Christopher Bailey: Glimmering Webs
New Focus Recordings

Listening to the opening piece on this compendium of Christopher Bailey's solo piano music, I find myself trying to decide whether it makes more sense to call the American composer a dadaist or Surrealist. Mulling over such a dichotomy makes sense, given his stated interest in reconciling oppositions, whether it be between traditions or schools (maximalism vs. minimalism, Schoenberg vs. Stravinsky, etc.), and attempts to synthesize such oppositions surface throughout the album. Performed by New York-based pianists Shiau-uen Ding, Augustus Arnone, and Jacob Rhodebeck, the striking pieces on this comprehensive double-CD portrait certainly warrant the Glimmering Webs title given to it.

After studying electroacoustic composition at the Eastman School of Music and Columbia University, Bailey's expansive appetite now encompasses microtonality, computer music, ambient, indeterminacy, electronica, and musique concrète, among other things. All such interests emerge in one way or another on Glimmering Webs, which collects piano music written between 1993 and 2013, and while there's no doubting the serious with which he pursues his creative endeavours, he also leaves room for silliness and irreverence (a snippet of “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” for instance, works its way into the opening movement of the Piano Sonata). Like any artist, dadaist, Surrealist, or otherwise, he resolutely follows where his artistic urges take him.

The album begins with one of its most audacious pieces, Composition For Shitty Piano with Drum Samples, Concrète Sounds, and Processing. Performing on a severely pitch-challenged instrument, Ding delivers a bravura performance, and the accomplishment impresses even more considering that much of the piano part was written using graphic notation instead of conventional pitches. Unfolding like a thirteen-minute collision of untamed pianistic and percussive forces (a bit of ragtime even intrudes upon the proceedings), the dada-like convulsion resembles something John Zorn might have midwifed during the earlier part of his career.

Not everything, however, on the release is so wild. In the cheekily titled Fantasy-Passacaglia After Hall & Oates, Bailey borrows a typical chord progression from the “Sara Smile” duo, though it's not so explicitly stated it stands out as immediately recognizable; in fact, compared to the opener, the piece registers as a comparatively straightforward example of Bailey's writing. Performed by Rhodebeck, the four-movement Piano Sonata, at forty-four minutes a CD-length recording all by itself, sees the composer exploring neo-classicism and (in the second movement especially) granting ample space to the gentler side of his music. Bailey's interest in ambient music and alternate tuning systems comes into play during Meditation 3, a twenty-one-minute setting for piano and live processing whose becalmed quietude feels galaxies removed from the freneticism of Composition For Shitty Piano with Drum Samples, Concrète Sounds, and Processing; sensitively rendered by Arnone, Meditation 3 is one of the recording's most appealing pieces as well as one of its most sensual.

But lest anyone get the wrong impression, Bailey reinstates the experimental tone of the album's beginning by concluding Glimmering Webs with three electronics-enhanced pieces, Dancing Sylvan Denizens, Waltz (in 17-tone Equal-Divisions-of-the-Octave), and Ditty (in 19-tone Equal-Divisions-of-the-Octave), all of which prove ear-catching for their unusual alternate tunings. Building bridges between the traditional and experimental is all in a day's work, it seems, for this determinedly open-minded composer.

March 2016