Ashlee Mack, piano
New World Records 80802
Composer James Romig has spent the past twenty years cultivating a body of work that embodies both rigorous structuring and a wide-ranging gestural palette. As is explained in Bruce Quaglia’s excellent liner notes for Romig’s first New World CD, Still, there is good reason for these two aspects to be so important to Romig. His training as a composer was with American modernists Charles Wuorinen and Milton Babbitt, while his background as a performer – a percussionist – included a number of works by minimalists such as Steve Reich.
Extra-musical touchstones also play a significant role as inspirations for the composer. A series of National Park residencies has provided him with natural beauty to contemplate while composing. Abstract Expressionist painters such as Clyfford Still, who is the titular reference point for Romig’s piece on this CD, also enliven his imagination.
Nowhere in Romig’s output to date is this confluence of influences more apparent than in Still, a nearly hour-long piece for solo piano. One can see the pitch material’s progression in a chart in the liner notes and note the comprehensiveness of its organization. Unlike Romig’s portrait disc Leaves from Modern Trees, where the pieces tend towards tautly incisive utterance, here the progression of pitch material evolves slowly in a prevailingly soft dynamic spectrum. Ashlee Mack, a frequent performer of Romig’s music, provides a sterling interpretation. Slow tempi are maintained no matter what local rhythms (some complex) ripple the surface texture. In addition, Mack voices the harmony skilfully, allowing the piece-long progression to be presented with abundant clarity.
One more composerly ghost lurks in the room: that of Morton Feldman. Also an appreciator of Abstract Expressionism, who created long single movement pieces that transformed slowly and remained primarily soft, Feldman could seem to be Still’s natural progenitor. While surface details and scale of composition are similar, there is a significant musical difference between Feldman’s paean to a painter like Philip Guston and Romig’s reference to Clyfford Still. As pointed out by theorists such as Thomas DeLio, the undergirding of a Feldman piece is indeed subject to an organizational structure. That said, his work seems more intuitive than Romig’s, which is methodical in the unfurling of its linear components and their constituent harmonies. Whether Feldman’s surface in any way inspires the depths of Still, I am not sure; it would be an interesting question to pose to Romig. Either way, Still is his most engaging and beguiling piece to date. One looks forward to hearing more works that accumulate Romig’s proclivity for parks, painters, maximalists, and minimalists; these many ingredients make for intriguing results.
Time Seems to Pass
Khasma Piano Duo: Ashlee Mack, Katherine Palumbo, pianos
Parallax Music Press CD/Download
Composer James Romig’s piano duo work Time Seems to Pass, a nearly forty-minute opus commissioned and performed by Khasma Piano Duo (Ashlee Mack and Katherine Palumbo), is something of a turning point in his work. In recent years, Romig has undertaken several residencies at parks and similarly verdant venues. Concurrently, his music has become more expansive. Under girded by the rationale of extended twelve-tone techniques in the pitch and rhythmic domains, Time Seems to Pass’s surface is prevailingly gentle and gesturally supple. Individual lines move independently, interweaving a complex interaction that yields a sonorous sheen of resulting harmonies. Khasma perform the work delicately but with a strong sense of rhythmic coordination.
For an overview of Romig’s other music, Leaves from Modern Trees (also Parallax) is a strong compilation of his chamber music from 1999-2016. Khasma may also be heard on their debut recording Switchback (self-released), which features compositions from their 2014 Call for Scores by Michael Ippolito, Marti Epstein, Symeon Waseen, Lawrence Moss, Cosimo Colazzo, and Jean Ahn.Links to listen further and buy here.
Kliment Krylovskiy, clarinet
Vanessa Mollard, violin
Riko Higuma, piano
Blue Griffin Records CD/download
Formed at Manhattan School of Music in 2006, the Zodiac Trio have been ambitious in their commissioning projects. Joined by guest cellist Ariel Barnes, on their second album Dreamtime they tackle a program consisting entirely of 21st century music.
The CD features two substantial commissioned works: Lamentations, by Richard Danielpour, and Andrew List’s Klezmer Fantazye. As one might well expect, both use the scalar patterns and gestural language of Klezmer, Danielpour in plaintive fashion and List with greater exuberance. On Aboriginal Dreamtime, List uses that culture’s creation myth as a starting pointing for an evocative piece. The group switches gears on John Mackey’s Breakdown Tango. Joined by Barnes, the Zodiac demonstrates ample virtuosity, playing with rhythmic verve and tight knit ensemble coordination.
Dreamtime is capped off with Across the Universe, a twelve-piece collection featuring one-minute pieces all inspired by signs of the Zodiac. It is a great way to put a distinctive stamp on the commissioning process (each piece responds to its particular sign thoughtfully and imaginatively) and to provide a “taster platter” of several composers’ styles. Standouts include Stanley Hoffmann’s lilting dance for Capricorne, James Romig’s delicately mysterious Virgo, John McDonald’s piquant Scorpio, and Francine Trester’s bumptious Aries.
One hopes that Zodiac will continue commissioning. Dreamtime demonstrates that they excel at bringing new compositions to life.