Robert Erickson’s discography now includes his complete String Quartets
and two fine discs of orchestral and ensemble music. The booklet notes describe a maverick career with a wide diversity of activities in the music world, though always with composition as its central element.
develops around well-defined melodic solos and duos of instruments, the material intertwining around held tones or emerging from ‘darkness’ with bravura flourishes, becoming an organic whole while retaining improvisatory independence. The sound is defined by an amplified trumpet which often leads the musical material, the colour of the ensemble also given an exotic flavour through percussion and gamelan-like sounds which link to sparingly used microtones. The music has at times a ritualistic feel, and retains an enigmatic but compelling atmosphere throughout.
The Fantasy for Cello and Orchestra
is considerably earlier, and represents a time in which Erickson was breaking away from more academic models. It was written not long after he arrived in San Francisco from his birthplace of Michigan, and for its period is strikingly romantic and expressionistic – certainly going against the avant-garde trends of the time. Techniques used in Schoenberg’s twelve-tone music appear but this is by no means a serialist work, with plenty of impressive dramatic fingerprints of an almost cinematic quality and the influence of Alban Berg in evidence. The intensity of the music comes at least in part as it responded to the death of one of Erickson’s mentors, Frank Kearney.
The title East of the Beach
refers to the composer’s home north of San Diego, and it shares artistic DNA with Night Music
in its use of drones – tonal centres around which the music develops and swells. “I was much involved in tone color and rhythm in this composition”, and the fascination with the drones is that they constantly shift in instrumentation and timbre. The orchestration is often stunningly luminous, the tonality and melodic lines embracing the sweep of Sibelius’s symphonic writing and at times emerging in swathes of aurora like patterns. This brings us to the final work Auroras
, which saw the composer engaging with health issues and thoughts of his own mortality. This saw its origins in birdsong encountered while on a lecture visit in California. “I hadn’t heard birds against such silent backgrounds since I was a boy, and perhaps that was the trigger… [making] a ball of feeling in my belly that was the whole non-verbal source of the whole musical action of Auroras
”. Erickson doesn’t take on birdsong in the way you might expect from someone like Messiaen, and the sense of nature is indeed more like that you could experience from Sibelius, with wider landscapes and a feeling of vastness. It is “expressive music - music of feeling”, and truly beautiful at times – elsewhere with passages of dark drama, perhaps contrasting life with the struggle for existence.
Superbly performed and recorded, this is an impressive release from New World Records. Erickson’s later music has an understated, at times introvert and thoughtful aspect which invites contemplation, though this is more an invitation to join his vision of wide and powerful themes than anything new-age and artificially spiritual. If you are intrigued by new music but want to explore sonorities which sidestep avant-garde ‘isms’ then Robert Erickson may well be the man for you.