Sounds Heard: Justin Rubin—A Waltz through the Vapor
Although A Waltz through the Vapor is only the second* full CD devoted to the music of Duluth, Minnesota-based Justin Rubin, he is an extraordinarily prolific composer. His website offers PDFs of more than 250 of his compositions written over the past 20 years—and that is not even his entire output! Of the scores available for download, roughly a quarter are for solo piano, so it is not surprising that the new CD is dominated by solo piano music (although his previous CD, Nostalgia, was devoted to his music for bassoon).
In the booklet notes for the new CD, Rubin confesses that “in my teens and early 20s I longed to be progressive but somehow through the curious lines of artistic invention I found myself in my late 20s and 30s writing waltzes amongst other unfashionable things.” And indeed, regular triple meter and lush harmonies pervade much of the music here. That said, in the year 2013 it is hardly unfashionable, and in these compositions these devices help to shape a fascinating listening experience to music that exists somewhere between tonal and non-tonal realms—not quite comfortable being limited to either paradigm but totally comfortable in the ambiguity.
The disc opens with The Still Waters of Sagamore Hill, a hauntingly beautiful piano piece inspired by the historic home of Theodore Roosevelt. Perhaps appropriately for a work created in response to someone from the turn of the last century, the music seems equal parts Claude Debussy and Charles Ives with a slightly more contemporary twist, perhaps a touch of McCoy Tyner—it was, after all, composed in 2001. It has a clear triple meter pulsation although it is in fact a slow 6/8 which actually makes it a composite of duple and triple meters. Though it ultimately resolves conclusively to F♯ major at the end, it is tonally ambiguous up until that point. In fact, the opening series of measures, which is something of an idée fixe throughout the piece, seems to incorporate a full tone row. However, on a careful examination of the score only 10 of the 12 pitches of the chromatic scale are used. Rubin subverts atonality as much as he subverts tonality.
There seems to be a more clearly articulated use of twelve-tone vocabulary in the next piano piece, “Affetuoso,” though Rubin is not afraid of repeating notes or including a few major triads here and there in his traversal of the complete chromatic, giving the work the overall effect of sounding polytonal rather than atonal. Considering that Schoenberg conceptualized the twelve-tone method as a means to achieve pantonality rather than atonality, Rubin—who immersed himself in Schoenberg’s music back when he was a piano student in the preparatory division at the Manhattan School of Music—is simply fleshing out what is already implicit in dodecaphony. “Affetuoso” is the second section of Rubin’s five-part Piano Album 2008 which is included in its entirety on the present disc, though not on consecutive tracks and not in numerical order. As Rubin explains, since he has composed “dozens of individual shorter pieces for piano over the years,” he began to put them together into piano albums “with variable performance sequences.” In fact, the next piece on the disc, the equally chromatic contrapuntal “Lullaby for Max,” composed for his son, is part of Rubin’s Piano Album 2006, although it is the only work from that particular album included here.
The next work, however, is perhaps my personal favorite. Musical Specimen, composed in 2011 and scored for the unlikely trio of piano, marimba, and bassoon (the bassoon’s sole appearance on the current disc), presents cascades of rising and falling sequences that seem very intent on going somewhere but ultimately just float around. Though the score is strictly in duple meter throughout, Rubin subverts regularity by beginning many of the phrases off the down beat. His description of why he wrote this piece is priceless…
I overheard a friend once trying to describe my style to someone asking what my music was “like.” He hesitated, backtracked a lot, and couldn’t quite say with any conviction whether it was tonal or not, consonant or strident, lyrical or angular, consistent or scattered. I decided I needed a brief Musical Specimen featuring some of my favorite timbres to help the argument along.
However, next up, “Con serietà” from the Piano Album 2008, returns to the opulent quasi-impressionism of the opening track and has the clearest tonal pulls of all the music on the disc thus far. Something of a tug of war between D minor, F major, and D♭ major (all of which share the note “F”), F major ultimately wins the day. However, Rubin never offers an easy resolution; the final clearly F major utterance comes immediately after a full F♯ major chord (a severe clash) which lingers on even once the last chord is articulated, resulting in something of a sonic blur.
Nothing is quite so ambiguous in Rubin’s unabashedly tonal Variations on “There Were Three Ravens” for flute and piano. The score even proudly proclaims a key signature. Of course this is music based on pre-existing material—specifically “There Were Three Ravens” by the early 17th-century English composer Thomas Ravenscroft—and Rubin composed it, or so his notes seem to imply, in order to exorcise a tune worm. “Consolante,” again from Piano Album 2008, creates variety and momentum from subtly altering a motive with chromatic shifts.
The heftiest piece on the present disc, the two-movement Sonata for Violoncello and Piano, opens with an unaccompanied cello, the piano eventually entering echoing the cello’s phrases in call and response fashion. The often fiery opening movement offers a constantly shifting web of imitative counterpoint. In the second, much slower movement, the roles are initially reversed. The piano enters first, with a monophonic bass line; nine measures later the cello finally joins in an almost chorale-like texture, albeit one that is far more chromatic and tonally ambiguous than anything a Baroque composer would have written. Extremely dense harmonies persist throughout, slightly thinning out—although not to a tonal resolution—at the very end.
“A Waltz through the Vapor” is the earliest of the pieces included here. Rubin initially wrote it in the summer of 1998, shortly after relocating to Minnesota from his native New York. Since this piano piece provides the title for the entire disc, it’s tempting to conclude that it somehow sums up Rubin’s compositional aesthetics even more than Musical Specimen does. And indeed it is difficult to definitively declare it to be tonal or non-tonal or even rhythmically regular or irregular. Although nominally a waltz, off-kilter measures of seven and eight beats occasionally intrude, although the flow is never broken.
“Chiaramente,” the final piece of Rubin’s 2008 Piano Album, though fully chromatic, is full of clear post-Tristan, almost ultra-romantic tonal yearnings. The Waltz for cello and piano is a lush miniature that would be perfectly at home on a standard cello recital program. Let’s hope some cellists open to exploring new but totally satisfying repertoire will read this and fulfill my assessment of it. Ending the disc with the brief but gorgeous “Cantando” (actually the fourth of the five pieces in Rubin’s 2008 Piano Album) perhaps ultimately advocates for tonality over non-tonality in Rubin’s language. It is unapologetically in B minor, again notated in the score with a key signature, and what a wonderful sonority that is, although cascades of passing tones offer some space for the rest of the chromatic scale.
After going through this disc multiple times I’m not sure I’m in a better position than Rubin’s friend who couldn’t decide if this music was “tonal or not, consonant or strident, lyrical or angular, consistent or scattered.” But I’m perfectly content for it to be somehow both at once, and eagerly await my next opportunity not only to listen to the disc again but to learn more of Rubin’s music, since there is so much of it to explore on his website.
* [Ed. Note: I stand corrected. It turns out that A Waltz through the Vapor is actually the third disc devoted to the music of Justin Rubin as I was delighted to learn when an additional MSR CD devoted to his chamber music for strings showed up in the mail the other day. Can't wait to listen to it!!!—FJO]