Sounds Heard: Christopher Shultis—Devisadero

Purchase:
Devisadero
by Christopher Shultis
(Navona NV5849)

Although Chris Shultis’s career as a musician and scholar has been long and multifaceted, his colleague Richard Hermann pointed out to me that he is, in a sense, a young composer: It was not until the late 1980s that Shultis (b. 1957), initially a percussionist, began to write music full-time. I first encountered his work in 2004; a number of pieces that appear on this year’s Devisadero date from around the same period. The handsomely packaged disc includes Openings (2004-07) for wind ensemble, Songs of Love and Longing (2001-03) for soprano and piano, “a little light, in great darkness” (1995-2000) for soprano saxophone and woodwind quartet, and Devisadero (2002-07) for piano.

The guiding principle of Openings is the increasingly generous ladling-out of conventional specimens from the worlds of concert band music, symphonic music, and film and television music with occasional enigmatic interruption. But this description makes it seem much less gripping than it really is: Shultis’s adroit selection and arrangment of these specimens offer a cutaway view, revealing plenty of unoccupied storage space for the affective freight—bombast, dread, elation—that these musical containers are supposed to bring us. At what level Shultis accepts that these snatches of soothing or stirring music really do mean what they purport to is beside the point: Even if they sprang to his ear without solicitation “as [he] walked up the Spruce Spring Trail near Red Canyon campground in the Manzano Wilderness for the first time,” their disposition is so canny (and Shultis’s experimentalist credentials so impeccable) that they just can’t be taken at face value. The same mode of rhetorical disassembly characterizes Songs of Love and Longing, whose passages of opaque, putatively neutral material—more than are found in Openings—stud it so densely that they risk losing their potency to remind us of the piece’s very wide possibility-space. It’s a minor quibble, though: I love pieces that confront these sorts of problems.

I have a hazy memory of hearing the somewhat older “a little light, in great darkness” about seven years ago and not being able to make much sense of it; I’m glad it reappeared on this disc, because it presents a useful contextualization for the rest of the pieces included here. At a very static almost-fifteen minutes, “a little light, in great darkness” clarifies Shultis’s roots in post-Cageian experimentalism; however, hints of restlessness and impatience with the piece’s highly constrained sound-world emerge.

These moments of recognition—acknowledgments that the piece’s sparse, obscure non-gestures are not as resistant to interpretation as they might have seemed—surely informed Openings and Songs of Love and Longing, but they blossom even more audaciously on the disc’s title track. Devisadero, another trail-walking piece, skirts Windham Hill-style New Age naturism. Unlike that literature, however, Shultis’s rewarding piece dances on the edge of not making sense, taking a dialectical view of nature and Nature.

In each case, Shultis’s pieces raise more questions than they furnish answers. What I find especially pleasing about the disc Devisadero is that it helps us organize these questions and try to reconstruct Shultis’s own encounters with them; it’s a fascinating document in the continued journey of this young composer.

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