Patrick Castillo: The Quality of Mercy
There's a somewhat enigmatic quality to The Quality of Mercy, the debut album by New York City-based composer Patrick Castillo, that's visually symbolized by John Rose's cover photograph. Much like its empty billboard, the material presented on the recording—a compact solo violin setting framed by two vocal-chamber works—is allusive in its meanings, though they're not so obscure that the listener can't tease them out, and certainly the three vocal texts, two of them by Emily Dickinson and William Butler Yeats, help the interpretive process along.
Castillo's work fits comfortably into the contemporary classical field whilst maintaining connections to traditional classical as well as electronic and experimental genres (scored for violin and electronics, Music for the Third Place was a recent premiere). Castillo himself is an admired composer, performer, writer, and educator whose music has been presented throughout the US and internationally. He earned degrees in music and sociology at Vassar College, where his teachers included Lois V Vierk and Annea Lockwood and where he participated in master classes with John Harbison, Alvin Lucier, Roger Reynolds, and Charles Wuorinen. Also at Vassar, Castillo served as composer-in-residence for the Mahagonny Ensemble, a collective specializing in twentieth-century music.
Despite the differences between the recording's three compositions, they're connected by the presence of Grammy Award-winning violinist Karen Kim on all three and mezzo-soprano Abigail Fischer, flutist Jill Heinke, cellist Hiro Matsuo, and percussionist Ian David Rosenbaum on This Is the Hour of Lead and The Quality of Mercy. In terms of sound design, the latter might be seen as the more overtly experimental of the two, due to the presence of field recordings and the composer's electronics.
A five-movement chamber cantata for mezzo-soprano and ensemble (flute, violin, viola, cello, piano, percussion), This Is the Hour of Lead inaugurates the recording with a solemn meditation that encompasses dramatic emotional terrain: death, loss, grief, anger, and acceptance. Neatly structured and presented without interruption, the twenty-one-minute piece frames a central vocalise and detail-intensive interludes with the vocal settings. Echoes of minimalism emerge in the opening movement's piano and vibraphone patterns but the genre is subtly referenced, with Castillo's writing invoking the tradition as merely one element of many. In the opening minutes, elegiac strings, vibraphone, and woodwinds coalesce to establish a haunting, ponderous soundworld of powerful impressionistic scope, after which Fischer's sympathetic rendering of Dickinson's “After Great Pain, a Formal Feeling Comes” appears. Instrumental pathways of variegated form are explored before Fischer returns to voice Yeats' “Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven” (“Tread softly because you tread on my dreams”) during the final movement.Castillo's openness to the directions of the early twentieth century is audible in Cirque, a solo violin setting (executed with bravura intensity by Kim) whose range of effects might have one thinking of figures such as Berg and Webern. In opening with dribbling water and birdsong, the eight-part The Quality of Mercy immediately distances itself from the other settings. Castillo uses such treatments judiciously, however, and carefully strikes a balance between electronic treatments, acoustic instruments, and Fischer's vocalizing. Interesting juxtapositions abound in this wide-ranging, collage-styled work, from the combination of voice, flutes, percussion, strings, and traffic noise in the third section “What” to crowd noise, electronics, and acoustic instruments in “Interlude (Voiceprint).” The piece's thematic focus on reconciliation finds its literal realization in the interactions between live instruments and electronic media, and its adventurous character is heightened by the live audio processing that was involved in its construction. Contrasts in composition and sound design are plentiful on this fifty-two-minute collection, and The Quality of Mercy impresses as a bold and auspicious recording, especially when one considers that it's Castillo's debut.