Composer John Liberatore writes poetic music that often embeds actual poetry into the fabric of its composition. While only one of the four works on Catch Somewhere includes sung text, each piece is inspired in one way or another by poetry, mirroring a literary approach by assigning sounds to express essential and ineffable meaning. The Zohn Collective, conducted by Tim Weiss, delivers poignant performances.
|01||A Very Star-Like Start|
A Very Star-Like Start
|Molly Barth, flute, Andrew Nogal, oboe, Sammy Lesnick, clarinet, Paul Vaillancourt, percussion, Daniel Pesca, piano, Hanna Hurwitz, violin, Dominic Johnson, viola, Colin Stokes, cello, Tim Weiss, conductor||7:46|
|02||I. dark inside secure|
I. dark inside secure
|Molly Barth, flute||5:20|
|03||II. black twig tips|
II. black twig tips
|Molly Barth, flute||3:18|
|04||III. silence lost to echoes|
III. silence lost to echoes
|Molly Barth, flute||4:49|
|05||IV. quivering with light|
IV. quivering with light
|Molly Barth, flute||1:21|
|Dieter Hennings, guitar, Daniel Pesca, prepared piano, Paul Vaillancourt, percussion|
|06||I. vacant, vast, surrounding|
I. vacant, vast, surrounding
|07||II. surrounded, detached|
II. surrounded, detached
|08||III. little promontory|
III. little promontory
|09||IV. thread I|
IV. thread I
|10||V. O my soul|
V. O my soul
|11||VI. thread II|
VI. thread II
|12||VII. filament, filament, filament|
VII. filament, filament, filament
|13||VIII. catch somewhere|
VIII. catch somewhere
Hold Back Thy Hours
|Zach Finkelstein, tenor, Molly Barth, flute, Andrew Nogal, oboe, Sammy Lesnick, clarinet, Robert Simon, bassoon, Ryan Berndt, trumpet, Brant Blackard, percussion, Paul Vaillancourt, percussion, Noël Wan, harp, Daniel Pesca, piano/harpsichord, Hanna Hurwitz, violin, Brendan Shea, violin, Dominic Johnson, viola, Colin Stokes, cello, Phillip Serna, contrabass, Tim Weiss, conductor|
|14||I. while I sleep|
I. while I sleep
|15||II. gentle river|
II. gentle river
|16||III. violets pluck’d|
III. violets pluck’d
|17||IV. till we have done|
IV. till we have done
John Liberatore approaches his compositional process like a poet, seeking to capture in sound what is otherwise inexpressible. The four works in this collection each relate to external inspiration in different ways, but share Liberatore’s characteristically rich harmonic palette and transparent approach to developing musical ideas. The performers from the Zohn Collective deliver precise interpretations informed by a deep understanding of Liberatore’s style.
An ensemble fanfare, A Very Star-Like Start, opens the album, bristling with optimistic rhythmic energy, inspired by the composite effect of watching a swarm of fireflies in the night sky. Pointillistic figures dance around the ensemble, outlining linear contours like sonic constellations. Longer durations provide sinewy connective material while punctuated accents articulate the work’s metric organization. As the piece evolves, the various layers of material vie for primacy, threatening only briefly to steer the work away from its inexorable forward momentum.
Gilded Tree for solo flute is inspired by poetry by Randall Potts about multimedia sculptures by Esther Traugot (the artist who created the cover image for the album) that contemplate found objects. The piece adapts an observational stance, approaching the musical material as one might gaze upon a still-life painting, more captivated with the fixed essence of an object than a teleological evolution of an expressive idea. The first is lyrical and reflective, the second features disjunct, quixotic gestures, and the third highlights mysterious timbral trills, breaking the spell only momentarily with pointed high register material. The final movement, “quivering with light,” is the work’s shortest, opening with a series of phrases that slow down as if to end in question marks before a final gesture remains continuous in tempo as it fades out in volume.
The eight movement trio for percussion, prepared piano, and classical guitar, Catch Somewhere, was inspired by Walt Whitman’s poem, “A Noiseless Patient Spider,” and the movement names are taken directly from the text. Whitman’s analogy is between the spider’s web weaving and the artist’s creative activity. Liberatore explains his own evolving understanding of the poem in the liner notes. “vacant, vast, surrounding” highlights each instrument’s percussive orientation, with repeated notes coalescing into lush harmonies, evoking a reverberant cave. Disembodied gongs, a pianissimo ostinato in the right hand of the keyboard, ethereal chords, and a plaintive melody in the guitar lend “surrounded, detached” an eerie quality. “little promontory” is funky and rhythmic, as composite gestures between the three instruments turn short figures around in various permutations. “thread I” and “thread II” are short, thoughtful interludes in which an initial articulation triggers interlocking strings of notes between instruments, like droplets of water. “O my soul” is the longest movement in the work and features guitar in an unfolding series of slowly arpeggiated figures and liberamente figures that spin a beguiling web of implied counterpoint and melodic pathos. “filament, filament, filament” and the work’s final movement “catch somewhere” are vigorous journeys through virtuosic passagework, the former threading together scalar figures and the latter focusing on ecstatic repeated note groupings.
Hold Back Thy Hours is a work for tenor and ensemble that sets four fragments of seventeenth century poetry. Liberatore borrows from the musical style of the era, embedding hints at Baroque style into the writing. “while I sleep” opens with an oscillating major second passed throughout the ensemble that is slowly transformed as it is heard in various timbral combinations under the evolving tenor line. The text “gentle river” in “Lo, thy streams” is set with unsettling glissandi in the ensemble and forceful chordal interjections, a prismatic look at a Baroque arioso setting. “violets pluck’d” evokes the 18th century more overtly, with continuo accompaniment and tonal harmony that is filtered and subverted through a contemporary lens. “till we have done” is charged with foreboding, as the resonance from accented low piano notes is extended in the orchestration of the ensemble and the voice pleads for more nighttime hours before the morning forces a reckoning in the light of day.
– Dan Lippel
Bill Maylone, recording engineer, tracks 1, 14-17
Recorded at the University of Notre Dame
Continuous Motion Productions, recording engineers, tracks 2-5
Recorded at Vanderbilt University Blair School of Music
Julian Chalon and Nick Williams, recording engineers, tracks 6-13
Recorded at Columbus State University Schwob School of Music
Final mastering: Ryan Streber, Oktaven Audio
Design: Marc Wolf, marcjwolf.com
Cover image: Unearthed, by Esther Traugot, used with permission
Composer portrait photo credit: Barbara Johnston, Notre Dame Photography
John Liberatore is a composer, pianist, and one of the world’s few glass harmonica players. His music seeks poignancy through levity, ambiguity through transparency, and complexity within simple textures—“to feel pulled along at varying speeds in multiple directions, but always forward.” (Cleveland Classical)
Over the past several years, his music has received hundreds of performances in venues on five continents. He is the recipient of Fellowships from MacDowell (2020, 2017 NEA Fellow), Tanglewood, Yaddo, the Brush Creek Arts Foundation, the I-Park Artist’s Enclave, and the Millay Colony. Other notable distinctions include commis- sions from the Fromm Music Foundation and the Ameri- can Opera Initiative, two ASCAP Morton Gould Awards, and the Brian Israel Prize. Through a 2012 Presser Music Award, he studied in Tokyo with Jo Kondo—a mentorship that made an indelible impression on his music.
In 2015, Liberatore commissioned glass blowers G. Finkenbeiner Inc. for a new glass harmonica, becoming one of the few exponents of this rare instrument in contemporary music. So far, he has collaborated as a composer and performer with Roomful of Teeth, percussionist Daniel Druckman, soprano Jamie Jordan, and several others. In 2018, Albany Records released Line Drawings: Chamber Music of John Liberatore. This album features his recording debut on the glass harmonica (alongside Druckman and Jordan), as well as pieces for The Mivos Quartet, pianist Ryan MacEvoy McCullough, Bent Frequency, and Duo Damiana. This collaboration with Zohn Collective marks his second portrait album. Other recordings of his work are available on Centaur, Innova, Ravello, and False Azure record labels.
He holds degrees from the Eastman School of Music (PhD, MM) and Syracuse University (BM, summa cum laude). In 2015 he joined the faculty at the University of Notre Dame where he now serves as Associate Professor of Music Composition and Theory.
Zohn Collective is dedicated to the performance of contemporary art music. The ensemble is comprised of nine members, which include performers, composers, and a conductor. However, the group may expand as needed for each project. Zohn Collective is an artist- driven organization that strives to produce projects that are generated by its members. The group seeks to build strong relationships that lead to collaboration with other artists, organizations, and the communities they serve. Zohn Collective has in this way generated new compositions, staged productions, educational opportunities, and novel designs of informational and archival media surrounding performances (programs, videos, etc.). Among their collaborators are celebrated cartoonist Jose Ignacio Solorzano (“Jis”), puppet company La Coperacha, eminent poet Irving Feldman, multi-disciplinary artist Deidre Huckabay and videographer José Camacho.
Zohn Collective released its first CD under the Oberlin Music label in 2018. Two additional albums are currently in post-production. The group has attracted support from the NEA, the Mid Atlantic Foundation, New Music USA, the Ditson Fund, and the Paul Judy Center for Innovation and Research, among others. Zohn Collective was featured at the Festival Cultural de Mayo, in Guadalajara, Mexico, in 2018. Other recent events include performances, workshops, and recording projects held at the Cleveland Museum of Art, International House at the University of Chicago University of Kentucky (Lexington), Belmont University, Oberlin Conservatory, Northern Kentucky University, and Notre Dame University. Upcoming projects include residencies at the Beijing Modern Music Festival and at Vanderbilt University.
Molly Barth is constantly in motion. This Grammy Award-winning flutist, professor and clinician moves effortlessly from concert hall to teaching studio to rehearsal room to orchestral section. Molly needs fuel for this fire. Molly is fueled by visceral communication with listeners. The halls may be large or small, the music may be old or new, but the performances are always concentrated, intense. Molly is a co-founder of the Zohn Collective, a group of curious musicians who share a love of risk and exploration.
Molly is fueled by the smell of wet ink and spark of chamber music. Molly has toured the world, premiered hundreds of pieces, recorded a dozen albums, and—with Eighth Blackbird—won a Grammy Award. You can hear Molly’s blend of control and ferocity on Vento Appassionato, digging into 20th century solo flute repertoire; Thorn, focusing on the chamber music of David Lang; and Castillos de Viento, performing intimate music with guitar.
Molly is fueled by her work as a teacher. Molly is Associate Flute Professor at the Vanderbilt University Blair School of Music, and Molly guides her students to become comprehensive flutists.
Paul Vaillancourt (D.M.A) is Professor of Percussion at Columbus State University in Columbus, Georgia. He has been a featured soloist at the Banff and Aspen Summer Music Festivals, Sound Symposium Music Festival in Newfoundland, with the National Arts Center and Ottawa Symphony Orchestras, the St. Petersburg Chamber Orchestra (Russia), the Guanajuato Philharmonic Orchestra in Mexico, the Thailand Philharmonic Orchestra, the CSU Philharmonic and CSU Wind Ensemble. Recent concerto performances have included Jan Jarvlepp’s Garbage Concerto with the Columbus Symphony, Jennifer Higdon’s Percussion Concerto with the Arizona State University Symphony Orchestra and Brian Cherney’s In Gottes Garden schweigen due Engel for solo percussion, voice and percussion ensemble at McGill University in Montreal.
He has performed all over the world with many contemporary music ensembles including Bent Frequency, Sonic Generator, Furious Band, The Fountain City Ensemble, with his wife, flutist Andrée Martin and the piano/percussion duo, STRIKE with pianist Jeff Meyer. STRIKE tours of China, Russia and Thailand included performances at the Beijing Modern Music Festival at the Central Conservatory, Tianjin Conservatory, SoundWays New Music Festival in St. Petersburg, at the Thailand International Composers Festival and at universities in the greater Bangkok area. He performs regularly with the Columbus Symphony and the Atlanta Symphony, and is a founding member of the Zohn Collective, a group of professional musicians originating from the Eastman and Oberlin Schools of Music, dedicated to the performance of contemporary music. His most recent chamber music project with guitarist Dieter Hennings has led to premieres and recording projects of works by Brian Cherney, Ricardo Zohn-Muldoon and Juan Trigos.
Vaillancourt has recorded for CRI, Tzadik, Naxos, Parma Recordings, Centaur, Bridge,Ravello, Albany, Kotekan, Luminescence and New Chris Records. He is a Pearl/Adams Education Artist.
Daniel Pesca is a composer and pianist whose interpretations stand out for their creativity and dynamism. Daniel has participated in the premieres of more than one hundred new works, many of which were composed for him. In the process, he has shared the stage with many leading new music ensembles, including Ensemble Signal, the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, the Aspen Contemporary Ensemble, and Ensemble Dal Niente. He is a founding member of the Grossman Ensemble and the Zohn Collective, both notable for their innovative approach to the development of new work. He has performed as concerto soloist with the Eastman Wind Ensemble, Orchestra of the League of Composers, Chamber Orchestra of Pittsburgh, Oberlin Contemporary Ensemble and Slee Sinfonietta.
Daniel appears on recordings from Urtext Classics, Centaur, Albany, New Focus, CCCC, Nimbus, Furious Artisans, Neuma, Sideband, and Oberlin Records. His debut solo album Promontory, released Fall 2021, includes world premieres of works by Augusta Read Thomas, Alison Yun-Fei Jiang, and Aaron Travers, plus compositions by Daniel. In reviews of this album, Daniel has been hailed as “the perfect composer-virtuoso pianist” (All about the Arts) and “equally talented as pianist, composer and ad- vocate of his peers’ works” (Fanfare). Daniel is Assistant Professor of Music at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and was previously artist-in-residence at the University of Chicago.
Conductor Tim Weiss has earned acclaim for his performances and bold programming throughout the United States and abroad. His repertoire in contemporary music is vast and fearless, including masterworks, very recent compositions, and an impressive number of recordings, premieres and commissions.
For three decades, Weiss has directed the Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble, bringing the group to a level of artistry and virtuosity in performance that rivals the finest new music groups. He earned the Adventurous Programming Award from the League of American Orchestras for his work with Oberlin ensembles.
He also serves as a faculty member and is the director of the Aspen Contemporary Ensemble at the Aspen Music Festival and School. Additionally, he is a co-director and founder of the Zohn-Collective, a flexible contemporary music collective which seeks to produce and perform
artist-driven projects generated by its members. He remains active as a guest conductor in the US and abroad and continues to be a regular guest of the Arctic Philharmonic Sinfonietta in Norway, an ensemble for which he served as Artistic Director for six years. Weiss holds degrees from the Royal Conservatory in Brussels, Belgium; Northwestern University; and the University of Michigan.
The musical endeavors of Dieter Hennings Yeomans span from new music on guitar to early music for lute, baroque guitar, and theorbo and can be heard on the Naxos, Nonesuch, Bridge, Parma, New Branch, New Albany, and Innova recording labels.
Mr. Hennings has been a soloist with Canada’s New Music Concerts Ensemble, Riverside Symphony (NYC), Tito Sccipa Orchestra (Lecce, Italy), Orquestra Sinfónica do Rio Grande do Norte (Brazil), Eastman BroadBand Ensemble, Eastman School Symphony Orchestra, Orquesta Sinfónica de la Universidad de Guanajuato, Orquesta Filarmónica de Sonora, the University of Arizona Philharmonia, the Orquesta Filarmonica de Monterrey among many others. Mr. Hennings has won first prize in several prestigious competitions including the 2008 Aaron Brock International Guitar Competition (Toronto), 2005 Eastman Guitar Concerto Competition, the 2002 Villa de Petrer, Alicante (Spain) International Young Artists Competition, the 2001 Portland International Guitar Competition, among others.
Hennings is Professor of Guitar at the University of Kentucky School of Music and has been instructor of guitar at the Soundscapes New Music Festival and a resident at Tanglewood and Banff Music festivals.
Zach Finkelstein has performed as a tenor soloist for the past decade, from Seattle’s Benaroya Hall, New York’s Lincoln Center, London’s Sadler’s Wells, and the National Arts Center in Beijing, China. Recently, he toured the Spanish opera Comala with the Zohn Collective from Guadalajara, Mexico, to Chicago, Illinois. Hailed by the New York Times’s Anthony Tommasini as a “compelling tenor,” Zach released two albums on Scribe Records: Britten and Pears: the Canticles (2017) and Dark is Yonder Town, (2020) featuring guitarist Dieter Hennings Yeomans and new compositions by Ricardo Zohn-Muldoon and Jesse Jones. In recent seasons, Zach has performed as a concert soloist all over North America, including the Seattle Symphony, Quebec’s Les Violons du Roy, the Florida Orchestra, the Calgary Philharmonic, and the Mark Morris Dance Group. Zach is represented by Dean Artists Management and holds an Artist Diploma (Voice) from the Royal Conservatory of Music’s Glenn Gould School in Toronto and a BA in Political Science from McGill University, in Montreal.
Zach is currently pursuing an MBA with a concentration in Marketing at the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University. He works as a Senior Product Insights Researcher for Wizards of the Coast, leading custom qualitative and quantitative research projects for the collectible card game Magic: The Gathering. Zach lives in Seattle with his wife, Devora, and his three-year-old son, Remy.
Composer John Liberatore teaches at Notre Dame, and has traveled widely through the benefit of various fellowships, including those from MacDowell, Millay, Tanglewood, Yaddo, the Brush Creek Arts Foundation, and a Presser Music Award to study in Tokyo with Joe Kondo. His music has traveled widely too, with many contemporary ensembles commissioning and performing it. As a performer himself, John Liberatore has revived an old and esoteric instrument, the glass harmonica.
Catch Somewhere, a portrait CD of Liberatore’s chamber works on New Focus, is well performed throughout by the Zohn Collective, a sinfonietta-sized ensemble containing some of the most prominent contemporary performers in the United States. Various subsections of the group are utilized in the programmed selections.
The recording opens with “A Very Star-Like Start,” a capriccio for eight instruments that demonstrates well Liberatore’s general approach: rhythmically vibrant with frequent ostinatos, and a chromatic pitch language that at times hews close to tonality and then veers towards shadowy post-tonal sections. “A Very Star-Like Start” is an excellent curtain-raiser, with compound melodies built between strings, winds, and percussion that then unfold into fleet ostinatos and angular lines.
Flutist Molly Barth plays “Gilded Tree,” a four-movement solo piece with titles from the poetry cycle “Fable” by Randall Potts. Here as elsewhere, there is a poetic impulse that operates alongside the musical one in Liberatore’s creative approach. Even in instrumental pieces, the resonances found in word groupings provides a generative role. Barth plays in a number of demeanors: slow delicacy in “dark inside secure,” punctilious rapid passages in “black twig lips,” mysterious lyricism moving to brash high notes in “silence lost to echoes,” and liquid trills paired with repeated melodic cells in “quivering with light.” Barth’s dynamic control and virtuosity are most impressive.
The title work is an eight-movement suite for guitar, prepared piano, and percussion, which alternate prominence in the various movements. Once again, a poem, Walt Whitman’s “A Noiseless Patient Spider,” which Liberatore found while at MacDowell Colony, serves as inspiration. “Catch Somewhere” includes particularly beautiful writing for prepared piano, not at all Cagean but entirely its own preparation. In the first movement, “vacant, vast, surrounding,” motives, many timbral, that will be used throughout are introduced. Pianist Daniel Pesca plays a beautiful cadenza in the second movement “surrounded, detached,” which then becomes a soft duet with guitarist Dieter Hennings. Hennings continues with a cadenza of his own, featuring snapped pizzicato, in the third movement “little promontory.” This too is succeeded by a duet, this time with percussionist Paul Vanillancourt, whose motifs are responses to the guitar’s riffs. The movement then erupts, with piano, unpitched percussion, and guitar playing thick passages fortissimo. Repeated notes from the piano initially signal a dialing back, but the trio continues in vigorous fashion to its close.
“thread 1” returns to mallet instruments and guitar harmonics, creating a brief, undulating groove. The longest movement, at six minutes, “O my soul,” begins with an arpeggiated guitar solo with rich tone from Pesca. Mallet instruments are featured in the next solo, gradually shadowed by the other instruments. The guitar’s cadenza then returns with gongs providing resonance behind it in a hushed close. “thread 2” is another brief piece for mallet instruments, once again with guitar harmonics joining, this time at the close. “filament, filament, filament” opens riotously, then juxtaposes various instrumental deployments in a brisk moto perpetuo, dissipating at its conclusion. The piece’s final movement “catch somewhere” features bright harmonies and repeated notes, particularly prominent in unpitched percussion. A strong, arcing melody presses the music forward towards its conclusion. Repeated patterns then succeed this, with thunderous repeated bass notes from the piano juxtaposed against gentle guitar lines. A denouement ensues, in a decrescendo to niente. “Catch Somewhere” is a well-crafted, engaging, and entertaining piece.
The only piece that includes a singer is the CD’s final one, Hold Back Thy Hours, a setting of fragments of seventeenth century English poetry. Tenor Zach Finkelstein performs the four songs that comprise the set with precision and expressivity, his high notes suffused with easy lightness and his phrasing thoughtfully unpacking the aphoristic texts. The ensemble accompanies him with a complex thicket of pitch slides and knotty tunes, out of which offset attacks provide a sense of surprise that supports the nonlinearity of the textual fragments. My favorite among these is perhaps the most traditional, “violets pluck’d,” which includes a lamento bass. Its imaginative scoring, however, is fully of the present.
Liberatore’s Catch Somewhere is one of my favorite recordings thus far in 2023. Highly recommended.
— Christian Carey, 6.16.2023
The music of John Liberatore (b. 1984) is that of an expert composer who knows exactly how to achieve what he hears. I enjoyed his piano piece She Rose, and Let Me In: Scottish Variations and Fugue on a Centaur disc (called She Rose, and Let Me In, in fact) reviewed in Fanfare 40:3. It is wonderful to have the opportunity to get to know Liberatore’s music better, and he does not disappoint.
The first piece here, A Very Star-Like Start, is proof positive of this. Surfaces glisten in a very un-Schoenbergian pointillism. The piece is constructed as a mosaic, invoking the image of a field of fireflies. Zohn finds inspiration in poetry, here Robert Frost’s poem Fireflies in the garden. The piece flickers in the Zohn Collective’s superbly alive performance, captured in stunning sound.
The recorded perspective for the solo flute for Gilded Tree is just right, too. The inspiration here was Randall Potts’ cycle of poems, Fable, itself a response to the multimedia sculptures of Esther Traugot (whose Unearthed is found on the cover of the album). The soloist on this occasion is Molly Barth, who finds the expansive lyricism of “dark inside secure,” the first movement, and also locates the flitting, angular core of “black twig tips.” Textural contracts in the third movement, “silence lost to echoes,” are in use against a backdrop of silence. I say this as it does feel the music refers to an original state in the silences, in the gaps between sounds. Finally, there comes “quivering with light,” with its tremolandos and almost hesitant gestures
It is Walt Whitman who inspired Catch Somewhere, notably his "A Noiseless Patient Spider". Written at the MacDowell Colony, the poem spoke loudly to Liberatore. Written during the pandemic, Catch Somewhere is, in the composer’s own words, “imbued with the circumstances under which it was created.” Scored for guitar (Dieter Hennings), prepared piano (Daniel Pesca), and percussion (Pail Vaillancourt), this is a piece of great beauty. Cast in eight short movements, it presents the most elusive music so far. There are links, though; the delicate textures of the second piece, “surrounded, detached” seem like a quieter version of A Very Star-Like Start. The next movement, “little promontory,” is highly rhythmic, but also gentle until the most remarkable guitar and piano break (Hennings and Pesca are on fire). Perhaps the most touching movement is the guitar solo of “O my soul,” a quiet but potent meditation, exquisitely rendered by Hennings. The sheer composite virtuosity of “filament, filament, filament” (for all three players) is impressive enough, but the result is a tapestry of sound that is the most extraordinary latticework. All credit is due to all three performers for achieving such unanimity. The finale, “catch somewhere,” has more forward trajectory than the other movements, with repeated notes acting as energy generators.
Finally, Hold Back Thy Hours sets four fragments of English poetry from the 17th century. But by stripping down the poems to their barest bones, they become modernized and, occasionally, unstable. Liberatore does reference Baroque Affekt, but within his own modernist context. The high tenor is Zach Finckelstein, and Tim Weiss conducts the full Zohn Collective (some 14 players, with Daniel Pesca playing both piano and harpsichord). The second movement, “gentle river,” seems particularly potent, with its repetitions of that phrase sometimes contradicted by the instrumental activity. Certainly, there is a sense of Purcell-like gravity and loss to “violets pluck’d,” heightened by the use of harpsichord. This sets a text by John Fletcher, from The Queen of Corinth. Fletcher also supplies the text for the last song, “‘till we have done” (from The Maid’s Tragedy), wherein pointillism is tempered down to just voice and percussion.
There is such beauty here; the recording is ideal, as are the booklet presentation and detail. Recommended.
— Colin Clarke, 8.03.2023
Among American composers on the current scene, John Liberatore has an unusually light, even ethereal, touch—one of his stated aims is to achieve “poignancy through levity.” Liberatore’s piano music has been favorably reviewed in Fanfare, but this is my first encounter with him, and I had elevated expectations after I read in his bio that his music has been performed hundreds of times and that he has been a fellow at The MacDowell Colony, Tanglewood, and Yaddo. (His bio also includes that he is among the few contemporary performers on the glass harmonica, a fact not insignificant in Liberatore’s airy compositional style.)
Here we get four chamber works, three for fairly sizable instrumental ensembles and one for solo flute. New Focus’s online note tells us that Liberatore is a poetic composer whose work “often embeds actual poetry into the fabric of its composition” (a trait he shares with famously literary composers like Schumann and Britten). Even though only the final piece on the program, Hold Back Thy Hours, features a sung text, the other three were inspired by reading Robert Frost, Walt Whitman, and the contemporary poet Randall Potts. The poets are helpfully quoted in the composer’s note.
There are pitfalls when a composer writes as tonally as Liberatore does, in addition to his music’s gentleness and reluctance to raise its voice. These pieces could have turned out to be rehashed or banal or overly familiar. They avoid those pitfalls through several means. Liberatore has a strong feeling for mood and atmosphere. He is an instrumental colorist of considerable ability, and the emotional foundation of his music is self-evidently sincere. In a word, he puts an emphasis on the audience’s enjoyment, yet without talking down to them.
The flickering idiom of A Very Star-Like Start is rooted in the title, a line from Frost that describes fireflies. (The quoted verse features the evocative couplet, “Here come real stars to fill the upper skies, / And here on earth come emulating flies.”) The piece is described as an “ensemble fanfare,” and its quick, angular shape reminds me of similar passages in Appalachian Spring; the cheerful buoyancy of the music is like Ibert with extra focus on the pointed presence of piano and percussion among the woodwind and string instruments.
Gilded Tree for solo flute is based on Potts’s poetry, which in turn was inspired by a found-objects sculpture. The writing for the flute is lyrical and accessible, with no hint of the extended techniques New Music composers like to exploit. The four movements are so straightforward in the way basic motifs are obsessively repeated that they don’t merit the heavy weather in the booklet: “Potts sees through this [sculpture] a metaphor for the controlling impulse of an artist: an ultimately futile desire to claim ownership over the natural beauty of everyday things.” Flutist Molly Barth gives a musical, thoroughly satisfying performance, but for me Gilded Tree is too insubstantial to be memorable.
Catch Somewhere benefits from knowing that its inspiration is Whitman’s “A Noiseless Patient Spider,” in that this eight-movement trio feels patient and is constructed of gossamer filaments with an occasional sting. The instrumentation has a disembodied quality, being scored for percussion, guitar, and prepared piano. It’s a good example of Liberatore’s bent for instrumental color. At 28 minutes this is a sizable chamber work, and it holds the listener’s attention by constantly weaving a tracery of delicate sounds like musical needlepoint. A buildup in speed and intensity in the last two movements suggests the spider pouncing and overcoming its victim, but like Whitman, Liberatore isn’t out to frighten us with death in miniature but to draw a parallel between the spider’s intricate web and the creative process.
In the one work with a text, Hold Back Thy Hours, a tenor sings four fragments of 17th-century English verse in conjunction with an ensemble of 14 instruments, essentially a chamber orchestra, that ambitiously features two percussionists, harp, and the period touch of a harpsichord. This is denser, more complex, and emotionally deeper music than anything else on the program. It is also, speaking personally, the piece I most admired. Lyric tenor Zach Finkelstein gives a heartfelt performance in good voice with admirable musical instincts and some daringly achieved high notes.
The piece doesn’t emerge as four songs with accompaniment but as an ensemble piece into which the voice is woven. We are told that Liberatore incorporates Baroque musical touches, and the third movement, “violets pluck’d,” features a vocal line very close to Handel, although I also think back to Dowland in melancholy mood. There is a combination of cultivation and musical depth that also reminds me of Britten when he wove the English past into his own language. Liberatore has done the same very successfully.
Personal taste will dictate which pieces stand out, and for me, the lighter side of Liberatore’s musical imagination doesn’t linger long, while Hold Back Thy Hours strikes me as a major work with far-reaching significance—it deserves a wide audience and displays a composer who possesses far more than adroitness among his gifts. The impeccable performances are by the soloists named in the headnote or by the Zohn Collective, an ensemble at the Eastman School combining performers and composers. Liberatore himself teaches at Notre Dame, whose music faculty he joined in 2015. I would tell you where he was born and how old he is, but the inflated boilerplate that passes for a bio omits almost any information that isn’t outright puffery—a shame with someone who is genuinely talented and doesn’t need hype.
— Huntley Dent, 8.03.2023
On this sixty-five-minute collection, composer John Liberatore (b. 1984) is well-served by the high-calibre musicianship of the Tim Weiss-led Zohn Collective. The care with which the nine-member contemporary music ensemble attends to the nuances of the four works attests to the simpatico tie between creator and performer. Catch Somewhere is notable also for the variety of its programme, with two pieces for large ensemble (one featuring vocals) appearing alongside a trio for guitar, percussion and prepared piano and an arresting solo performance by Grammy Award-winning flutist and Zohn Collective co-founder Molly Barth. Differences naturally abound between the works, yet connecting them is their grounding in poetry. Appreciation for the recording is enhanced by the background Liberatore provides in the booklet and his identification of the poetic material relating to the pieces.
Liberatore, since 2015 a faculty member of the University of Notre Dame's Department of Music, is a composer but also a pianist and glass harmonica player. The music he writes has been informed by a number of experiences, a stint studying in Tokyo with Jo Kondo and collaborations with Roomful of Teeth and soprano Jamie Jordan, among others. It doesn't slot itself into any particular school; instead, each piece carves out its own distinctive sound space in the way it addresses a particular subject matter and organizes its elements in concert with it. His music is accessible yet technically sophisticated, complex whilst seeming deceptively simple, and both intellectually sound and emotionally expressive.
The album's engrossing opener, A Very Star-Like Start, is indicative of his style. Scored for eight instruments, the work was created at the Millay Colony, an artist's retreat located on Edna St. Vincent Millay's property in Upstate New York. The title (which arrived towards the end of the writing process) derives from a description of fireflies by Robert Frost, the insect a familiar presence at the retreat. It's certainly easy enough to hear the fluttering interactions of the instruments as firefly-like movements; fragmentary figures begun by one instrument are completed by another, with the whole presenting a restless swarm of activity. It's also possible to hear the piece as something reminiscent of a Stravinsky neoclassical chamber work when it's so rhythmically lively and intricately woven.
For the four-part solo flute setting Gilded Tree, Liberatore used for inspiration a cycle of poems by Randall Potts titled Fable, the poems themselves written in response to mixed-media sculptures by Esther Traugot. Similar to the way her work includes natural objects such as eggshells, seedpods, and twigs, so too does Gilded Tree develop with the kind of natural grace we encounter in the outdoors, especially when Barth's performance hews to the pure timbres of the flute. No effects are needed when the instrument's sound, so rich in pastoral associations, is already so transfixing. Contrasts are plentiful between the parts, as shown when the dance-like “black twig tips” and mystery-laden “silence lost to echoes” are juxtaposed.
Inspired by Whitman's “A Noiseless Patient Spider” and its image of the creature flinging forth threads it hopes'll “catch somewhere,” the album's titular work gives voice to the composer's pandemic-related realization that the connections he seeks in the solitary act of creation are less internally directed than outwardly aimed at expressing something that'll resonate with others. While the feeling of isolation engendered by the pandemic is intimated in movement titles such as “vacant, vast, surrounding” and “surrounded, detached,” resilience and hope, however tentative, are suggested in some of the eight-part work's other titles. In keeping with the sense of separation that permeated the period, Liberatore's choice of instrumentation—guitar, prepared piano, and percussion—establishes a barren quality in the early going; elsewhere, however, animation emerges in the boisterous “filament, filament, filament” and triumphant “catch somewhere” to convey recovery and a defiant refusal to succumb to despair. Contemplation's suggested too, in the pensive dialogue enacted during “O my soul,” for example.
At album's end, the four-part Hold Back Thy Hours is the only piece that sets poetry directly, specifically fragments of seventeenth-century English poetry. Tenor Zach Finkelstein (the work's dedicatee) delivers the texts in contexts that sometimes evoke Baroque music; as Liberatore notes, however, the words might have been written hundreds of years ago yet speak universally to the experience of being human, with all the joy and sorrow that that entails. The presence of oboe, bassoon, and harp alongside strings, trumpet, and other woodwinds also does much to evoke an earlier period, as do the stately rhythms that drive “violets pluck'd.” Still, while the inclusion of harpsichord does lend “gentle river” a Baroque quality, the nightmarish musical design the composer conjures for the movement locates it firmly in the modern era. Much the same could be said of the album in general when each work draws from the past yet ultimately feels emblematic of an omnivorous and polyglot contemporary music culture.
— Ron Schepper, 8.03.2023