Eclectic composer Stephen Barber releases this collection of character pieces that reflect his unique career straddling the worlds of popular music, film scoring, and contemporary classical composition. Barber's collaborators over the years include Stevie Ray Vaughn, David Byrne, Natalie Merchant, Willie Nelson, Ornette Coleman, Gilberto Gil, and the London Symphony. These colorful works are performed by critically acclaimed pianist Eric Huebner.
|03||In Garden Bright|
In Garden Bright
|04||Through A Dog Star Gaze Into Sirius|
Through A Dog Star Gaze Into Sirius
|06||Twilight In Tahiti|
Twilight In Tahiti
|12||Slow Dripping Beast|
Slow Dripping Beast
West Texas native composer Stephen Barber has had an eclectic musical life, collaborating with a wide range of artists, from Gilberto Gil, Stevie Ray Vaughn, David Byrne, Keith Richards, and Natalie Merchant to studying with John Corigliano and working on projects with the London Symphony Orchestra and PBS, among many others. This collection of his music for solo piano, performed by Eric Huebner, is indicative of his diverse experiences, with a gracious embrace of many aesthetics framed by a keen sense of character.
Several of these miniatures depict creatures in the animal kingdom or specific natural locations. The album opens with “Yellow Warbler,” a grand portrait of a bird in flight. A fluid passage starts the work, before bright, grandly resonant chords capture the wonder of weightlessness. “Fireflies” crackles with sparkling luminosity, as Messiaen-like repeated figures in the high register are connected by descending scalar figures, streaks of light across the night sky. “Through a Dog Star Gaze into Sirius” depicts the experience of visiting McDonald Observatory in Marfa, Texas, and looking through the telescope into the cosmos. Barber creates splashes of harmonic resonance, sustaining them for wondrous contemplation. Virtuosic passagework embodies the energized dance of the heavens, as stars, moons, and comets interact in the bright sky. “Twilight in Tahiti” is inspired by a sunset in Bora Bora, as Debussy-esque pastel harmonies unfold in poignant phrases.
Several of the pieces are inspired by anecdotes and relationships in Barber’s life. “Circo Massimo” refers to Rome’s Circus Massimus, and specifically to an incident in which Barber’s youngest son momentarily disappeared on a family trip, only to be discovered running towards the iconic, ancient stadium. Barber’s towering chords capture the magnificence of the structure, while the fleet, angular passages evoke the curiosity of the young boy. “Electra 88” is a musical portrait of a junior high school joy ride in Villa Cuña, Mexico. Fleet arpeggios and pointed staccato figures paint a picture of risk and excitement. “In Garden Bright” is dedicated to painter Diana Postel, a garden lover, and a mentor to the arts community. Her gregariousness and joie de vivre shine through in this vibrant homage.Read More
The remaining works on the recording are all inspired by major figures, mostly in the arts, but also in public life. “Slow Dripping Beast” depicts Donald Trump’s presidency with ominous low register chords and aggressive accented figures. The short work “Stop” is inspired by one of Barber’s musical heroes, Wayne Shorter. Majestic phrases with playful rhythmic variations are set off from each other, by short, considered silences. One of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most famous designs is the inspiration for “Falling Water.” Liquid arpeggios and tolling, widely spaced triads in the bass capture the elegance and seamless integration into the natural landscape of Wright’s design. New York author Jardine Libaire is the source for “Opium-White Fur,” a charged depiction of urban romanticism. Barber turns to J.S. Bach in “Easter,” a reverent string of unfurling sequences in style brisé. Earth closes with its title track, an earnest meditation on the future of human life on our planet in an era of climate change and societal strife.
– Dan Lippel
Executive Producer: Stephen Barber
Session/Project Producer: Jon Nelson
Recorded in Slee Hall at The State University of New York at Buffalo, July 2021
Engineering, Editing, Mastering: Christopher Jacobs
Piano Technician: Devin Zimmer / Steinway D Grand Piano (1965)
Slee Hall Concert Manager: Phil Rehard
University at Buffalo Department of Music: Jonathan Golove, Chair
Stephen Barber is published by Sunken Gong Music, ASCAP
Cover Art: Rafael Vargas Suarez Universal “Telemetries #59” from Series of 69 unique works on paper, all signed, titled and dated on verso
Disc image: Starcycle Polygon (2020) acrylic, oil enamel and oil on linen.
Both works created in Kyrgyzstan and currently located in NYC at Hutchinson Modern (gallery), courtesy of Hutchinson Modern, New York
Design & Layout: Marc Wolf, marcjwolf.com
Eric Huebner is a versatile pianist known for his performances of 20th and 21st century music. Appointed pianist of the New York Philharmonic in 2012, he appears in over 60 orchestral and chamber music concerts annually with the orchestra. As a recitalist, he has performed throughout North America, the U.K., Germany, Japan and Brazil. From 2001 to 2012 he was a member of Antares, a mixed instrument quartet awarded first prize at the 2002 Concert Artists Guild International Competition. The quartet toured North America extensively and commissioned, recorded and performed many new and recent works for its combination. Huebner’s work with living composers is documented in recordings on Col Legno, Centaur, Bridge, Albany, Tzadik, Innova, and Mode Records labels. A critically acclaimed 2020 New Focus recording features Ligeti’s Piano Études (Books I & II) and Horn Trio. His debut 2015 New Focus solo release, features works by Schumann, Carter and Stravinsky. Huebner is currently Professor of Music at State University of New York at Buffalo, where he has served on the faculty since 2009, and is an adjunct collaborative piano faculty member of The Juilliard School.
West Texas native Stephen Barber began playing piano at age three, taking up guitar at age eleven, and composition at age thirteen. As a teenager, he collaborated with Stevie Ray Vaughn and Christopher Cross, and his band The Electromagnets opened for the infamous Frank Zappa/Captain Beefheart Bongo Fury show at The Armadillo in Austin TX (1975). In his early twenties, he moved to New York City to study composition and orchestration with John Corigliano. As a composer, arranger, and player, he has worked in collaboration with David Byrne, Keith Richards, Josef Zawinul, Willie Nelson, Natalie Merchant, Ornette Coleman, Gilberto Gil, John Legend, T Bone Burnett, Roseanne Cash, Arto Lindsay, Marisa Monte, Bonnie Raitt, Michael Stipe, Jennifer Warnes, Shelly Duvall, Alejandro Escovedo, David Torn, Eric Johnson, PBS, The London Symphony, The Czech Radio Orchestra, Steps Ahead, Tosca String Quartet, and Meridian Arts Ensemble. He has worked on over 250 album, film, and television projects, dividing his time between New York City and Austin, Texas.
There is a sense of the outdoors in the music of Stephen Barber on a New Focus Recordings disc, but not really one of folk music – here the blend is of musical genres, with Barber’s interests being rather hard to pin down in terms of traditional classical approaches compared with those of popular and film music. Just as the natural world looms large in the Apollo Chamber Players CD, so it is ubiquitous here, but it may be better to say it “looms small,” since Barber seems primarily interested in small things characterized through very brief pieces (there are 13 on the disc, which lasts only 40 minutes). Yellow Warbler, Fireflies and In Garden Bright are all pleasant divertissements, although the third of them sounds more like fireflies flitting about than does the second. Eric Huebner plays all the pieces on the CD with a suitably light touch and, where appropriate, bits of humor, warmth, and delicacy. Different pieces here reflect different personal elements for the composer, but the works are better heard as small character delineations – contemporary versions of the sort of salon music heard on the Kang/Kvitko disc – than as anything significantly autobiographical, much less profound. The titles of the pieces are interestingly if not precisely evocative: Through a Dog Star Gaze into Sirius, Stop, Twilight in Tahiti (whose pervasive quietude is winning), Circo Massimo (where chordal drama dominates), Electra 88 (where the overall impression is of disconnectedness), Falling Water, Opium-White Fur, Easter (in which gentle rocking is pervasive), Slow Dripping Beast (strangely titled, politically motivated and thoroughly overdone), and Earth (a lovely conclusion to the disc, bringing a sense of peace and consonance). These pieces, individually and collectively, are pleasant enough and never overstay their welcome; none of them aspires to any level of profundity. And that is actually a pleasure, given the portentous nature of so much contemporary music: Barber is content in these works to produce engaging trifles that Huebner can present with panache and without attempting to make them seem to be of greater importance than they are. This is not the sort of disc that will likely bear frequent re-listening – the material is just too slight – but it is a CD that is welcome for the way it shows a contemporary composer willingly mixing genres and musical approaches without feeling the need to extend or belabor his points or to produce music of high intensity or high drama.
The very diverse artist Stephen Barber brings us a solo piano listen that embraces worldly popular music, film scoring and modern classical sounds on this very colorful and interesting body of work.
“Yellow Warbler” opens the listen with dancing keys that emit much beauty and warmth, and “Fireflies” continues the meticulousness with a hypnotic and flawless delivery that’s quite chilling and fascinating. Elsewhere, the firm presence of “Stop” manipulates space and tension well, while “Electra 88” is quite unpredictable with its low moments of rumbling and cinematic swells of intricate progressions. Close to the end, “Easter” flows with fluid melodies that weave in and out of adventurousness and prettiness, and “Earth” exits the listen with a sublime intimacy that’s quite reflective and heartfelt in its stirring appeal.
More than half the songs here are less than 3 minutes, as Barber covers a lot of territory that often draws inspiration from major figures, and will be sure to enthrall anyone with an ear for piano music.
— Tom Haugen, 12.07.2022