David Starobin’s New Guitar Music Vol. 12


LERDAHL: 3 Bagatelles.1 MUSTO: The Brief Light.2 BLAND: Sonata No. 4.3 GREEN: Genesis: Variations for Solo Guitar. LEISNER: 3 James Tate Songs2 / David Starobin, gtr; 1Movses Pogossian, vln; 2Patrick Mason, bar; 3Yun Hao, pno / Bridge 9520

This is the 12th CD in an ongoing series by guitarist and label owner David Starobin of modern music written for his instrument. Three of these composers I’ve heard of (Lerdahl, Musto and Bland); the other two I was not much familiar with; but all of the music is interesting.

Fred Lerdahl’s low-key Bagatelles fir violin and guitar begin with the violin playing long notes against busy figures from the guitarist in quadruple time. The subtlety of the music belies its ingenuity: the use of descending chromatics attracts one’s attention. The violin holds even longer sustained notes across bars as the guitar, not slowed down a bit, plays a single-note sequence. In a piece such as this, lacking a firm tonal center, it’s hard to call such sequences a melody, but interesting it most certainly is. In the third piece the tempo is faster, with both instruments playing rapid figures against and in concert with one another.

John Musto’s song cycle with guitar, The Brief Light, calls for the guitarist to play with a more aggressive approach, which I personally prefer. Set to six poems by James Laughlin on a variety of texts and topics, Musto did a truly remarkable job matching the words to music, following the rhythm of the lyrics metrically as well as capturing the spirit of each poem/song in mood. Baritone Patrick Mason has an attractive voice that spreads on sustained notes, but he is also an effective interpreter and has excellent diction. You didn’t even need to read the words as he sang, and that in itself is a miracle nowadays. Both singer and guitarist work beautifully together, particularly in the fourth song, “The Brief Light,” a very intimate song about an older man in love with a young woman, but each song has its own character and mood. This is really excellent music. The last song in the cycle, “I Have Drifted,” has the most gracious and memorable melody line.

Next up is William Bland’s Sonata No. 4 for guitar and piano which begins with a lively figure in 6/8 time played on guitar, to which the piano enters in a supporting role. Bland’s music is melodic and tuneful, to some degree reminiscent of pop music of the 1960s (but not rock music), which actually helps the less sophisticated listener follow the music’s development much easier. In the development section it becomes less pop-like, but returns to this mode for the recapitulation of the first theme. (The liner notes mention that “Bland’s sonatas are a…mélange of old and new…abounding in blues, rock and other popular and classical references.” Thank goodness he left rock out of this one.) The third movement is a guitar solo with cadenza, while the fourth, marked “Blues,” sounded through most of it very much like the second of Gershwin’s three piano preludes. Overall a pleasant work, but not something that held my attention.

Edward Green’s eight-minute Genesis: Variations for Solo Guitar is more atonal in structure but very well written, with a busy fast section in which the guitarist plays some difficult figures, providing counterpoint to his own melodic line, which Starobin handles masterfully. Bravo! If I may nitpick just a bit, however, I felt that this piece sounded more like a suite than a set of variations; it’s just the way it struck my ear. But I certainly did like it, as it held my attention. You could never quite figure out where it was going next. Really creative music. Later on, there’s another section in which Starobin is called upon to play in rhythmic counterpoint, which also fascinated me.

Patrick Mason returns in David Leisner’s 3 James Tate Songs. Like Bland, Leisner writes in a tonal style. If not quite as closely related to pop music, the first song has, to my ears, a folk music feel about it. I could almost imagine a less-well-trained singer (albeit a good one) performing it and, if a good enough musician, doing a fine job. The difference is that Leisner’s music breaks up the rhythm, following the mood of the lyrics into unusual chord and mood changes. I was particularly impressed by “Never Again the Same,” a very complex piece built around juxtaposed melodic-rhythmic figures that mirrors the words of the poem perfectly and ends in a quiet, reflective mood. The last song, “From an Island,” sort of combines classical structure with a folk music feel, but in this one the unusual metrical division of the melodic line, and particularly the running single-note bass line played by the guitar, would be just a bit beyond the capabilities of most folk performers. As in the Musto cycle, Mason’s diction is flawless, and here his vocal control is much better, with little or no uneven vibrato on sustained notes.

All in all, a fascinating album of diverse pieces, well played and sung.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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