ROADSHOW: MUSIC OF CARL SCHIMMEL / SCHIMMEL: Roadshow for Otto1-3. Roadshow for Thora4. 4 Nocturnes from “The Oblivion Ha-Ha.”5 String Quartet No. 2, “Six Faces.”6 The Pismirist’s Congeries1,7 / 1Alex Sopp, flautist; 2Romie de Guise-Langlois, clarinetist; 3Sumire Kudo, cellist; 1Steven Beck, pianist; 4SOLI Chamber Ensemble; 5Lucy Shelton, soprano; 5Da Capo Chamber Players; 6Left Coast Chamber Ensemble; 7Sharon Roffman, violinist; 7Wendy Law, cellist / New Focus Recordings FCR167
Columbia University graduate Carl Schimmel’s music has been described by The New York Times as “vivid and dramatic,” but it’s also humorous, combining an intense “expression with a structural rigor which draws upon his mathematics background. In infusing his music with extra-musical influences such as poetry, art, and even unusual words, he strives to construct nexuses of experience which reflect both the inner life of emotions and the outer physical world (from the liner notes).”
The first two pieces on this CD, as well as the disc’s title, stem from the PBS program Antiques Roadshow and some of the toys Schimmel saw on that program. The first is dedicated to his son Otto, the second for his daughter Thora. The boy’s toys are “The Silver Atom Ray Gun” (oh, heavens! he supports toy weapons for children!), “The Clown Mandeville,” “Pedaling the Spirit of America,” “Camel and Monkey,” and “The Revolving Flashing Robot.” The girls’ toys are “The Yes No Bear,” “The Ives Trotter,” “The Clown Magician”(wow, he seems to have a thing for clowns, huh?), “Pulling the Pink Pig” (where are the animal rights activists to STOP this madness?) and “The Humpty Dumpty Circus Band.” All of this music is whimsical, lively and asymmetric, pitting the chamber instruments involved against one another rather than having them play as a unit. I should also point out that, for all its wackiness and humor, the music is resolutely tonal and, for all its asymmetric moments, highly rhythmic. It seems to my ears to draw on older popular music forms, occasionally spirituals (“Camel and Monkey” bears a strange resemblance to “Amazing Grace”!) and klezmer, particularly in his use of the clarinet. The allusions to the toy descriptions are merely symbolic for the most part, although Schimmel does occasionally try to simulate sounds that might be represented by the specific toys.
As for the underlying structure, it is mathematically balanced, as advertised, but doesn’t conform to any pre-existing classical form. In a reduced sort of way, the music put me in mind of Oliver Knussen’s wonderfully imaginative music for Where the Wild Things Are. There are many pauses and full stops written into each piece, short though they are (none of the Roadshow pieces are longer than two minutes, and many are about a minute and a half). Yet aside from their entertainment value, the music makes you think as you listen, perhaps because of those stops and pauses. A headlong rush through each piece would have been equally amusing, but it wouldn’t brig us up short and force us to hear what is really going on in the music. Perhaps the best example of what I mean within the first two suites is “The Clown Magician,” where Schummel creates an aura of mystery with slow, quiet music, the humor coming from the two or three “honks” of the clown’s horn, represented by the clarinet “honking” in the low register. Perhaps the most effective use, for atmosphere, of the stops and pauses comes in “Pulling the Pink Pig,” where Schimmel writes bouncy kiddie music to represent the moments when the pig (on wheels, obviously) is being pulled, and the silence to represent those moments when the pulling ceases. I’m sure that these words will mean very little to anyone who has not actually heard the music, but for those who have it will make perfect sense.
The 4 Nocturnes from “The Oblivion Ha-Ha” are voice-with-xchamber-group pieces, here featuring the inexcusably wobbly voice with a strained top range and incredibly poor diction of soprano Lucy Shelton, who ironically enough was used by Knussen many years ago to sing his Whitman Settings (she had a little bit of a wobble back then, but better diction and no strain up top). This music is consistently slow in tempo, imaginatively scored for the unusual quintet of flute, violin, clarinet, cello and piano, here played by the excellent Da Capo Chamber Players. Considering the fact that Schimmel has apparently paid great attention to the setting of these texts by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet James Tate, to exploit “the evocative and visual
nature of the poetry through word-painting, and to employ the natural stress and rhythm of the English language, like a scaffold over which I draped the verses.” Tough luck, Carl; you got stuck with a soprano for whom English is her native tongue who can’t sing a single syllable of it clearly. But the music is interesting and highly imaginative, just so long as you follow the words in the booklet and pretend the singer can be understood (I actually did make four or five words out in a couple of the songs, but only because I’ve trained myself to deciphering the poor diction of such singers).
The 12-part String Quartet No. 2—six numbered movements with a Prelude, Interludes, an Intermezzo and an Epilogue—represent different paintings. Schimmel lists them as Georges Braque’s Girl with a Cross (1911), Pablo Picasso’s Man with a Pipe (1911), Albert Gleizes’ Woman with Animals (1914), Juan Gris’ Woman with a Mandolin (1916), Jean Metzinger’s Woman with a Fan (1913), and Fernand Leger’s Man with a Cane (1920), thus this quartet may be called his own personal Pictures at an Exhibition. The music, however, is continuous, each movement and interlude running one into the next without a break, and there is no stylistic distinction between the various “portraits.” This does not mean, however, that the music is uninteresting; on the contrary, it is highly engrossing, being alternately quiet and dramatic almost to the point of violence, never really relaxed or relaxing. Indeed, Woman With Animals is so violent that, without being able to see the painting, I would almost think that she was wrestling a grizzly bear or some such thing (and that, despite moments of taming it, the grizzly bear won). Indeed, this quartet is less a Pictures at an Exhibition than a pretty edgy and nightmarish Night Gallery. Don’t look at these paintings in the dark!
Having come a long way from the whimsical opening pieces on this disc, we then move on to the final nine-piece suite, The Pismirist’s Congeries. Schimmel describes a pismirist as a person who collects “small or insignificant things.” And insignificant they are. The list of items described by the music, given in the booklet, sound like that old Bob & Ray comedy routine about the “hard luck person” they found at a bus station, to whom they give such gifts as sailing vessels used by the ancient Phonecians (to which the recipient, who was broke and needed a bus ticket home, would ask, “Now, what am I going to do with that?”). Among the indispensable gems collected by this person are a war flag of pre-heraldic Europe (Gonfanon), a clockwork model of the solar system (Orrery), a finger exercise machine for pianists (Chirogymnast) and a torture instrument for crushing fingers (Pilliwinks). Remind me to stay away from this guy. But the music is utterly fascinating, reminding me in form and structure of the late Marius Constant (yes, The Twilight Zone guy).
All in all, this is a fascinating, engaging, and almost wildly diverse set of creative vignettes by a composer I hope to hear more of. Keep on truckin’, Carl! I love it!
—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley