Sounds Heard: Benjamin Broening—Recombinant Nocturnes
Benjamin Broening’s catalog is rich in electroacoustic works, and as founder and artistic director of the University of Richmond’s Third Practice Festival he has likewise affirmed that the marriage of experimental sonic expressivity with an almost vocal sense of line is not merely one of convenience, but rather a deep source of inspiration. With the composition and support of electroacoustic music taking such a central role in Broening’s work, one might expect electronic timbres to predominate in his compositions. Instead, Broening often lets his electronics sing in the subtlest and most unobtrusive of tones, rarely the focal point but always imbuing the music with nuance and expressive shading.
Nowhere is Broening’s tendency toward the refined, elegant, and expressive given better voice than in this new disc of piano nocturnes, a fitting moniker for these moody, introspective works that luxuriate in atmospheric filigree akin to the piano works of Chopin and John Field. Broening’s nocturnes play out as both starkly spare and lovingly ornamented. The music floats freely above cavernous spaces, trembling over resonant harmonies reminiscent of a spikier, French-influenced palette of rich, occasionally romantic sonorities. Pianists Ruth Neville and Daniel Koppelman give impressive readings of Broening’s works, managing to sustain interest across passages of extremely quiet music and exploding in the album’s few moments of fury with an assured sense of ensemble.
This kind of “slow music,” occasionally rhythmic though rarely constant, is captivating when handled by a composer with the skill and imagination to approach each moment with renewed freshness; Broening is more than up to the task and listeners will likely want to revisit the disc many times to dwell in the particular, fully imagined moments that remain especially poignant.
Fortunately, Broening has encouraged just this kind of re-engaging. The pieces on Recombinant Nocturnes all share the same musical DNA, with melodic and rhythmic ideas from Nocturne/Doubles (the earliest work on the disc) showing up in the other compositions as well. Broening encourages playing the disc on shuffle mode in order to uncover new relationships between movements and pieces, with the core material constantly recombining in new and surprising ways—one of the featured pieces, Double Nocturne for two pianos, is literally a superimposition of the two solo piano works also recorded on the disc. I spent a good part of the weekend with the album endlessly shuffling, and it’s a testament to Broening’s musicianship that the material manages to sustain interest and yield new insights through so much repetition. The modular nature of the album is above all an expressive tool in service of the musical material, exposing the listener to an unconventional sense of time that’s just right for the dreamlike nachtmusik and its lonely wanderings.
Recombinant Nocturnes is a gorgeous disc of music, and Broening never allows this core fact to be usurped through the kind of technical or conceptual conceits that might have distracted from the magic. It is adventurous, experimental music that is not so caught up in being experimental that it cannot also be thoughtful, eloquent, and disarmingly direct as well. It’s one of the most persuasive accounts of a contemporary composer engaging a tried-and-true form—the piano nocturne—with both an individual imagination and just the right amount of affectionate familiarity.