Outside Music (2005) / Domus Aurea (2000) / A Complete Wealth of Time (1990) / Melt Me So with Thy Delicious Numbers (2002) / Losing Touch (1994)
Outside Music was my first acquaintance with the music of Texas native and Bay Area resident Edmund Campion (b.1957). It was also the first chance any home listener has had to get acquainted with Campion, as this curious figure was half a century on this earth before David Milner, director of the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, finally broke down Campion’s aversion to having his music recorded. Not that Campion has ever had any reluctance to public performance. A member of the composition faculty at Cal Berkeley, he is also a co-director of the Center for New Music and Audio Technologies (CNMAT). There, he merrily pursues his fascination with sound itself, in his belief that “there is no distinction between acoustic sound, natural sound, or electronic sound. Everything is integrated with the full spectrum of possible sounds.” It is a natural extension of a fascination with sound phenomena that began in boyhood and was made keener through his studies with Mario Davidovsky at Columbia and Gérard Grisey at the Paris Conservatory, where he was accepted for advanced study at the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM).
Whew! I’m glad that’s over. Musicians’ credentials always bore me. After reading countless booklet notes, one gets the impression that everybody must have studied everything with everyone else, and performed it everywhere. Like most eccentrics in any field, Campion’s preoccupations are actually very simple: an unusual sensitivity to sounds, a love of rhythm, and a fascination with the natural history of sound that includes the man/computer interface. “Sound means life to me,” says the composer. “And though my music is mechanical, ecstatic shapes often appear and force the form to exceed its limits.” Campion feels a kinship with Albrecht Dürer’s contemplative angel in his famous engraving Melancholia, musing on the absurdity of man’s trying to measure the vastness of the universe with his own puny tools: a compass, a sphere, an hour glass. In the work to which he relates this image, “Melt Me So with thy Delicious Numbers” (a quote from the 17th century poet Robert Herrick), Campion takes a solo player, in this instance a violist (Ellen Ruth Rose), connects her to a microphone aligned to a computer that analyzes incoming sounds to enhance temporal, spectral and gestural details of the performance. “My goal,” says the composer, “was to place the electro-acoustic response on the same footing as a live musician who follows and accompanies a performance.”
Campion goes a step further in Outside Music, in which he uses a sample-based keyboard designed to exhibit the virtuosity of pianist Julie Steinberg (to whom the piece is dedicated) while generating and superimposing a dazzling variety of sounds in immediate response to the performer’s touch. Other members of the SF Contemporary Music Players – flutist Ted Brody, bass clarinetist Carey Bell, harpist Agnes Lee, vibraphonist Daniel Kennedy, and contrabassist Michael Taddei – are heard on this track, in which the ensemble is paradoxically conceived of as a single “instrument,” with the keyboard mirroring and consolidating the collective acoustic. For the listener, all of this can be kind of dicey: just when you think you are listening to the clarinet, it turns out to be a keyboard sampling – but them, the keyboard samples its own sounds, too, so just where are we? A pleasant hazard! As for the tile, it may well have the double meaning of music for the out-of-doors and an attempt to get outside the usual boundaries of music itself.
As a more traditional listener, I found the earliest work on this program, A Complete Wealth of Time (1990), played by the duo-piano virtuosity of Gloria Cheng and Vicki Ray, to be the most satisfying as music. At 17:17, it might be said to be a trifle overlong, but one is never bored for a moment with its jazz-like exploration of time values, its sheer energy, and the impression it creates of a voyage of exploration that could go on forever. One need not accept Campion’s fanciful story of a metaphysical conversation with Death, in the person of a drowsy Paris museum guard, as the origin of the marvelous title “A Complete Wealth of Time” (If it didn’t happen, it should have) to marvel in the composer’s unflagging response to what Matthew Arnold would have termed “The Everlasting Nay.”
Domus Aureum, inspired by the profusely imaginative frescoes in Nero’s “Golden House,” is an exercise in the grotesque. As executed by William Winant, vibraphone and Julie Steinberg, piano, it seeks to create that middle stage in the grotesque in which the senseless jumble of events and images begin to beg revelation. If it isn’t entirely successful, blame the difficulty of trying to precisely define something that is more intuitive than empirical. In like measure, Losing Touch may be said to be a valiant exercise in doomed futility in which vibraphonist (in this recording, Christopher Froh) and electronics travel together as companions and then part company in the final two minutes, as “the fixed electronics degenerate into a musical sequence that the musician cannot and does not care to follow” (Campion).
I have not been able to determine whether Campion is a descendant in any way of either or both of two famous Elizabethans, the composer of lute songs Thomas Campion (1567-1620) and the Jesuit martyr St. Edmund Campion (1540-1581), their lives foreshortened by the plague and hanging, respectively. It would be pleasant to imagine such a connection, since our Campion is a modern-day Elizabethan himself in his restless spirit and boundless enthusiasm for exploration.