Music From the Crackpot Hymnal

Crackpot Hymnal0001

CRACKPOT HYMNAL / TYMOCZKO: The Eggman Variations / Corigliano Quartet; John Blacklow, pn / Typecase Treasury. This Picture Seems to Move / The Amernet Quartet; Kevin Weng-Yew Mayner, pn / Another Fantastic Voyage / Daniel Schlosberg, pn; Illinois Modern Ensemble; Stephen Taylor, cond / Bridge 9383

Despite the album’s title, Crackpot Hymnal contains no vocal or choral music, but rather is a collection of unusual instrumental pieces. The Eggman Variations. in three movements (“Pentatonia,” “Bent” and “A Rolling Worm of Sound”), combines what sounds like gentle and ordinary classical themes with rather odd rhythms played by pianist John Blacklow. The string quartet plays shifting versions of the musical elements of the theme in changing ways. The first movement ends with what composer Dmitri Tymoczko calls “the ugliest major chord I know.” In “Bent,” Blacklow eventually abandons his little rolling rhythm for backbeats played against the quartet as the music develops. The strings slither and slide chromatically before the tempo pick up again. In “A Rolling Worm of Sound,” we hear lively string figures above a rhythm that seems to combine calypso and jazz as the music seems to develop sideways rather than in a linear fashion. The tempo decreases and increases, apparently on a whim.

Typecase Treasury was inspired by a childhood recollection by the composer of “a small table made from a printer’s typecase, divided into a hundred little compartments. Each had been filled with a mineralogical curiosity—a strange crystal, a piece of iron pyrite, a shark’s tooth, or a fossilized trilobyte.” In this piece, despite a pianist being credited in the ensemble, I never heard one; it is the string quartet writing that dominates, here using the quartet in a more traditional manner (all four instruments playing together) rather than in the solistic nature of The Eggman Variations. Also, despite the rhythmic nature of the music, it is much more in the vein of modern classical music than jazz or rock. The third movement of this suite bears the name of the album. Trying to give a verbal description of these pieces is, however, quite difficult, although Tymoczko does a credible job of it in the notes. As he puts it, the pieces are short, “just long enough to make a coherent statement but not long enough to sustain much development.”

This Picture Seems to Move is one of Tymoczko’s earliest pieces. Composed in 1998, he describes it as “more straightforward and in the pocket…willfully and assertively traditional.” Yet it is a fascinating piece, based on two paintings that impressed him by Paul Klee and Boccioni. Despite its being more “traditional,” the music is clearly individual in style; I can’t think of any other composer who might have written it. He fuses elements of Ravel and early Stravinsky into his own aesthetic, using rhythmic (but not jazzy) figures that propel the unusual, moving upper lines that constantly shift and morph. Here, too, his use of the string quartet alternates between using them as a homogenous entity and pitting upper strings against the lower. The second piece, “Those Who Go,” opens with the cello playing its theme against pizzicato violins before moving into quirky and often interrupted figures played by the whole quartet. In this, he uses backbeats as well…this seems to be one of his trademark sounds. Later on, running lines in triplets play against long-held notes in an unusual way.

The last and longest piece on the album, Another Fantastic Voyage, is by far the most “crackpot” piece on this disc. Written for piano and an ensemble of 15 strings, brass, winds and percussion, it is intended “as a musical analogue to literary genre fiction,” whatever that is. This music is clearly wacky in a good way, with abrasive atonal figures blasting their way in and out of one’s consciousness. The first of the three pieces, titled “The Mad King,” is indeed mad-sounding, much like Hillary Clinton on her “I-blame-everyone-in-the-world-besides-me-for-my-loss” tour. Indeed, the later, galumphing rhythm set up by the ensemble reminded me of her not-so-infrequent tripping and falling down staircases, and the peculiarly rambling piano solo sounded like her on-the-tour chatter. Yet this was written in 2012; how prescient Tomyczko was!

The second piece, “Changeling,” sounds like a lullaby for the murderous baby in the movie It’s Alive! It keeps trying to stick to, as Tomyczko puts it, “all sorts of adagio sweetness,” but the sinister harmonies and black-sounding mood of the ensemble eventually comes out wrong and sinister. I always wondered how the baby in the movie, less than a month old, had the prescience to find its direction while crawling through the streets and even find things to eat that it clearly couldn’t know were edible. This kid was clearly no vegan.

The finale, “An Evil, Evil Carnival,” makes one wonder if the composer was scared to death by the fake mad gorilla at local carnies as a boy. But as he puts it, it was meant to be scary in a “good fun” kind of way, and the music builds from its slow introduction through an accelerating second section “where demons are invoked and souls are stolen.” The piano plays swirling figures while the ensemble plays syncopated and sometimes jazzy-sounding figures around it to the sinister harmonies. What a great climax to a fascinating record!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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