At the beginning of this month, I cited an excellent way to become familiar with the music of Jennifer Higdon through the American Classics series released by Naxos in December of 2006. This past August Naxos released another disc in the same series entitled Awakenings: New American Chamber Music for Guitar. What gives this CD particularly local interest is that two of the compositions it offers were written for the 2006 opening of the new home of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music on Oak Street in the Civic Center. The third work on the disc is equally “historic,” but for a far sadder reason: it was the penultimate composition by Jorge Liderman, then on the composition faculty at the University of California at Berkeley, before his unexpected death at the age of 50 in 2008. All three compositions feature performances by David Tanenbaum, who directs the Guitar Department at the Conservatory.
By far the most intriguing of the three offerings is “Measures of Turbulence” by Steven Mackey, which the Conservatory Guitar Ensemble (directed by Tanenbaum) performed to celebrate the Conservatory’s new home. Mackey is Chairman of the Music Department at Princeton University, which will probably surprise those who remember that he got his start playing electric guitar in rock bands in Northern California. However, those experiences provided him with a auditory acuity sensitive to the subtle sonorities of both acoustic and electric guitars. He exercised that acuity in this composition by scoring it for five acoustic guitars, two electric ones, and a bass guitar (also electric).
He used the electric instruments primarily for the realization of “multiphonic” tones, from which the ear readily detects the pitches of several upper harmonics, rather than a single fundamental with a particularly rich spectrum. These complex sonorities serve as foreground against a richly textured background (from the acoustic instruments) of 15-against-8 polyrhythms. All this may sound highly cerebral (threatening to be more of an exercise in mathematics than in music); but the combination of churning rhythm and almost alien sonorities results in a highly exhilarating listening experience. Mackey was also responsible for producing the recording made for this disc (along with engineer Roni Jules); so we have every reason to believe that he tried to insure that the sounds from an actual performance were properly captured. The performance by the Guitar Ensemble also makes for a valuable reminder of just how much talent has emerged from the Conservatory’s Guitar Department.
Equally spirited was Liderman’s “Aged Tunes,” scored for guitar (performed by Tanenbaum) and string quartet, the Cuarteto Latinoamericao (violins Saúl Bitrán and Arón Bitrán, viola Javier Monteil, and cello Alvaro Bitrán). Liderman’s death on February 3, 2008 was an apparent suicide, which may lead some to seek out a macabre reading of his final works; but there is no darkness in this composition. There is only the sad fact that the music was not yet published and was performed for this recording from the composer’s manuscript. That music is a setting of the rasgueado strumming technique (most commonly associated with flamenco style) in the context of a string quartet setting. The rhythms are all lively and refreshing, compensating in part for the occasional uncertainties of intonation by the string players.
The only real disappointment comes, unfortunately, at the very beginning of the disc, Two Awakenings and a Double Lullaby for soprano (Hila Plitmann), violin (Axel Strauss), guitar (Tanenbaum), and piano (the composer, Aaron Jay Kernis). The problem is that the guitar is all but inaudible (which rather betrays the title of the entire CD); and one cannot really lay the fault on the recording work (in which Kernis shared production duties with John Parr). Ultimately, the real difficulty is that Kernis composed a very strong line for the soprano, which was well accompanied by the diversity of piano sounds and the upper register strength of the violin but left no room for the subtle sonorities of the guitar. By all rights, this should not have been the case. The texts that Kernis had chosen for the soprano to sing all explored a delicacy of verbal rhetoric that could easily have been matched to the capabilities of the guitar; but the delivery of those texts by the soprano was just too heavy-handed. As a result both the guitar and the words themselves suffered a common fate. However, the listener who perseveres through the three movements of this composition will then be generously rewarded by the subsequent compositions by Liderman and Mackey.