Saturday, January 3, 2015

The Listening List: 1. Chris Owenby

The Listening List is a blog series in which I listen and critique two pieces by my composer friends. I was inspired by Rob McClure's similar series, "Music With Friends." For most pieces, I plan to listen twice, with scores where available, and jot down some initial thoughts. My intention is to force myself to engage more with my friends' music, not just to offer unsolicited feedback. After my first entry, I found that this blog will probably demonstrate me wrestling with my own thoughts and biases about music as much as it will review the work of contemporary composers.

Chris Owenby - [site currently down]

Chris started studying at Georgia State just as I was leaving ('06 or so). He still lives in the Atlanta area, and is the Minister of Music at Kennesaw United Methodist Church. His site is currently down, so I did some reconnaissance and found some of his music on YouTube.

Black Riders and Other Lines - treble choir and piano

As a fan of Stephen Crane's poetry, I decided to give this piece a whirl. I did a set of 5 Crane poems years ago. The first thing that strikes me is Chris's affinity to the more religious poems and mine toward the bleak nihilistic ones! Besides our religious differences, I should note another major bias of mine: I am not a choral composer, and have little interest in the genre. Some of my critique will likely reflect this.

Chris has composed three songs from Crane's book of the same title. In the first, "Black Riders," Chris builds up a sense of dread throughout, though I found the text painting a little wanting. Some moments were rather serene when the words were describing spears and shields. The final chords finally give the sense of terror I was looking for.

The best effect of the second song, "In Heaven," is the use of speech. Little blades of grass stand before God and recount the merits of their lives. Chris has the singers speak ad libitum (with text he added, mostly derived from the Ten Commandments), which makes a nice murmoring crowd texture. I think it might have been more effective to use the soloist only on the lines spoken by the smallest blade of grass, rather than repeating the first two lines already sung by the chorus.

Overall, I think the songs are effective, and the harmony and textures serve the text well. While minor repetitions on descriptive words didn't bother me, I found myself wondering why there needed to be larger-scale repetition (entire lines or couplets). Crane's poetry is very terse and I feel that songs should reflect that. But then again, numerous minutes have been written on "Kyrie" and "Amen."

    Tapestry - clarinet, cello, piano

My bias clearly shows now, since I enjoyed this piece a lot more. I was already familiar with it: our mutual friend Brent Milam enthusiastically recommended this piece for Terminus Ensemble, so we programmed it last year.

I like how this one develops, and throws some surprises your way. It begins with rising quasi-canonic figures in the clarinet and cello. It's pretty abstract at the opening. But most of the piece is much more middle-period Stravinsky, with odd-metered ostinati and a lean texture. It has a good humor to it. Some moments I felt hints of "too many ideas" but that kind of kaleidoscopic effect is appropriate given the title.

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