Those who are familiar with composer Bunita Marcus primarily as the dedicatee of a work by Morton Feldman are missing out. She operates in a creative space that is distinctive, lovely, at turns pensive and luxuriant in sonic ambiance. And yes, Marcus frequently enjoys creating slowly evolving, soft music: but anyone who reductively pigeonholes it as “post-Feldman” will cause me to overfill the swear jar.
Hopefully, the release of Sugar Cubes, a CD/DVD set that is the first offering from Testklang will help to remedy some of the aforementioned misapprehensions. The recordings feature Ensemble Adapter, conducted by Manuel Mawri, and pianist Mark Tritschler. The pianist is particularly affecting in the title work, a fleeting glimpse at Marcus’s propensity for gentle lyricism and fragilely balanced textures, and ...But to Fashion a Lullaby for You, one of the composer’s most sumptuous sounding works. Over its 22 minute timespan, the piece’s repeated arpeggiations become hauntingly insistent. Partway through, surprising filigrees break the trance, complicating the musical surface with additional color and an extra layer of rhythmic complexity. This shift in vantage point transports the piece to a new collection of harmonies and, to my ear at least, a cradle song that displays poignant vulnerability.
The ensemble work Lecture for Jo Kondo is a fine piece of musical portraiture that captures some of the essence of its dedicatee’s sound world, integrating it with Marcus’s own voice. The use of mallet instruments in ensemble contexts marries well with the prominence of piano in the texture; both are pitted against sustained high notes and occasional effects from flute and violin. Once again, a midstream introduction of a melodic line in a different, slightly faster tempo, signals a bridge point that breaks the listener’s reverie and impels the piece forward, still relatively slowly, but more inexorably. The flute, violin, and piano piece Sleeping Woman explores sustained overlapping lines in a dazzling, dissonant tapestry of sound. The disc also gives a nod to the importance of Feldman to Marcus (not in a historical or pigeonholing fashion, but as a source of musical inspiration). It includes a short orchestration he made of Merry Christmas Mrs. Whiting, an early Marcus work.