Pictures started with its namesake: Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. I was of course familiar with Pictures as a hallowed, oft-performed, and frequently repurposed score, but as I spent time with the piece I was most struck by how idiosyncratic it was. From the awkwardly halting pace of the omnipresent Promenade, to the nigh-oppressive tension of the troubadour’s song in The Old Castle, to the farcical frenzy of Limoges, Pictures occupies a sonic landscape of insistent heterogeneity. That insistence borders on brutal at times – fitting, considering the piece’s undercurrent of grief. Mussorgsky wrote Pictures at an Exhibition in the wake of the death of visual artist and close friend Viktor Hartmann; the piece is, at heart, a tribute and a memorial, executed through vivid images.
And so this came to define the threads of the album. These are all particular, deliberate pieces that use images as a springboard, or conjure up striking worlds of their own. They also consider memory in all its difficult complexity – generally and specifically, materially and abstractly.
David Lang’s “cage,” from his memory pieces, sets the stage with its unmoored, insistently uneasy tremolo. Written in memory of John Cage, the piece aims to capture the mystery of Cage’s scores, which were often beguiling, intoxicating, and mystifying in equal measure. Toru Takemitsu’s Les yeux clos ii is similarly hazy, evoking the Odilon Redon painting it is something of a sequel to. The titular closed eyes of Redon’s Les yeux clos suggest the vast expanse between dreaming and death; Takemitsu’s judicious use of negative space seems to encompass centuries.
Elliott Carter’s Two Thoughts about the Piano are also image pieces, albeit more abstractly so. “Intermittences” and “Caténaires” act as inverses of one another, the former a study of silence and the latter a continuous stream of sixteenth notes. “Intermittences” molds silence as a way of evoking memory; it takes its title from Proust’s “Les Intermittences du coeur,” a chapter from Sodom and Gomorrah that is largely an extended meditation on grief. “Caténaires,” meanwhile, evokes the elegant catenaries of power cables, wrapping its endless, electric passagework around kaleidoscopic, metamorphic harmonies.
A Walk (for Emilio) shifts things a little bit. Emilio del Rosario, or Mr. D, as he was known, was my first “serious” piano teacher. He was the first person to introduce me to the wild world of solo piano repertoire, the first person to awaken even the notion that being a musician could be a lifelong pursuit, the first person to ask me questions about interpretation and that nebulous thing we call “musicality.” I studied with Mr. D between the ages of five and nine, before leaving Chicago for New York in 2003. He died in 2010. I sometimes imagine spending time with him today. I imagine the two of us sharing the various things we’ve both done since I moved away; I imagine the two of us talking about music as we always did. A Walk (for Emilio) is about those imagined memories. It alternates between ambling, freely lyrical passages and anxious, pleading, yearning chords.
The aforementioned Pictures at an Exhibition follows. I love the piece. I love the way The Great Gate of Kiev vacillates between uncontained rage and some strange, conflicted, sense of victory. After all that has come before, it feels like earned catharsis. And after such explosive release comes the requisite epilogue: David Lang’s “wed.” Another selection from the memory pieces, this one written in memory of conceptual artist Kate Ericson, “wed” exists entirely in contradictions. It seems sonically gentle, yet its shifting, nearly ascetic rhythms are almost unbearably tense. Lang asks for the piece to be performed “with almost no expression,” yet the piece feels tender and shot through with emotion. These contradictions are crucial to the piece’s strange, almost alien beauty. Inspired by a devastating, poignant image – a wedding taking place at a deathbed – it captures a particularly fragile balance between joy and misery.
Maybe that’s what this album is ultimately about: in the face of loss and hopelessness, finding and celebrating precious glimmers of humanity.
I would like to thank Antonio Oliart, Tony Rudell, and Andrew Ousley, without whom this album would not exist.