David Kirkland Garner: Dark Holler
New Focus Recordings

Dark Holler, a marvelous work for large chamber ensemble by David Kirkland Garner, impresses on multiple levels. On formal grounds, it merges elements drawn from the musical heritage of the American south with modern classical composition. Fiddle tunes, banjo songs, and Appalachian ballads are but three of the styles drawn upon during the six-part, forty-four-minute recording. What makes the accomplishment more impressive, though, is that Dark Holler is no lazy collage or pastiche that simply drops said elements into the work's structure; instead, the incorporation of vernacular elements is handled deftly using one of two strategies: much like a camera gradually bringing a blurry image into sharp focus, a folk motif gradually assumes definition after first being presented in a deconstructed form that subtly alludes to the motif; or the folkloric material is stated with clarity first, after which it assumes a more fragmented form that still retains an audible connection to the originating material. Such an approach reveals Dark Holler to be a work of great sophistication and poise.

The work itself is impressive, then, but so too is its realization by the personnel involved. Recorded at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina during two days in November 2013, the recording features performers drawn from yMusic and the American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME), many of them familiar names in new music circles. Violist Nadia Sirota, flutist Alex Sopp, and cellist Clarice Jensen appear, as do clarinetist Hideaki Aomori, trumpeter C.J. Camerieri, horn player Jamie Keesecker, pianist Timothy Hambourger, harpist Jacquelyn Bartlett, double bassist Shawn Conley, violinists Rob Moose and Sarah Griffin, and percussionists Cameron Britt and Shawn Galvin. All play integral parts in rendering Garner's vision into physical form.

The opening movement, “Traveler,” provides an excellent illustration of the compositional technique in play. It begins quietly with a regular pulse on woodblock augmented by delicate strings that seem to gently swirl around the beat. As the ten-minute movement advances, however, the strings' expressions morph into a fiddle tune recorded in New Mexico in 1952; yet at the same time as that voicing becomes more explicit, the melody extends beyond the strings to the other members of the ensemble, with each musician contributing a part to the intricate whole. Without any compromise to the musicality of the presentation, the polyphonic effect proves mesmerizing; further to that, the combination of the complex patterning and pulsing rhythm suggests some degree of commonality between “Traveler” and an early John Adams composition such as Common Tones in Simple Time. The third movement, “Devil's Dream” does something similar in opening with agitated strings that eventually reshape themselves into a barn-busting fiddle hoedown at the five-minute mark.

Not everything is so extroverted: the second movement, “Wandering Boy” opens in a state of somnolent haze before a cello part rises from the mist with a plaintive folk melody drawn from a recording by Kentuckian Roscoe Holcombe. Hints of delirium gradually emerge as the string patterns accumulate, as if suggesting the effect of a hot sun beating down on the traveler as he struggles to reach his destination. Scored for clarinet, percussion, and harp, the introverted “Interlude” offers a pleasing rest-stop between the more dynamic surrounding movements, while “Dark Holler” brings the album to an elegiac close with dramatic material based on a recording of North Carolina balladeer Clarence Ashley.

Currently an Assistant Professor of Composition and Theory at the University of South Carolina, Garner comes by his connection to folk music honestly. Along with teaching and writing, he plays banjo, studies fiddle, and, so we're told, “hears everything, but suspects he knows nothing.” Certainly said comment shouldn't be taken literally: among other things, he clearly knows a great deal about reconfiguring the vernacular folk music of the American south, as borne out by the remarkable evidence at hand. Though it's possible to hear traces of John dams and Aaron Copland in Dark Holler, Garner is no copyist. This is a work that's stamped throughout with the composer's very personal signature.

August 2017