Michael Byron: In the Village of Hope
Peter Garland: After the Wars
In recent years, Cold Blue has issued as many singles (EPs, if you prefer) as full-length recordings, but the label's releases, regardless of format or length, are always of the highest quality, and these new singles by three Cold Blue artists of long-standing are no exception in that regard.
If one were to peruse the list of instruments credited to Chas Smith on Twilight of the Dreamboats before listening to it, one might reasonably expect to hear a piece packed with dramatically contrasting sounds stemming from the devices in question. Such an expectation would turn out to be largely off-base: as it turns out, the maverick instrument designer-and-builder blends the sounds produced by his steel guitars (Clinesmith, Emmons, Guitarzilla, and Cadillac bass) and metal sound sculptures (Bertoia 718, Que Lastas, lockheed, Mantis, Sceptre, and DADO) into a seamlessly woven entity that remains in place for the full measure of the dronescape. Though the recording isn't a total departure from the work this modern-day Harry Partch has issued on Cold Blue in the past, it does inhabit a separate stylistic zone than the one occupied by the modern classical material the label also releases. Regardless, Twilight of the Dreamboats is a thoroughly satisfying piece of music, a lustrous mass of shimmering textures and evolving tonalities that unfolds with an unhurried elegance. Like a storm cloud moving so slowly across the sky it verges on imperceptible, Smith's streaked-with-lightning setting subtly advances and recedes as it breathes controlled metallic fire for twenty-five absorbing minutes.
Similar to Smith's composition, Michael Byron's In the Village of Hope is a single-movement affair. But in contrast to Twilight of the Dreamboats, Byron's setting features a single instrument only, in this case harp. Performed by Tasha Smith Godínez (who also commissioned the piece), the material unspools across twenty-three minutes as a sparkling, ever-evolving organism of interlocking design. Godínez weaves contrapuntal patterns into intricate latticeworks that lull one into a state of reverie until regulated key changes, each one arising about every two minutes or so, snap one back to attention. Unlike Smith's piece, where a number of instruments blend into a singular mass, the harp never loses its distinct definition and defining character, and as a result the concurrent patterns—especially when one is pitched higher than the other—are easy to attend to as separate entities. In the Village of Hope exudes a subtle rhythmic urgency yet avoids being strictly metronomical in Godínez's hands, and consequently her sensitive rendering of the material enhances the work's pastoral, even dream-like character.
Of the three singles, it's Peter Garland's After the Wars that most pronouncedly flirts with classical music convention in presenting a four-movement setting for solo piano. Performed by the deservedly lauded Sarah Cahill (who commissioned the 2007-08 work), the composition also parts company with those by Smith and Byron in exploring contrasts of mood and style rather than hewing to a single style only. Inspired by Chinese poems and Japanese haikus, the movements focus consecutively on the four seasons and do so in the humble spirit of the material on which they're based. As Garland himself writes, “Each movement is like a single image, simply stated with relatively little temporal or thematic development...” As per the work's title, each of the pieces touches on the theme of war, either by reflecting on the destruction wrought by it or the tentative recovery from it.
In a manner consistent with Tu Fu's writing, “Spring View: ‘The nation is ruined, but the mountains and rivers remain'” alternates between dark, clangorous episodes and others bright, delicate, and hopeful by comparison. Death and destruction shadow “‘Summer Grass / all that remains / of young warriors' dreams'” (after Basho) with a sense of desolation permeating the movement's content—even if some small measure of recovery seems to emerge also. Introspection marks the spacious chords drifting languorously through “Occasional Poem on an Autumn Day: ‘When I'm at peace I let everything go'” (after Ch'eng Hao) and “‘A snowy morning / and smoke from the kitchen roof— / it is good'” (after Buson). If After the Wars is, as mentioned, more conventional than the other two EPs with respect to classical form, that's in no way an argument against it or a criticism. All three releases uphold Cold Blue's reputation for high-quality music and do so using different approaches.