Maria Granillo’s Simple But Elegant Music

Mousai front cover

MOUSAI: THE MUSIC OF MARIA GRANILLO / Mousai / ÓNIX Ensemble. Reflejo / Túumben Pax. Asaselo / Quinteto de Metales Alcalá. Las Hojas Secos / Teresa Navarro Agraz, soprano; Arturo Uruchurtu, pianist. Serpientes y Escaleras / Da Capo al Fine. Dos Danzas para un Principio / Metales; Coro de Cámera de la Facultdad de Música de la UNAM; Samuel Pascoe, director / Urtext JBCC262

In the modern-day classical world, aside from those innovative composers like Daniel Schnyder who turn to jazz for inspiration, contemporary compositions often break down into two categories: pretentious, edgy garbage (PEG) or boring, airy goop (BAG). Happily, the music of Maria Granillo (b. 1962) is neither of these. It is tonal, resolutely so—one will only occasionally hear out-of-tonality harmonies—lyrical, and attractive. Moreover, it is built of simple blocks of sound; and yet, it is remarkably attractive within its own frame of reference.

After her graduation from Mexico’s National University, Granillo took her graduate studies at the Guildhall School of Music in London and holds a Master’s Degree from the University of York and a Doctorate from the University of British Columbia, Canada. The liner notes for this CD tell us that in addition to “Latin-American resonances of her upbringing,” her music includes the recurrent themes of “natural phenomena, the human emotions, and Mythology from different traditions.” I also hear in her music the kind of simple but attractive “building blocks” that one also hears in the music of African-American composer Alonzo Levister. It is music that makes its best impression due to its very simplicity and lack of pretention. It is also, for the most part, music designed on a small scale, aimed to please the listener without unduly challenging him or her.

In the previous two paragraphs, then, one will find a technical description of her music, but this simplicity should not be confused with a lack of invention. Granillo may work in relatively simple forms and primary colors, but much of this music has substance, particularly her brief piece for women’s chorus, Reflejo. I was also very impressed by her brief cycle of songs based on three haikus of José Juan Tablada, titled Las Hojas Secas. Composed in 1989, it is the earliest piece on this album, yet so consistent is Granillo in her personal style that one cannot really tell the various ages of the different pieces on this disc. She seems to have had no “stages” as a composer, but apparently arrived in full bloom on the scene and has maintained her consistency throughout the decades.

It also helps greatly that the choral and solo soprano singing on this album are first-rate. I get so tired of hearing very fine modern music sung by defective voices that it was an unalloyed pleasure to hear the singing here, although in my opinion Teresa Navarro Agraz, who performs Las Hojas Secas, is a somewhat bland and unimaginative interpreter. I also enjoyed the odd little quartet for flute, oboe, cello and piano, Serpientes y Escaleras (composed 2012), which had an interesting development within its brief timeframe (6:41) including some uncharacteristic atonal cello “slides” up and down the strings. Like Levister’s music, Granillo’s pieces are very melodic, yet the melodies are elusive and not at all predictable or banal—another feature in their favor.

By and large, the recorded sound of each piece is very close-miked yet not abrasive. I really appreciate this naturalness of sound after listening to so many modern recordings engineered for maximum “aural goo,” with too much reverberance. All of the performances are quite fine and most are heartfelt, particularly Serpientes y Escaleras and the final work, 2 Danzas para un Principio, very imaginatively scored for two trumpets, trombone, horn, tuba, percussion and chorus. Here, particularly, I heard a very strong Mexican influence in the score, well realized and brought to fruition using a variety of devices such as a split chorus playing off one another in counterpoint and then having the percussionists play off each other (tympani against xylophone).

I found this to be a very pleasing CD, worth investigating for both the composer and her specific way of treating music.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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