Wednesday, February 14, 2018

“Song Cycle Without Words” from Peter Garland

This Friday, in addition to the new John Luther Adams album discussed yesterday, Cold Blue Music will also release its third album consisting entirely of the music of Peter Garland. Like Adams, Garland is a composer with a keen sense of quietude, who also enjoyed an association with Lou Harrison. The title of the new album is Moon Viewing Music (Inscrutable Stillness Studies #1), whose length almost seems to poke fun at the fact that the composition itself is less than 40 minutes in duration. Like the Adams release, this album is currently available for pre-order from

The piece consists of six pieces, each of which is based on a short Japanese poem written during the time of the feudal shogunates. However, the music is scored for only three large knobbed gongs and one large chau gong (usually called a tam-tam when used in a modern symphony orchestra). There is no vocal line for the poems to be sung in either Japanese or English. For that matter the album jacket provides only the first line of each poem and its respective author. Fortunately, Cold Blue has created a Web page for this album that provides English translations of all six of the poems.

Each of the knobbed gongs has its own distinctive pitch. The tam-tam, on the other hand, puts out a relatively narrow band of noise, which has been used for intense rhetorical effects by composers going back to Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, if not further. As a result, the primary vehicle for musical expression in this piece is rhythm, to which Garland then imposed on his writing the constraint that every stroke on one of these instruments “should be allowed to resonate and decay freely” (Garland’s own words). Garland also notes that the music should correlate with the text; but that correlation has more to do with the mood established by the poem, rather than any rhythm of recitation of declamation. He also suggests that the circular appearance of all the instruments amounts to a reflection (my word choice, not Garland’s) on the full moon.

As was the case with Adams’ “Everything That Rises,” listening requires a keen attentiveness to subtle details, which again raises the question of achieving both effective performances and recordings that do justice to those performances. It is worth noting that William Winant, the percussionist performing Moon Viewing Music, also had a direct hand in the production of this album. Because this is a solo composition, it creates a situation in which the performer is a fundamentally necessary conduit between what the composer has created and what the attentive listener experiences.

Working with members of the Cold Blue production team, Winant has made sure that “audio engineering” has contributed to that conduit, rather than detracting from it. All that remains is for the listener to utilize equipment responsive to the richness of all the low frequencies and to engage that equipment in a setting that is as free as possible from interfering noise. Under those circumstances one should have little trouble appreciating the extent to which Garland has responded by Buckminster Fuller’s injunction to strive to make more and more with less and less and to derive a richly satisfying listening experience from that appreciation.

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