Ann Southam: Pond Life

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SOUTHAM Pond Life Christine Petrowska Quilico (pn) CENTREDISCS CMC CD 14109 (2 CDs: 100:42)

Spatial View of Pond I and II. Soundstill I–X. Pond Life I–IV. Noisy River. Commotion Creek. Fidget Creek. Fiddle Creek

Is it pretty or is it profound, and can it be both? That is one of the questions that comes to mind when listening to the piano music of Ann Southam (b. 1937), a Canadian composer living in Toronto. Last year, in the pages of The New Yorker , Alex Ross gave her music a boost by saying nice things about her piano cycle Simple Lines of Enquiry (Centrediscs CMC CD 14609, played by Eve Egoyan). Curious, I gave it a listen, found it pleasant, and then quickly forgot about it in the rush of other music that I either wanted or had to hear. When the present release arrived in the mail, I felt it was necessary to return to Simple Lines of Enquiry so I could put Pond Life in some sort of context. Having heard both of them in one afternoon, I was moved to ask myself the question that opens this paragraph, and I am not sure I have an answer.

Southam is one of those composers who seems to believe—and not unreasonably—that a few well-chosen notes artfully deployed and beautifully played can have as much impact, if not more, as the most “maximalist” piece in the repertoire. Her music is spare, and the decay of the notes, once sounded, has as much importance as the sounding itself. Harmonies are implied, or created by means of the sustaining pedal, as it is unusual for more than one note to be sounded at a time. The pace is often slow, and Southam often limits her materials to only a few notes, or to particular melodic or rhythmic patterns, so one might label her style as a form of minimalism. Listening to her music is like looking at a piece of modern abstract sculpture, and then slowly circling it again and again, taking one mental snapshot after another. The feeling I get is not one of monotony but of thoroughness. It is as if Southam is ensuring that she, the performer, and the listener explore and understand the full implications of the frugal musical choices that she has made. It’s pretty, but is it profound? Skeptics will argue that some listeners will be taken in by any music as long as it is slow, quiet, and open-textured enough to seem mysterious. Skeptics also might argue that Southam’s music therefore fits into the New Age category as much as it fits in the category of classical music, but others will argue that categorizing music can be pointless and misleading.

It’s possible to make excessive claims for this music, but I wouldn’t want to sell it short, either. Southam obviously has composed it with great care; its elements have been sensitively chosen and sensitively arranged. It encourages listeners to be attentive, and it might cause them to reflect upon sound and sound’s disappearance. Plenty of music does far less. It will not appeal to the impatient, however, and they might attempt to justify their impatience by accusing Southam of mere quietism or of plucking low-hanging fruit. There’s really no point in fighting over it.

As the headnote suggests, this pair of discs contains four sets of works, written and revised over the course of almost three decades. (I am grouping the “creek” and “river” works together because of their stylistic similarities.) Rather than playing them as sets, the performer and the composer have assorted them. For example, the first CD contains the following pieces, in this order: Spatial View of Pond I, Noisy River, Soundstill IV, Soundstill VI, Soundstill VII, Soundstill VIII, Soundstill IX, Soundstill X, Commotion Creek , and Soundstill V . Given the stylistic similarities within sets, this assortment minimizes the potential for monotony. (Some might counter that monotony is not at all a bad thing.) Tellingly, the Pond Life set is not broken up, perhaps because its four components are relatively short, or because its four components are the most internally varied. The “creek” and “river” works, unlike the other works here, are extremely dense and active, and they are very successful illustrations of chaos theory as it applies to the motion of water. Like their discmates, however, they are based on the irregular repetition of a circumscribed number of materials, so they do not seem out of place in this collection.

Those last four works notwithstanding, Southam’s piano music (like Satie’s) does not require unusual technical proficiency, but it does require a pianist who is exquisitely sensitive to sound per se, and that describes Christine Petrowska Quilico. I interviewed this pianist for Fanfare many years ago, was impressed with her work then, and continue to be so now. Her attention to tone color ensures that this music remains interesting and inviting, even when it operates within a rather narrow circumference. Her concentration never flags, and as a result, neither does ours. This pair of discs—recorded in a single day, unusually enough—boasts realistic and well-balanced sound. The program note, by the pianist herself, is too close-mouthed about the works that she plays. What was Southam thinking when she wrote this music? How does this music work? Perhaps we are meant to discover this ourselves as we listen to these performances, but a few guideposts would not have been unwelcome.

FANFARE: Raymond Tuttle

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: CMCCD 14109

  • UPC: 773811410923

  • Label: Centrediscs

  • Composer: Ann Southam

  • Performer: Christina Petrowska Quilico


  1. Pond Life, for piano & tape

    Composer: Ann Southam

    Performer: Christina Petrowska Quilico (Piano)