Alex SHAPIRO: NOTES FROM THE KELP . Slipping. Bioplasm. Current Events. For My Father. At the Abyss. Phos Hilaron. Music for Two Big Instruments. Deep

by Walter Simmons



Alex SHAPIRO: NOTES FROM THE KELP • Robin Lorentz, Miwako Watanabe, Connie Kupka (vn); Victoria Miskolczy, David Walther (va); David Speltz (vc); Los Angeles Flute Quartet;7 Brice Martin8 (fl); Charles Boito9 (cl); Carolyn Beck (bn); Leslie Lashinsky (cbn); Alan Baer (tb); Susanne Kessel, Teresa McCollough, Frank Basile, Bradley Haag (pn); Kathleen McIntosh (hpd); Thomas Burritt (mmb, vibe); Dan Morris, Peggy Benkeser (perc) • INNOVA 683 (73:18)

Slipping. Bioplasm. Current Events. For My Father. At the Abyss. Phos Hilaron. Music for Two Big Instruments. Deep

Now in her late 40s, Alex Shapiro was born, raised, and educated in Manhattan, where her composition teachers included Ursula Mamlok and John Corigliano. At some point she moved to the West Coast, and now lives in the San Juan Islands of Washington State. All the works on this program feature small instrumental ensembles and were composed between 1996 and 2006, while she was living in Malibu, California. Throughout her program notes (beginning with the album title noted above) she makes abundantly clear that proximity to the ocean is of paramount importance to her, and many of the pieces in some way draw upon that affinity. This, and the overall “tone” of her notes prepared me for the prospect of more than an hour of environmentally-oriented sonic landscapes—the sort of thing generally associated with a “New Age” sensibility. Perusing the package, I expect that old-fashioned collector types, as well as hard-nosed academics, would be likely to sneer at its overall informality (“When she’s not at sea or exploring the tide pools, Alex procrastinates on her next piece by updating her website, …”; and in a note “From Alex: Composing is a lot like making love….”; somehow I can’t imagine that line in a program note by Charles Wuorinen, for example). On the other hand, I’m sure that Shapiro and her fans would defend her attitude as a healthy antidote to the stuffiness and pomposity of conventional classical music sociology—and they would have a good point. 

The fact is that the music on this CD embraces a fairly wide range of expression. One piece, Deep, an 8-minute piece for contrabassoon, percussion, and electronically generated sounds, is a sort of sonic landscape; extremely evocative, it would be ideal background music for a film documentary on the ocean depths. But other pieces that I expected might be along the same lines were not. 
For example, Bioplasm is a 12-minute piece for four flutists, who play a bunch of flutes—alto, bass, piccolo, in addition to the usual—and also vocalize. “Alex” writes, “I wanted to create an organism from the four flutists that oozes across the sonic floor as a unified entity, sometimes slowly, sometimes at a quick pace, but always as one, like a Slinky toy.” So I expected something evocative of a giant amoeba crawling across the ocean floor. Instead, Bioplasmproved to be an engaging substantive work, with a definite sense of musical “progress.”

Eventually I concluded that despite Shapiro’s titles and the concepts upon which she draws for inspiration, most of these pieces are reasonably absorbing and satisfying musical works, emanating from a roughly neo-classical stylistic frame of reference. For example, Current Events, perhaps the most ambitious and actively substantive piece, is a 16-minute string quintet in three movements. Despite the subjective and metaphorical nature of the composer’s comments (“Current Events ponders the ocean’s tides as well as waves of a more internal, emotional nature….”), the piece itself utilizes a highly chromatic but not harshly atonal language in a traditional manner that more than once calls to mind the string chamber works of Ernest Bloch (another devotee of the sea who resided on the shores of the Pacific). 

The other work of more extended proportions is At the Abyss, a 14-minute piece for piano, marimba, vibraphone, and other percussion. (“I titled this piece At the Abyss because as members of a species which remains too savage for its ultimate survival, we’re staring directly into a crevasse that is our future. We are poised to plummet to its depths if we do not react accordingly.”) Although I share Shapiro’s outlook, I can’t really say that any of it comes through in the music, which is never the right vehicle for such speculation. On the other hand, it is a fairly exciting piece in three movements, tinged with the influence of jazz. For the most part, the outer movements are rhythmically driving, with irregular meters, while the middle movement is slow, contemplative, and dark in mood. 

Of the other pieces, Slipping, for violin, harpsichord, and percussion, intends to give the harpsichord an array of musical styles as dissimilar to its customary repertoire as possible. The 10-minute piece is a playful potpourri of everything from tango to Japanese to Dixieland to rock to country. Somewhat similarly, Music for Two Big Instruments is a 7-minute piece for tuba and piano that sets out not to indulge in the sort of caricature customarily assigned to the lowest member of the brass family. The result is a straightforward piece of good music that builds to quite a serious climax.

For My Father is a short piano piece inspired by the composer’s experience of watching her father descend into dementia—a most painful experience to which her piece doesn’t really do justice.
The large array of musicians brought together on this recording seems drawn from among the West Coast’s top freelance musicians. The performances are almost all extremely fine. My only complaint is that the reading of At the Abyss seemed unduly restrained, with regard to both tempo and dynamics.

In summary, an intriguing and varied program representing a composer with a sincere interest in musical expression.