From his home base at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire, the talented, entrepreneurial pianist Nicholas Phillips engaged a range of composers to respond through music to the phrase “American vernacular.” The results cover an impressive stylistic span: glittering pop-infused études by Mark Olivieri and Joel Puckett; luminous meditations from Ethan Wickman and Ben Hjertmann; a bluesy finger-buster by Luke Gullickson; puckish miniatures by the unfailingly brilliant David Rakowski; and more. (Steve Smith)
"American Vernacular": That would seem to be a rather tenuous connection between so many different pieces of music. But there are subtle threads linking these pieces: the largely tonal, or at least triadic, undergirding of most American vernacular styles, and of course the pianist who has curated this collection. Each composer here has a distinctive voice, but they seem bound together by Phillips's taste for warm and elegant writing, and by his own genially offhand performances.
But beyond that, Phillips is giving us a recital with reference points scattered across an expanse as broad as America itself. The influence of the American vernacular may be as general as the shades of blue tinting David Rakowski's lively and cerebral Hotfingers suite, or as specific as the shoutouts to 20th-century Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera and hip-hop titans De La Soul in the Spectacular Vernaculars of Mark Oliveri, or the ode to Billy Joel that is Joel Puckett's Bill-ytude.
The spiritual sublime is surprisingly close at hand in these pieces, the way that a motel room off the interstate keeps a Bible in the bedside table. Occidental Psalmody by Ethan Wickman and On the Drawing of Constellations by Ben Hjertmann both gaze heavenward for inspiration, while Luke Gullickson's Back Porch Requiem for John Fahey, a standout track, translates the titular guitarist's legendary fingerpicking style of American guitar playing into virtuosic pianism.But if Gullickson transforms Fahey's loping and amiable arpeggios into something a little showier, Phillips achieves the opposite with these endearingly modest interpretations. Some of the pieces in this program must be devilishly hard to play, but he'd much rather we notice the charm of the studies on "American Vernacular" than their difficulty.
- Daniel Stephen Johnson
Nicholas Phillips approached several composers looking for music inspired by the phrase “American Vernacular” and the end result is a strong balance of eclectic musical tastes framed within relatively conservative harmonic and formal frameworks. Mr. Phillips was aiming for a “classical crossover” disc at the start but he creates is a disc of fun and charming music which, while performed with a high level of technical and musical sophistication, doesn’t feel the need to take itself too seriously. There are serious works on the disc, no doubt, but the overall focus is on enjoyable works which sound as gratifying to play as they are to hear. If you want a disc which is trying to rant for or against a style or idiom, you want a different disc. This is merely a well-programmed and performed collection of music which is approachable and engaging to listeners from a broad range of backgrounds.
Several works highlight direct ties to “vernacular” roots. Mark Olivieri’s Spectacular Vernaculars draws on ragtime, “Stella by Starlight” and De La Soul but clearly uses these inspirations as jumping off points instead of as a cursory exterior. Bill-ytude by Joel Puckett achieves the same using Billy Joel and Elton John stylings. Playin’ and Prayin’ by John Griffin takes Christian worship music tropes on a rhapsodic adventure and Mohammed Fairouz alludes to Liberace and Tin Pan Alley in two of his three miniatures. Back Porch Requiem for John Fahey synthesizes guitar licks and gestures from Fahey as well as Mississippi John Hurt.
Other composers focus more on the “American” side of the “American Vernacular” inspiration. William Price’s A Southern Prelude asks the question of “what makes music not just American but Southern?” and Ethan Wickman’s Occidental Psalmody takes the visual inspiration from watching the ocean rise and fall and turns that into expanding quintal harmonies. Fairouz’s third miniature, “America never was America to me” reacts to the 50th anniversary of the “I Have a Dream” speech filtered through the events of Trayvon Martin’s murder.
Hotfingers: Three Vernacular Nondances again shows David Rakowski’s flair for idiomatic and engaging piano writing. These three short works sound right at home among his piano etudes. Maybe I’m biased but I think every disc of American piano music should include something by Rakowski. David Maslanka’s Beloved doesn’t draw from any specific vernacular touchstone but rather keeps close to his other “remembrance” compositions. Perhaps the most removed from the “vernacular” idea, On the Drawing of Constellations by Ben Hjertmann is the least harmonically conservative and predictable. This work stands out on the disc for its unusual and captivating musical language and more ambient and environmental approach to its linear unfolding.
No matter the composers’ inspirations, Nicholas Phillips delivers solid and engaging performances which give first-time listeners all the overt connections they need and all the nuance that repeat listenings can uncover. American Vernacular is well worth checking out for anyone interested in current trends of contemporary American piano music.
For his third album, pianist Nicholas Phillips commissioned music from ten composers around the theme of "American Vernacular." The composers were given little guidance beyond this premise, save that Phillips hoped to reach "a wide audience, especially those that might not traditionally listen to 'classical' piano music." One can immediately imagine a spirited debate raging around both the issues of "American" music and a conscious effort to reach a wide audience. I will (tentatively) wade into such a discussion, but ultimately the question I must ask is if this album works artistically, and to that end I can confidently say yes.
There is a rather well known quote about American music from Virgil Thomson (1896-1989) that often makes the rounds whenever the topic of American music is broached [emphasized below]. Yet an expansion of that admittedly pithy quote reveals a much more important concept.
National feelings and local patriotisms are as sound sources of inspiration as any other. They are not, however, any nobler than any other. At best they are merely the stated or obvious subject of a piece. Music that has life in it always goes deeper than its stated subject or than what its author thought about while writing it. Nobody becomes an American composer by thinking about America while composing... The way to write American music is simple. All you have to do is be an American and then write any kind of music you wish... Any Americanism worth bothering about is everybody's property anyways. Leave it to the unconscious; let nature speak. -Virgil Tomson, "On Being American"
The point of expanding this quote here is not to chide anyone for "thinking about America while composing," but rather to highlight something wonderful. As I read through the liner notes, almost every single composer discusses their take on an "American Vernacular" in the context of their personal lives. Ethan Wickman recalls long, summer road trips with his family, Luke Gullickson mentions the steel-string guitar fingerpicking he has loved since high school, and Mohammed Fairouz draws on Langston Hughes' poem, "Let America Be America Again," which he had memorized as a child. Not every piece on the album has such an overt personal connection, but every piece does go "deeper than its stated subject," which is what makes the album work so well.
One stand-out track for me was On the Drawing of Constellations by Ben Hjertmann. This is no doubt partly due to my own bias towards simplicity, but the sparse textures and rhythmic structures are explored to great effect by Hjertmann. One particularly striking feature is his exploration of the extreme ranges of the piano in a way that compliments the material effortlessly. Too often I find that extreme range in a piano piece feels like a superfluous compositional trick, but in Constellations it is both vital and beautiful. My hat is off to Phillips, who demonstrates an exquisite control of color and tone in such an exposed work.
One of the finest performances on the album is of Ethan Wickman's Occidental Psalmody. The piece takes inspiration from the geography of the West, from the ocean to the desert, as ingrained through years of road trips. Appropriately, there is a considerable amount of sweeping passagework that Phillips handles effortlessly. Wickman isn't immune from broad, opeharmonies à la Aaron Copland, but it never sounds derivative, and his writing for the piano is spectacular; I'm hard-pressed to imagine any pianist not having fun playing this. Moreoever, Phillips seems to have a clear connection to the music of Wickman, no doubt in part to recording a full CD of his music, Portals and Passages, in 2011.
Some of the most interesting writing on the disc belongs to David Rakowski in his Hotfingers: Three Vernacular Nondances. The first of these short movements, the fantastically-named "Superfractalistic," builds from a few, simple angular ideas to increasing density into the middle of the piece. The harmonies are at times dissonant and jarring, but darn if it doesn't groove. I also adore the third movement, which closes the album, "Écoutez et Répétez." If there is a 21st century American equivalent to the last movement of Prokofiev's 7th Sonata, this must be it.
Finally, I would like to highlight Mohammed Fairouz's Piano Miniature #13, "America never was America to Me." Written on the fiftieth anniversary Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, this piece is dedicated to the memory of Trayvon Martin. Fairouz's writing is at times mournful, but does not shy away from an anger that overflows into the percussive depths of the piano. I am reminded of Julius Eastman's work when I hear this piece, and I hope it is performed widely in the years to come.
Given the breadth of music available on American Vernacular, it seems an injustice to discuss but four tracks in detail. The remaining pieces by Mark Olivieri, Joel Puckett, David Maslanka, Luke Gullickson, John Griffin, and William Price are all wonderful; there is not a weak piece or performance in the bunch. Through all ten pieces, Nicholas Phillips demonstrates his incredible range as an artist, from blistering passagework to sublime simplicity. I tend to be skeptical of compilation CDs, but American Vernacular works well as a whole. We could debate the nature of this take on American music, but that is merely a starting point. Each composer has found a way to go deeper than this theme, and Nicholas Phillips draws out their artistry beautifully.
Phillips’s latest CD outing, American Vernacular, is something of a departure from the previous recordings in his discography—discs devoted to the music of San Antonio-based Ethan Wickman and the late Boris Papandopulo, who was among Croatia’s most prolific composers. Now, rather than focusing on a single composer, Phillips offers a wide-ranging program whose unifying theme is being American in some way. He approached composers telling them he wanted to put together an album of “American vernacular” music without really offering them much more to go on. In his booklet notes for the CD, Phillips wrote that he wanted to “engage audiences with new music that also drew from something familiar” but “not to make a popular crossover album.” As a result, the music represents a broad range of styles and moods.
Spectacular Vernaculars, a three-movement suite by Mark Olivieri, pays homage to Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Ahmad Jamal, De La Soul, Alberto Ginastera, and tango. That’s already a lot of ground covered in the album’s first three tracks. Ethan Wickman’s Occidental Psalmody, which is inspired by the Pacific Ocean and the Rocky Mountains, sounds like music Claude Debussy might have written if he had lived in the Western United States instead of Paris. I’m particularly enamored of On the Drawing of Constellations by Chicago-based composer and vocalist Ben Hjertmann, whose previous compositions have run the gamut from a post-modern take on the once ubiquitous secular Medieval song “L’Homme Armé” to prog rock material that sounds deeply indebted to Brian Wilson. Constellations, as is fitting for a musical depiction of the evening sky, is much more introspective and aphoristic; imagine the directionlessness of late Morton Feldman without the sometimes neurosis-inducing (wonderful though they may be) dissonances.
Billy-tude by Joel Puckett (who was profiled last month on these pages) is a delightful virtuosic piece that makes occasional nods to Billy Joel in ways that even I, who have never been much of a fan of the “Piano Man,” can appreciate. Three Piano Miniatures (Nos. 10, 12, and 13) in Mohammed Fairouz’s ongoing series are sonic meditations on, in turn, Liberace, Tin Pan Alley, and the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. The last of these, with its foreboding ostinato, is particularly moving. Beloved by David Maslanka is an extremely tender short piece that fans of the composer’s imposing large scale works for symphonic winds will find rather surprising.
Luke Gullickson’s Back Porch Requiem for John Fahey offers up some of those Feldman-esque dissonances that Hjertmann had eschewed but in ways that are much more driving and insistent. But what is perhaps most striking about this piece is the way that material alternates with rapid cross-hand figuration that emulates Fahey’s signature finger-picking guitar style. John Griffin’s Playin’ and Prayin’, which mixes hoedowns and Christian hymnody from the Deep South, is somewhat reminiscent of the many “Hymn and Fuguing Tune” compositions Henry Cowell composed during the last 20 years of his life; it’s a sound world that is ageless, at least to my ears. A Southern Prelude by William Price offers a more abstract take on the sound world from below the Mason-Dixon line, taking its cues from the rambling, chatty-style delivery of Southern storytellers.
The final work featured is Hotfingers: Three Vernacular Nondances, composed in 2012 by David Rakowski. Fans of Rakowski’s seminal piano etudes will revel in this new piece’s similarly off-kilter takes on blues and jazz with fractals thrown in for good measure. I, for one, was extremely disappointed when Rakowski reached his 100th solo piano etude and said that he would write no more of them, but I’m overjoyed that he’s found a way around his vow.
One additional detail that deserves a mention: Phillips very helpfully provides detailed information in his notes for how to obtain scores for all of the pieces stating, “I hope this recording inspires you all, especially fellow pianists, to seek out the music.” It is laudable gesture that will hopefully get this worthy music into many additional hands and ears.
- Frank Oteri