ChromaDuo’s recent release Hidden Waters is an impeccably produced/performed exploration of a wide range of contemporary guitar music. Equally showcasing guitarists Tracy Anne Smith and Rob MacDonald’s lyrical and athletic playing, the CD features divergent works by three living composers: Roland Dyens, Stephen Goss and Christopher William Pierce. Overall, the album’s contents are subdued, with highly rhythmic, energetic tracks and musical ideas emerging intermittently and satisfactorily as if all the tracks were one giant, convivial, through-composed exploration of the guitar’s expressive range.
The breadth of style and musical mood I’ve applied to the entire album exists on a smaller scale in its first featured composition, Stephen Goss’ The Raw and the Cooked (Le Cru et Le Cuit) (2004). This piece is a set of seemingly unrelated miniatures, all of which share a reference to some other music. As Goss puts it in the liner notes, the transparency of the stylistic allusions vary, “[t]hese borrowings can be near the surface (the Raw), or hidden deep in the texture of the music (cooked).” More apparent is the energetic direction of the work, which opens with a fast, loud, groovy – heavily scented with the feel of New Orleans-style jazz – movement, “Hot”, and then immediately recedes into a more introverted and laconic sound world. It isn’t really until the seventh movement, “Hotel Kepinski”, that the steady rhythmic pulse of the opening music is reestablished, though – at first – weakly. This higher musical energy then builds through the next movement – “Tango Brawl”, the site of a tongue-in-cheek Astor Piazzolla quotation – and culminates in the work’s Arabic-influenced closing movement, “The Ajman”.
Mr. Goss shows his ‘softer’ side with the album’s next composition, Still at Sea (2009), which, with its more consistently intimate sound world, begins to establish the album’s introverted/extroverted dialogue I noted in the introduction. The work is rather beautiful, and has a very impressionistic, contemplative affect, much like the guitar music of Maurice Ohana, though not nearly so dissonant. This mood is broken by the work’s final movement, “Fire Water”, which features an ostinato in one guitar paired against a mostly chordal, fricative line in the other. The driving energy of the ostinato does subside at moments, relating to the lyricism of the preceding movements, yet this music functions very much like a fast, violent interruption to the CD’s prevailing sense of reflection and subtlety.
After all, what follows Still at Sea – Christopher William Pierce’s Adagio and Fugue (2007) – immediately restores a sense of tenderness. However, in contrast to what has come before – which tends to treat high and low energy music as isolated elements – Mr. Pierce’s composition flows very freely between moments of explosive virtuosity and muted delicacy. This characteristic lends the work an impulsive feel, which somewhat betrays the formalistic pretenses of its title: the “Adagio” isn’t a traditional slow movement, nor is the “Fugue” as structurally transparent as one might expect, though this doesn’t makes the music any worse for the wear. Just like Mr. Pierce’s second work on the album, Three Pieces for Two Guitars (2009), Adagio and Fugue is deeply expressive and delightfully unpredictable, though Three Pieces is much more unified. The first two movements play with fragments from the final movement called, “…on an arrangement of Bach’s Prelude in B minor (by Siloti)”, although it appears that Mr. Pierce actually references Bach’s E minor Prelude from Book 1 of the Well-Tempered. This is not clarified in the liner notes, but the accompanimental figures in this movement – and the motives that are hinted at in the two other movements – are identical to the eight-note repeating bass line in the E minor prelude.
The final two pieces on the album – Roland Dyens’ Niteroi (2010) and Comme des grandes (2010) – return to the stylistically isolated, character piece form of Stephen Goss’ The Raw and the Cooked. Unlike the preceding works by Christopher William Pierece, these compositions are much more consistent in their energy levels, and lack the sense of melodic ‘impromtu’ or whimsy. Niteroi is the longest single track on the CD, and is appropriately expansive, contrasting, within itself, fast, dramatic riffs with more restrained, suspenseful moments. This is the only work to feature ‘extended techniques’ – percussively hitting the guitar’s body and (what seems like) bending pitches by adjusting the instrument’s tuning pins – on the album and, along with the following Comme des grands, makes many stylistic allusions to Brazilian music.
The closing composition is broken into three disconnected movements. The first, “Gloomy Light”, is quiet with a hauntingly persistent accompanimental idea. Mr. Dyens’ ‘orchestrates’ beautifully for the guitar duo in this movement, doubling melodies at the octave to expand the instruments’ sound. Although the second movement, Il funghetto, is also quiet, it is much more plaintive, an affect brought out beautifully by ChromaDuo’s compelling use of rubato. Descending chromatic bass lines give this track the feel of a doleful ballad about lost love; the restraint of the performance makes you want to lean in closer to hear the expression on every note. The final movement, Clown blanc, is very contrasting: it is a little jaunty, but maintains the melancholy at first – as if looking back at Il funghetto in a new light – before ramping up the energy level and ending furiously.