Friday 15 October 2021

Memorials to the unimaginable: Adam Swayne's 9/11:20

9/11:20 - Karen Walwyn, Henry Cowell, Kevin Malone, Scott Joplin, David Del Tredici; Coviello Contemporary

- Karen Walwyn, Henry Cowell, Kevin Malone, Scott Joplin, David Del Tredici; Coviello Contemporary

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 13 October 2021
Pianist Adam Swayne's remarkable project poses the question, in what ways can music commemorate disaster?

Pianist Adam Swayne's album 9/11:20 on Coviello Contemporary is subtitled 'Memorials on the twentieth anniversary of September 11th' and includes music by Karen Walwyn, Henry Cowell, Kevin Malone, and David Del Tredici which reflects on the events of that day and on its aftermath. Some of the music was written specifically for this purpose, notably Karen Walwyn's Reflections on 9/11, Kevin Malone's Sudden Memorials (commissioned by Swayne specifically for this project) and David Del Tredici's Missing Towers. To these Swayne adds works by Henry Cowell and Scott Joplin written a hundred years earlier.

Adam Swayne and Kevin Malone at the Royal Northern College of Music (Photo Aaron Holloway-Nahum)
Adam Swayne and Kevin Malone at the Royal Northern College of Music (Photo Aaron Holloway-Nahum)

Karen Walwyn's Reflections on 9/11 from 2008, is a seven-movement work which looks at aspects of 9/11 but not the attack itself. We hear two movements from Reflections on 9/11, 'Anguish' (the third movement) is dramatic, with flowing, unsettled textures and edgy harmonies, and Ravel's piano music (notably a work like Ondine) comes to mind. 'Burial' is completely different, almost on a ground bass, the work unfolds in a more formal manner a melody evolving over the ever moving bass.

Henry Cowell (1897-1965) was one of those independent spirits who seem to move to that different drummer, discovering things which were ignored by others at the time. We can reference all sorts of later 20th century movements when listening to his music, but essential it is his own. The Tides of Manaunaun was premiered in 1917, and is a stupendous torrent of sound as a melody appears out of washes of noise created by forearm clusters, a technique he seems to have invented. Terrific stuff. Fabric from around the same period sounds more conventional but is written extremely freely (he uses a system of different-shaped note heads to indicate five, six, eight and nine notes to the bar). But conventional is a relative term, and it must have sounded astonishing in 1917 and still feels remarkable for the seductive contrapuntal freedom he achieves. Aeolian Harp from 1923 uses mainly plucking and strumming inside the piano, again astonishing new techniques, the result is completely magical. And as Tim Rutherford-Johnson's liner note says, the techniques Cowell uses in these three pieces prefigure the advanced techniques used by some of the contemporary pieces on the disc.

Kevin Malone's Sudden Memorials, written in 2021 for this disc, has as its title a reference to the spontaneous, temporary memorials which have a long history in the USA, and one such more recent one is in Shanksville, Pennsylvania close to the crash site of United Airlines Flight 93. A fence which acquired tokens of remembrance, repurposed items of contemporary culture. So here we have a two-movement work, the first part an unruly metaphorical fence of noise and clashing styles, and the second part an attempt to recall exactly what it is that has been lost. Malone freely uses elements of popular culture, this time hints of school basketball songs, hymns and much more, all given stylistic twists and mixed together with a collaged freedom. The second part is more formal, structured as elements are teased out and recalled, drawn together and perhaps lost. Gradually the movement accumulates a sense of power, though there is an element of disjoint and collage too, fractured fragments of popular songs and more, until the whole seems to evaporate, the act of recollection lost. You can read more about Malone's development of the piece on the RNCM website.

Scott Joplin's Solace is subtitled 'A Mexican Serenade for piano'. Best known for featuring on the soundtrack of the 1973 film The Sting, it is one of Joplin's few introspective pieces. And here, it makes a profoundly moving pause-point.

Finally comes David Del Tredici's Missing Towers (Perpetual Canon), the third part of his Gotham Glory from 2004. Missing Towers tries to memorialise the absent towers via a two-part canon, embedded in more complex textures. Del Tredici is a West Village resident, a local, and this music is, as much as anything, a work of private emotions. At first classical and contained, the music develops remarkable power and intensity, yet remains controlled.

Embarrassing confession time. Adam Swayne provided me with the disc well in advance of the September anniversary but I simply failed to get the review together. However, the disc represents much more than a moment, it brings together a group of musical ideas about how we might memorialise the unimaginable, to recall absence. In the New York Times in 2002, Michael Kimmelman reflected that memorial art 'is therapeutic, redemptive, educational', and the remarkable thing is that Swayne has brought together, with such elegance, a group of works which go a long way towards satisfying these criteria, yet also form a strong, engaging and powerfully performed programme in their own right.

All artist royalties from the disc will be donated to the US-UK Fulbright Commission, whose mission is to advance knowledge, promote civic engagement and develop compassionate leaders through education exchange between the peoples of the USA and the UK.

Karen Walwyn - Anguish (Reflections on 9/11)
Karen Walwyn - Burial (Reflections on 9/11)
Henry Cowell (1897-1965) - The Tides of Manaunaun
Henry Cowell - Fabric
Henry Cowell - Aeolian Harp
Kevin Malone - Sudden Memorials
Scott Joplin (1868-1917) - Solace
David Del Tredici - Missing Towers
Adam Swayne (piano)
Recorded 25-26 July 2021, Carole Nash Recital Room, RNCM

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