Jeffrey Roden: Threads of a Prayer Volume 1
Solaire Records

Reading À la recherche du temps perdu for the first time comes as something of a shock to many readers; we're talking, after all, about a massive work that devotes its opening fifty pages to the narrator's nightly pining for his mother's goodnight kiss. Yet as those who have absorbed its 3000+ pages will attest, once one has made the necessary adjustments to one's reading habits, one is irrevocably transformed by the experience of reading Proust's masterwork. Something similar might be said about American composer Jeffrey Roden's Threads of a Prayer, whose first volume, all two CDs of it, is scheduled to be followed by a second in 2017.

Ranging between pensive pieces for solo piano and string quintet, the recording, whose music from its first moment unfolds with patient deliberation and a heightened sensitivity to space and dynamics, engenders a re-calibration of sorts in listening practice. Such a description naturally suggests some degree of kinship with the music of Morton Feldman, and there certainly is an argument that can be made in that regard. But Arvo Pärt is as key a reference point on at least two counts: Roden's music shares with that of his Estonian counterpart a deep spiritual dimension, and Roden's, at least insofar as it's embodied by Threads of a Prayer, is marked by an ascetic quality that's even more extreme than Pärt's.

Still, in describing Roden's work as slow and minimalistic, one risks misrepresenting it, especially when words such as slow, fast, loud, and soft only possess meaning in a relative sense. It would perhaps be more appropriate to say that the music on Threads of a Prayer inhabits a realm whose qualities of restraint and subtlety are antithetical to the frenzied pace of contemporary Western civilization. This is the kind of recording where every detail, no matter how small, is audible.

For those familiar with Roden's earlier releases and musical history, the new collection might be a bit of a surprise, but an evolutionary through-line can be detected. Performing for many years as a session musician, he played bass for many artists, Bo Diddley and Big Jay McNeely among them, and also played in large-scale stage shows. Intensive bass study and a desire to explore the instrument's potential as a solo instrument led to five CDs of solo bass playing. Broadening his artistic vision into the area of chamber music, Roden continued his development as a composer and gave a performance of work for solo piano at New York's Stone club in 2011.

The three works on the first CD—twenty-three tracks in total—are performed by Italian pianist Sandro Ivo Bartoli with exquisite grace and care, the pianist clearly having attuned himself to the sensibility of the composer's music. In these delicate miniatures, every note resonates with meaning and anything extraneous has been excised—about as pure a music as could be imagined. As Roden himself writes in the release booklet, “I begin with nothing and continue to add one note, a fragment of silence, or a harmonic event to the preceding ones, generally having no sense of what is to follow, and eventually it is clear that the piece is completed”; subsequent to that, he states even more pointedly, “I start and finish and continue to finish until the finishing is completed.” The three piano settings, incidentally, reflect Roden's multiple sides in interesting ways: Twelve Prayers obviously grew out of deep religious conviction, whereas The Passing of a King turns out to be a heartfelt homage to B.B. King.

The second half features four works, three scored for string quintet and one for string quintet, piano, timpani, and trombone, the performers in this case the Bennewitz Quartet, trombonist Johannes Kronfeld, timpanist Wolfgang Fischer, double bassist Szymon Marciniak, and Bartoli. The change in instrumentation from the first disc to the second is dramatic, but the latter half's works, even if they are comparatively resplendent, stay true to the ascetic character of the first's. Often ponderous and reflective in tone, the opening setting, The Many Latitudes of Grief, comprises seven parts, and it's in these string-heavy settings that the similarities between Roden and Pärt are most keenly felt. As affecting as the first three works are, it's the closing Leaves, which Roden clarifies originated out of “a lifetime of watching leaves fall and marveling at both the beauty and inevitability of the falling,” that is the most powerful, especially when the poem he wrote for the piece brings its themes of acceptance, resignation, and release into sharper focus. Rich in supplication, Leaves advances with patient deliberation through multiple, oft-elegiac episodes before reaching the end of its thirty-five-minute journey.

I would be remiss in not noting the beautiful presentation Solaire has given to the project. Housed in a sturdy slipcase, the two CDs are accompanied by a thirty-six-page booklet featuring session photographs and insightful writings by the composer and Tobias Fischer. Roden is not only represented by a two-page introduction but affecting poems relating to the recording's works (consider lines from the text he wrote for The Many Latitudes of Grief as an example: “The unexpected passing of a life / The incomprehensible void / Between the left and the leaving ...”). Admittedly, it would be overstating it to say that Threads of a Prayer is as life-changing a work as À la recherche du temps perdu, yet it genuinely shares with Proust's opus the capacity to deeply alter one's habitual way of experiencing the world and to see it anew.

November 2016