Seabourne’s Fascinating “Studies of Invention”

front cover

STEPS, Vol. 2 / SEABOURNE: Studies of Invention, Books I – III / Giovanni Santini, pianist / Sheva Contemporary SH065

Having started my journey of Peter Seabourne’s music with his Steps Vols. 4 & 5 (reviewed here), I then spent several delirious days exploring his orchestral and chamber music, nearly all of which was exceptional in every way. Now I am backtracking to do a review of Steps Vol. 2, which I find the most arresting and fascinating of the earlier releases.

Now that I’m more familiar with Seabourne’s composition methods, I can put my finger on his approach to piano writing more specifically than before. What I’m hearing is a composer using the two ranges of the piano – bass and treble – as opposing instruments much of the time. In Steps Vol. 1, he particularly went out of his way to not only disconnect the pianist’s two hands so that they were never in synch, but rather played completely different rhythms most of the time, but further disconnected the listener from the ongoing musical discourse by deconstructing his music. This was not only done rhythmically—the scores for the music of Steps Vol. 1 show time changes every few bars, sometimes with three consecutive bars in entirely different tempi—but also in terms of the musical progression. Seabourne wrote, in Vol. 1, what I would call “composer’s music,” as if he were just sitting and ruminating at the keyboard, trying to find interesting combinations of sounds and meters that he could throw together. But it is not easy to listen to. It starts and often stops in the middle of a musical sentence.

But in Vol. 5, 16 Scenes Before a Crucifixion, Seabourne brought his musical ruminations into much sharper focus. He also managed to not only present complete episodes but also to link the movements to one another in terms of key and sometimes thematic material. And here, in Vol. 2, he came close to doing the same thing.

I think this is because, as in the case of 16 Scenes, Seabourne had a specific idea, if not an actual program, in mind: to musically depict his reaction to the drawings, blueprints and 3-D models of Leonardo da Vinci. In the liner notes, he relates how he and his family were in awe of what they saw in Tuscany and how deeply it impressed him, also how “a number of pieces started to take shape” in his mind. “I wanted to try in some way to enter his mind and to capture something of his seemingly endless moments of inspiration as suddenly it occurred to him that one could fly, see distant objects, polish mirrors, re-route the course of rivers, mechanised warfare in a hundred new ways and so forth. This was a mind always fired up by new possibilities – somebody who always asked, ‘Why not?’”

The result of this spontaneous inspiration were the three Books of Studies of Invention, each divided into five parts. The individual titles of the pieces are telling:

Book I
1) Flying Machines; 2) 60 Beggars; 3) Old Man With Water Studies; 4) Study of a Woman’s Hand; 5) The Kite of the Cradle.

Book II
1) Tank; 2) Polishing Imperfections in Glass; 3) A Moth to the Light; 4) Perspectives of Disappearance; 5) La Scapigliata.

Book III
1) The Existence of Nothingness; 2) The Impossibility of Perpetual Motion; 3) Lenses for Looking at the Moon; 4) Study of a Deluge; 5) This is the Way Birds Descend.

The solidification of these titles and the underlying suggestions of each in sound pictures is not like Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Seabourne had no intention of creating clear pictorial descriptions of these particular pictures, blueprints or ideas, merely his mental and emotional reaction to them. Thus, although the music sometimes makes sense in mood to what its title is (“Old Man With Water Studies,” for instance, begins with a headlong rush of notes simulating water), they are more abstract and less depictive. “Study of a Woman’s Hand,” to name just one, has less to do with what a slowly-turning woman’s hand would look like than of Seabourne’s reaction to it: his appreciation of its delicacy or beauty as compared to a man’s hand, conveyed in the music by delicate traceries with many luftpausen to indicate its slender appearance. Again, to quote Seabourne, “I almost see them as my compositional family contributing their perspectives to a collective vision.”

mirror making machine

Da Vinci’s mirror-making machine

Nor would the music be as effective were it not played with such feeling and a sense of continuity as it is here by Giovanni Santini. He is a pianist of uncommon vision, able to look at Seabourne’s complex score and pick up on the thread of continuity that others may miss. This is not only evident in those pieces that are relatively easy to bring off this way, such as “The Kite of the Cradle” with its moto perpetuo of bitonal sixteenths, or “Tank” in the second Book with its continuous bass rumble, but also in such a work as “Polishing Imperfections in Glass,” where the very lightness of the music and its delicate traceries could easily become choppy or disjointed.

Seabourne is quite right to think of this music as a continuous composition despite its variance of mood and feeling. Lasting under an hour, it would certainly make an excellent concert piece without unduly taxing the listener…Bach’s Goldberg Variations often runs longer, and that is frequently played in


Da Vinci’s perspective sketch for “The Last Supper”

person. The difference, of course, is that in this music the listener must be willing to meet the composer halfway. The score is impassioned enough in places—listen, for instance, to the unusual sense of drama Seabourne brings to “A Moth to the Light”—to take hold of the listener’s imagination, provided the listener isn’t put off by ambiguous harmony. Seabourne is at heart a tonal composer, but his music does not continually resolve itself harmonically. On the contrary, the harmony is always in a state of flux, sometimes even at the end of each individual piece. Perhaps the most musically fragmented piece is “Perspectives of Disappearance,” in which Seabourne plays with the idea of sound that simply stops and dissolves every few notes or bars.

perpetual motion machine

Sketch for da Vinci’s perpetual motion machine

My fascination with this score, then, is bound up not so much with Leonardo’s artistic and scientific visions as with Seabourne’s musical response to them. Each piece is abstract enough in construction to suggest a number of things—without looking at the program, the music of La Scapigliata might as well have been “A Moth to the Light” or “The Impossibility of Perpetual Motion”—but this does not detract from Seabourne’s fertile imagination, and it is to his credit that he was able to conjure up so many different “takes” on the same basic rhythms and/or recurring themes in Leonardo’s work and make them all sound different.

descending birds

Da Vinci’s sketch-study of descending birds

I can well imagine that a presentation of this suite would be considerably enhanced by a visual representation of da Vinci’s work on a screen behind the performer, as for instance pianist Jack Reilly used with Alaistair Crowley’s tarot deck when he played his Tzu-Jan, the Sounds of the Tarot in concert (a performance, alas, I no longer have as my VCR died forever and the VHS tape it was on had deteriorated). Indeed, there are similarities in mood if not in structure between the two composers’ approach, as each of them tried to create and sustain moods germane to the images in their minds. Nonetheless, this is a remarkable album and one you will not want to be without.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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