Richard Faria, clarinet
Ellen Jewett, violin
Xak Bjerken, piano
Los Angeles Piano Quintet
This program of piano and chamber music by American composer Stephen Hartke (b.1952) was my first acquaintance with this composer. Though he titles one of these works “Post-Modern Images,” Hartke strikes me more as a modern-day Dadaist. In any typical piece, he takes one element of music – say irregular rhythms or severe dissonances – and playfully, maniacally, runs it into the ground. Now, there’s nothing wrong with irregular rhythm or dissonance, either. They’ve been part of the language of the composer for ages – the former since the notes inégales of the 17th century French Clavecinistes, the latter at least since the Agincourt Hymn and the Coventry Carol, way back in the 15th century. It’s just that it takes more than one element to make a satisfying work of art or a distinctive style in music.
I find Hartke’s music is just too eclectic for words (although I am perfectly aware that some listeners may respond very positively to this very trait of the composer that I find fault with). The title piece, Horse with the Lavender Eye (the significance of which is never explained; I suspect it is as meaningful, or meaningless, as “Un Chien andalou”) claims a play by Carlo Goldoni, ancient Japanese court music, the cartoons of Robert Crumb, 19th century Brazilian novelist Machado de Assis, and Looney Tunes among its bewildering array of influences. Perhaps the third piece, Waltzing at the Abyss, marked ” Gingerly but always moving along,” may serve as a metaphor for the composer’s art as he continually juggles heterogeneous elements and asks us to trust him that he won’t stumble and fall.
The selections from Post-Modern Images (1984-1992) are another odd assortment, the most successful of which I found to be “Gymnopédie No. 4″, a study in seventh chords that pays homage to Erik Satie, that grand-daddy of all musical eccentrics, in its lilting 3/4 metre and “the simultaneously fluid yet static harmony” (annotation by Xak Bjerken, who plays all the piano pieces with precision and style). “Template” (1985) audaciously transforms a zestful Estudio-Scherzo (1902) by Brazilian composer Henrique Oswald (which is played immediately after for comparison). Hartke takes the Oswald piece at its requisite rapid tempo but sounds only a handful of the notes, resulting in a piece of entirely different character. “Interesting, but why?” was my reaction. Sonata for Piano, Hartke’s other major work for the instrument, is in three movements. Bjerken describes the outer movements as “sometimes massive, sometimes light and birdlike.” The first description fits the Prelude. The second, “light and birdlike” presumably applies to the Postlude, although Hartke’s birds seem to have leaden wings from their hesitant movement. The most interesting movement is the middle one, a scherzo entitled “Epicycles” after its engaging use of rhythmic wheels within wheels (I was reminded of a Buster Keaton two-reeler I’d watched recently, in which the comedian is caught within the paddle-wheel of a ferry boat and valiantly tries to keep his balance by racing madly in the opposite direction to the wheel, finally giving up and accepting the inevitable dunking in typically stoic Keaton fashion).
The King of the Sun is the most ambitious work on the program, a suite in five movements plus Interlude that was commissioned in 1988 by the LA Piano Quartet, who perform it here. It derives a measure of cyclic unity from a medieval canon, heard most prominently in the second movement, “Dutch Interior” which was inspired by Spanish artist Joan Mirí³’s take on a 17th century Dutch genre painting by Jan Steen, and echoed elsewhere throughout the work. It appears in IV, “The Flames of the sun make the desert flower hysterical,” in which the violent chords and coruscating harmony vividly convey the essence of pain. Elsewhere, however, it’s probably unwise to take Hartke’s clever subtitles too seriously, as in 1, “Personages in the night guided by the phosphorescent tracks of snails,” where he is doubtless tongue-in-cheek. (Snails, because of the dirty trick nature has played on them, are obliged to glide slowly through life; they positively do not jitterbug.)
I think I’ve given my personal impression here of Stephen Hartke as a composer who doesn’t always play with a full deck of cards. On the other hand, I’ve provided enough clues so that those who are into this sort of thing will find much to intrigue them.