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Stuart Saunders SMITH (b. 1948)
Thicket (2010) [12:37]
Pinetop (1977) [7:00]
Family Portraits: Self (in 14 Stations) (1997) [9:50]
Palm Sunday (2012) [21:13]
Among Us (2007) [11:56]
Kyle Adam Blair (piano)
rec. 2015-16, UC San Diego’s Conrad Prebys Concert Hall, La Jolla, USA
NEW WORLD RECORDS 80813-2 [62:35]

Stuart Saunders Smith was born in Portland, Maine, USA. His early teacher was Charles Newcomb, part of whose method was to have the young Smith “transcribe scores by hand, and study … styles (that included) Dixieland jazz and Latin music”. Smith studied percussion at Hartt School of Music (1967-1972). His time with Ed Diemente introduced Smith to the ways in which jazz and twelve-tone “could speak to one another”. There were then studies at University of Illinois Urbana–Champaign (1973-1977), where his teachers included Ben Johnston. Smith arrived at “off-the-staff” notation systems rather like Earle Brown. Across fifty years of composing activity Smith has accrued some well over 150 works. He is also active as performer of other composer’s works and gave the world premiere of Bruno Ruviaro’s twelve Pos-Tudos piano etudes.

When it comes to his own works, Smith’s performers are often required, in something of a jazz trope, to develop their own responses to the composer’s instructions: The performer is to “provide the musical dynamics, articulations and phrasing to the (composer’s) traditionally notated pitches and rhythmic structures” - a jazz phenomenon.. That’s the case in this disc of works couched in uncertain tonality for solo piano. That said, the piano is not “prepared” nor is the pianist required to play other than with conventional access via the keyboard.

Thicket, counter-intuitive to its title, is in five sections of fragile, hesitant and slowly unfolding complexity. At times we hear a crystalline disrupted echo of Debussy. Pinetop, the earliest work here and dating from his time at Urbana-Champaign, is more intensively twelve-tone and cross-grained. Its progress is in a predominantly slow tempo with occasional ‘explosions’. From the late 1990s, Family Portraits: Self (in 14 Stations) is in the expected 14 tracks, some of which are very short. This work, says the liner-note, refers “to the fourteen Stations of the Cross, a sequence of images depicting Jesus’s journey toward his crucifixion”. The music is identifiable with that of the composer of Thicket but along the way speaks in an “awkward torrent”, adds a crooning voice to the piano and, at the close, a whisper - presumably that of the pianist.

Palm Sunday approximates to a four-movement sonata-form but it is very loose approximation. The first movement saunters along in instinctive rather than overtly purposeful ways. The other movements are at times more directional, faster and almost threatening and then draw the listener back into a moonlit “pierrot lunaire” meander. Among Us, is the longest continuous movement here. It is directed to be played employing “a dynamic range between ‘very, very soft’ and ‘medium loud’”. The effect is gentle and inwardly orientated - an inscape - and treads a gradient towards a close pass at tender melody. There are some words spoken by the pianist but as with many of these pieces silence, more than the obvious, is twined between the notes. The liner-essay tell us that “Smith’s spirituality and Quaker faith also depends upon a practice based on careful, intent listening. At Quaker meetings the gathered will sit together in silence, listening and interacting with the still, small voice of God that the Quakers believe is present within each of us. At times, Friends will be moved to share what they hear by speaking aloud, and at other times entire meetings will pass in silence.”

The attentive and thoughtful booklet essay is by the pianist Kyle Adam Blair.

These placid works feature the voice of composer and pianist, spare and lucid, transmitting as a colloquy not an oration.

Rob Barnett

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