by Walter Simmons
MORAN There Appeared an Angel. Cortege. Elegy for a Young King. Mantra. Obrigado. Stirling: It’s Raining Cats and Dogs. KBOCO. Processional • Alexander Hermann, cond; Chrismos Vocal Ens; Grassauer Wind Ens; Robert Ridgell (org); Latvian Radio Ch; Dan Moore, cond; Iowa Perc • INNOVA 714 (66:46)
Now in his early 70s, Robert Moran has been on the compositional scene for a long time, and has passed through most of the “isms” that have comprised the contemporary music landscape of the past 50 years. Born in Denver, he studied 12-tone composition in Vienna, worked with Berio and Milhaud at Mills College, ran a new music ensemble in San Francisco, where he created a work that involved the participation of much of the city, including 100,000 performers, two radio stations, a TV station, dancers in the streets, et al.—the first of several such large-scale “happenings.” During the 1970s he returned to Europe, serving as composer in residence for the city of West Berlin, where many new works were commissioned and performed. Returning to the United States, he served as composer in residence at Northwestern University, and worked with both John Cage and Philip Glass. He lived in New York City for several years, before moving to Philadelphia during the mid 1980s. There he co-composed with Philip Glass what may be his best-known creative product: an opera, The Juniper Tree, which has enjoyed a number of productions. Since then he has composed many operas, and made a number of visits to Asia, where he studied the indigenous music of these cultures, all of which influenced his subsequent creative work. His compositions have been choreographed and performed all over the world, and many have been recorded. The foregoing recounts only the highpoints of his varied and active career.
The eight works on this compact disc all date from the years 1995 through 2007. It is difficult to characterize them or categorize them collectively, except to state that they would probably be most accurately termed “post-minimalist.” As I hear them, they fall into three subdivisions, except for Processional, a remarkably ordinary piece composed for the wedding of organist Robert Ridgell and his wife. The first three pieces in the headnote above might be compared with the music of Pärt and Tavener. They are slow in tempo, with a commensurately slow harmonic rhythm, and a consonant harmonic language, aside from a few appoggiaturas and suspensions. They sound as if they were recorded in large churches, with long reverberation times. There Appeared an Angel (2006) is scored for mixed chorus, brass, and organ; Cortege (2005) features brass dectet. Elegy for a Young King was composed in 1999 for organ. Perhaps my favorite on the disc, this is an aleatoric piece written in homage of King Ludwig II of Bavaria (Wagner’s fanatical patron). My only complaint about this selection is that the program notes do not make clear just what degrees of freedom are left to the performer, versus what is specified in the score. All three of these pieces evoke a peaceful sense of rapture.
Occupying a category of one is the 9-minute Mantra, the earliest piece on the program—perhaps a brief example of Moran’s large-scale “happenings.” Here again the program notes are inadequate. They tell us that this work “is composed for three choruses, at great distances from each other, no text. This live recording comes from the 1997 Latvian Radio Chorus concert, conducted by Otto Hotarek, Fritz Neumeyer, Tomas Brantner.” That’s it. So we know that three conductors are involved, presumably conducting three separate choral groups. But where they are situated relative to each other, and how the entirety was coordinated is left to conjecture. The audible result is somewhat chaotic, with very slow harmonic rhythm (a necessity, one would presume, in order to actualize such a concept—regardless of exactly what that concept might be).
The third category consists of three pieces for percussion. These are all pitch and rhythm-oriented, displaying the influence of African and Asian drumming techniques. The shortest is Obrigado, dating from 1995, and features mallet instruments as well as piano. The music is modal and energetic, with intriguing rhythmic irregularities. The longest of the three is Stirling: It’s Raining Cats and Dogs (2007). This piece mixes the sound of rain with some 50 percussion instruments. Moran calls it “a musical landscape in rain,” the rain being “an integral sound-event from start to finish.” Well, it doesn’t exactly unfold like a symphony, but it is effectively atmospheric as a sound ambiance. This recording was taken from the world premiere in Iowa. KBOCO was named for a well known Brazilian graffiti artist, and was explicitly written for choreographer Armando Duarte. The exotic musical influences here seem to be African via Brazil.
In summary, an intriguing survey of recent work by a veteran of many “new music” scenes. Recommended to those who follow and enjoy the branches of post-minimalism.