Bill Whitley: I Dream Awake
Ravello Records

Much could be made of the profound impact Alexander Calder's mobiles had on American composer Bill Whitley when he first saw them in 2003 and how the experience subsequently transformed his approach to composition; of the encounter, he states, “I stood there completely entranced by the mobiles, with the way the suspended shapes moved in response to air currents, balanced and dynamic—a stable structure with a shifting form” (one album setting, Lily of Force, even takes its title directly from a Calder mobile). As interesting as the detail is, the intoxicating effect of the five chamber works presented on I Dream Awake can be explained more simply by citing their creator's exceptional command of melody and compositional form. The music on this engaging set ravishes the ear, so much so that it stands head and shoulders above other recordings of its ilk.

Whitley's music possesses an immediate appeal that can be explained, at least in part, by his background and influences. A graduate of the universities of Idaho and Oregon, he's studied with Robert Kyr and David Crumb, among others, and taken master classes with Lou Harrison, George Crumb, Velio Tormis, John Adams, and John Corigliano. Characteristics associated with mysticism, nature, and meditation emerge in Whitley's music, and though it's nominally classical, elements of raga music, gamelan, and progressive rock surface also; in that regard, it doesn't surprise that figures such as Brian Eno, Laurie Anderson, Meredith Monk, John Luther Adams, Lou Harrison, and Pauline Oliveros are cited as influences.

That melodic allure is in place the moment 2008's Los Cielos inaugurates the album with a three-part setting whose titles reference cities he and his family visited while on a trip to Mexico. Scored for soprano saxophone and piano, the piece sees the woodwind taking flight during the rapturous “Cholula” before “Ixtapaluca” grounds the material with an emotionally expressive central episode marked by plaintive longing. On the spirited, single-movement showpiece Lily of Force, soprano saxist Federico De Zottis and pianist Elena Talarico reappear, this time accompanied by contrabassist Matteo Lorito and vibes player Stefano Grasso. A lengthy setting such as the thirteen-minute Awake affords Whitley time to explore a plethora of moods within a single piece, with in this case the soprano sax, flute, and piano trio ranging between haunting meditative sequences and joyous uptempo episodes.

As consistently strong as I Dream Awake is, two pieces stand out as particularly memorable. Performed by guitarists Eni Lulja and Elisa La Marca, the two-movement The Creation of the World (2016) dazzles the ear with its flavourful folk-classical writing and infectious rhythmic energy. Up first, “Ocean's Veil” entices with a series of ascending melodic figures and the intricate intertwine of the classical guitar patterns. Inspired by a Chinook creation story in which Coyote dances to cure his loneliness and thereby creates the world, “Coyote Draws Yakail-Wimakl” begins with an affectingly mournful section before transitioning into a bright fugue in 11/8. Even more striking is 2010's Little White Salmon, a seven-movement cycle realized stirringly by pianist Elena Talarico and narrator Donna Henderson; in using the life cycle of a pacific salmon as an allegory for the human experience, Whitley's connection to nature and mysticism comes to the fore, and the text co-written by the composer and Henderson is suitably Whitman-esque. The coupling of Henderson's resonant voice with Talarico's sparkling accompaniment (multi-tracked, if I'm not mistaken) makes for one of the recording's most potent pairings.

Whitley composes music of integrity and sophistication that's also disarmingly accessible—not an easy combination to achieve, even if he makes it sound easy on this superb collection. Like others before him, he benefits from the treatment given his music by Parma, the parent company to the Ravello Records label. In fashioning an overview of the composer's work by having a number of different instrumental groupings appear on the release, the company presents Whitley in a manner that's immensely flattering.

August 2017