Naxos 8.559350 coverCooman: Piano Music.
Donna Amato, piano
Naxos 8.559350

Juxtaposition vs. development? For years, academic types dismissed minimalism and its progeny for lack of development, while the non-academics criticized thematic development as a stale Schoenberg/Brahms holdover. Thing is, though, they’re entwined at the roots: development implies some sort of juxtaposed variation, and juxtaposition only works when it functions as a sort of telescoped development, advancing the argument of the music even as it skips a host of intermediary steps.

This disc of piano music by Carson Cooman is, essentially, juxtaposition without any parallel sense of development. Take a piece like the 2003 “Dream-Tombeau: Crucifixus”: isolated, decaying tones, a jagged atonal outburst, hollow chords, and a Lutheran-sounding quote from Orlando de Lassus are all put next to each other, but as they circle back around, you start to get the feeling you’re not going anywhere. The quote, for instance, doesn’t change, apart from sometimes moving up by octaves””the second time it’s played, it sounds like a reference point; the third and fourth times, it starts to get a little stale. Eventually, it’s just infuriating. (It doesn’t help that, with all those accented notes fading away to nothing, the piece seems to end at least a dozen times.) The bookending of motives never reveals a new facet, or a new dramatic direction in any of the material. The time is marked off, not shaped””and 21 minutes is a long time to stare at the clock.

It all might work if the individual themes had more variation in their contour, but Cooman’s approach to the piano is pretty constant: sustained octaves in the bass; wide-spaced, populist Americana harmonies in the middle; bright, accented near-clusters up high. It’s an organist’s sound-world””pedals, principals, mixtures””but it do get weary on the piano, and somewhat faster than Cooman thinks it does. The best things on the album are the shortest. The “Kayser Variations,” reworking “America,” don’t have much of an overall shape””not like, say, Ives’ organ variations on the same tune, which, in their gradually increasing surrealism, drive towards an unexpected apotheosis””but the flickering ideas don’t wear out their welcome. The “Postcard Partita,” five brief occasional pieces written for friends and colleagues, also find wit in their brevity, although even some of these, in their obsessive ABA form, feel a little padded out.

In the big pieces, Cooman’s Third and Fourth Piano Sonatas, the forms are dutifully filled, but there’s little sense of the dramatic impetus that was codified into sonata-allegro form in the first place. Perhaps Cooman’s organist personality is showing again here, but instead of the grand, sturdy architecture of the Baroque tradition, it’s the stream-of-consciousness of organ improvisation. Cooman is astonishingly prolific””the Fourth Sonata, written in his 23rd year, is already Opus 620″”but on the evidence of this disc, that total comes at the expense of a certain amount of self-critical reflection. Not all of these ideas are compelling enough to stand on their own””and for the ones that are, their developmental neglect isn’t necessarily benign. Pianist Donna Amato is flat-out terrific: the full equal of the music’s often virtuoso demands, she plays with as much flair and drama as the notes allow.

Capstone CPS-877 coverSonance: New Music for Piano.
Jeri-Mae G. Astolfi, piano
Capstone Records CPS-8777

The kids are alright on Sonance, an anthology of piano music under the auspices of the Society of Composers, Inc. It’s their elders that are a little shaky: the composers born in the 1970s take the laurels from those born in the 40s and 50s. The problem seems to be the backlash against atonality; the earlier generation is represented by a host of tonal works that seem to want to be congratulated on their choice of vocabulary. Larry Barnes’ “Toccata: Act of War” is predictable in its recycled Prokofievisms; Jack Gallagher’s “Nocturne” aspires to Chopin, but only approaches watered-down John Field. Their youngers are hardly avant-garde terrors (only Suzanne Sorkin’s “Falling through crimson and lead,” with its bracing, incisive broken-pottery harmonies, hearkens back to high-modernist atonality), but even the most triadically-oriented of them have a far more suave and individual way with a tonal center: Clifton Callender’s lovely looking-glass jazz “Patty, My Dear,” or Paul Lombardi’s unabashedly Romantic “Elegy,” which invites favorable comparison with Rachmaninoff’s miniatures.

Even post-modern impulses work out better for the youngsters. Jay Batzner’s “Deconstructionist Preludes,” four of that genre genetically recombined into a single piece, mixes and matches contrasting sounds and gestures into a sum greater than its parts. By contrast, Timothy Kramer’s Der Virtuos reduces overheated Romantic rhetoric to nothing but gesture, disconnected torrents of heroic cliché, the satisfaction of dessert replaced by a reading of the ingredient list.

The one piece on the album that seems to exist outside of the stylistic tumult of the last century is Wang An-Ming’s Dance chinoise; born in 1926, Wang is the oldest composer represented, and her piece has an unaffected charm. Pianist Jeri-Mae G. Astolfi is persuasive across the entire array of dialects; if some of those endlessly rippling 19th-century pawn-shop arpeggios aren’t as even and flowing as they could be, she more than makes up for it with variety of touch, rhythmic vitality, and sheer sympathy for every piece.

5 Responses to “Stuff Happens”
  1. David Rakowski says:

    Who wrote this review? Is it customary to leave reviews on S21 unattributed?

  2. Steve Layton says:

    For some strange blog-only-knows reason, if you go straight to any single review it doesn’t give the poster’s name. But if you start from the CD Reviews mainpage, it does and you’ll see that this one is by Matthew Guerrieri.

  3. David Rakowski says:

    Okay, cool. That’s interesting. In a really non-interesting way. If there’s some way to fix that, it would be either interesting or non-interesting.

    For the record, the digs at Carson Cooman fit into the “really non-interesting” box.

  4. David Toub says:

    I’ll be honest—I was somewhat pissed off at this review, although I’ll defend anyone’s right to post content. In general, I really try not to review music for which I have absolutely no affection. It’s not that I think all reviews should be good; far from it. But when someone’s style just isn’t in the same galaxy as the reviewer’s tastes, then what’s the point? And even when I might not like the particular work in question, I still try to find something positive. Perhaps the reviewer just doesn’t like minimalism. But this came close to an ad hominem attack, I think.

  5. Steve Hicken says:

    I have no dog in this hunt, vis-a-vis the music. I’m wondering, though, where, specifically, is the ad hominem?

    I think reviewing music that you are not in sympathy with is ok, as long as you are not dismissive of it. I don’t think this review is dismissive–it’s too long and too detailed for that.

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