Dancing on the Brink of the World

The American composer Deon Nielsen Price studied with Leslie Bassett and Samuel Adler. She has been active in various academic bodies in West Coast universities. She has written extensively and with distinction in relation to her instrument, the piano. Her catalogue of compositions is substantial.

The pieces featured here are recorded at a higher level than usual and every detail emerges close-up and vivid.

Yellow Jade Banquet sports super-clear textures and lines. Impressions flood in: an excited squeal, an enchanting undulation, an Oriental swerve, a hint of chant and seductively inspirational pulses suggestive of minimalism – which this writing is not. Hovhaness, McPhee, Cowell and Lou Harrison are perhaps influences on this composer.

The macabre Epitaphs for Fallen Heroes induces awe. There is something of the ceremony in this piece with its stonily resonant and hieratically assertive piano part. The Dies Irae and angular dissonance are confidently mixed. Take this as a sort of Bergian-surreal successor to Liszt’s Totentanz.

America Themes is a phantasmagoria of American traditional tunes with Johnny comes marching home melting into Taps and thence to Copland and so on. The composer affectionately continues a tradition made resilient by Ives and keeps the ear constantly beguiled by each transition.

Gateways is a gritty, rhetorical and tough work for wind band. It is inspired by life’s paths that step off the way or onward through gateways. It is as much about the paths as the gateways themselves, we are told.

States of Mind is a work in four movements: Meditation, Troubled Thoughts, Mysterious Dream, Transformation. The first is a tender essay redolent of Barber at his most gentle. Troubled Thoughts thrusts thorny angles into the pottage and its stinging poignancy sears and scars in a way suggestive of Schnittke. Mysterious Dream moves from dank meditation to free-wheeling surreal visions. Transformation has a serrated Shostakovich-like determination and some stunning headlong pizzicato passages. The fugal flavour of some of the writing was irritating – a very personal prejudice.

Dancing on the Brink of the World is much in the same exotic vein – a sort of time-travelling fantasy from the Yelamu autochthons of Crissy Field to Hispanic incursion and onwards from the internment of Japanese Americans to a tribute in retrospect to the ancient cultures. It’s a rich brew of whooping energy, bristling and chirruping, ratchet and rattle, groaning brass redolent of Hovhaness and dancing vitality. A smoochy soft shoe dance is made the more intriguing by a high and anxiously buzzing repeated figure from the violins. Fragments and musical units are in constant motion like an inspirational kaleidoscope of the emotions and of inventive imagery. The effect in this work’s dazzle of consciousness is something like a pellucid version of Grainger’s Warriors. The work ends with the foghorn in the Bay.

This disc is a successor to Cambria’s first Deon Nielsen Price CD (CD-1170) which included To the Children of War, song-cycle for voice and piano; Diversions; Crossroads for trio; L’Alma Jubilo (The Jubilant Soul), for solo guitar; Big Sur Triptych, for soprano saxophone and piano: (Sea Otters; Redwoods; Crags); Hexachord: View from Malibu; and Three Faces of Kim, the Napalm Girl, for alto and soprano saxophones and piano.

The notes are quite full but fail to tell me things like the composer’s year of birth and exactly where Crissy Field is.

This music is intriguing – rich and strange indeed. Very Californian in the freewheeling accommodation it strikes with the Pacific Rim and with history.

Rob Barnett
MusicWeb International: