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Taming the Beasts

May 22, 2007

On Sunday afternoon at Old First Church, composer Elinor Armer faced the risks inherent in any recital dedicated to a single composer's work. She must have come away from it with an enhanced sense of achievement, because the program's seven compositions were well-performed, enthusiastically received, and richly indicative of her talent and accomplishments. The concert was titled "Bestiary," referring to several of the pieces that were composed in homage to creatures real and imaginary. In these works, Armer presents herself as a kind of musical fabulist, spinning fantasies about actual and mythical beings with humor, affection, and a sense of wonder. Her musical style is distinctly modern, but freely and authentically so, projecting her own individual voice.
Trout Surviving, for three percussionists, is the tale of a wily fish that "got away," based on a personal anecdote by the composer. It begins with the sound of a softly reverberating gong being withdrawn slowly from a tub of water. As it emerges, the pitch and volume rise, creating a mysterious aura of "Once upon a time."

Vibraphone and marimbas set the scene in motion, suggesting gently lapping water, while various nonpitched percussion provide the sensation of underwater marine life. During a sudden dazzling eruption, the angler strikes and the trout is hooked, but then escapes into some marshy reeds, eluding the fisher. Finally, the reverberant gong is lowered into the tub of water, ending this brief tone poem the way it began.

Beast is a virtuoso solo for bass clarinet, played here with verve and authority by Jonathan Russell. Armer shaped the lithe, serpentine quality of the instrument's sound into a quasireptilian texture, with Russell snorting and snuffling as he played. After an episode of sensuous cavorting, the beast lopes off into the wilderness with a regretful bleat or two. This piece is a fascinating blend of purely musical values with the bizarrely comical vocalizing of an imaginary creature. Vivid and amusing, it is also finely balanced, so that nothing seems awry, or too cute, or overdone.

Api, for violin, viola, and percussion, was the program's finale, and its most extended piece. In several movements, it depicts the life of a bee colony — the mating swarm, the queen's egg laying, the bees dancing, and the hive's invasion by another colony. As usual, Armer finds the right-sounding musical equivalents for her protagonists, so that as the scenes are presented and the tale is told, a beautiful and interesting sound structure emerges. Her writing for strings and percussion is particularly apt, whether to portray the swarming bees or the harsh, warring clash of invaders.
Music as Metaphor
Armer spent several years collaborating with literary fantasist Ursula K. Le Guin in a series of works collectively titled Uses of Music in Uttermost Parts. Together they created a geography in which music becomes a metaphor for an entire range of things — objects, landscapes, behavior, and activities. Open and Shut, for oboe/English horn, clarinet/bass clarinet, violin, cello, and narrator, is the story of two islands. On one of them music is used for roads; on the other one, the walls are made of music. (An imaginary map is included with the program notes.)

The piece is really a contest between harmony and melody. On the densely harmonic walled island, Luther's dimly heard chorale A Mighty Fortress Is Our God seems to be the theme song. On the lyrical island of roads, things flow more freely and interestingly, and there is dancing — usually a good sign. (I don't pretend to know the theological implications of all this.) The music makes its point and is well-composed, whetting the appetite for other works from this collection.

Two pieces outside the fabulist spectrum were also presented. Etude Quasi Cadenza is a brilliant solo piece drawn from the composer's 2006 piano concerto. It was played with commanding bravura by Lois Brandwynne, the concerto's dedicatee, who also captured the work's rapidly shifting moods and gestures. In a thoroughly engrossing performance, she dramatized the music's ongoing progress, as it moves in almost improvisatory fashion from one brief passage to the next, always in search of a resolution that comes only at the end, with a big climactic cadence.

Fantasy is a piano trio composed originally for the Francesco Trio some 10 years ago. Its single movement features a dichotomy that Armer seems to favor, opening with a fragmentary, relentless clash of forces that pits the strings against a pelting rain of notes from the piano. When the violence subsides, a more lyrical episode takes over, dominated by the strings. The piano is reduced to a subdued accompanying voice as the music ends, after a brief and feeble echo of the opening.

There seems to be an implied scenario here. As in Open and Shut, a densely implacable texture gradually yields to expressive lyricism in a manner that resembles an evolutionary process. It is a congenial idea of transformation, which, in Elinor Armer's way of making music, feels satisfyingly right.

Jules Langert is a composer and teacher who lives in the East Bay.