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Dmitri TYMOCZKO (b. 1969)
I Cannot Follow [15:54]
Rube Goldberg Variations [18:39]
S Sensation Something [16:38]
Flexible Music
Atlantic Brass Quintet & John Blacklow (piano)
Amernet String Quartet & Matthew Bengtson (piano)
rec. 2017, Taplin Auditorium, Princeton University, USA
BRIDGE 9492 [51:15]

Dmitri Tymoczko is an established composer with a teaching post at Princton University and a well-stocked awards cabinet. I hadn’t come across his name before over here in Europe, but his contribution to the Signum Classics Sibylla album made a good impression on Simon Thompson, and as I’m always a fool for music that makes a connection with the visual arts, the Rube Goldberg Variations was an easy choice to make from the list of titles for review.

The title I Cannot Follow comes from a 16th century madrigal in which the words refer to a dead lover. Mark Keresman’s booklet notes sum this up as being “in part about the great wall between ourselves and the loved ones of our past, the one wall which we cannot penetrate or scale, and then return.” This would seem a forbidding prospect, but with Tymoczko’s expert treatment of ensemble Flexible Music’s colourful instrumentation of saxophone, electric guitar, piano and percussion, there is a transparency and a lightness of feel to this piece that has its own attractiveness. There are jazz elements to the score, though these are expressed more in instrumental interactions than in overtly swinging rhythms. The first movement, Structures of Loss, makes the dual impression of being both tightly composed and improvisatory – a skilful tightrope to walk, with plenty of virtuoso elements at every layer. There is a gamelan resonance to the opening of the second movement, entitled Respite, though even with a stronger sense of atmosphere there is a continuing restlessness here as well. I Cannot Follow is the third and final movement, with a punchy ostinato chase going on amongst the instruments at the outset that finds similar colours to a certain period of Dutch minimalism. The guitar moves into distortion towards the centre of this movement, the imperturbable rhythmic energy of which is only ever temporarily dispersed by gentler diversions, and a final witty apotheosis.

Rube Goldberg was an influential American cartoonist, artist, inventor and author, and the title Rube Goldberg Variations is a bit of a tease. Anyone expecting much of a connection to J.S. Bach is likely to be disappointed, but what we gain in return is an inventive score that is a credit both to the composer and the remarkable character that was its inspiration. The mechanics of Goldberg’s inventive contraptions – similar in inventive scope to Heath Robinson – is reflected in the machine-like sonorities of a prepared piano, the rhythmic potency of the music expanding on this basis with the animated playing of the Atlantic Brass Quintet taking us to the soundworlds of New Orleans and ‘Hot’ jazz, the irregular piano part of a movement called Homage putting me in mind of something by Conlon Nancarrow. The four movements are rounded off by a finale called Father Makes the World, described by the composer as “a mixture of Biblical Creation and my own experiences with fatherhood.” Machine-like rhythmic character together with improvisatory flourishes combine once again to create something with the feel of theatrical melodrama, “…but as with most Rube Goldberg constructs, we won’t see the result until all its parts have stopped moving.”

The final work, S Sensation Something, changes the mood entirely. The strings of the Amernet Quartet set up a disarmingly pleasant descending harmonic pattern over which the piano imposes its own dramatic character, the instruments soon conjoining and conspiring to develop and disguise the composer’s techniques. Tymoczko has stated that “I like my theory buried and subterranean, a rigorous starting point that has been polished, defaced, rethought, and embellished to the point where it is only occasionally apparent.” There is no lack of polish in this work, though rough edges give its diamond hardness an unfinished quality; one in which you can imagine starting all over again and arriving at an entirely different creative conclusion.

This is music that is both solidly made, and of the sort that keeps you guessing and fascinated the whole way though. With excellent recordings, expert performances and a creative voice that deserves being heard, this is a striking new music release that has a whole barrow-load of seedlings on offer to anyone with a fertile imagination.

Dominy Clements

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