Paterson’s Music Atmospheric, Quirky

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SPHERES / PATERSON: Moon Trio.1-3 Sun Trio.1,2,4 Elegy for 2 Cellos & Piano2,3,5 / Claremont Trio: 1Emily Bruskin, violinist; 2Julia Bruskin, cellist; 3Andrea Lam, pianist; 4Donna Kwong, pianist; 5Karen Ouzounian, cellist / American Modern Recordings 1046

Robert Paterson, a composer previously unknown to me, is heard here in three trios—two written for the conventional lineup of violin-piano-cello, the third for two cellos and piano. They are played here by the well-known Claremont Trio and are fairly interesting music.

Paterson seems to me to combine traditional musical forms with unorthodox timbres and dramatic effects. In the Moon Trio, for instance, he emphasizes the “whining” qualities of the two strings against the percussive qualities of the piano. The various parts of the suite are meant to mirror certain moods created by the moon, i.e. “Moonbeams,” “Lunatic Asylum,” “Blue Moon” and “Moon Trip.” His music is essentially tonal despite the plethora of effects used, although in this particular suite I felt that at times the effects overwhelmed the musical content. This isn’t to say that the music is not well crafted; it is; only that when one is constantly barraged by odd playing techniques, this becomes what one os both hearing and listening for. This, in turn, tends to detract from the meat on the bones, which is the music itself. “Moon Trip,” for instance, starts out with a crashing tone cluster on the piano meant to simulate the launching of a rocket, followed by unusual high timbres played in a whining style by the strings.

Yet the music is substantive and interesting. In “Moon Trip,” Paterson’s score is more of a free-form fantasia than some of the preceding movements, and the mood projected, once we get beyond the rocket launch, remind one of those pictures we’ve all seen of Earth from outer space—the calm blue ball slowly spinning on its axis. This is a powerful image, and Paterson does his best to emulate it in sound. After this, however, we get an agitated section where the strings whine on a droning A natural (with the piano pounding that in crashing chords underneath), but I couldn’t figure out what in the world that was signifying. A crash-landing on the moon?

The Sun Trio also employs a certain amount of “string whining,” but mostly for the violin. Here, the cello plays more conventional lyric tunes, albeit ambiguously harmonic ones, and the piano plays a series of ground bass notes and right-hand descending triplets. Eventually the strings fall away and the piano plays a gentle, ruminative passage. I must say that I felt Donna Kwong was not as rich-sounding or as imaginative in her playing as Andrea Lam was in the Moon Trio, but she tried her best to sound atmospheric (particularly in “Sunset”). That being said, most of the atmosphere was left up to the two strings. I found it interesting that the Sun Trio was considerably longer than the Moon Trio; the first movement alone runs eleven minutes, which is nearly half the length of the entire Moon Trio, and there are five movements here instead of four. “Sunset” was the most affecting music so far on this disc, a touching, evocative piece beautifully executed.

“Absence” is not only quiet music, it is also melancholy and lonely, whereas “Sunrise” is both busy-sounding and a bit ominous, as if the coming of the sun also portends the arrival of stranger or more sinister things. The last piece, “Sun Dance,” is the most rhythmically animated piece on the album, quirky, bitonal but curiously attractive in its own peculiar way. The dance gets a bit raucous at times, as if Paterson’s sun were dancing on your head, but always retains a somewhat abrasive harmonic structure, never quite settling in any one key (although it hovers around D-flat an awful lot).

Elegy was written in honor of the late cellist Charles McCracken, a versatile musician who freelanced around New York for decades in both jazz and classical contexts (he recorded with Charles Mingus and spent two seasons in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra). Paterson was asked by McCracken’s son to quote one of Bach’s cello suites that his father loved to play. Paterson uses themes from both the fifth Cello Suite, which was Charles’ favorite, and the third Cello Suite which his son, bassoonist Charles Jr., also likes. Here we can hear Paterson’s musical imagination at its most fertile, eventually moving away from the relaxed legato of the Bach Suites and moving into a sort of Latin boogie in which one of the cellos plays rhythmic figures against the sprinkling of piano. I was very glad to hear Andrea Lam back on piano; she just brings more to the table in her playing, binding phrases together in a wonderful manner, and her solo spots are richer-sounding. Speaking of rich sounds, I loved the rich sound of both cellists here, particularly the one playing the bottom line at about the 6:20 mark. Paterson takes the music into his own quasi-fantasia style, spinning away from J.S. Bach and into his own world before returning to quotes from the Leipzig master (including a snippet from the Prelude No. 1 in C from The Well-Tempered Clavier towards the end).

All in all, an interesting recording, and one worth hearing at least once.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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