Fanfare: The Magazine for Serious Record Collectors
"Magical moments may be fleeting in life, but musical amber can sometimes help preserve them. On James Bowman's classic Eternal Source of Light, on Meridian, the miracle happens right at the start of the CD. The opening of the Handel title track somehow enacts both the rising of the sun, and the raising of our spirits, so that the whole room fills with 18th-century light every time you play the disc. Magic! Imagine being Handel, knowing just how potent the inspiration was on the day he wrote it. The experience really is a miracle, and I hope you always keep a copy handy on your shelves for those not-so-good days - or for the red-letter ones. On this new Margaret Brouwer CD, you have to wait about 20 minutes or skip to track 5, but then you do get another genuine miracle, and it's on a similar level of enlightenment, though quite a contrast to the cosmic grandeur of the Handel aria. The calcium-light soprano voice of Sandra Simon, more often heard in early or Classical repertoire, takes full charge of The Fiery Power, first of three movements in Light, the 2001-composed chamber work which gives the New World CD its title. Singing a potent, mystical text by Hildegard von Bingen, Simon unites strength and sensibility with whispered atmospherics, then fulsome sexuality at the climactic phrase 'I burn,' before leading the piece and the listener to an enchanted consummation in her heart-stopping, weightless leap of a minor tenth for the final 'since I am life.' The lights then come on, one by one, in the ensemble, too, as a quiet chord of D, clearly in the major, illuminates the musical space like the painted ceiling of a Star-Chamber.
These players are members of Apollo's Fire...(located) in Cleveland where the composer heads the local Institute of Music's composition department. Leader and harpsichordist Jeannette Sorrell holds things together with a sure, subtle touch, and this music succeeds in sounding old and new at the same time, without having recourse to the harsher, polystylistic, ironic modes. Strange scurryings, imitations, and instrumental collisions accompany the Classical echoes, mixing imaginative glee with intricate motivic growth and occasional spookiness. Intellect, sensuality, and spirituality all meet in the vocal line, as in Hildegard's words. We could end the review right there: go out and buy Light; hear The Fiery Power, and, if you like it, work your way from there to the rest of the music on the CD. But I was curious to know who could write music as personal, quirky, and direct as this, in the new century.
When I caught up with Margaret Brouwer - born in 1940 - her mind was filled with excited light of a different variety, following a visit to Salvador Dali's summer home at Port Ligat, in Spain. 'It was very personal, giving a strong feeling about his everyday life and his work space. What a beautiful setting, right on the sea. The colors of the place really explain his own use of colors.' Had there been comparable inspirations in Brouwer's own musical life, when she started out among the string desks of the Fort Worth Symphony? 'Playing the violin for me was all about making beautiful sounds of different shades and colors. In the same way, the orchestra was an enormous candy shop of divergent sounds. Sometimes I would say to my stand partner, "Did you hear that!?" about some interesting combination of instruments, and she would look at me blankly, having been concerned with other things and not noticing.' So the string player became the composer. 'Playing the violin also gave me a deep and intensive understanding of the traditional chamber music literature, which influences my interest in structure, motivic development, and evolving, goal-oriented music.'
I had to ask for clarification of this last phrase, which many composers use without ever seeming to mean exactly the same thing. 'I think of Western music as being goal-oriented, as opposed to Eastern music and composers like Steve Reich who are influenced by the East. One of my real concerns in a piece is the direction of a phrase, or even a large section. When will the climactic moment arise? Is all this music leading effectively towards a climax two minutes down the road? Where is each phrase going? That is what I mean by goal-oriented.'
Under the Summer Tree . . . seems a good example of what Brouwer means here. A three-movement piano sonata from 1999, it grew from a one-movement sonata, itself having emotional roots in family bereavement. The work also sprouted a corresponding set of titles from Thomas Hardy's poem During Wind and Rain, which the New World booklet reproduces in full. You may think for a moment of Samuel Barber - his Summer Music also flits by unexpectedly in some of the chamber works here - but this 18-minute work should really be a standard repertoire piece for any pianists who like expressive, but organized music from the last 100 years. The work is built from the smallest cells - a handful of intervals - but they are used to generate anything from percussive display to Romantic yearning. The percussive parts somehow avoid sounding like fake Prokofiev while keeping something of his "Classical" rigor, and sulphurous energy; the slower sections are not sentimental; the leaping, virtuoso writing and metrical switches sound highly individual, but again stay within recognizably tonal bounds. There are big feelings in play, but just about held in check here: Kathryn Brown plays as if her life were on the line, and despite the poetic references, Brouwer's music again speaks straight, and for itself. 'I like to express myself through the language of music much more than through words.'
Most members of a piano-loving audience would surely respond to the language of Under the Summer Tree . . .. So how would the composer define the Brouwer audience, in general? 'I think my audience is made up of adventurous and curious people who like to become immersed in a sound world - who love beautiful sounds - who are curious to hear new sounds and new musical ideas - and who are intellectual to the point that they appreciate structure and organization. People who know the transparency and clarity of traditional classical music as well, since my music grows out of that tradition.'
Music all the way, it seemed; the person staying hidden, the notes left to do the talking. Maybe a clue to other influences and traditions lies in the all-instrumental second movement of Light, titled Nederlandse Licht. Here, a mesmerizing complex of very quiet percussion swishes, key clicks, and other mysterious sounds recalls Brouwer's teacher, George Crumb; but it also suggests something brighter, and inherently, Dutch. 'I grew up in a Dutch-American community in Michigan - my generation being the first to leave the fold, marry non-Dutch people, etc. The Dutch personality is an interesting mix of openness to invention and new ideas, and loving to experience new things, and have fun, while at the same time clinging to tradition, including the old Dutch Reformed psalm tunes.' Hence the wheezy-organ impressions in Light.
If she's defined, at least in part, by being a violinist, composer, and of Dutch extraction, is Brouwer defined musically, in any way, by being a woman? 'The personality of a composer determines what her/his music will be like, more than the composer's gender. It seems to me that some male composers write music that seems quite feminine, while some female composers write music that seems quite male.' I heard some kinship between Brouwer's mixed chamber works and Judith Weir's Airs from Another Planet, as well as music by Hilary Tann, and others of that generation. Also, I experienced not just fiery power, but a surfeit of imagination and fortitude in the music's tenor, so I pushed the point. 'Most of my music is very personally expressed, so it makes sense that my female perspective would exist in the music. I have read that women are not usually 'team players' as much as men are. Men might adhere more to a given style than women. I know for myself, I am not that interested in writing within a 'style,' but more in creating my own style.'
Brouwer's music does have a sense of stylistic independence and an openness of spirit that must be very hard won, given the pressures at work in the US during the era when she learned her craft. The melodies are memorable, their cut Brouwer's own; the instrumental writing is unique, sharp, and always expressive. In the last movement of Light, called Atoms, setting words by Richard Feynmann, a short scientific description of the physical nature of matter is spoken and sung while the instruments and musical processes mimic the words, moving in "perpetual motion" like atoms, then being "squeezed into one another." The instruments end up all moving vigorously together, the musical pigments squeezed into a single, mobile block by whatever the controlling intelligence might be; the brief vocal line grows from speech, through recitative with accompaniment, to a mature, expressive voice that sounds like the composer's own. The result isn't dry, but witty, eloquent, and light in the sense that music and ideas can 'float' a listener to a better place for a couple of moments. More active kinds of flight can also be heard in the heartfelt Demeter Prelude for string quartet, which grew from Brouwer's Pluto, written in 1997 to extend Holst's suite, The Planets. After the merest whiff of Adams, the music is off on its winged way, almost landing in Tippett's lap, but winding up warmer, and more fantastical than either. It's a superb scherzo, with some meaty, Beethovenian gruffness thrown in; and again, light glints and shimmers, everwhere. Skyriding's three movements from 1992 are equally individual, but also show how far the composer has come in manipulation of texture and color in the intervening decade. I wonder if this means we're making musical progress. 'I actually think often about the turn of the 20th century and what an exciting time it was. But what about the turn of this century? Not that interesting so far.'
Yet we all seem to have been cursed to live in interesting times, these few short 21st-century years, thanks to events far from musical in tone, intent, and significance. Light has met its nemesis; press-button, instant magic-on-demand has turned to momentary, unwarranted extinction around the world, also in the blinking of an eye. Brouwer's response to the 9/11 tragedy was 2002's Lament for violin, clarinet, bassoon, and percussion; at almost 20 minutes it's maybe the most distinctive, as well as the longest piece on the CD. 'I had already begun a work for this commission when 9/11 happened. It was about impossible to write for a few weeks. When I did begin again, I realized that I could not go on with the piece I had begun. So I began writing the third movement, Lament.' That nine-minute movement reflects personal reactions to the attacks, and finds an orchestral range of color and dynamic to try and help calibrate the unthinkable expressive scale these events would seem to imply. The preceding Unfinished Song sets poignant clarinet, violin, and bassoon melodies against a background of hopeful-sounding ostinatos, slowed and dissipated once the discomforting, quiet percussion swishes start. It's as if childhood just evaporated, like ether. The brief, dark, Prelude suggests the roots of violence were already present everywhere, while planting the thematic seeds of all the music's own later development; the final Searching-Revolving is a cogent piece of involved musical argument, with a later, dance-of-death pas de quatre - Stravinsky waiting in the wings - and a jagged ending. This is not a typical memorial piece. There is no keening or grief, nor Slavic passion, and it took several hearings before I saw beneath this music's often-optimistic instrumental sheen and the energetic motivic exchanges. It's engaging, just heard as chamber music. But it is deep, and conveys the life-goes-on-but-not-quite-the-same feelings of the era, better than much else I can think of. There has to be a future, somehow. Maybe Lament should have ended the disc, instead of opening it.
With this work in mind, and Brouwer's large-scale Mystical Connections project, written for a combination of instruments and players from around the world, I wondered if the way forward went beyond nationalism. 'A supra-national agenda for the 21st century would be such an excellent direction to take. It is amazing to me though how little composers in this country know about composers in Europe - and the reverse is true as well.' How about the future for this composer? 'I am getting several of my orchestral works ready to be recorded by Gerard Schwarz and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic this summer. Included will be my Percussion Concerto Aurolucent Circles, with Evelyn Glennie. Also writing a chamber work for the Verdehr Trio.' And the composer's future audience, in that future world? 'If there is any hope of encouraging value and depth in our time--and also better connections with people of other cultures--perhaps it will be through art. So I cannot answer who my audience will be. I am still working on that one!'
On the evidence of this CD, I hope she'll be working on plenty more vocal music, too. Singers need to look long and hard at Light; likewise pianists, with Under the Summer Tree . . . and quartets, with the Demeter Prelude. Brouwer combines classical order and determination in her work, but also loves to make candy for a discerning ear. The result is not detachment, but a kind of energetic hopefulness, suggesting a strong emotional core we've yet to hear rise to the music's surface. What we have already is magic enough to go on with . . . "