by Walter Simmons
TORKE Percussion Concerto, “Rapture”. An American Abroad. Jasper · Marin Alsop, cond; Royal Scottish Nat’l O; Colin Currie (perc) · NAXOS 8.559167 (61:20)
Now in his early 40s, Michael Torke has become one of today’s more controversial composers. Gaining significant national exposure while still in his 20s, Torke earned his early reputation through a number of exuberantly perky pieces that seemed to combine the continuous pulsation of minimalism with the lively, syncopated rhythmic irregularity of Stravinskian neo-classicism, and the direct vitality of rock music. As time has gone on, these elements have been absorbed and integrated into a more personal style, one that has smoothed out the infectious abrasiveness that enlivened his earlier music, which has been replaced by an ingratiating directness of impact. Minimalist processes continue to serve as default energizing devices, but they remain in the background, and are sometimes absent altogether. As a result, Torke has provoked that venerable and often exasperating twin reaction: simple, irrefutable popular success and critical condemnation, inflamed by the resentful envy of peers. Such figures are usually dismissed by “serious professionals” as either innocently inept quasi-amateurs or– more invidiously– as panderers who have “sold out” their artistic integrity for fame and fortune. I will resist the temptation to develop this issue into a free-ranging abstract essay on the subject, and will return to the matter at hand by noting that at this point Torke seems to be riding the crest of the controversy, and doing so with the somewhat defensive, wounded pride characteristic of the object of resentful envy.
My reflections on Torke and his music are somewhat influenced by having interviewed him for an article in another publication some twelve years ago, when he was at a different point in his career, as well as by the coincidence of having attended the American premiere of one of the pieces recorded here while in the midst of preparing this review. The performance was preceded by a short talk in which Torke commented on the piece to be heard and on his music in general. One point that he made was especially notable, and indicative of his thinking about his role as a composer today: As a child, he was told that the difference between “popular” and “classical” music was that “popular” music was “here today and gone tomorrow,” whereas “classical” music was revered for centuries. But, he said, when reflecting on the “classical” music that achieved prominence during the preceding century, and comparing its durability with that of such “popular” composers as Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers, and George Gershwin, he found the opposite of that conventional distinction to be true. This point, as well as some equally revealing statements that appear in the program notes for this release, were continually called to mind as I listened to the music.
The pieces on the CD at hand represent the fruits of Torke’s tenure as “Associate Composer” of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, and were all composed between 1998 and 2001. Therefore they may be considered to represent the composer’s current phase of development, and much of what applies to one of them applies to all three, although there are some distinct differences. The work that diverges somewhat from the others (and the one I heard in concert) is An American Abroad, a 20-minute tone poem that attempts to suggest the feelings of the hypothetical eponym. It is brazen in its undisguised attempt to re-visit the notion pursued in Gershwin’s pops-concert favorite, even to the point of including in its wistful central section a theme with obvious reminiscences of his predecessor. Though couched in the crisply pulsating textures of today’s music, the work is as ingratiating in its appeal as its model, with pretty melodies and lively rhythms, all easy to grasp on a first hearing.
In Rapture, the concerto Torke composed for the young percussion virtuoso Colin Currie, who gave the work’s premiere in 2001, the composer’s minimalist roots are more clearly apparent. This is a lively, brilliantly-colored half-hour work whose movements are sub-titled, “Drums and Woods,” “Mallets,” and “Metals,” respectively, thereby indicating the distribution of the large battery of featured percussion instruments. The first movement presents an exciting array of syncopated rhythmic activity, sometimes suggesting a Latin flavor. The second movement is benign in spirit and very pretty. The finale is splashy and colorful– bursting with rhythmic energy. Much of the appeal of Torke’s music lies in the sheer exuberance of its surface activity, with little density of substance. Most conspicuously absent is a sense of harmonic motion, which causes the concerto, in particular, to seem over-extended. A somewhat deeper impression was made by the recent Percussion Concerto of Joseph Schwantner, which shares quite a few elements in common with Torke’s work.
Alongside the color and excitement of the Percussion Concerto and the nostalgic familiarity of An American Abroad, the 12-minute Jasper is the low-profile entry on the disc. It is, in a sense, a latter-day counterpart of, say, an overture by Sir William Walton, from the standpoint of aesthetic weight and accessibility. Its diatonic thematic material is couched in shimmering, effervescent textures that pulsate with engaging Stravinskian rhythmic irregularities. However, an absence of architectonic direction weakens the sense of cumulative impact, creating an impression of formlessness.
I must emphasize that Torke is no dope: Much of the effect made by his music is, for better and worse, quite intentional. When he writes, “The ritual possibilities of music can dispense with narrative, and give us the pulse and perfume of meditative ecstasy,” he is explicitly rejecting what I identify as “cumulative impact” and “sense of direction.” And when explaining the subtitle of the Percussion Concerto, he notes that when the beating of drums is “organized and insistent, it begins to have a ritualistic effect, and excite a kind of rapture that unites the religious with the sexual.” Perhaps most explicitly revelatory of his modus operandi, he says of all three works presented here, “the melodies and rhythms may sound directional, as the foreground aural experience seems to transport us from one point to the next, but overall the music expresses a kind of celebration of itself, a state of sustained feeling for its own sake.” In other words, he is saying — as I understand it — that he uses materials that one associates with a conventional sense of directionality, but treats them in such a way as to create a sense of stasis. In so defining his aesthetic objectives, he joins such diverse and controversial figures as Delius, Hovhaness, and Panufnik– composers whose music hovers over the line between spiritual ecstasy and benumbed, lobotomized meandering, and elicits conflicting reactions among listeners of varying sympathies.
At the concert mentioned earlier, Torke’s piece was followed by a work of Paul Creston. The juxtaposition prompted me to observe how, aside from his music’s turn-of-the-2lst-century trappings, Torke’s aesthetic objectives are very close to those of his predecessor of a half-century earlier. Both draw upon the accessibility of materials familiar from more “popular” music, both focus primarily on the intoxicating power of irregular rhythmic ostinati, and both confound conventional aesthetic hierarchies by attempting to achieve a deep and intense impact without adopting a dour or severe tone. However, Creston disciplined his music through a concentrated focus on motivic development and transformation, imbuing his work with a stronger structural foundation — or so it seems to me right now. At this point Torke’s music seems to me no more profound, yet no less legitimate, than quasi-pops-concert favorites by the aforementioned Creston and Walton, or, perhaps, Ron Nelson. There is always a place for music of this kind, and there always will be.
As principal guest conductor of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Marin Alsop has made a major investment in Michael Torke, and one presumes that she is a committed enthusiast. However, as competent as the performances offered here may be, I couldn’t help feeling throughout that a bit more precision and a lighter, crisper approach to the textures and sonorities would have enhanced the music’s impact.