You don’t find all exciting musical compositions on major labels like Universal and Sony. But if you keep your eyes and ears open, you can find rare gems in compilation CDs put out by some of the minor labels. Here are two composers whose pieces made their first appearances a few years back on the small labels, Albany Records and MMC Recordings.
On London Symphony Orchestra. MMC 2111, we find Mitch Hampton’s Symphony No. 1, an abridged history of the evolution of American popular music, in effect a jazz symphony. Each of the four movements has a programmatic title dealing with a pivotal era of popular music.
The first movement, “The Great Experiment,” begins on a solemn four-note motif. Its low strains are based on Negro spirituals or like a work song, where the dominant mood is darkness and pain. The word serendipity implies surprise, something unexpected. Within this gloomy theme, this surprise appears as counterpoint arising in the strings and piano. The movement ends in synthesis, its four-note motif played in a higher key on woodwinds.
A flood of steady rhythm invades the second movement “Serendipity and Struggle,” as new energy and technology enters the cities. Staccato chords from the orchestra and dramatic percussion simulate an insistent dance rhythm. Gradually the frenetic tempo slows, and a lyrical interlude ensues, supplying a bridge to the third movement.
“Blues for Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin” is a tribute to the eponymous Tinpan Alley composers, the earliest practitioners of commercial music theater. It features a trademark walking bass. Hampton quotes—and in some cases subtly alters—songs of the era like Kern’s “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man of Mine,” Andy Razaf’s “Memories of You,” and some ragtime stride songs of Eubie Blake. In some bars, the composer uses polytonality (F-major and A-flat major) to blend the motifs into a cohesive whole. “I want the listener to focus on the music, rather than be overwhelmed by it,” says Hampton. “That’s why I use simple motifs rather than complex variations.”
The fourth movement is “Rock,” and Hampton marked it “Heavy metal funk feeling.” Jittery and jumpy, this section is also chromatic like the jazz compositions of John Coltrane and McCoy Tyner. “Here is where the music became less harmonically complex,” says Hampton. “In this piece I want to listener to go on a time travel journey. I wanted extremes, to go from harmonic music to the very static.”
Like a Gustav Mahler symphony, the piece starts slow and ends slow, with the same four-note motif on doublebass. (Note that the composer sat in for the pianist in the last movement.)
Dark Winds Rising by Equinox Chamber Players. Albany Records, Catalog #: 946 has two worthy works by John Lampkin: Migrations and A Walk Through Shaw’s Garden. Both are unique forays into the realm of programmatic music, a form that originated with Symphonie Fantastique by Hector Berlioz. It specializes in rendering extra-musical narratives. It has particular references to the outside world that listeners enjoy trying to identify. Lampkin’s Migrations reminds me of Carnival of the Animals, but not in theme or tone. Its style is of course modern, its execution quite different from Saint-Saëns’.
“Salmon” begins andante with woodwinds suggesting the fish languidly swimming. The pace picks up and the melody becomes more aggressive. Are they spawning? Who knows? It’s best not to examine it too closely for concrete messages. For example, as the piece progresses, its tempo winds down gradually, contemplatively. To a lesser composer, the temptation would be to end it raucously and violently, as if grizzly bears were snatching the spawning fish.
In “Red Crabs” staccato figures at the beginning may make you picture crabs scurrying along the shore. Soon you hear “quotes” from “The William Tell Overture” several times, but they are slightly off-key, definitely not reverential. The melody becomes more complex in its variations (like the quirky gyrations of crabs?). It’s quite humorous to hear this simple melody evolve.
“Broadwing Hawks” paints an idyllic picture of these hawks (who migrate in vast groups) soaring slowly in the dominant melody while the supporting one flutters about more quickly. The piece grows more complex as Lampkin explores the dominant melody, repeating and developing it but never deviating far from it. Finally, he allows it to decay with admirable grace.
“Spiny Lobsters” starts with a martial melody, exploiting the comic potential of the bassoon. Says Lampkin in his program notes, “The quintet is used as a military percussion ensemble to call the ‘troops’ to order.” And that’s just the first theme. The four-minute piece has four themes and a coda. The third one is slower and more tenuous than the others. The final one weaves seamlessly into the coda without an instant of tedium, such as when one fishes for spiny lobsters (a.k.a langouste) in the punishing humidity of southern Florida.
“Three-Toed Sloths” reminds me most of Saint-Saëns’ piece in Carnival, “Personnages à longues oreilles (Characters with Long Ears).” This is not because of style or instrumentation, but because it is such a simple and funny piece. Consisting of only note (sort of) prolonged for 24 seconds, it is right on target in satiric sense. Says Lampkin, “This movement is a jest, a spoof of minimalism, both migratory and musical.”
The second work by Lampkin is not quite as whimsical (thought it has its moments), but it is still a small masterpiece of programmatic music. A Walk Through Shaw’s Garden has more of a sense of place than Migrations; in this case, the place is the famed Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis. To my ears, A Walk Through Shaw’s Garden is also reminiscent of another piece: Three Places in New England by American composer Charles Ives. In that work, each of the three movements is named for a place in New England. It is so well-composed that it successfully evokes the atmosphere of each place. So does A Walk Through Shaw’s Garden. As Lampkin says in his notes, “The work is a series of musical snapshots of some favorite scenes.”
Here are several:
“’Orpheus, Eurydice, and the Dancers’ are striking statues which one encounters soon upon arrival.” Don’t be mistaken by the classical reference. This is not about the tragic tale of Orpheus and Eurydice that Claudio Monteverdi presented us in his L’Orfeo (1607). Swaying rhythms in this movement are probably meant to evoke the graceful figures depicting Orpheus and Eurydice. As such, it could be a short ballet about the statues themselves. (I would love to see it choreographed.) Halfway through, the tempo speeds up, as if the statues have come to life and are floating over the pond underneath their feet.
“On the Tram” is another “place” piece (most likely the second seat from the front of the touring tram), which lurches forward, stops and starts, and in less than two minutes conveys a multitude of lively motions right to the decelerando conclusion.
“In the Frogpond” is a real hoot. Of course, the bassoon is a dominant participant in this clever piece, suggesting bulbous amphibians galumphing about. But there are also higher register instruments doing their part, like the flute that suggests their impish celerity. The last note has to be a startling leap into the water and right underneath the fifth lily-pad to the left. Am I correct or am I correct?