Classical Music Review: New Releases

Joseph Waters.  Arabesque (piano solo); When the Clouds So Boldly Painted On the Sky... (koto and electronics); Sulphur-Crested Cockatoos (SATB and wind sextet); Drum Ride (piano and electronics); Quiet Music - Early Morning (string trio); The Garden of Kali (digital electronics); The Populist Manifesto (soprano and mixed chamber ensemble). Performers include Susan DeWitt Smith, piano; Liz Falconer, koto; LeaAnne DenBeste, sop.; Sue Hale, mezzo.; Scott Tuomi, tenor; Craig Kingsbury, bass; Nancy Teskey, flute; Allen Juza, english horn; Betsy Hornick, clarinet; David Becker, bassoon; Kevin Calvert, horn; Jim O'Banion, trumpet; Ron Blessinger, violin; Brian Quincy, viola; Phil Hansen, cello; Jeffrey Payne, sampled piano; Brenda Baker, sop.; Gernot Blume, accordion; Tom Bergeron, saxophone; John Hubbard, cello; Julie Spencer, percussion. North Pacific Music NPM LD 009 (68'52).

Joseph Waters' stated goal is to see "how far can you push boundaries without losing the ability to connect with your audience."  It is a measure of his success that I was first introduced to his music by my sister, who is certainly sophisticated but not normally a fan of modern or even classical music.

One source of Waters' appeal is the variety of musical textures and instrumental combinations.  Consider the first two pieces on this disc. Arabesque (1976, rev. 1995), is a work for solo piano consisting of a series of winding melodies played over arpeggiated chords.  It sounds like a lost exercise from Bartok's MikrokosmosWhen the Clouds So Boldly Painted On the Sky..., a work for koto and electronics written in 1997, shows Mr. Waters at his best and most original. Over a collage of found sounds, some identifiable, some seemingly noise, a specially tuned koto serenely plays a series of plucked runs, only occasionally raising its voice to react to the pre-recorded background.  Liz Falconer's performance is mesmerizing.

Sulphur-Crested Cockatoos (1998) is also a work of juxtaposition.  A vocal quartet chants a polyphonous tune based on Yolngu chants from Australia, accompanied by a traditional classical wind sextet.  This type of ethnic fusion has become a contemporary music cliché; however, Waters downplays the exoticism and instead concentrates on the contrast between busy counterpoint and droning vocals.  Drum Ride (1991/99) is rhythmic work based on a five-beat pulse.  It shows something of the influence of minimalism in that its repeated patterns evolve gradually and are never quite reprised.  The next piece, Quiet Music - Early Morning for string trio (1998), is, as the title implies, a meditative work, bearing a passing resemblance to the quartet version of Samuel Barber's Adagio.

The Garden of Kali (2000) is another electronic collage, this one built completely from sounds produced by a prepared piano.  Waters produces a wide variety of sounds from this single source and unifies the opening sections with a throbbing bass note.  The inspiration seems to flag in the final sections.  There exists a version of this piece which adds a chamber ensemble and "performance art," suggesting that this may work better on stage.  More delightful, but equally stagey, is The Populist Manifesto (1984/99), a setting for soprano of Lawrence Ferlinghetti's rant against poets who speak only to other poets (and by extension a rant against composers who write only for other composers).

Mr. Waters achieves his "populist" goal through his use of a variety of rhythms, melodies, and instrumental colors, often  inspired by contemporary culture (he describes his generation of composers as the first "that grew up playing in rock bands").  This is exciting music.

Tony Gualtieri
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