Reynolds: Whispers Out Of Time

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REYNOLDS _Symphony [Myths]. 1 Whispers out of Time. 2 _Symphony [Vertigo] 3 • Kotaro Sato, cond; 1 Edwin London, cond; 2 Harvey Sollberger, cond; 3...

REYNOLDS _Symphony [Myths]. 1 Whispers out of Time. 2 _Symphony [Vertigo] 3 Kotaro Sato, cond; 1 Edwin London, cond; 2 Harvey Sollberger, cond; 3 Tokyo PO; 1 Cleveland CS; 2 La Jolla SO 3 MODE 183 (73:51)

I recently read Roger Reynolds’s dense but engaging little book, Mind Models , a set of essays from 1972 concerning trends in advanced music. In retrospect, it’s quite impressive how much he got right about what would come to pass under the aesthetic/cultural impact of technology, communications, globalization. Reynolds (b. 1934), while probably most often typed as a modernist composer, composes a sort of music that isn’t written much here anymore. More important, it probably hasn’t ever been written much in America. What I mean by this is that Reynolds’s music is saturated with ideas , but not just ones about musical technique. Instead, it plays with concepts and artifacts from such points of departure as non-Western culture, literature, geography, architecture, science, to name a few. In this omnivorous intellectual curiosity, and his desire to distill these disparate sources into the common field of musical language, he bears more resemblance to European aesthetics than to American. (Not surprisingly, Xenakis was a friend. Reynolds also has a very close connection to Japanese art, traditional and contemporary, and Takemitsu was another close colleague.) The play of symbols , embodied in sonic gestures, is at the core of his work. While rigorously intellectual, his music isn’t particularly academic. Reynolds has always had a foot in experimentalism as much as modernism. To attempt such a synthesis is questing and risk-taking. And at its best the result has real power.

These three orchestral works listed in the headnote date from 1990, 1988, and 1987, respectively. (It’s a sad commentary on our culture that it appears to have taken two decades to get them to a commercial recording.) All three works aspire to a sort of stately grandeur and mystery. Great sweeping gestures occur, which we can’t really anticipate nor explain, yet they are usually satisfying. Movements trail off into silence abruptly. At times the music seems frozen harmonically, yet there may be several layers of detailed and often fast activity occurring simultaneously. Indeed the predominant rhythmic sense here I would call geological , with bands of sonic activity slipping and grating against one another like tectonic plates.

Symphony [Myths] fits the above description well, drawing its inspiration from two pairs of seaside rocks that serve as shrines in Japan and Greece. The music seems appropriately elemental in its sound. Whispers out of Time is for string orchestra (with a concertino quartet), and relates to a John Ashbery poem about a self-portrait by the 16th-century artist Parmigianino, itself a portrayal of the artist in the reflection of a concave mirror (this begins to give a sense of the layers of meaning and reference which inform Reynolds’s work). It’s a dark, mysterious, imagistic work, with the titles of its movements taken from lines in Ashbery’s poem (“Like a wave breaking on a rock” really sounds like such, with successive sound-crashes and resultant spray). It also uses shards of the Beethoven “Les Adieux” Sonata and the Mahler Ninth Symphony, which increase the elegiac quotient and suffuse it with a more tonal veneer.

Only Symphony [Vertigo] doesn’t quite work for me. Its distinctive technique is the use throughout of a prerecorded part made of computer-processed piano sounds, derived from improvisations by Reynolds’s colleague Cecil Lytle. The result is the only work that sounds a little modernist generic, with its mix of electroacoustic and acoustic, its somewhat more strident gestures, and often-discontinuous flow. Some will find this exciting for the use of the technology and the interaction of the different worlds of sounds. I enjoy the composer’s risk-taking here, but the gamble doesn’t quite pay off.

But overall, this is an excellent portrait of a composer of great imaginative, aesthetic ambition. The performances are committed, though at times feel not as fully shaped as one might like, considering the wealth of detail that needs to be balanced to pull off the works’ desired impact. This is not for everyone, but I recommend it as an important, questing voice in the American scene. There is a real mind, heart, and ear at work here. Yes, it’s not easily ingratiating, but who said we should never work for our aesthetic pleasures?

FANFARE: Robert Carl

Product Description:

  • Release Date: August 28, 2007

  • UPC: 764593018322

  • Catalog Number: MOD-CD-183

  • Label: Mode Records

  • Number of Discs: 1

  • Composer: Roger Reynolds

  • Conductor: Edwin London, Harvey Sollberger, Kotaro Sato

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Cleveland Chamber Symphony, La Jolla Symphony Orchestra, Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra

  • Performer: Sato, London