- Composers, young or old, are faced with some very difficult challenges and choices at the present. I don't know if they are easier or harder than composers have been facing for the last fifty years at least, but they are difficult nonetheless.
- Here are some of the options:
- Accept the ideology of modernism and write "progressive" music. The problem with that is, what is progressive now? Serial atonality? Probably not since the 1960s. Minimalism? Probably not since the 1970s. Neo-romanticism? Probably not since the 1980s (though I'm a little foggy about that one!). Extended-techniques-spectral-new-complexity-noise-etc-etc? Well, pick your decade! You see the problem? In the 20th century, styles and practices in music composition started to look a bit like fashions, changing every season.
- Refuse the ideology of modernism and either write whatever sounds good to you or write music influenced by the music of the past.
- Be a post-modernist and write music influenced by a blend of your own taste mixed with "world music", popular music and whatever else you can dig up.
I think that as there is a wide range of styles here, there is also a wide range of quality. In other words, I don't think all of Hilary Hahn's choices were inspired ones. But quite a few were!
In my own composition I am mostly a No. 2 guy. The last piece I wrote was a Lux Aeterna based on my idea of a new version of organum. But I hope that I can appreciate that a piece written from a completely different basis can still be a great piece of music. So let me see if I can pick out a few highlights and lowlights for you. Probably the piece I enjoyed the most was the very last one by Max Richter. I'm not sure what the title Mercy means, but it is a truly lovely piece, economically presented. These are two qualities I really admire: musical beauty (with no trace of the maudlin) and economy of means. Probably my least favorite piece is Elliot Sharp's The Storm of the Eye. I can't seem to find any redeeming features there. It is both unpleasant to listen to, and fails the "Green Card" test. That is, it sounds no better than what a couple of crazy people might bang out at random.
In between are some very fine pieces like Valentin Silvestrov's Two Pieces. But don't think that I only liked the more tonal ones. Memory Games by Avner Dorman really works well but it carves out its own harmonic landscape and is not terribly traditional rhythmically. The first piece on the album, Impulse by Franghiz Ali-Zadeh is also a powerful and impressive piece of music, but it seems to owe no particular debt to past musics. Antón Garcia Abril's Third Sigh does however, but is an original and exciting piece nonetheless.
There are some fun pieces like Jennifer Higdon's Echo Dash, Mason Bates' Ford's Farm, Mark-Anthony Turnage's Hilary's Hoedown and James Newton Howard's 133 ... At Least. There are some charming but probably lightweight pieces like both the pieces by Somei Satoh and Michiru Oshima. There are some enigmatic ones that I am not quite sure how to think of like the ones by Bun-Ching Lam, Lera Auerbach, Nico Muhly and Gillian Whitehead. There are some really lovely gems like the ones by Einojuhani Rautavaara and, in a more robust manner, Christos Hatzis. And, yes, there are some unpleasant ones like the pieces by Elliot Sharp, Du Yun and Jeff Myers that I can't make much sense of and that seem to be actively bullying the listener!
I'm sure I am not qualified to evaluate all the music on the album. Some of it is from traditions that I am not very familiar with such as the piece by Kala Ramnath. But on the other hand, who is qualified? There is some wonderful music on the album and some not-so-wonderful music. I'm sure we would differ about which is which, though! If you have had the opportunity to listen to the album, I would welcome your thoughts and see how they compare with mine.
Some observations about genre and such. Hilary laid down some restrictions here: pieces for acoustic violin and piano between 2 and 5 minutes long. Also, of course, there was a subtext that it would be nice if the music would be suitable as encore material. What might that mean? Every composer took a different guess. Some thought that just writing fiendishly difficult passages for the violin was the trick. Others that the music should be tender and expressive--both are traditional encore strategies. Others thought of writing a fun romp. A little cadenza for the violin alone was included in quite a few pieces.
One of the interesting things about this project was looking at the background and careers of the composers. The old model of writing academic modernist music while teaching at a university is only followed by a very few these days. A lot of composers are also working in the areas of pop/alternative music and writing film, tv and video game scores.
Now to comment about what most reviewers would have started with and mostly stuck to: Hilary Hahn's performance of these pieces. She is an enormous talent and I'm sure she can play anything you put in front of her. Technically and musically this is a tour-de-force for the performers and one wonders if anyone else could have brought it off. Hilary takes the role of performer to be one of a transparent window on the music, adding very little of one's own personality. I can certainly appreciate that as it was one I tended to follow as well.
A couple of questions kicking around my head: how much back and forth editing went on? Did Hilary call up some composers and say, what you have written here and here just won't work or is impossible? Also, what were the amounts of the commissions? All the same? Different? Does anyone else get the sense that a couple of the pieces might have been "phoned in"? Also, do the composers share in the royalties? One presumes so. And how much would that come to in a year?
In any case, I think this is a fascinating album, well worth repeated listens and I recommend picking up a copy.