Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Matt Sargent’s Extended Reflection on Billings

from the Web page for the recording being discussed

Cold Blue Music has announced three new recordings to be released this coming Friday. Regular readers probably know by now that every individual release is a journey of discovery unto itself, which is why I do my best to document these individually. It is unlikely that I shall be able to get the jump on all three of the releases prior to Friday, but it looks as if I shall be able to account for the first of them.

The album I have listened to thus far is Separation Songs, a 70-minute composition by Matt Sargent that occupies a single track for the entire CD. The work is a reflection on the hymn tunes of William Billings, probably my favorite of the composers active before “the colonies” became the United States of America. (One of those hymns, “Let the high heavn’s your songs invite,” was even repurposed into the revolutionary anthem “Chester.”) “Separation Songs” was scored for two string quartets. Sargent’s technique was to deconstruct the hymn tunes down to the level of the notes, after which a “separation process” would enable selected notes to migrate from one quartet to the other.

The performance on this recording is by the Eclipse Quartet, whose members are violinists Sarah Thornblade and Sara Parkins, violist Alma Lisa Fernandez, and cellist Maggie Parkins. That’s right, there is only one string quartet. Sargent’s “separation process” is realized through studio overdubbing techniques. Readers may recall that, at the beginning of this month, I expressed a clear dislike for such multi-track recording processes. Also, just for the record, I tend to be skeptical about extended compositions that proceed without interruption or much sense of segmentation for more than an hour. (What can I say? I’ve had so much exposure to linguistic studies that it is hard for me to avoid the act of parsing!)

Nevertheless, I am willing to admit that even the strongest of rules should be allowed to bend for an exception every now and then. When CD technology was first launched, I was drawn to Brian Eno’s Thursday Afternoon recording, which seemed to have more to do with filling exactly one hour of time than with how that hour would be structured. I still have that CD in my collection, and I still enjoy listening to it every now and then.

To some extent, then, the Separation Songs album allows for some degree of “redemption” on my part. This is due primarily to my enthusiasm for the Billings source material. It is through that familiarity that I can at least begin to appreciate Sargent’s approach to deconstruction. The sense of physical separation, on the other hand, seems to have been created by relatively subtle studio techniques. As a result, the act of listening is not one of “follow the bouncing motif.” Rather, it is sufficient to identify recurring atomic units and possibly even allow the emergence of a sense of how those units are threaded, whether or not that “thread” emerges between two string quartets or within a single one.

Granted, such a listening strategy serves to undermine the logic behind the title of the composition itself. In a better world I would much prefer to listen to a concert performance of this music involving two physically separated quartets without any assistance from any amplification technology. It would not surprise me to learn that Sargent himself felt the same way, and I can think of one or two organizations here in San Francisco that might enable such an approach to performance. That said, listening to the recording he produced at least allows me to get my head around his relationship to his thematic sources and the rhetorical devices through which that relationship is realized. That may not be enough to appreciate the composer’s sense of separation in its full depth; but, as Billie Holiday used to sing, “it will have to do/Until the real thing comes along!”

As usual, the Web page for the Separation Songs album is currently processing pre-orders.

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