Still Sound by Bruce Levingston
As I first listened to this collection of intimate, gentle music, I kept thinking how much it evokes a feeling of timelessness and stillness. From the minimal sounds of Arvo Part and Erik Satie to the reflective pieces of Augusta Gross and William Bolcom, each work, their harmonic and rhythmic movement notwithstanding, suggests a kind of spiritual stasis. Even the Romantic works of Schubert and Chopin, with their moments of surging emotion, possess magical, hypnotic qualities that lull the listener into a state of calm. The consistent impression of tranquility and serenity in these beautiful works led me to call this album Still Sound.
The basic guiding principle behind "tintinnabulation" of composing two simultaneous voices as one line one voice moving stepwise from and to a central pitch, first up then down, and the other sounding the notes of the triad made its first public appearance in the short but influential piano piece, Für Alina. The sparseness of notes may at first seem surprising. However, their expressive power is all the greater for their limited number and Part's extreme sensitivity to each note's harmonic implication. In Für Alina, he creates a state of timeless, haunting beauty.
Variationen zur Gesundung von Arinuschka
The Variationen zur Gesundung von Arinuschka (Variations for the Healing of Arinuschka) was composed around the same time as Fur Alina and inhabits a similarly intimate and private world. A set of tiny, perfectly sculpted variations, this work displays not only the composer's mastery of musical emotion and color, but also his control of classical structures. The work employs a passacaglia-type architecture that marries new and old techniques ranging from canny displacement of notes and juxtapositions of thematic materials in an unexpectedly wide dynamic range, to old fashioned canons and elegant counterpoint. Using the simplest of themes and materials in his uniquely brilliant way, Part constructs a special sound world that is astonishingly deep, gently reassuring and infinitely touching.
With their tender, melodic phrases floating over modal figurations and chords, the Gnossiennes and Gymnopedies suggest the graceful arabesques of an elegant ballet. Satie, inspired by depictions of youthful dancers on antique urns, invented these unusual titles to evoke the cool aesthetic sensibility of ancient Greece. This subtle, exquisitely wrought music does, indeed, seem to echo another, far away time.
Venturing Forth Anew I and II, are ethereal, two-voiced miniatures whose bittersweet tenderness stays with one long after their brief journey has ended. The Dance of the Spirits, a gentle homage to Gluck, is a searching, questioning work that uses melodic and harmonic juxtapositions to create a distant, ghostly atmosphere. Changes, one of the composers most harmonically daring works, utilizes a series of unresolved chords to create a poignant landscape of striking colors and delicate nuances. In Reflections on Air, Gross, turns to polyphonic forms to weave a beguiling tapestry of interchanging voices and shifting harmonies imbued with a spirit both ancient and modern.
Schubert's Impromptus stem from a tradition of piano works developed by the Bohemian composer Tomasek. Schubert saw potential in the form, however, far beyond simple and charming piano pieces. Rather, his Impromptus became highly stylized etudes, dances and songs for the keyboard. The Impromptu in A-flat major, one of Schuberts most beloved works, contrasts graceful rainfalls of notes over richly melodic chords and figures in its outer parts with an intensely dark central section of extraordinary power and pathos. The ravishing change from minor to major in the second half of this section offers one of the most breathtaking moments in all of Schubert's writing.
Chopin created or developed a number of new forms of piano music, works that displayed his own unique aesthetic for the instrument, and made use of its many harmonic and poetic possibilities. His set of Nocturnes elaborate on an expressive, intimate form initiated by the Irish pianist John Field. Chopin's Nocturnes, however, bring to the keyboard the exquisite bel canto and elaborate ornamentation he heard in the operas of Bellini. The haunting opening measures of the Nocturne in B-flat minor, resplendent with lavish fiorituras and runs, are set into striking relief by the noble, expansive melodies of the central section. Here, Chopin's daring use of long, hypnotic pedal points is prophetic of those so memorably used later by Satie and Part.
Bolcom based this solo piano version of New York Lights on an aria from his opera A View from the Bridge in 2003. Inspired by the Arthur Miller play, with a libretto by Arnold Weinstein and Miller, the opera was first presented at the Metropolitan Opera in 2002. In a classic American immigrant story with heartbreaking overtones, the tenor sings:
"I love the beauty of the view at home, the palazzos of Palermo, the cathedral dome; I've seen pictures of Milano and Rome, but they don't compare to the New York lights. I've seen our sea and seen our sights, our big hotel on our hilltop heights, but since I was a boy I been dreaming of nights in New York, and the New York lights."
Premiered just a year after the 9/11 tragedy that struck New York City so horribly, the song New York Lights had a particular resonance for residents of the city. There was a palpable sense of deep emotion and loss at that first performance. I was in the audience for the Met premiere that night and saw Bolcom in the lobby after the conclusion. After we embraced, I told him how deeply moved I was by the opera and particularly New York Lights, and said that I wished that song had been written for the piano. He thought for a minute said it was an interesting idea. We spoke about it briefly once again when I next saw him, but I heard nothing more from him for about nine months. Then, quite unexpectedly, I received a large package from Rome, Italy. It was a manuscript from Bolcom who had been spending time there composing. Appropriately enough, he decided that while in the great Italian city, he would write a piano version of this beautiful, Italianate song. In this solo version (he calls it a "concert paraphrase"), Bolcom evokes the undulating motion of the water beneath the bridge as well as ocean that separates the characters' two worlds. From this setting emerges one of the composer's loveliest melodies, made all the more touching by Bolcom's lush harmonies and vibrant colors. I premiered this exquisite arrangement at Lincoln Center in 2004. Even then, the impact and effect of this special work upon an audience in New York City was deeply palpable.