Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Stepanova’s Good Intentions Lead You-Know-Where

This Friday, Concert Artists Guild will release a solo album by pianist Liza Stepanova entitled Tones & Colors. As of this writing, it is unclear just what the release plans will be. The only Web page that has created thus far is one for an MP3 download. The terms for payment are somewhat interesting. Basically, the first track of the album is already available. As a result, those who pre-order will be charged $0.99 for that one track and will then be charged the rest of the full payment when the remaining tracks become available, presumably on Friday.

Those tracks are basically the result of what might be called a “concept project.” The “concept” behind the album comes from Stepanova’s interest in the “intersections” (the word choice on the Web page she created for this album) between art and music. She invokes this noun in terms of her interest in Modest Mussorgsky’s suite Pictures at an Exhibition, and what resulted was an album of solo piano music by twelve composers in which each piece was associated with one or more works of visual art. In addition the accompanying essay in the album’s booklet by Monika Fink (which was translated into English by Stepanova) refers to “cross-pollination between visual and aural media.”

The back cover of Tones & Colors, presumably illustrating the sorts of intersections that Stepanova had in mind

These are ideas that can make for fascinating reading, but it may be worth considering whether putting those ideas into practice should be preceded by some reality checking. Consider the Mussorgsky suite as a source of inspiration. Just about any set of liner notes for this piece will observe that the pictures that Mussorgsky had in mind were by Viktor Hartmann, and they included at least one architectural sketch. Nevertheless, it would probably be safe to bet that, among the multitude of listeners who know and love this music (in either the original form or one of its instrumental versions) have never seen any of Hartmann’s work; and I would modestly suggest that the absence of any visual association does not, in any way, detract from the listening experience. If one needs to make any connections at all, one can manage simply with the titles of the individual movements.

Consider now how Tones & Colors has been realized. Basically, it is a collection of relatively unfamiliar compositions (with a few exceptions), each of which has been coupled with at least one work of art. The booklet provides illustrations for several of the selections, but the dimensions of the booklet pages clearly work at cross-purposes to the intentions behind those illustrations. Of much greater value is that Tones & Colors Web page, which has hyperlinks to far more satisfying reproductions of the images (except when they don’t which is the case with the butterfly paintings of Max Švabinský). Even Fink’s explanatory notes have little to offer when it comes to how the listening experience may be enhanced by looking at the art or, for that matter, vice versa.

Of course there is also the possibility that one may be best off by disregarding any connections and simply approaching the music on its own terms. From that point of view, it is certainly true that Stepanova gives an acceptable, if not necessarily informed, account of each of her selections. Nevertheless, I have to confess that, from a personal point of view, I felt that every one of the pieces that Stepanova played would have benefited from a better “musical context,” based on the sort of thinking behind preparing a good recital program involving nothing more than what the music has to offer.

Nevertheless, I have Stepanova to thank for one critical flash of insight during my own listening experience. It was the realization of the extent to which George Crumb’s “Adoration of the Magi,” which he composed in 1979, sounds like some of John Cage’s earliest (i.e. between 1940 and 1945) music for “prepared” solo piano! This, in turn, brought to mind one of the stories that Cage would tell, from time to time, during the performance of Merce Cunningham’s “How to Pass, Kick, Fall and Run.” Here is the story as it appears on Cage’s Wikiquote Web page:
David Tudor and I went to Hilversum in Holland to make a recording for the Dutch radio. We arrived at the studio early and there was some delay. To pass the time, we chatted with the engineer who was to work with us. He asked me what kind of music he was about to record. Since he was a Dutchman I said, 'It may remind you of the work of Mondrian.' When the session was finished and the three of us were leaving the studio, I asked the engineer what he thought of the music we had played. He said, 'It reminded me of the work of Mondrian.'
If this story has a point to make, is that associations should be left to the listener, which may (or may not) explain why I was unable to find much to satisfy me in this new recording!

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