by POLMIC. A few music information centers have even maintained their own recording labels over the years. One of my favorites of these labels—NM Classics (a joint effort by Radio Netherlands and the Music Centre The Netherlands, which ceased operations in December 2012)—is sadly no more, and Phono Suecia (run from the Swedish Music Information Centre) has seriously curtailed its operations. But there are several other members in the IAMIC network that thankfully are still very actively releasing new music such as the Slovenian Music Information Centre and the Deutsche Musikrat, which curates the indispensable Edition Zeitgenössische Musik released on the Wergo label. Closer to home is Centrediscs, the label of the Canadian Music Centre, which has put out a treasure trove of music by Canadian composers spanning over a century and has long been the best source for learning about Canadian music. The only labels that are remotely parallel to Centrediscs here in the United States are New World Records and innova, the label of the American Composers Forum, but the broad reach of Centrediscs within Canada makes it stand apart. They also have very few competitors. CBC Records, the label of the Canadian Broadcasting Company, has reduced its once staunch commitment to the music of Canadian composers to virtually nil, although Naxos’s Canadian Classics imprint has released some fascinating music since its launch in 2011.

Although all of these recordings eventually find their way into my various CD players, I rarely get a chance to jot down my thoughts about them here since the repertoire they cover extends beyond the borders of the United States. However, since our neighbors to the north frequently relocate here and vice versa, and the Canadian Music Centre considers any composer born or currently residing in their country to be Canadian, just as we acknowledge any composer born or currently residing in the United States to be one of ours, there is some overlap. Such is the case with Canadian-born composer/pianist Heather Schmidt, whose music I first became acquainted with when she was living in New York City. She had recently completed her doctorate at Indiana University and was the youngest person to have received that degree from them at that point. Nowadays she divides her time between Toronto and Los Angeles. Her impressive 1998 Cello Concerto appears on a wonderful disc of contemporary Canadian works for cello and orchestra featuring cellist Shauna Rolston that was issued by the CBC in 2001, back when they were still making significant contributions to recording Canadian music. And I was later particularly smitten by a short solo piano piece called Twelve for Ten that she composed and performed as part of a collection of new fugues in homage to our Northern neighbor’s most famous classical musician, Glenn Gould; Schmidt’s piece is even based on a distillation of his name into musical pitches: G E G D!

Earlier this year Centrediscs issued the very first CD devoted exclusively to Schmidt’s own music. (There are several discs devoted to her piano performances of a variety of repertoire.) After having heard the aforementioned large scale cello work for Shauna Rolston and the solo piano piece she performed herself, it was thrilling to hear a disc of duos featuring Rolston and the composer herself at the piano. All in all there are three compositions on the new disc, presented in reverse chronological order, which were composed over the course of the last decade.

The most recent of the pieces, Synchronicity (2007), is in two relatively short movements, the first of which is approximately half the length of the latter. In the first dreamlike movement, a repeated cello pattern accompanies a piano melody—something of a role reversal from most cello-piano duo repertoire. The second movement is more visceral, with fierce piano thumps in the lower register that eventually give way to a melodic line that gets trades between the cello and piano and is sometimes shared by them. In its modal monody it is somewhat reminiscent of the East Asian inspired chamber music of Lou Harrison.

After the extroverted freneticism of the closing measures of Synchronicity, the more introverted single-movement Fantasy (2006) comes across as an oasis of serenity. The piece’s quiet, almost spare texture does, however, belie an undercurrent that sounds somewhat more menacing, perhaps because of Schmidt’s focus on the lower registers of both instruments. Even when they occasionally soar into their upper registers, those passages sound like they are immerging from a deep abyss.

Icicles of Fire (2003)—the last piece on the disc and also the earliest of the three—is another diptych. Again, the first movement is somewhat ethereal and meditative whereas the second movement is bristling with tensions. In Schmidt’s notes, she describes imagining icicles with little flames burning inside them as she was composing it. She explains the music in the latter movement as “the smaller flames giv[ing] way to a full blown blaze”; the musical realization of this gives both musicians an opportunity to display their virtuosity.

Aside from its inherent interest due to the broad range of music that Schmidt has fashioned out of one of the more traditional chamber music duo configurations, this new Centrediscs recording of her music is a wonderful documentation of an ongoing collaboration between a composer and an interpreter. Relationships like this are so necessary for both sides of the music-making equation but are all too rare. Too frequently a performer will commission a composer just once or a composer will choose to write a sole work for a certain instrumental combination, but it is in the ongoing working through of materials that a real surety of purpose ultimately develops. Now if only every country in the world had organizations that documented their music as devotedly as the Canadian Music Centre continues to do through these recordings. I’m just happy that some of those Canadian composers have decided to spend their time in “the lower 48” and still get the same treatment!

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