Ingram Marshall: September Canons
In the extensive liner notes by Libby Van Cleve accompanying American composer Ingram Marshall's September Canons, one detail in particular stands out, the one that notes that while his music has been called many things—West Coast Minimalist, New Romantic, and Post-Modernist, among them—the only label Marshall himself endorses is Expressivist. That single word speaks volumes about a distinctive compositional style that transcends pigeonholing. It's not simply Marshall's broad stylistic range, but more the fact that, no matter the style he's working in, the musical material unfolds naturally and with a purity of expression. In place of a single, unified work, September Canons features four Marshall compositions that span three decades and are sequenced in reverse chronological order from a piece composed in 2002 to one from 1976. While the four works are formally unrelated, there are contrasts binding them, thematic and otherwise: war versus peace, acoustic versus electronic, Western versus Eastern, and so on.
The composition September Canons is, of course, Marshall's response to the tragic events of September 11, 2001. For thirteen minutes, Todd Reynolds' amplified violin cries sorrowfully, its serpentine ululations multipled via digital delay and electronic processing. The tone of the piece is anguished in its dignified evocation of mourning and death, and gentle too as it references less the horror of the event itself and more the emotional aftermath. As he often does, Marshall references other works—Bach's Chaconne in D minor for solo violin, “In the Sweet Bye and Bye” from Charles Ives's From Hanover Square North, at the End of a Tragic Day, the Voice of the People Again Arose (the hymn was sung spontaneously by NY workers and riders on May 7, 1915 upon hearing the news of the sinking of the Lusitania while waiting for a train), even Marshall's own Gradual Requiem—but September Canons is hardly a patchwork. Instead, the material flows gracefully and with a serenity that belies the monstrousness of the event.
Ives' influence is also felt in the 1990 work Peaceable Kingdom, which incorporates sounds of a Yugoslavian funeral procession, church bells recorded in Bellagio, Italy, and chamber ensemble. In its opening minutes, certain elements—overlapping melodic patterns, silken strings—suggest that it could be mistaken for an early John Adams piece (Harmonielehre, for example) but Peaceable Kingdom gradually distances itself from any such associations the more it focuses on blending the sounds of the village band's funeral dirge with the chamber ensemble. Throughout the piece, tension emerges as the two elements align and separate, the ensemble dominating but then retreating to let the village band and related sounds (people's voices, a baby's cry) be heard alone. Less seasoned composers would garishly exploit the collage dimension of the piece; Marshall does precisely the opposite in weaving the elements into a whole that shape-shifts and develops without splintering into unrelated pieces. Even when the potential for disunity is at its greatest, Marshall's focus is cohesiveness.
His sole attempt at composing for an actual gamelan, the 1981 work Woodstone again arrestingly bridges diverse worlds in incorporating variations on a theme from Beethoven's Waldstein Sonata into its gamelan score. Performed using homemade aluminum instruments with traditional Javanese tuning but extended range, the piece juxtaposes two contrasting scales or modes (the dark “pelog” and the sweet “slendro”), which are kept apart in Javanese gamelan music but which Marshall mixes. It's a delicate piece where the percussion instruments maintain a constant pitter-patter—sometimes fluttering rapidly, sometimes slowed to a point of near-stillness—throughout the work's seventeen minutes.
Of the recording's four settings, 1976's live electronic piece The Fragility Cycles (Gambuh) is closest in spirit to Marshall works like Fog Tropes and Three Penitential Visions. Indonesian music is the inspiration in a piece that pairs the gambuh, a long bamboo Balinese flute, with electronic atmospheres generated using tape delay and analog synthesizer. Again Marshall exploits the potential afforded by contrast, in this case the human character of the flute playing and the alien transmutations electronics and tape delay generate from it. Over a number of decades, Marshall has built up a remarkable body of work, and September Canons is an enviable addition to a discography that lists Alcatraz, Dark Waters, Evensongs, Hidden Voices, Kingdom Come, and Savage Altars, among others. Like all of Marshall's output, the new recording shows him to be a composer of integrity who's never strayed from his highly personalized vision, regardless of the vagaries of public and critical opinion.