m a k i n g t i m e
Joelle Wallach's project is to define and explore emotional states, or what she calls "psychological landscapes." James Dillon's (b.1950) project is to construct engaging sequences of musical ideas. As distinct as these projects are, both composers, building from small thematic or motivic bits, fill time with textures that absorb a listener's attention. And even though silence is part of the materials that interest each, neither falls prey to flat patches, filler, or low-vitality bridging. I like these CDs a lot.
Wallach was raised in New York and Morocco and the rise and fall of intervals out of which she builds her basic themes have a North African feel to them. In fact if I have any complaint about the CD, it is that the three works from the 1990s beginning with Shadow, Sighs and Songs of Longing seem to evolve from the same theme. Shadow, Sighs and Songs of Longing and String Quartet No.2 are such fine works that to have them both on the same CD seems to detract from each's separate achievement.
In 1991 Wallach worked at Yadoo and wrote Shadow, Sighs and Songs of Longing in tribute to the Trask family and its tragic history there. The work is a musical staging of sorrow. Through a constant transforming and reshaping of a single theme it invites the cello solo and the orchestra to explore four distinct colorings of sorrow. In the third movement it builds to a quite overpowering and wrenching climax. The entire work sustains its ideas with compelling engagement and invention. It is not the 19th century soloist pitted against orchestra-projections of heroic individualism-but rather a concerted shared journey. I am carried back to the singularity of the Elgar concerto, which also explores dark psychological landscapes as a journey shared by cello and orchestra.
In 1995, Wallach's husband died unexpectedly. The String Quartet 1995 is her response to that event. Like Shadow, Sighs and Songs of Longing, the Quartet takes sorrow as it subject; in fact, its very themes seem borrowed from the earlier work. But fundamentally and essentially the Quartet does not retraverse the earlier work's ground. The difference is profound. Where Shadow is a staging of sorrow, String Quartet 1995 is a distilled reflection on sorrow and grief. It does not seek to expose or enact the emotions of grief nor the psychological landscapes of sorrow. Instead through strictly musical processes, it reflects on that landscape by presenting the same thematic ideas through four lens or moods. Wallach's ability to abstract from experience and distill it into such a brilliantly wrought work is miraculous. The composer's exploration of string textures, contrasts, thematic variations and structures becomes inseparable from the widow's reflections on loss through the frames and lens of distinct moods.
String Quartet 1986 predates the CDs two big works. It frames a musical idea that becomes in its achievement emblematic of extra-musical experiences. Two ideas are placed in immediate confrontation (one contemplative and slow; the other bubbly and impish). Throughout the one movement of the work, these two ideas compete and challenge each other as they work toward a kind of "mating" as Wallach says, in which they become integrated without totally losing their individuality. It is a charming idea, and charmingly and lucidly realized. Remarkably, the live performance (a bit distracting with page turning and something dropped to the floor at one point) is by a group of student players, calling themselves the Pennsylvania String Quartet, as part of a summer workshop. They are really very good.
The String Quartet 1999 in two movements is to my mind a less ambitious and smaller affair than the other three, but Shadow, Sighs and Songs of Longing and String Quartet 1995 are big, important and well worth discovering.
To go from Wallach to Dillon is a stretch, but their strengths turn out to be similar-as does my absorption as a listener. Seemingly unrelated to his Scots background, Dillon's sound world grows out of the procedures developed by Elliot Carter and Brian Ferneyhough. Like the Wallach CD, Dillon's balances two bigger works with two slighter one. If Wallach positions herself within what she calls "psychological landscapes," which I take to mean that she sets out to explore difficult emotions, how they get shaped and driven, and how they might get resolved if not by closure then at least by solace, Dillon positions himself within what he calls "dream work."
The first piece Traumwerk takes its German title not from the familiar concept enunciated by Sigmund Freud, but from an astonishing quotation from the marginalia of a book made for the Emperor Maximillian by the 15th century German artist, Albrecht Dürer: " . . . whoever wants to do dreamwork, must mix all things together." For Freud dreams perform a work that works subconsciously on the traumas of conscious experience, and that work can be systematically psychoanalyzed. For Dürer, apparently, the dream is a work-perhaps analogous to an artist's work-but distinguished by its inclusiveness of mixed things, rather than the ordered selectiveness of a painting. Dürer, we must remember, recorded some of his dreams in his sketchbooks. Freud's "work" is a verb, Dürer's, a noun.
If this distinction is valid, then Dillon, who is very much a deliberate and consciously constructivist composer, asserts in this title a desire to open up his music to more "mixings," "mixes" and "mix-ups." Traumwerk for two violins is a string of twelve tensely wrought miniatures ranging from under a minute to slightly over three, but the diversity of string effects and textures and the rapidity with which ideas emerge cause them to seem much longer in a listener's encounter with them. Particularly effective is how Dillon uses dynamic and volume variations between the two violins to create a strong sense of spatial movement. Sounds seem to move nearer or farther, to left, to right, and even to fold into or out of one another-and effect more typically produced electronically than by live instruments.
String Quartet No.2 balances Dillon's urge to construct balance and design with his opposing urge "to mix things up" and "mix things together." In one movement it is laid out in a large ABCDCBA design where the textural materials of A are used at the beginning and end, with contrasting textural materials of B coming second and sixth, etc. The textural materials are not themes per se and are not separate movements: they grow out of one another. Without a score in hand, most listeners would not be able to declare exactly where one section begins or ends. Typically:
A materials are vital with asymmetric propulsive rhythmic bits. B materials are dryer and more muted but with a capacity to suddenly foliate into spaciousness. C materials are dark and ripply with pizzicatos. D materials are scherzo-like and skittery.
But as soon as one thinks pattern is predictable, the textures mix and the special effects of the four instruments move the sounds around. Dillon balances a tendency on one hand toward designed chaos and on the other toward mixed-up design such that this quartet fills every minute of its 17:33 minutes with unmitigated engaged pleasure and fascination.
Vernal Showers is for violin solo and an ensemble that includes strings, flute, clarinet, mandolin, guitar, harp, and percussion. It and its two movements take titles from Coleridge's poem "The Nightingale." As Dillon says the title is meant to be evocative not descriptive. What distinguishes the work is "mixings" of fresh and fascinating textures and spatial movements of sounds. The final seconds of bright cascading notes seems less to bring closure or climax to a traditionally conceived musical argument than to propel the listener to continue to find the mixed sounds that encompass his immediate environment as the music not so much "stages" or "explores" our experiences in the world, as I suggested Wallach's works do, but rather "opens" and "invites" the listener to move from the musical work out into the sounds of the world in all their mixed up dream work.
Composers are far from down with founding out what one can say with the classic combination of two violins, viola, and cello. Opera and the symphony are forever being declared moribund or at least in their terminal throes; I have never heard a similar pronouncement for the string quartet. Works such as Wallach's and Dillon's make clear why.