Ursula Oppens piano
Bruce Brubaker piano
Recorded April 2012 at Jordan Hall, New England Conservatory, Boston, Massachusetts
Recording and editing engineer: Jody Elff
Assistant engineer: Jeremy Sarna
Project coordination: Peter Sciscioli
Score preparation: Allison Sniffin
Mastering: Christoph Stickel
Produced by Meredith Monk and Allison Sniffin
This 2014 release marks the third instance of “songs” in a Meredith Monk ECM album title, following Songs of Ascension and Volcano Songs. And yet, aside from the occasional rhythmic chant, you will find no voices here. Even so, these pieces for one and two pianos sing with as much viscereal power as any of Monk’s more well-known ensemble projects.
Representing a 35-year period from 1971 to 2006, the program seems to ask: What does a song embody? The root of the word is incantation, and the magical, ritualistic functions that meaning implies. And certainly, few descriptors could describe Monk’s output (and input) so well. Hers is a continent of generative design, an environmentally aware space in which the tactility of melody fades in deference to its intangible worlding. The real question is, then: What does a song disembody?
According to Ursula Oppens and Bruce Brubaker: everything.
Piano Songs is an album in the second person. It tells the story of your lives and mine, of anyone willing to join Monk’s sacred circle and hear the sonority of a biography unfold. In this respect, “Paris” (1972) is a highlight, for it represents the composer’s return to the piano after an intense period of concentration on the human voice. It begins innocently enough but throws canvases from windows and watches them crash to the streets below, thus breaking through an amnesic barrier toward the shedding of earthly possessions. It’s one of two solo pieces played by Oppens, who for contrast navigates the snowy streets of “St. Petersburg Waltz” (1993) as might a bird its most familiar patch of bramble. Brubaker plays two solos of his own. The 1981 “Railroad (Travel Song)” is among the more overtly programmatic selections. You can feel the metronome of the tracks beneath you. “Window in 7’s” (1986), on the other hand, is a nowhere-specific tessellation of heptatonic arpeggios.
Among the pieces written for two pianos, 1996’s “Obsolete Objects” makes for an evenly balanced introduction to this skeletal yet emotionally multifaceted soundscape. “Ellis Island” (1981) is another descriptive wonder, in which properties of water and hints of ocean brine shake the global web of personal histories as if it were an instrument. Here is the terrible yet beautiful mystery of it all, where the only life preserver you have left is the wreath of memories around your neck. “Folkdance” (1996) digs to the base of the self, clapping and chanting as if to confirm the illusion that is your body. And so, you stomp your feet on the ground, bridging traditions of an untouchable past and the immanence of an unknowable future.
And then there are three pieces arranged for two pianos by Brubaker: further transformations of impulse into form. From the triangle-turned-pyramid that is “urban march (shadow)” (2001) through the pagoda of “Tower” (1971) and on to the intimate “Parlour Games” (1988), each brings you face to face with open interpretations, each a picture connected to the next until together they mimic reality like a film.
Part of the appeal of Piano Songs is that its titles are virtually interchangeable. Not because they all sound the same, but because there is something of each in the other. For example, the synchronicities of “totentanz” (2006) might work just as well under the title of “Phantom Waltz” (1989), while the latter’s dissonance might likewise signal a dance of death. Whatever we may choose to call them, they are fragments of Monk’s soul, spun from essence to object, and from object to open breath.
If you are new to Monk, I would suggest that you start with Dolmen Music and Book of Days, if only because it is good to first love the soil, so that the diamonds will seem but one of its infinite treasures.
(To hear samples of Piano Songs, click here.)