KIEN: Pyramids.* Song of Britomartis.+ Smarginatura* / Västerås Sinfonietta; *Eva Ollikainen, +Anna-Maria Helsing, conductors; Laura Stephenson, harpist / db Productions CD173
Molly Kien is a 38-year-old American composer who moved to Sweden in 2002. This was my initial exposure to her music and, while my very first impression of the opening of Pyramids was of floating sounds that didn’t go anywhere, I let the music continue and discovered something wild and wonderful.
At about the three-minute mark, the music of Pyramids opens up and blossoms. All those little “fills” one heard earlier from the clarinet now becomes the impetus for a new theme that suddenly develops into something quite powerful and moving. Little violin figures play across the top line of the music, trumpets and tympani work their way in and out of the orchestral texture, and before long we have a fairly complex and powerful piece of music. Eventually the busy activity recedes and a solo viola plays a slow, still theme while the rest of the orchestra makes commentary around it. The tempo doubles as the trumpets and tymps re-enter, now making a more dramatic, almost sinister statement. The volume recedes, slow-moving whole notes float across the musical landscape, but edgy string figures and pounding tympani continue to push the music along. Edgy flute tremolos suddenly end the piece—what a wild ride!
But if you thought Pyramids wild, wait until you hear Song of Britomartis. Here, Kien seems to be combining a somber ground bass (played by basses and cellos) from the 18th century with strange, edgy figures which swirl around in the winds and brass, playing together. The juxtaposition of these two disparate musical styles somehow coalesces, particularly when the other instruments swell up from the bottom of their registers and move, as if in a wave, slowly up the scale together. This then recedes, allowing solo harpist Laura Stephenson to play a secondary theme that sounds both prescient and a bit sinister. Soft, almost hushed string tremolos work behind the harp, along with sprinkles from triangle and other similar percussion, as Kien creates a unique soundscape that captivates listeners and sucks them in. And here Kien manages to keep her balancing act up for nearly 20 minutes! Her ear for color is extraordinary: listen to the way she uses the lower reed instruments or sometimes maintains a thread of music with the barest of orchestration. My readers who follow my blog know full well that I am not a fan of “ambient classical” or “neo-classical chamber,” but Kien finds a way of making her strange, floating music work because it is never stagnant or predictable. It keeps on moving, shifting and developing, in the process pulling the listener along with it. At about the 15:10 mark, strange, slow-moving bitonal chords flow behind the solo harpist, shifting and leading the ear further and further away from the established tonality. This is fascinating music. Little flurries of orchestral activity come and go as the music nears its conclusion.
Smarginatura begins with slithering figues played by what sounds like a combination of soft trumpets and clarinets; other high instruments sprinkle the music with their color until a forlorn oboe wends its way in and out of the ongoing texture. Having nearly 25 minutes to play in, Kien continues to add rhythms and textures as her music progresses. She plays around with minimalism in the form of a repeated string figure, but since the underlying music continually shifts and morphs it’s not really minimalist. Eventually a busier, double-time string figure comes on the scene, eventually forcing the rest of the orchestra to pick up its pace. Eventually this tug-of-war between the double time string figure and the slower theme played by the orchestra leads to a great deal of wind section chattering before it melts away, leaving floated clarinet and string chords (in different keys) playing against one another. The strings temporarily recede, leaving the winds to carry on for a while, but not for long. Staccato trumpets figures enter the picture, followed in turn by snare drum and lower winds; then another relaxation into an entirely different string figure accompanied by chimes and triangle. To a certain extent, Kien’s orchestration is as much if not more of a component of her music than the harmonic-melodic movement; one really cannot conceive of these pieces sounding the same, or even being as effective, played by smaller forces or different instruments. The motoric shifts in accent, tempo and meter between the different sections of the orchestra have a very specific function in her scores and, by extension, a very specific emotional impact on the listener. It’s kind of like imagining Ligeti’s Atmospheres played by a piano trio. The notes might indeed be identical, but the sound and impact would be radically different.
This is a fine, interesting album of music by a composer I hope to hear much more of in the future.
—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley