Promising myself an evening to listen to the selected compositions of Iowa composer Steve Chandler from his page: http://composersforum.ning.com/profile/SteveChandler
proved quite rewarding on many levels.
Not knowing at all what to expect, I listened to all these pieces at least twice and decided to make a few comments. This is the kind of concentration I enjoy doing and I hope it suits Steve and those who will hear (and perhaps play) his music too.
Most of the music was for the piano, played very well too, on I guess his Estonia 190 (6'3”) grand piano, but he might just as well have played them on his very good source sampling synthesizer. The rest are compositions for a larger ensemble, performed by a good source sampling synthesizer similar to mine (which unlike Steve, I never use much any more).
When one first hears music by someone new, one of the things that happens, not necessarily a good thing, is to try and associate the new music with some other music you might have heard before. The positive thing about this approach is that one feels more secure about listening, informed listening, like trying to find recognizable objects in abstract paintings. The negative thing about this approach is that one usually has too quickly pidgin-holed the music and this doesn't allow the instantaneous reception on an immediate emotional level that the music deserves. But let's be honest, to some extent it can't be helped. It's what we all do, try and associate the unfamiliar with the familiar. Otherwise what would we do but allow the unforeseen to drive us crazy. All of this music wears well, as they say with repeated listening.
Sure some of the pieces have formal names which imply some formal association with older music by the same technical names; in this case names like Consolation, Melody, Rhapsody, Prelude and Fugue, Waltz, Toccata. But as was the case with older or other music with these names and his many other pieces with more programmatic names, Steve's music shares some features with other composers' styles. Which ones? Well, a solid American tradition in composition that reminds me frankly of music for patriotic documentaries or “official” sounding American music to go with important events vies with older classical elements in a kind of floating harmonic inconclusiveness that reminds of, believe it or not, Olivier Messiaen. My strongest criticism as a composer is that I hear far too many major seventh chords and associated harmonies. Otherwise Steve is a credible and talented composer, which for a pianist / composer like myself means that his work is something I would consider trying to learn to play myself. After hearing it, I hope others feel that way too.
Let's take the symphonic music first. Ominosity is a brief piece, the kind of thing for the opening of a suspenseful dramatic move with something military about it. A really unique idea of using an electric guitar as an element should be extended in a future piece where it might solo against the other traditional orchestral choirs.
Yesterday is history has many passages that remind of Stravinsky and others. There's a little canonical writing too. The tensions are marked with percussive and brass choir effects like gallant fanfares, again the stuff of “official” sounding music that somehow got twisted a little and maybe someone is laughing at it as well, sort of like happens in much of Ives' works. The use of ambivalent harmonies, plucked strings, chimes, horn calls and other effects gives great colour to this piece. Perhaps older music is being parodied, or compared with real historical events by association. In any case, I'm actually more impressed (and liking it) than with much else that I've heard. One imagines as a listener that one can grab it, but then it sort of morphs into something else that's puzzling and evokes a kind of traditional American nostalgia.
Tomorrow is a Mystery, a theme floats around, framed by percussive and brass elements, a line is taken by a pipe organ? Then the cellos take up something “folksy” sounding that is picked up by the violins, stronger percussive and brass crash in, nice effect, others follow in a procession that leads to inconclusive and perhaps perilous hanging strings, then a break into more subtle introspective woodwind episodes, taken up by the brass, just as easily dropped, then crash boom. Here we are in mid-America symphonic episode land, perhaps canon or fugue, certainly good counterpoint, but the emotions are always changing and lead to inconclusive situations, cool perhaps and “official” but overlaid by a typically American orchestral sound in glowing but again inconclusive harmonic territories. This is the kind of piece to really demonstrate the colours a symphony orchestra can produce. Most of the effects are quite pleasing too, which is saying quite a lot actually. But the inconclusiveness of the harmonies will keep most audiences guessing as I did, just what's going on. You might think this is again music for some pseudo-scary drama or perhaps a docudrama about some famous person or historical event. Believe it or not, Steve might consider doing another shorter piece than this, that uses a symphonic band rather than a string symphony orchestra, with fewer effects. Try and limit it to ten minutes and it might even sell well. Just an idea.
Today is a Gift is a theme and variations or rhapsody on the theme of Old Hundred, We Thank Thee Now Our God, I think it's a traditional Lutheran hymn, though everyone uses it now. Steve uses this theme again in an earlier synth version. The two settings are like his versions of America the Beautiful with the embedded Battle Hymn of the Republic. They remind of the floating inconclusive harmonic leading employed by Messien and others. Both Steve's versions of this are good and should not be discarded but somehow merged into a larger piece. Anyway that's my idea.
Steve's piano music is similar to his orchestral music in that one hears the same floating inconclusive harmonic leading in unpredictable and unexpected directions. But it's also true that after a few times, it begins to sound predictable, not a bad thing either, because part of this music we call “classical” (such a stupid label because it no longer is what it never was; we don't really know what the Greeks and Romans were listening to during the “classical” era) is that as a prepared / educated audience, we are expecting to be able to remember and emotionally or cognitively respond, to accept into ourselves that to which we are listening. This is how pieces, and music, gets into the standard repertoire.
Thus we are treated to a floating harmonic rendition of America the Beautiful with the Battle Hymn of the Republic, a very nice arrangement, but one that is harmonically inconclusive à la Messiaen, though others have done it too. The two themes overlap in a powerful, for Americans, clash and combination of nostalgic associations; perhaps the present beauty of the country along with a reminder that the nation went through a terrible struggle during what's called the American Civil War to get where we are today. The emotional power of this inconclusive harmonizing is to cast a little doubt as to whether we have achieved America the Beautiful or not.
Spring Hop is a theme and variations on a syncopated melody with haunting almost sinister harmonies that again are made to float around inconclusive tone centres. A variety of styles were used to treat the same melody. I liked Steve's definite style of rendering this piece, though were I to do it, I would make the distinctions between variations even more pronounced, but that's just me. I like this piece a lot (but I liked all of Steve's music to some degree). It always made me think of tone leading where you didn't expect it to go, kind of like recalcitrance of mind; you expect something but no, it goes somewhere else.
Consolation is a consolation (lol) in ¾ time that has a nice effect to console all right, in a modern sort of way that is easy to hear and understand. But Steve, try it a shade slower and with even more concentration on each sound from your piano and it would come off much better. Think really slow dancing. Consolations take time to get the person consoled, time to really release every tension.
Melody is a mellow ¾ time piece that's sort of like an American style Ballade after Chopin or Brahms. Steve could slow this one down by a hair and it would become more powerful.
Prelude and Fugue in g minor pairs a wistfully sad sounding prelude with a fugue you think might run in normal harmonic paths, but by this time you almost expect Steve to challenge your hearing by twisting the fugue into his preference for the floating harmonic inconclusiveness he enjoys using and sure enough that's just what happens. He plays this stuff very well too.
Then we come to maybe my favourite of all of them, Steve's Rhapsody. He plays it straight, I doubt I would. I'd concentrate on articulating each little turn and fold in it, just putting on more pressure with each phrase. The main theme is tantalising and the pianistic effects are strenuous without being over the top. Harmonically we're dealing with the same palate as before, but here the effects are more varied and suggestive of wider emotional ranges that I'd like to see other pianists explore (why not me?). I like the way it ends too.
Wobbly Waltz is a ¾ time piece that's again played pretty straight and occasionally reminds of Joplin meeting Messiaen somewhere in Iowa. I'd like Steve to play this one a tad slower too.
Steve's Toccata is based on a few elements that are worked through various processes and produce the effect of running through floating and jagged textures. This probably is something more difficult to play, but it all is and Steve certainly plays very well.
Another of my favourites is Steve's very moving In Such A Small Place. Think elegies, dark private memories one might just as well like not recalling, deeply disturbing emotional tensions, great sadness, inconsolable loss. There is an attempt to answer all this with that “official” sound of “it will be all right” but the melody returns and says, “no, it will never be all right.” This my friends is emotional realism, not phony romanticism, and this is what our music is truly all about!
Tender7 is what I'd consider calling an impromptu. It has all the usual Steve Chandler elements, is deeply introspective and energetic by turns. Again, Steve could play it a little slower with more effort toward turning each and every piano sound to full advantage, but he still plays it well.
Anyway folks, Steve Chandler is a real composer. This is what one looks and sounds like. He has developed a distinctive style, has obviously applied serious study to his craft and his output, even if this were all of it, is remarkable and revealing. Two of these piano pieces I would even consider as masterpieces worth the serious inclusion into more repertoires. What do you think Steve?