Ingram Marshall: Savage Altars
New Albion

A diverse collection of choral, piano, and guitar works, Savage Altars hews more to the style of American composer Ingram Marshall's recent Kingdom Come than releases like Dark Waters and Alcatraz that concentrate more on an album-length concept. Regardless, Savage Altars' quality level is high and, if anything, enriches our appreciation of Marshall's artistry in subtle but significant ways.

Premiered in 1991, the 20-minute title piece (also Marshall's first full-length choral work) takes its title from the Annals Book I wherein Roman historian Tacitus chronicles Roman campaigns against the German tribes. When the Romans' bones and weaponry were found six years after the defeat, they were called 'barabarae area' (savage altars). Composed on the eve of the first Gulf War and recorded during the second, Savage Altars' historical dimension resonates even more forcefully when broached in the context of current political and militaristic affairs. The work itself unfolds gracefully as a polyphonic tapestry, with cascading voices weaving intricately alongside sparse instrumental accompaniment (strings solo briefly and taped electronic sounds make distinctive interjections). Also incorporating the Magnificat hymn and the “Sumer is i cumen in” canon (supposedly the oldest notated polyphonic music in the West), Marshall's work flows through multiple episodes, some elegiac and serene, others more spirited and rambunctious. Even though Marshall, in his liner notes, describes the album's later piano work, Five Easy Pieces, as a kind of homage to Stravinsky, one also hears strong echoes of the Russian composer in the choral work, in its rhythms especially.

Though Savage Altars appears to be positioned as the disc's 'major' work, the others, admittedly less ambitious in scope, are no less satisfying. Parts of the solo piano piece Authentic Presence will sound familiar to Marshall aficionados as they derive from Evensongs' Piano Quartet (“In My End is my Beginning”). Sarah Cahill delivers a remarkably assured reading that accommodates the work's fluctuating tempi without ever losing the fundamental propulsion of the occasionally impressionistic piece, and the stillness she achieves so delicately in the reflective middle section is superb. The aforementioned Five Easy Pieces are, more precisely, five four-handed miniatures performed by Cahill and Joseph Kubera that variously suggest a Gershwin character (the bluesy “Tangoesque”) and obvious Satie flavour (“Jimnopedique”). The disc's final piece, Soe-pa (Tibetan for 'patience'), a three-movement work for solo classical guitar amplified with digital delays and loops, is realized splendidly by Benjamin Verdery. As with Marshall's work in general, the technology never acts as an end in itself but instead serves the musical purpose of the work. Delay effects are used to generate ripples that echo and fade, for example, an effect that consequently heightens the piece's hypnotic potential. Ultimately, if Savage Altars isn't as defining a Marshall release as, say, Three Penitential Visions; Hidden Voices, it's still a superb representation of his always-compelling work.

July 2006