Curtis K. Hughes has been a fixture of the Boston-area new music scene for over a decade. He’s taught at Boston Conservatory, MIT, and NEC. He’s been responsible for fascinating local concert series. But above all, he has composed a unique body of works which demonstrates both the depth of his listening and his ability to synthesize an extremely wide range of influences into an extremely personal and deeply moving sound world.
Danger Garden (2006), the composition which opens a new disc devoted to Hughes’s music and also lends its name to the CD’s title, is an extraordinary aural rendering of the zeitgeist, an era offering more opportunities than any other heretofore albeit at the risk of information overload and attention deficit. The first movement (“excitedly burgeoning”) begins with a confrontational freneticism reminiscent of some of Michael Gordon’s early pieces, but within thirty seconds it completely morphs into something very different. While in the ensuing minute it clearly suggests what was once-upon-a-time the official sonic vocabulary of contemporary music (the piece is even scored for the ubiquitous Pierrot plus percussion configuration), it also hints at free jazz in its not-so-careful interplay of solo lines, each one seeming to vie for center stage. Then a gong is struck that seems to come straight out of Peking Opera, but it’s in a context that has nothing to do with Chinese music. From time to time thereafter it returns to its initial stance of aggressive post-minimalism, but it never quite allows you to get comfortable even with a regular dose of discomfort. A seeming calm ushers in the second movement, despite percussive eruptions filled with quiet desperation. Hughes has appropriately titled the movement “with repressed intensity.” Halfway through, however, the percussion takes over and propels the music forward with an insistent rock groove. But, similarly to the way that the Peking opera gong came totally out of context, the music that groove is supporting has nothing to do with rock. Then a couple of minutes before the piece ends, the other instruments gradually find grooves as well that not only evoke rock but also disco and other dance music. But don’t assume it ever becomes steady-state; Hughes’s aesthetic is too restless for that. It’s a totalism for the 21st century and it’s arguably an even more inclusive melding of styles than the kinds of pieces that have been seeping out of New York City and Los Angeles since the early 1990s. That such a style feels natural and effortless might be the best proof yet that the paradigms of web browsing and channel surfing have become internalized for many of us.
That said, in contrast, Myopia 2 (2003) comes across as far less schizophrenic. In part that’s because of its timbral homogeneity, because beneath its immediate surface it too is constantly changing textures by stratifying ranges and contrasting the density of instruments used at any given point. The work is scored for an ensemble of 12 saxophones evenly parsed with three each of soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone. (The overall impact of such an ensemble is quite different from the trio of clarinet, viola and cello that was brought together for Hughes’s earlier Myopia 1 (2001), a work which appears on Hughes’s previous portrait CD released in 2003, Avoidance Tactics.) If the saxophone quartet is something of a contemporary wind parallel to the string quartet (both of which ensembles Hughes also put to great use in compositions featured on Avoidance Tactics), this larger amalgam of saxophones functions somewhat like a string orchestra. While individual voices jump out of the thicket from time to time, this ensemble is at its most exciting when all twelve players sound in tandem.
National Insecurity explores what is perhaps the most heterogeneous instrumentation herein—flute, bass clarinet, trumpet, vibraphone, violin, cello, and bass. It is strikingly similar to the ensemble that Eric Dolphy assembled for his final American studio date as a leader (which resulted in Out To Lunch), wherein Dolphy’s multi-winds (including flute and bass clarinet) are accompanied by trumpet, vibes, bass and drums. But while the sonorities occasionally echo that landmark Blue Note album, the music that Hughes fashions for this group is by far the least jazz-like music on the present collection. Composed in 2002, and according to Hughes’s extensive notes on his website inspired by the “anxiety and uncertainty of the time and place it was written in,” despite his “aversion to writing music that purports to carry any sort of political message,” National Insecurity evokes the general malaise of our collective consciousness as we progressed from fear and shock to knee-jerk jingoism in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The concluding measures of the piece, which Hughes has described as “a ghastly passage of pure parallel motion (‘united we stand’), a final confrontation and a disintegration” capture that strange time—now a full ten years into the past—far more viscerally than words ever can.
Sandwiched between these three instrumental pieces, nevertheless, are two very effective vocal works, the two volumes of The Beck Journals composed in 2005 and 2006 for a group of four singers and a solo soprano respectively. Never resorting to lyricism, Hughes finds an alternative path to crystalline prosody in the settings of entries from the journals of the figurative painter Rosemarie Beck (1923-2003) who attempted to carve a place for herself in the male-dominated New York art scene of the 1950s. A memorable precedent for Hughes’s approach to text setting is the kind of melodic shard Charles Dodge created back in the 1970s around the poetry of Mark Strand. But Dodge was writing for music performed by a computer made to sing. An amazing feat no doubt. But the fact that Hughes can get a similarly crisp accuracy from real singers in real time is an equally formidable accomplishment, one that is further enhanced by the stellar performances of the singers, in particular soprano Jennifer Ashe who navigates the second volume, with the assured instrumental accompaniment of the Firebird Ensemble who shine throughout the entire disc.
Simultaneous with the release of this CD of chamber music is the release of Hughes’s 2009 chamber opera Say It Ain’t So, Joe (available both on Amazon and from iTunes.) It’s an entertaining and irreverent take on the 2008 Vice Presidential debate in which the singer portraying Joe Biden also appears briefly as another Joe, the Plumber. ‘Tis the season.