- Katharine Norman: Transparent things
Transparent things is an excellent introduction to the music of Katharine Norman. The different piano pieces cover a span of almost ten years. We hear pieces from her graduate student years and from the start of her promising professional career. Ms. Norman is a British composer who studied at the Universities of Bristol and Princeton. At Princeton she worked with Paul Lansky and became interested in the use of computers in her compositions, particularly using programs like Cmix.
In this recording, the renowned pianist Philip Mead is featured. A recognized specialist of the contemporary repertory, Mr. Mead plays Transparent things (the suite of four pieces for solo piano from 1995 that opens the CD) with assurance, imagination, and remarkable dynamic control, with a subtle touch and a variety of tone colors. The four movements are performed without a break. The calm sounds at the start are moody and pensive, with the music reaching out for more active displays of luminous chords and ripping arpeggios. There is a touch of well-concealed Spanish rhythms here and there. The music is descriptive and brings to the listener's ears echoes of stormy moments, and phrases which can be either dark and menacing or clear and sharply defined. The title was inspired by a passage from a Vladimir Nabokov novel "where he talks of the way objects/stones have their own history." This music has the remembrances of the composer's own solitary walks. A very enjoyable piece of contemporary piano music.
Bells and Gargoyles (1996), a solo tape soundscape, is more of a well-edited documentary collage. Ms. Norman again touches on the idea of a solitary meandering in the same area (Derbyshire), but chooses sounds from a recording done late on a stormy night. The quasi-gothic imagery is fascinating—dripping gargoyles and surrealist bells barely discernible in this sonic nocturnal setting.
Trying to translate (1992) combines solo piano with electronic treatment (live and pre-recorded). There are no piano sounds on the [End Page 96] tape, but the live piano part is performed with conviction. The slower and faster repeated note patterns and trills integrate themselves well with the electronic effects as well as with clear and distorted speech and chanting. There are glimpses of oratoria and snippets of melodies—is the story told? Perhaps not, but enjoy the mystery. The piano sound is processed in real time. It is slightly detuned, with the composer establishing a parallel with Gaelic Psalm-singing. The tape part elaborates on speech and translation: a female speaker describes problems of Gaelic and English translation and telling us of the decline of Gaelic Psalm-singing. Ms. Norman deals here with concepts of communication, the conveying of meaning and the problems of translation compounded by the changes determined by the passing of time.
High Force (1988, revised 1997) and In the stream (1990) are somewhat related. The first renders on the piano an atmosphere resembling water falling in a cavernous setting: some of the octave sounds in the lower register—hollow and slow moving—effectively create a mesmerizing, quasi-impressionistic effect. The spell is broken when the music is brought to the upper register and carried to faster passages: shiny and velvety, but naively transposed and repeated. Mr. Mead plays this piece in a forceful manner, bringing to the fore the form of the piece with precise and crystal-clear playing. In the stream is a sound-scape (for solo tape) that opens with strong accents—sharp sounds with a "whip" quality to them. These outline vertically the passing of time, bringing the first section to a tender, moaning moment pregnant with vocal sounds. The final part is particularly successful with the use of high, piercing sounds, gradually changing by blending aquatic sounds and extended vowels.
The CD ends with Fuga Interna (I—Opposed Sonorities), a short...