FAST JUMP ● LANG memory pieces. KOZIK Fast Jump. FITKIN Relent. BURHANS In Time of Desperation. NARVESON ripple

by Walter Simmons



FAST JUMP ● Danny Holt (pn) ● INNOVA 734 (79:49) LANG memory pieces. KOZIK Fast Jump. FITKIN Relent. BURHANS In Time of Desperation. NARVESON ripple.

This is a remarkably rewarding program of music for piano solo composed between the years 1997-2005, and performed with convincing authority and extraordinary dexterity by the California-based Danny Holt. Despite the relative recency of the music on the program, there is nothing here likely to alienate listeners comfortable with the level of harmonic dissonance found in the works of Prokofiev, Bartók, and even Debussy. The chief clue to the later provenance of this music lies in the varied degrees of minimalist influence. But even this is not blatantly obvious, when one considers that many of the character pieces of the older composers just noted are based on repetitive figurations. What is also especially interesting about the program and typical of much  postmodernism is that tonality—the presence or absence thereof—is basically not an issue: Sometimes it is clearly discernable, sometimes not, but that particular aspect is subordinate to other elements, such as texture, speed, rhythm, and pattern figuration.

David Lang’s memory pieces constitute the earliest and most extended work on the program. Lang, now in his mid 50s, is probably the best known of the composers represented—a co-founder of the successful New Music ensemble, Bang on a Can, and recipient of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize. His group of eight pieces was composed in 1997. Averaging a little less than five minutes each, the pieces are a bit longer than the typical character pieces for piano. They are also distinguished from their pianistic predecessors in that, rather than following a conventional narrative arc, Lang’s pieces tend to start somewhat abruptly, maintaining a more-or-less constant energy level throughout, and then end as abruptly as they began. Each piece was written to commemorate a friend of the composer who had passed away, and, taken together, the set offers considerable variety in character, energy level, and figurational patterns, ranging from mysterious, hypnotic meditations to brilliant and exciting technical whirlwinds. Some unusual sonorities led me to suspect the use of some electronic modification of the tone quality, but these effects may have been achieved through subtleties of pedaling. Although I believe that, at 38 minutes, the entire set tends to overextend its welcome a bit, I could imagine a selection of perhaps four or five sections contributing very nicely to a recital program.

Lona Kozik’s eponymous Fast Jump is subtitled, “Etudes and Interludes,” and these eight pieces date from 2002-03. Now in her mid 30s, Kozik hails from Arizona, and is a pianist in her own right, while actively involved with rock music as well. At 2-3 minutes each, her pieces do not wear out their welcome, while comprising a compelling, varied, and rewarding cycle that reveals a consummate familiarity with the resources of the instrument. There is no apparent attempt here to explore “original” expressive devices, but the pieces not sound hackneyed or derivative in the least.

The piece that I enjoyed the most on the program is Relent, an 11-minute toccata–like moto perpetuo written in 1998 by Graham Fitkin, an English composer now in his late 40s. Fitkin has supplied a number of compositions for use with choreography, and has worked with electronic music as well. Relent simplydoesn’t … relent. It is a driving, rhythmically irregular, and tremendously exciting piece. Despite a somewhat more subdued central section, the piece demands considerable endurance from the pianist, and Danny Holt provides a truly stunning rendition.

Also of compelling interest is In Time of Desperation, by Caleb Burhans, a Canadian composer in his early 30s who has also been active as a violinist, a counter-tenor with Early Music ensembles, and as a rock musician as well. The short piano piece from 2003 by which he is represented here is a rather passionate, frankly tonal outpouring. Based on a repetitive harmonic sequence with minimalist figurational patterns, it creates a mesmerizing effect that is strangely moving emotionally.

The only piece on the disc that held little interest for me was Jascha Narveson’s ripple from 2005. Like several of the other composers heard here, Narveson has been involved with rock as well as “classical” music; he is also drawn to the music of India. His short piece ripple presents a tonal melody in the right hand, while tonally unrelated counter-ideas are heard obliquely in the left hand. The piece suggested to the composer the impression of pebbles dropping into a quiet pool of water. This is an image that has been more effectively evoked by others.

On the whole this recent release is a most impressive testament to the highly impressive artistry of Danny Holt, as well as to the continuing fertility of composers in writing meaningful music for the piano during the early years of this still-new century. The program provides the opportunity for Holt to demonstrate tremendous power, velocity, subtlety of expression, and a great variety of tonal colorations. The sound of the piano is recorded with great richness and depth. My only complaint involves the pianist’s own program notes, which are skimpy and minimally informative. What little factual information is reported in this review was not gleaned from the notes, but was accessed elsewhere. I do not welcome the gradual disappearance of relevant background information, and believe that it is a disservice to readers who take their music seriously enough to want such information on the composer and his music. It is also a disservice to the composers, whose music leaves much less of an impression when it is offered without context. I can’t think of who benefits from this paucity of information, other than the record company, which can supply a cheaper booklet.