Eric Nathan’s “Missing Words”

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NATHAN: Missing Words I / Boston Modern Orch. Project; Gil Rose, cond / Missing Words II / American Brass Quintet / Missing Words III / Percy Karp, cel; Christopher Karp, pno / Missing Words IV / International Contemporary Ens.; Nicholas DeMaison, cond / Missing Words V / Neave Trio / Missing Words VI / Hub New Music / New Focus Recordings FCR314

Eric Nathan (b. 1983) is an American composer who, like most living composers (and artists) nowadays, apparently had no birthplace and no upbringing. He just sprang full-blown on the world of music, according to his “bio” (why don’t they just be honest and call them “puff blurbs”?). writing works that have been nationally and internationally performed, winning awards and medals and loving cups with his name on them, and beginning a four-year stint with the New England Philharmonic in 2019. So I can’t tell you any more about him than what he provides, which is just that he’s wonderful.

Missing Words is a “work-cycle,” each of its six parts being written for different performing forces, of which only the first is a full orchestra. This would, I think, make it very difficult to play in public, thus n a sense it will probably only exist in this recorded form. According to the liner notes, its conception was “a collection of ‘German’ portmanteau words created by Ben Schott to describe otherwise ineffable human experiences.” These texts are given in the booklet for each movement as follows:

Missing Words I:

I: “The false sensation of movement when, looking out from a stationary train, you see another train depart.”

II: “Kicking through piles of autumn leaves.”

III: “Tiny triumphs of nimble-fingered dexterity.”

Missing Words II:

I: “Stepping down heavily on a stair that isn’t there.”

II: “New Car Smell.”

III: “The sudden, innervating clarity afforded by new glasses.”

I won’t go through all of them, because as purely instrumental music one must take it on its own merits aurally, but you get the idea. I suppose they think these are some kind of haikus.

What I liked about Missing Words I was its use of microtonalism. This, of course, is not a new device—Mexican composer Julián Carrillo was using it in the 1920s—but very few composers work in it because 1) it’s difficult to conceive and notate, and 2) it’s hard to play, yet the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (which performed on the CD I just reviewed of David Sanford’s music) plays it as if such music were second nature to it. Like Carrillo’s pieces, Nathan employs a lyrical sense of phrasing despite the edgy difficulties presented, and even introduces steady if uneven-meter rhythms. It’s very intriguing music, even if it would not be accepted by 90% of the classical music public…which is a shame.

As you listen to each movement of each piece, darned if Nathan doesn’t somehow match the verbal images conjured up by each phrase he used as a basis. This, too, adds to the music’s interest. The third movement of Missing Words I, in addition to representing “Tiny triumphs of nimble-fingered dexterity,” also sounds like little atonal elves romping through a forest. (Hey, he can have his mental images and I can have mine!)

The first movement of Missing Words II conjured up, for me, one of M.C. Escher’s drawings of houses with staircases that go every which way at physically impossible angles. Again, Nathan employs microtonalism, this time applied to a brass quintet. “New Car Smell” has a very humorous feel to it despite the harmonic edginess of the piece, and “The sudden, innervating clarity afforded by new glasses” is a sort of modern polytonal fanfare.

Indeed, if you are open to hearing this music as having a certain amount of dry humor in it in addition to some astounding creativity, you’ll enjoy it on those terms, and I see no reason not to. Not every piece of music need to be so serious that it stultifies the listener’s imagination, and as the old song lyrics went, “imagination is funny…it makes a cloudy day sunny.” Not that every piece is really humorous; the “Exhausting trudge up a stationary escalator” that begins Missing Words III is almost deeply tragic-sounding music, a reaction in excess to the situation described, with the focus being on the cello playing in its most cavernous register. This piece, however, only uses microtonalism sparingly, though it does not have a grounded tonality, although towards the end of the first movement the viola does indeed play some microtonal figures.

Microtonality returns full-blown in the movement titled “Feeling that the thermometer is still under your tongue after it’s been removed,” and here again the deadly-serious mein of the music is much too serious for its lighthearted description—again, a bit of tongue-in-cheek if rather dry humor. Nathan’s wit is even more apparent in the first movement of Missing Words IV for flute, clarinet, percussion, and piano trio, describing a stroll taken for the purpose of contemplation, where the instruments play in a highly percussive, busy manner, as if one simply cannot get into a contemplative mood even when completely alone. Although they do eventually settle into a peaceful mood, the movement ends with a loud flurry of notes. In the third movement of No. IV, Nathan surprises the listener by emulating (but not entirely imitating) traditional Japanese music.

The whole suite, which lasts 84 minutes spread over two CDs, is extremely imaginative and, although there are some heavy-handed moments, Nathan has done a splendid job of keeping the music varied and fresh throughout. No two pieces are really alike except in their common use of atonality and often microtonality, and in this way Nathan avoids the trap of so many modern composers by keeping his techniques fluid and different. Yes, there are a few lumbering moments in this music, but just as many if not more that are whimsical and even enjoyable. It really is a pleasure to hear something that doesn’t fit into a formula or a mold pre-created by others in his field. The sound quality of the recording is consistently bright and uses little or no reverb or echo (which I hate anyway), which gives the whole enterprise a brilliant, forward sound profile even in the quietest moments.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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