Sounds Heard: Robert Paterson—Star Crossing
These days, it’s all the rage for composers to fashion DIY ensembles to present their works. But composer Robert Paterson has a wider curatorial vision. Even though it’s only been around since 2005, the American Modern Ensemble has become one New York’s go-to groups for fresh programming and outstanding performances of new music. This is no mean feat in a field crowded by a plethora of capable, indeed abundantly talented, ensembles. It seems only fitting, then, that after being such a staunch advocate for many others’ works as the ensemble’s Artistic Director, Paterson should record AME doing a program of his own music.
Star Crossing, released on the ensemble’s own imprint, features seven instrumental chamber compositions. Paterson’s music is vibrantly scored and well crafted. He knows the AME players like the back of his hand, and it shows in pieces that seem tailor made to the ensemble’s strengths. One accustomed to AME’s programming and marketing campaigns likely will have noticed that they enjoy bringing a sense of humor to bear. While AME—and Paterson—certainly take the preparation and performance of new works very seriously, they don’t want to be seen as taking themselves too seriously.
One can readily hear a derivation of this whimsical nature—Paterson’s own sense of humor—evident in his Sextet. The composer describes the piece as having the loose program of a crime caper film, and the piece features police whistles and bucolic chase sequences aplenty to underscore this idea. But these elements never cross the line from witty to goofy. Instead there’s a lightness of touch and nimbleness of pacing that’s serves as a bright tonic and promising opener.
If one were to characterize Paterson’s arrangements, they often seem to shimmer. This is in part due to his experience as a percussionist—he’s one of the pioneers of six-mallet marimba playing—and his penchant for pitched percussion. Matthew Ward is his able stand-in on this disc, and he ornaments The Thin Ice of Your Fragile Mind with a bell, glockenspiel, and chime filled sheen that nicely offsets its somewhat more pastoral passages for strings and winds. The title track also uses mallet instruments, this time in a more propulsive fashion, mimicking trills found in the winds and strings and trading jabs with Stephen Gosling’s punctilious piano. Later, clarinetist Meighan Stoops is given some fetching, low-lying lines that dovetail with Gosling’s left hand. Once again, one is struck by the lustrous quality Paterson evokes. His is a harmonic language that’s very comfortable evoking glimpses of tonality, but in fleeting fashion as part of an overall palette that encompasses modality, octatonicism, and post-tonal vignettes as well. It’s an effective and fluid amalgam.
Embracing the Wind is a lithe and mercurial essay that features a beautiful keening solo from violist Danielle Farina, offset by post-impressionist arpeggiations from harpist Jacqueline Kerrod and sultry alto flute lines from Sato Moughalian. Paterson adopts a more reflective and overtly lyrical demeanor in Elegy, scored for two bassoons and piano. A piece commissioned in memory of cellist Charles McCracken, it is often reminiscent of American neoclassicists such as Walter Piston and Vincent Persichetti, with chorale-like passages for the bassoons offset by pandiatonic interludes for piano. But even writing in this more conservative style doesn’t cause Paterson’s inspiration to flag: the piece is considerably charming.
The final two works on the disc—Skylights and Quintus—round things out with some of Paterson’s most ambitious music to date. The former incorporates a slightly more aggressive and dissonant profile, with long-breathed contrapuntal lines for winds and strings alike. Cellist Robert Burkhart and violinist Robin Zeh truly shine here, digging in to some impressive cadenza passages. Quintus makes a foray into extended techniques—with alternate sticking techniques for marimba, multiphonics for clarinet, and muting inside the piano. It’s also Paterson’s work at its most tightly coordinated, featuring numerous angular lines that ricochet from part to part in a caffeinated colloquy.
While Star Crossing showcases an imaginative and varied collection of chamber works, one gets the feeling that Paterson’s scoring would do particularly well “writ large.” Fortunately, with commissions in the offing, it appears that we’re going to get to hear a number of orchestral works in the future from this talented composer.