Sounds Heard: Michael Torke—Tahiti
Tahiti is the latest recording released by Michael Torke’s Ecstatic Records, the label he founded in 2003 in order to release his new material and to distribute his older recordings. The current trend of self-publishing/recording composers was still a fairly new and rarely implemented concept in 2003, and the number of established composers leaving the safety of traditional models to set out on their own was virtually non-existent. After the demise of Argo Records in the late ’90s, Torke tried for some time to get the rights for his recordings, but it wasn’t until 2001 that he gained some traction. Andrew Cornall (his former producer) approached Torke with an offer to assist him in acquiring the rights for those recordings, and it was at this meeting that the seeds of Ecstatic were sown.
Launching Ecstatic Records showed that while Torke was already thoroughly established as a composer, he was still looking forward—not only in terms of the music he wrote but also in terms of the life and business of composing. Torke currently spends the bulk of his time in Las Vegas (far from the influence and trappings of contemporary concert music culture), and it’s in this environment that his work on Tahiti began to take shape.
Performed by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic’s contemporary music group, Ensemble 10/10 (led by conductor Clark Rundell), and coming in at just over 17 minutes, the album’s first track, Fiji, quickly reveals itself as a Torke joint. Calling for five percussionists and utilizing a variety of Latin-centric instruments (congas, bongos, and claves, oh my!) to create a virtually non-stop bed of percussion, Fiji relentlessly percolates, pausing only during the occasional breakdown and turnaround before returning to a constantly shifting texture that just won’t sit still. Joining the percussion are pairs of oboes, clarinets, and bassoons, which are matched with pairs of violins, violas, and cellos, respectively. While the result is five percussionists and six (x2) other instrumentalists, this description does not really convey the weight of the result. The aforementioned are truly paired, as they double every note and rhythm throughout the piece, resulting in a sound with the density of a chamber orchestra but the clarity of a smaller chamber group. Adding to the effect, never have so many percussionists played so little. Joining the drums are a variety of shakers, bells, and the like, but given the simplicity of the lines, the impact is that of a single percussionist (perhaps with an extra arm) working with a very thick group of other instrumentalists to create a deceptively simple texture derived from the rhythms played by the percussionists.
Following Fiji is the eight-movement title track, Tahiti. While the movement titles are drawn from the Society Islands of French Polynesia, Torke points out in his liner notes that they do not directly speak to characteristics of their namesakes. Instead, they are meant to give a more general impression of “the idea of humidity: they attempt to capture the perfume of leisure time in a very warm and sunny beautiful place.” By and large Torke captures this, especially in the second movement, “Moorea—green cliffs.” Here the percussion again mimics a single drummer, but one languidly playing a half-time groove while strings and winds wistfully trade lightly syncopated melodies. “Bora-Bora—lagoon” also calmly leads the listener along with high winds and bright percussion, the only wrinkle in the journey being the 3 + 5 grouping in the chorus giving a slight disturbance to an otherwise balmy trip. “Tahaa—white sand” takes the listener in a new rhythmic direction, notably with straight eighth-note lines that move around the orchestra accompanied by long flowing string lines, which then trade to pizz. strings and long wind lines. While this direction is new, the movement is also notable in that the percussion is almost non-existent.
“Maupiti—by the reef” takes the “drum kit approximation” concept to its most fully realized state. Listeners of a certain vintage might be called back to any number of TV theme songs of the ’70s and ’80s (many of which were fantastic, thankyouverymuch) which featured drum kits along with studio orchestras. Music starting with two bars of loud, staccato, tutti eighths followed by two quieter measures would fit in any number of pieces and could go in as many directions, but the use of the toms and snare to give a pick-up (anacrusis, for those keeping score) into the main theme is the first sign that we might be settling in to watch the ABC lineup of 1983. A straight rock beat (complete with tambourine playing eighths in a spot-on impression of a closed hi-hat, along with complementary eighths in the orchestra that are begging to be played by guitar and bass) accompanies a lovely theme that actually features some of the most rhythmically adventurous and involved music on the disc. This is accentuated (in the ears of this listener) by the harmonic and melodic choices that I can’t help but hear as TV theme-song-ish.
“Huahine—under the moonlight” returns the listener to the islands with slowly pulsing rhythms and a haunting clarinet solo line. The only problem with this movement is that both the clarinet line and the piece end too soon. I could have gone around once or twice more. Finally, we hear “Farwell” which aptly wraps up Torke’s trip to the islands, complete with cymbal crashes (there are those downbeat accents…) seemingly mimicking crashing waves.
In the liner notes, Torke says (not about Tahiti in particular), “I have always wanted to write a composition that would inspire a woman, coming home from a long day of work, to draw a bath, light candles, and listen to it on her pink iPod.” Whether that goal played a role in the development of these pieces or not, he may very well have achieved it in places on this disc. Torke was an unapologetically “listenable” composer before that was fashionable, and in many ways Tahiti shows a continuation of that ethos. While there is plenty of substantial and interesting material here, this is clearly music written with people in mind, not composers. Its overall impact is thoughtful, approachable, and decidedly Torke.
1. In college I went to a local CD shop (ask your parents) to pick up a few CDs. On my way to the counter I noticed a CD for a thrash metal band called Anacrusis. While I was checking out the CD cover, the shop owner walked over and noticed my prospective purchases were a bit different than what I was presently checking out. When he asked me why I was having a look at the disc, I told him what anacrusis meant. He didn’t believe me and said he was going to call his mother (who was the staff accompanist for the local university) to confirm. I said that not only was I right, but I was willing to bet the purchase price of the CDs I’d planned to purchase.
And that, my friends, was how you got free music in the early ’90s.
2. The only movement that is more adventurous is the first movement, “Tahiti—Papeete,” which features three against four polyrhythmic elements that when played straight are quite effective. And when Torke carves out the occasional beat, even more so.