Sounds Heard: Peter Garland—Waves Breaking on Rocks

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Waves breaking on Rocks
by Peter Garland
(New World Records)
Performers:
Aki Takahashi: piano
Ari Streisfeld: violin
John Duykers: tenor
Santa Fe New Music

I have absolutely no idea how anything could possibly follow Frank’s behemoth SMiLE essay from last week, and in fact I have been considering covering my CD pick of this week in a haiku, as way to bring the universe back into balance. Luckily, it turns out that the title of Peter Garland’s Waves Breaking on Rocks (Elegy for All of Us) came to him in the form of a haiku. It’s reproduced in the disc’s liner notes:

Cold gray summer day
Waves breaking against the rocks—
Winter in my heart

Waves breaking on Rocks (Elegy for all of us) is a suite of six elegies commissioned by Garland’s long-time musical collaborator and friend, pianist Aki Takahashi. Each movement reflects upon the cycle of life and death, through the remembrances of lost friends or upon the progression of the seasons. Though it may seem like a rather dark proposal, this work is anything but; there is a strong sense of light and openness throughout the work, largely due to Garland’s distinctive harmonic language and sense of formal structure. Each movement has a clear “personality,” from the gentle chords of the second movement, “Elegy for All of Us,” composed in memory of the poet Laurence Weisberg, to the upward rippling scales of the final movement, “Waves Breaking on Rocks (2)/Autumn Again.” Takahashi’s performance discloses the close working relationship and friendship between Garland and herself in its fluidity and intimacy—this piece sounds as if it could only have been written for her.

After 35 minutes of beautiful, spare piano music, the percussion, strings, and vocals of The Roque Dalton Songs are a refreshing aural surprise. Composed in 1988, this work uses as text five poems of the Salvadorean poet, activist, and guerilla Roque Dalton, and is given a lively performance by tenor John Duykers and the musicians of Santa Fe New Music. Garland has intensively studied Latin American music for decades (and published extensively, including the book Americas: Essays on American Music and Culture, 1973-80), and The Roque Dalton Songs reveal numerous hat-tips to the music of various Latin American cultures. This is not the propagation of ethnic music as “other”; Garland has clearly assimilated core elements of different musics into his own compositional style. Santa Fe New Music’s instrumentation of violin, bass clarinet, trumpet, harp, piano, and percussion creates beguiling dance-like structures for Duykers’s voice to wander through, with thoughtfully chosen small percussion instruments that create a strong rhythmic foundation that fortifies rather than overpowers the other instruments. I keep returning to the clave and harp opening of the gently swaying third movement, “Como la Siempreviva,” a wonderfully simple yet effective means of punctuation that transforms into different rhythmic cells as the movement progresses.

The excellent recording quality of this disc deserves mention—the piano of Waves Breaking on Rocks has a bright, refreshing sound, and the ensemble performing The Roque Dalton Songs is aurally just close enough to conjure an intimate listening space without being too close or too dry. Garland’s music, which is clear, direct, and refreshingly devoid of self-indulgence or pretension, is engagingly represented in every aspect of this recording.

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