The UNI Wind Ensemble is Inspired by Art

cover - 54689-MCD

INSPIRED BY ART / TIAN: Petals of Fire.1 ADAM SCHOENBERG: Picture Studies.2,3 J. DAVID: Swing Landscape: Rhapsody for Piano & Winds.3 I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold.1,4 DAUGHERTY: American Gothic 4,5 / 1Andrey Floryanovich, sax; 2Andrew Wiele, Eb cl; 3Sean Botkin, pno; 4Kim Abetya, fl; 5Nathan Jones, tuba; 5Ross Winter, vln; University of Northern Iowa Wind Ensemble; Danny Galyen, cond / Mark Records 54689-MCD

From the notes:

Inspired by Art presents the music of four contemporary composers who were influenced at separate times and places by over fifteen pieces of visual art from eleven artists. The art that influenced this music is stunning – and the recording is best heard while gazing at the art that inspired the imagination of the composer (all of which can be found online). Despite the physical differences between an art form that exists in permanent visual form and another art that must be aurally recreated in time for each experience, visual and musical arts share many common ideas. Form, color, shape, rhythm, depth, intensity – the list of common attributes is endless. Both art forms create a mood, express deep feelings, and provide an emotional experience for those searching for one. Visual art has its own composition, and music paints on its own temporal canvas. The music on this album gives us a special opportunity to live in both worlds.

But of course, Mark Records only reproduced one of these artworks in the booklet for the CD. Fortunately, images of all of them were available online, so I am able to present them here in this review. Just consider this CD to be a sort of modern-day “Pictures at an Exhibition.”

Twombly Petals of Fire

Twombly, “Petals of Fire”

1. Zhou Tian’s Petals of Fire is inspired by Cy Twombly’s painting of the same name. The rapid, bitonal music, full of busy eighth-note figures that swirl and overlap, does a good job of capturing the feeling of the painting. In terms of substance, it is a well written piece that finally develops around the middle of the piece, beginning with soft flute and clarinet figures. The rhythm also shifts and changes, and there are some surprisingly lyrical episodes.

2. Adam Schoenberg’s Picture Studies is a 10-part piece for piano and wind ensemble based on several different pieces. The opening, and the Interlude, were inspired by the same Hartmann painting that inspired Mussorgsky’s Catacombs; the second piece is inspired by an Albert Bloch painting, Die Drei Pierrots Nr. 2, and is rife with humorous clarinet and flute figures set against heavy brass and lower winds. The UNI ensemble plays this in a highly virtuosic manner, as they do the quieter but no less complex Repetition, based on a Kurt Baasch photograph of the same title. I was pleased to hear that Schoenberg did not just write endless minimalist repeats of the same figure, but actually developed this music. Olive Orchard is based on a lesser-known van Gogh painting, reproduced on the album cover above; this is moody and atmospheric, with a long-held trumpet note (possibly a couple of trumpets overlapping their sound) while the harp plays soft, slow rhythmic chords and solo clarinet, flute and oboe play music that sounds, to me, quintessentially American…van Gogh transformed from a Dutchman into Grant Wood.


Hartmann, “Paris Catacombs”

Baasch Repetition

Baasch, “Repetition”

Die Drei Pierrots Nr 2

Bloch, “Die Drei Pierrots Nr. 2”

Perhaps surprisingly, Rose with Gray, inspired by a Kandinsky painting of the same title, is comprised of loud, sharply-attacked brass chords interspersed with bitonal scale passages up and down played by the clarinets with further top-line figures played by the flutes. It then slows down to present us with a long-held, edgy chord in which the inner voices shift. There then follows an alternation of these two moods, mostly leaning towards the long-held chords, before a return to the opening figures at 2:34. Calder’s World is based on a peculiar sculpture by Alexander Calder that looks like a huge mechanical insect. This is simply music that presents a quixotic mood and sticks with it throughout. Schoenberg then transforms Joán Miro’s Women at Sunrise from a piece of Spanish impressionism to a hip modern jazz-like piece. The Catacombs-like piece then returns, in a different garb, as an interlude to this exhibition before we move into Cliffs of Moher, based on a Sugimoto photo, and then into Pigeons in Flight, based on a photograph by Francis Blake. This is clearly an imaginative and varied suite, with each piece somehow contributing to the whole despite the varied musical styles involved. I should point out, however, that another hand was involved in this project, as the music was transcribed for wind band by Donald Patterson of the “President’s Own” United States Marine Band.

Kandinsky Rose with Gray

Kandinsky, “Rose with Gray”

Calder Untitled 1937

Calder, Untitled 1938

Miro Women at Sunrise

Miro, “Women at Sunrise”

Sugimoto Cliffs of Moher

Sugimoto, “Cliffs of Moher”

Blake Pigeons in Flight

Blake, “Pigeons in Flight”


3. James David’s Swing Landscape was inspired by a mural of the same name by Stuart Davis that captures the exuberance of the “Swing Era.” Pianist Sean Botkin and one of the clarinetists try to swing in this performance but come off as ragtime players. This was one of the few disappointments for me on the entire record, particularly since it was obvious to me that David was at least trying to capture a jazz flavor in his music. But this is a problem with many young musicians nowadays: they were all brought up on rock music but don’t know a thing ‘cause it ain’t got that swing! The latter part of this composition is slower, moodier music, and this comes off much better by the pianist and orchestra, but the coda also contains jazz-like figures played in a classically stiff fashion.

Davis Swing Landscape

Davis, “Swing Landscape”

Demuth 5 in Gold

Demuth, “I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold”

4. I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold, also by Davis, was inspired by Charles Demuth’s painting. After a crashing orchestral opening, the music becomes soft and glittery with a nice tenor sax solo playing against a backdrop of low brass and winds. The music evolves rather slowly and in stages, juxtaposing themes and motifs as it goes along. It is as much of a mood piece as one that is developed along conventional lines. The music becomes gradually louder and faster in pacel there are punched-out brass and wind chords against which one hears a celesta and soft trombones, then high winds and trumpets playing alternating figures in a syncopated rhythm. Then, at around 6:20, the music becomes even slower and softer than before. A fascinating piece.

Grant Wood Winter in Iowa

Wood, “Winter in Iowa”


Wood, “American Gothic”

5. American Gothic, by Michael Daugherty, is obviously based on the artwork of Grant Wood: in addition to his famous painting of the same name, also by his paintings of rural Iowa and those of Iowa in winter. Opening with a drum roll and then moving into a brisk tuba solo (followed immediately by winds), the score has a somewhat choppy rhythm and typically American-style themes, which Daugherty intertwines very cleverly. The harmony is purposely kept tonal and uncluttered by anything in the way of bitonality or atonality, though there are some quick changes here and there in the underlying harmony. Oddly, however, much of the opening section (“On a Roll”) is in a stiff rhythm reminiscent of the Burt Bacharach song Promises, Promises. The second piece, “Winter Dreams,” opens with a low flute solo (possibly alto flute) around which one hears soft instrumental flutters and a xylophone in the background. Then an oboe solo as the music finally coalesces into a theme, slow and delicate and sounding a lot like the folk song “Down in the Valley”, with sleigh bells in the background. But of course there are further shifts and changes in the music as it progresses, and the orchestration by Daugherty is wonderfully evocative. At around the 5:28 mark, the lower brass plays a slow-moving variant on the theme while high winds play a syncopated figure in eighths. The third piece, “Pitchfork,” was inspired by the American Gothic painting itself, and is replete with fast, snappy figures played in part by low clarinets against high flutes and even a down-home fiddle solo. Different sections and soloists make their contribution, the entire orchestra falls in again but then falls away to let the fiddle have its say in a fast-paced solo before returning to comment on it. In all, a very good piece that ends with a permutation of the Shaker song, “Simple Gifts,” and yet another hoedown from the fiddler against the now-quite-loud orchestral backdrop.

So there is my review of the CD, along with the appropriate images that go with it!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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