Michelle Makarski: Caoine (ECM New Series 1587)

Michelle Makarski

Michelle Makarski violin
Recorded June 1995, Propstei St. Gerold
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher

With such varied artists as Paul Giger, John Holloway, and Thomas Zehetmair vying for the violin enthusiast’s attention, ECM has revitalized the solo program perhaps more than any other label. Yet nowhere has it found such a colorful proponent of new and established repertoire alike as American musician Michelle Makarski. For Caoine, her first solitary ECM effort (she had previously appeared as soloist in Keith Jarrett’s Bridge of Light), Makarski has assembled a unique collection of music to be discovered. The program opens with the formidable “Passacaglia” of Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber, a composition whose methods and melodies are one in the same. What seems on the surface purely etudinal breeds its own robust musicality without ever flaunting itself as such. Its ostinato of G, F, E-flat, D is repeated 65 times, each successive variation requiring deeper attention on the part of the performer. Being one of the earliest extant paragons of solo violin literature, it is perhaps the ideal meta-statement with which to begin such an album. Although the piece employs the full gamut of techniques available to the virtuoso at the time of its composition (ca. 1670), the result is solemn and rich in cosmological potency. The visceral title track is by Stephen Hartke, one of America’s most distinctive composers who has seen minimal but vital representation on ECM. The title itself (pronounced “keen,” from which the English word of the same spelling is derived) is a Celtic word referring to, in the composer’s words, the “wail or dirge sung by professional mourners in old Ireland.” Hartke’s almost folkloristic approach nestles comfortably in its surroundings. It seems to round itself into an emotive orifice, projecting its cries through funereal motions with all the tenacity of a genuine inner grief. After this catharsis, Max Reger’s “Chaconne” (1910) returns our attention to the Baroque. While blatantly indebted in Bach, Reger follows his own bold trajectory in this rather demanding piece. Makarski negotiates its many turns with just the right balance of force and finesse, not to mention an expert control of harmonics. Selections from George Rochberg’s 50 Caprice Variations (1970) pave the way to a tender performance of Bach’s first Partita (1720). The Variations speak in their own idiosyncratic vocabularies, never afraid to admonish and alleviate in the same breath. Nos. 41 and 42 stand out for me, the former for its Prokofiev-like syncopation and the latter for its high metallic sheen. These deconstructions of Paganini’s Caprice No. 24 speak directly to Rochberg’s essayistic fixations. As intertextual as they are self-negating, they comprise an homage individually wrapped in bite-sized morsels. As for the Bach, Makarski has felicitously chosen my favorite among the composer’s Sonatas and Partitas. Her performance of the captivating Allemande comes through with refined grace and rhythmic economy through to the sparingly realized finale.

What links these pieces is an appreciation of the originary motif as an aesthetic not necessarily of size, but more accurately of scale, mining the paradox of its highly expansive potential through the process of recapitulation. This is encapsulated most beautifully in the final track, in which Bach unpacks, not unlike Biber, a staggering amount of information from a mere handful of ordered gestures. Makarski’s profound recital is built as much around the variation of theme as around the theme of variation, pulling its red thread gracefully through four centuries of musical history in the span of a single CD.

Alternate cover

<< Egberto Gismonti: Meeting Point (ECM 1586)
>> Louis Sclavis Sextet: Les Violences de Rameau (ECM 1588)

Stephen Hartke: Tituli / Cathedral in the Thrashing Rain (ECM New Series 1861)


Stephen Hartke
Tituli/Cathedral in the Thrashing Rain

The Hilliard Ensemble
David James countertenor
Rogers Covey-Crump tenor
Steven Harrold tenor
Andreas Hirtreiter tenor
Gordon Jones baritone
Michelle Makarski violin
Lynn Vartan marimba, cymbals, shaker, cup bells, wood block
Javier Diaz marimba, cymbals, shaker, cup bells, wood block
Donald Crockett conductor
Recorded February 2003 at Mechanics Hall, Worecester, Massachusetts

Cease now, my mother, to torment yourself
in vain sobs of wretchedness all the day,
for such grief has not befallen you alone:
the same has befallen mighty kings as well.

From the First Punic War in Tituli (1999) to the dawn of World War I in Cathedral in the Thrashing Rain (2000), the music of American composer Stephen Hartke is firmly rooted in the intersection between the spatial and the temporal. It is about the vicarious presence of bygone eras engendered by their ruins; it is language as architecture, and architecture as history.

The Old Latin and Etruscan fragments of Tituli (scored for five solo male voices, violin, and two percussionists) were inscribed on pre-Imperial Roman artifacts: oracular and sacred law texts, cryptic offerings, and even a Palermo shop sign pass the Hilliards’ lips in a deft melodic oratory. In the opening “Lapis Niger,” every word rolls over the next with the perpetuity of an incoming tide. “Columna rostrata,” an account of Rome’s first major victory in Carthage, is the most dramatic section and rises like its titular structure into an audible testament of a fledgling empire. The tenderest moments are to be found in “Elogium parvuli,” an epitaph written for a six-year-old boy named Optatus, and for whom the music works its way darkly through every powerful sentiment in a beautiful twelve-minute lustration. The music of Tituli traces the contours of every word with archeological care. Violin and percussion make careful appearances, never intruding upon the texts at hand, and leave their deepest traces behind in the final two sections.

Cathedral in the Thrashing Rain for countertenor, two tenors, and baritone takes its direct inspiration from a poem by Japanese poet and sculptor Takamura Kōtarō (1883-1956), and appears here in a striking English translation (with some duplicate lines in Japanese) by the inimitable Hiroaki Sato. When I saw the Hilliard Ensemble live in 2004, they closed with this piece, leaving the audience spellbound. The concert began with a motet by Pérotin, which was written to be sung inside Notre-Dame, whereas here the sentiments are of a secular artist seeking shelter from the elements in the cathedral’s looming magnificence. Takamura cannot help but think of his homeland: “Storms are like this in my country, Japan, too,” he muses. “Only, we don’t see you soaring.” The chromatic flavor of Hartke’s setting surprises at every turn, treating each stanza as its own compositional bead on a long poetic necklace.

I have been a great admirer of Hartke since I first heard Michelle Makarski and Ronald Copes’s spirited rendition of the blues-inspired Oh Them Rats Is Mean in My Kitchen on New World Records. His acute and colorful music is resilient like a tightly knit sweater and just as comfortable to try on for size. His choral music represents a big development in a mostly instrumental oeuvre and these landmark performances are so precise and well recorded that one can almost smell the patina of age they wear. The Hilliards sing with unbridled conviction and even do a competent job with their Japanese enunciation, while the instrumentalists play with a subdued electricity all their own. This being ECM’s first Super Audio CD (SACD) recording, it practically begs to be listened to on the right equipment. Either way, its energy comes through just the same, taming our desire for the old and the new in one go.