Guest post: Andy Lee on Ann Southam’s Valedictory CD

Please welcome a new contributor to Sequenza 21: Andy Lee: pianist, academic, and writer.

Returnings

Eve Egoyan, Piano

Works by Ann Southam

Centrediscs CMCCD 17211

As musicians we are trained to listen with a critical ear, to automatically dissect, analyze, and evaluate each musical performance we encounter. Knowing that one will have to write about a musical experience brings all this training to the forefront, or at least it should. That didn’t happen for me—at least not initially.

My problem, if you can call it that, was that Ann Southam’s piano music was so beautiful and Eve Egoyan’s interpretation so exquisite, that I didn’t want to listen critically; I wanted to lose myself, disengage my analytical mind, and simply enjoy. In time I was able to cobble together notes for this review, but even after several hearings I must say that this desire to become lost in the music remains ever-present. What follows is my evaluation, such as it is, but if I haven’t yet convinced you to purchase this recording, I’m not sure that anything else I could write will.

Returnings represents perhaps the last musical statement of the phenomenal Canadian composer Ann Southam (1937-2010). She chose the pieces and their ordering for this CD in the last year of her life, and the album also includes the last two pieces she wrote, Returnings I and Returnings II: A Meditation. These pieces, along with Qualities of Consonance (1998) and In Retrospect (2004), were all written for the Eve Egoyan. (I might also add that the image on the cover is original artwork by Southam.)

The CD works marvelously as a whole, to the extent that you might find yourself hard-pressed not to consider this one single composition. Each of these four pieces seems to grapple with its own internal conflict: consonance and dissonance, minimalism and dodecaphony, or restraint and restlessness. What makes this conflict work, and what draws the listener, is that these conflicts never resolve. Southam merely presents these seemingly disparate ideas one against another and lets them be, never allowing one to dominate, and to great effect.

The second piece on the album, In Retrospect, is very reminiscent of a later work (also recorded by Egoyan), Simple Lines of Enquiry (2007). A single twelve-tone row is presented across the keyboard in small sections, and with generous use of the damper pedal, these tones are allowed to interact with one another and slowly build into chords. The pacing and balance of tone that Egoyan provides is spot on. The delicacy of her interpretation tells you that this is a pianist listening intently to every single sound she creates, and that each note is placed in a precise moment in time.

The third track is Qualities of Consonance, by far the most overtly virtuosic work on the CD. It is grounded in serene chords and ostinati, but is frequently interrupted by rapid passagework. Here, the conflict is seems to be presented by two separate pianists, as Egoyan contrasts these two elements extremely well. While her sensitive touch has been well noted in other recordings, here we are given a taste of her technical prowess and adept articulation. Yet this is never virtuosity for its own sake, as each gesture is executed with a clear sense of line.

That said, if there is any weakness on this CD, it is this piece. Despite the Egoyan’s exuberance of the difficult passages, I felt like there was more room for rubato and dynamic contrast in some of the lines of the more serene sections. Likewise, from a compositional standpoint Qualities of Consonance lacks the cohesion of so much of Southam’s other music, making it feel disjointed at times. That said, this remains a remarkable CD, and looking for weaknesses is a bit like deciding which is your least favorite 20-year-old scotch.

The first and last pieces on the album, Returnings I and II, are quite similar to one another. Here, the conflict is between a gentle rolling bass ostinato supporting consonant chords and another twelve-tone row. The row is presented at the outset of both pieces before the ostinato enters, at which point the notes of the row are presented between chords of the right hand. The effect is marvelous, as at times the row adds depth to the harmony and at other times clashes against it. Again, this conflict is never resolved, but allowed to play itself out, and the overall effect becomes one of great calm despite the dissonances that arise.

This sense of calm pervades all four pieces, and I cannot but help think of Southam’s passing when I listen to this CD. Her ability to find beauty in the unresolved dissonance and to allow things to be as they are seems like a beautiful metaphor for life. La vita è bella, and without caveat. It saddens me to think that this will be the last collaboration between two such talented artists, but as Egoyan writes, “each time I perform her music, Ann returns as a radiant resonance, with us, forever.”

I’ve no doubt that many more Southam recordings will be produced in the coming years, but as this contains her last compositions, performed by the pianist for whom they were written, I cannot help but feel a sense of finality when the album ends. I will listen often to this truly beautiful CD, and each time raise my glass to Ann. May she rest in peace.

-Andy Lee

Record Store Day in Canada!

Record Store Day in Toronto

Paper Bag Records’s artists will be performing across Toronto at local record shops including Criminal Records, Sunrise, and Sonic Boom this coming Saturday, April 18th, 2009.    
Giveaways at each show.

JOSH REICHMANN / ORACLE BAND
Sunrise Records
336 Yonge Street,
Toronto, ON
1:15 pm
myspace.com/joshreichmann

LITTLE GIRLS
Sonic Boom
512 Bloor Street West,
Toronto, ON
5:30 pm
myspace.com/littlelittlegirls

ROCK PLAZA CENTRAL
*stripped down performance
Criminal Records
493 Queen Street West,
Toronto, ON
6:00pm
myspace.com/rockplazacentral

SLIM TWIG
Sonic Boom
512 Bloor Street West,
Toronto, ON
8:30 pm
myspace.com/slimtwig
_______________________________________________________________
 

Record Store Day Treasures Two: A couple more 7″s
 

Akron/Family:
7″ single with “Everyone is Guilty b/w Total Destruction”
Limited to 1000 copies

Everyone is Guilty”” is from Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free and “Total
Destruction” is only available here.
Black Moth Super Rainbow:  
7″ orange vinyl with “Born on a Day” b/w “Born on a Day (demo)” Limited to 500 copies.

Random Bests of ’08: Best collusion of violinist and accordionist

Hearts and Daggers

 

Petra Haden and Miss Murgatroid

Hearts & Daggers

File Under Music

 

Multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Petra Haden collaborates again with accordionist Miss Murgatroid on Hearts and Daggers, released on File Under Music (no relation to this blog). Haden possesses a chameleon-like versatility. She’s involved in various collaborations with members of her musical family, records as a solo artist, and has become something of a YouTube sensation for a cappella renditions of Journey and covering the Who.

 

Hearts and Daggers explores her interest in creating chamber pop that draws upon a variety of influences: Gypsy music, Celtic folk ballads, minimalism, and classical repertoire. All this is stirred into a pot with the aforementioned classic rock inflections and a cappella layered singing to create willfully eclectic, but eminently attractive material. Murgatroid’s penchant for long, sustained harmonies has the efficacious side effect of slowing down Haden’s lightning fast musical metabolism, allowing the songs to settle; taking more organic shapes despite their disparate starting points.

 
   

 

Guilty pleasure

A.C. Newman
Get Guilty
Matador CD
Artist website
 

Tunes: some composers – Mozart, Schubert, Berlin, Gershwin, McCartney, Wilson, Pollard – grace us with them abundantly. They may make it sound easy, but the artists above (and, of course, several others) are a rare breed; they seem to be able to capture the perpetually memorable in a single melodic gesture. A.C. Newman, whose day-job is with power-pop super group the New Pornographers, is another of these elegant tunesmiths. Whether his songwriting is in service of group projects with the aforementioned band-mates or for solo work, it is nearly always immediately striking and eminently durable fare.
His latest for Matador, Get Guilty, is a case in point. Song after song, the tunes keep coming, buoying three and four minute marvels – “There are Maybe Ten or Twelve,” “Like a Hitman, Like a Dancer,” and “Submarines of Stockholm,” to name a few – with a graceful exuberance.

A.C. Newman photgraphed by Caleb Beyers

Sad Robots make for excellent IDM

Stars
Sad Robot EP
Arts and Crafts (www.arts-crafts.ca)
 

After the success of 2007′s In Our Bedroom after the War, one would understand it if Stars further mined the ‘bedroom rock blown-up big’ approach on a follow-up. Sad Robot EP, on the other hand, recall’s the band’s IDM roots, presenting half a dozen lovely, lush electronic songs.
The title tune inhabits a glitch-influenced soundscape. “14 Forever” and “Undertow” both exude fetching synth pop textures and booming bass articulations. “A Thread Cut with a Carving Knife” is an aptly-timed Recession-era ballad, featuring an underemployed man facing economic woes and battling substance abuse. While some fans of their last album may wonder where the guitars went, one hopes that Stars’ current fascination with IDM will continue to inflect their music for some time to come.