Christopher Roberts: Trios for Deep Voices
Cold Blue

Christopher Roberts' Trios for Deep Voices is considerably more engrossing than one might expect a recording scored exclusively for a trio of double basses to be. Certainly that's due, in part, to the intimate character of the work's five movements, not to mention the prowess of double bass players Roberts, Mark Morton, and James Bergman, but it's also attributable to the caliber of Roberts' compositions. The music was largely inspired by his experiences in the jungles of the Star Mountains region of Papua New Guinea, where he moved in 1981 to study “the natural prosody of music.” Living amongst the people of the Star Mountains, he introduced them to his double bass, while they in turn introduced him to their songs. Profoundly affected by the locale—“the way the water moved through its gorges, the tone of the insects, the way people there would sing, and the particular choruses of the birds,” in his own words—Roberts eventually distilled those experiences into compositional form in such a way that the trios might re-create the experience of being in New Guinea and the plenitude of its sounds (e.g., screaming insects, rushing water, initiation ceremony music).

By the composer's own admission, the bowing patterns coursing through “Hornbills” were inspired by the sound of hornbills in flight and do in fact mimic them convincingly. The three players alternately play agitated passages at breakneck speed and branch apart into cawing upper figures anchored by deep bowed patterns. “Around The Hearth” is slow and lyrical by comparison, with the double basses overlapping in elegant polyphony and spanning a broad range of pitches. With the trio's momentum slowed by human breath-like pauses, the piece at times calls to mind the more peaceful passages in Terry Riley's Salome Dances for Peace. If “Kon Burunemo” (“trembling leaf”) exudes a mournful and reflective quality, it's apropos as it was written in memory of David Walter, a bassist and teacher with whom Roberts studied. A faint hint of a Satie “Gymnopédie” seems to surface amidst the melodic lines traced by the solo bass in the opening minutes of the fourth trio, “Flying,” after which the elegiac “Mesto” brings the thirty-seven-minute recording to an entrancing close. Roberts' programmatic info provides explanatory direction which one may follow or disregard, depending on one's inclination, but the music certainly succeeds perfectly well on its own terms. Even without supplementary information, Trios for Deep Voices' five evocations would prove transporting.

It's also worth noting that Roberts, a Juilliard graduate who currently teaches music at Whatcom Community College in Washington, followed his spell in Papua New Guinea with a Fulbright-sponsored sojourn in Taiwan where he studied the Chinese classical qin (an ancient zither-like instrument); now a master of the instrument, Roberts will follow up Trios for Deep Voices with a Cold Blue CD of his qin solos (tentatively scheduled to be released next year).

March 2009