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ClassicsOnline Home » COOMAN: Piano Music
This disc presents a survey of the piano music of American composer Carson Cooman, performed by pianist Donna Amato, for whom the virtuosic Fourth Piano Sonata was composed. The works range in character – from the passionate, landscape-inspired drama of Seascape Passion: Midday Brightness (Third Piano Sonata), to the mystical contemplation of Dream-Tombeau: Crucifixus, to a light-hearted and celebratory treatment of “God Save the King / My Country ’Tis of Thee” in Kayser Variations. Dream Etudes, Book II explores the piano’s ringing sonic possibilities, while Postcard Partita consists of short movements originally written as brief musical gifts for the composer’s friends and colleagues.
By Dan Morgan
‘Uncompromising in its modernity’ is the phrase I used in my recent review of works by Gloria Coates. That is certainly true of this disc of Carson Cooman’s piano music, nearly all of it written this century. But while Coates seems to take her cue from the avant-garde composers of the 1960s and 1970s Cooman’s influences are harder to discern. That said his sound-world – which includes the use of serial techniques – isn’t what you’d call instantly accessible; which is probably why this isn’t as ‘unashamedly pleasant’ as the disc of symphonies and other works reviewed by my colleague Jens F. Laurson (review).
By Jonathan Woolf
Carson Cooman is a prolific composer as those who have cause to write about him invariably take care to note. For a composer who has not yet progressed beyond his mid-twenties his opus tally is astounding. I note that Naxos doesn’t print these details in its outer case track-listing but does do so in the composer’s own liner notes. Thus the most recent work here, the Fourth Piano Sonata, bears the opus number 620. This perhaps shouldn’t cause critics to narrow their eyes as much as perhaps they do, but it’s certainly the case that Cooman has made Villa Lobos and Milhaud look positively dilatory.
Carson Cooman (b.1982)
Seascape Passion: Midday Brightness (Third Piano Sonata) (2002; Op. 466) was commissioned for and is dedicated to pianist and composer Marco Modaro. The principal inspiration for the work is taken from the writings of the Scottish poet George Mackay Brown (1917–1996), much of whose work dealt with the transposition of religious imagery and symbolism from its traditional context into the distinctive landscape of his native Orkney Islands of North Scotland. The extra-musical starting point for this work was also religious imagery (specifically the Passion) transposed to a different landscape from its original Biblical context. In this case, however, the landscape used is that of Nantucket Island, Massachusetts – on which most of the composition of the work took place. The work is thus a Seascape Passion, with the Passion narrative projected through the midday brightness of an imagined Nantucket landscape. This work is cast in one large movement, cast into three clearly-defined sections. The basic material for the entire work is presented at the start in the opening jagged gesture in the bass register; it is in a continual state of transformation throughout. The first section is rhapsodic and dramatic. The second section is very quiet and reposed. The third section is quick and energetic. It builds to a maniacal climax, before a desolate (windswept) coda closes the work – seeking and eventually reaching a state of peace.
Kayser Variations (1997; Op. 63) was written as a tribute to Margaret Kayser on her retirement from a long career as teacher of chemistry at Allendale Columbia School in Rochester, New York. The work is a whimsical set of variations on the national anthem of the United Kingdom, 'God Save the King'. In tribute to the dedicatee's profession, many of the musical transformation techniques are derived (numerically) from the super and subscripts of well-known chemical equations. This is not in any way important, however, for listening to the work.
Dream-Tombeau: Crucifixus (2003; Op. 516) for piano was written for and is dedicated to Canadian pianist, composer, and researcher Gordon Rumson. I have admired Gordon's playing, writing, and general musical understanding for some time and wished to write an extended musical work for him. This piece was inspired specifically by his way of playing the piano and his musical insights. The work unfolds over a long duration – with a slow pace throughout. The basic material for the work consists of a series of musical objects: 1) a 12-note set; 2) a sequence of chords in an extended tonality; 3) a brief quotation from the motet Jubilate Deo by the Renaissance composer Orlande de Lassus (c. 1532–1594). This work takes its external inspiration from the Crucifixion, a key element and event in the Christian faith. The reflective character of the piece imagines the time that Jesus was in the tomb – between his death and his impending resurrection. There is an element of stopped time – in that the full aspects of what transpired were truly beyond human comprehension. The musical material can be viewed as representational objects as well. The 12-note set represents human experience and earthly existence; the chordal sequence represents the innate human longing for the eternal and the beyond; the Lassus quotation represents the revelation and experience of the divine here on earth. The dream aspect of the title of this piece is shown in the way the material is developed and presented. The material unfolds slowly, and the development of it transpires over an extended period of time. The development is subtle – it can be seen in the interaction and contrasts of the different objects of the work. There is an audible trajectory to the work, but one must listen with the large scale timeframe in mind.
For Gwyneth (1999; Op. 168) was written as a gift for American composer Gwyneth Walker. The brief piece alludes to some elements of her distinctive and warmly American compositional style.
Dream Etudes, Book II (2001; Op. 253) was written for and is dedicated to composer and pianist Anthony Cheung. Like the other books of Dream Etudes (Book I for solo clarinet, 1999, Book III for solo tuba, 2002, Book IV for solo oboe, 2002), each movement has an action title that inspired its musical content and procedures. The overall title of the work refers to the overlapping and sudden juxtapositions of elements of the basic materials (which run throughout all three movements), as if remembered through a dream. The first movement, Reflecting, uses its title with two different meanings in mind – both to throw or bend back light and to think seriously and consider deeply. The tone of the work throughout connects to the second definition whereas the musical procedures used throughout relate to the first definition. The movement is in three sections – the opening section is strictly metered, contrasting a Lydian-flavoured sonority with dissonant filigree. A second section, in free metre, emerges in which filigree combines with a chorale-like series of recurring bright chords. In the final section, it is as though both of these previous sections (imagined as different kinds of light) have been projected onto a mirror and are being reflected back together, overlapping and interconnecting. The second movement, Singing (in memory of Ken Thomas), uses source material as its basis. The source material is the tune "Bower of Prayer" from William Walker's seminal hymnal, The Southern Harmony (1835). In the opening section, a dissonant harmonisation of the Southern Harmony tune is presented over a rhythmically irregular ostinato. (The pedal is used to clear harmonies at different places each time in the tune so as to create a blurring of sonorities.) Eventually, the tune stops and the ostinato speeds up leading to a section of free metre in which bell-tones (based on the opening ostinato) are played under a ringing version of material derived from the tune. A final section begins as though planning to bring back a reprise of the opening material but it breaks down, and a phrase from the Southern Harmony tune is heard in its original three-part harmonisation, spare and distant. Ringing sonorities emerge and the movement fades away. The third movement, Ringing, presents a highly schizophrenic carillon of exuberant sound. The piece begins as if it were a minimalist toccata, but this is soon interrupted with a ringing chorale-like theme which recurs throughout the movement. These two different types of material (the contrast of many different-sized bells) interrupt each other and provide jarring juxtapositions. Huge sound masses are allowed to accumulate as the movement proceeds to its maniacal conclusion.
Postcard Partita (2002; Op. 420) is a compilation of a series of small piano pieces written between 1999 and 2002 as gifts for friends and colleagues.
I. Postcard to Montreal was written for composer Wolfgang Bottenberg of Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. It is an energetic march, with a lyrical interlude in the middle.
II. Postcard of Venice was written for Lorraine Van-Meter Cline. It is a lush and flowing portrait of Venice, Italy, her favourite city.
III. Postcard to the North Country was written for pianist Michael Arnowitt of Vermont (hence the "North Country" of the title). It is an energetic and driving romp around the piano, creating large masses of sound.
IV. Postcard to Galesburg was written for composer, conductor, and pianist Bruce Polay. The opening gesture of the work, from which the music gently unfolds, alludes to the initial gesture in Polay's art song, 'The Age of the Flower'.
V. A Summer Sunrise was written for composer and pianist Daron Hagen on the occasion of his marriage to composer and vocalist Gilda Lyons. The piece begins with a section marked "bells: a massive carillon coming to life". After the carillon has reached its peak, a joyful dance emerges, filled with summer zest.
Fourth Piano Sonata (2005; Op. 620) was commissioned by and is dedicated to pianist Donna Amato, whose commitment and devotion to my music has been a continuing inspiration. The work is in three movements, each using the exact same musical material. Each movement presents a trajectory towards a greater integration of the disparate pieces of this material. The first movement, Mourning at Sunset, presents the basic ideas in clearly-defined blocks. An opening section of forceful, declamatory chords alternates with a more lyrical section of interlocking lines. The forceful music returns before a slow, desolate section is presented. This builds to a small climax before dying down again. The opening then returns. The second movement, Beyond Distant Echoes, is slow and ethereal. Sounds of distant gongs alternate with brittle, spasmodic interjections. The third movement, Whispers of Mortality, is inspired by the finale of Frederic Chopin's Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, Op. 35 (1839). It is fast, fleeting, too short almost. The musical material transforms into pure running roulades of raw notes. Unlike the Chopin, however, the passagework is cast in a series of interlocking canonic structures of fiendish difficulty. The movement evaporates into the uppermost register.
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COOMAN: Piano Music