American Vernacular CD Cover art

New Music for Solo Piano

Nicholas Phillips, piano

New Focus Recordings

  • Spectacular Vernaculars – Mark Olivieri
  • Occidental Psalmody – Ethan Wickman
  • On the Drawing of Constellations – Ben Hjertmann
  • Bill-ytude – Joel Puckett
  • Piano Miniature #10, #12, #13 – Mohammed Fairouz
  • Beloved – David Maslanka
  • Back Porch Requiem for John Fahey – Luke Gullickson
  • Playin’ and Prayin’ – John Griffin
  • A Southern Pride – William Price
  • Hotfingers – David Rakowski

Nicholas Phillips approached several composers looking for music inspired by the phrase “American Vernacular” and the end result is a strong balance of eclectic musical tastes framed within relatively conservative harmonic and formal frameworks. Mr. Phillips was aiming for a “classical crossover” disc at the start but he creates is a disc of fun and charming music which, while performed with a high level of technical and musical sophistication, doesn’t feel the need to take itself too seriously. There are serious works on the disc, no doubt, but the overall focus is on enjoyable works which sound as gratifying to play as they are to hear. If you want a disc which is trying to rant for or against a style or idiom, you want a different disc. This is merely a well-programmed and performed collection of music which is approachable and engaging to listeners from a broad range of backgrounds.

Several works highlight direct ties to “vernacular” roots. Mark Olivieri’s Spectacular Vernaculars draws on ragtime, “Stella by Starlight” and De La Soul but clearly uses these inspirations as jumping off points instead of as a cursory exterior. Bill-ytude by Joel Puckett achieves the same using Billy Joel and Elton John stylings. Playin’ and Prayin’ by John Griffin takes Christian worship music tropes on a rhapsodic adventure and Mohammed Fairouz alludes to Liberace and Tin Pan Alley in two of his three miniatures. Back Porch Requiem for John Fahey synthesizes guitar licks and gestures from Fahey as well as Mississippi John Hurt.

Other composers focus more on the “American” side of the “American Vernacular” inspiration. William Price’s A Southern Prelude asks the question of “what makes music not just American but Southern?” and Ethan Wickman’s Occidental Psalmody takes the visual inspiration from watching the ocean rise and fall and turns that into expanding quintal harmonies. Fairouz’s third miniature, “America never was America to me” reacts to the 50th anniversary of the “I Have a Dream” speech filtered through the events of Trayvon Martin’s murder.

Hotfingers: Three Vernacular Nondances again shows David Rakowski’s flair for idiomatic and engaging piano writing. These three short works sound right at home among his piano etudes. Maybe I’m biased but I think every disc of American piano music should include something by Rakowski. David Maslanka’s Beloved doesn’t draw from any specific vernacular touchstone but rather keeps close to his other “remembrance” compositions. Perhaps the most removed from the “vernacular” idea, On the Drawing of Constellations by Ben Hjertmann is the least harmonically conservative and predictable. This work stands out on the disc for its unusual and captivating musical language and more ambient and environmental approach to its linear unfolding.

No matter the composers’ inspirations, Nicholas Phillips delivers solid and engaging performances which give first-time listeners all the overt connections they need and all the nuance that repeat listenings can uncover. American Vernacular is well worth checking out for anyone interested in current trends of contemporary American piano music.

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