Sonograms is a compilation of eight compositions of six contemporary classical composers from Eastern Europe and Germany. The music which, consists of shorter pieces written for a limited variety of instruments spans a period from 1963 to 1997 and gives listeners an insight into some of the new directions post-modern music was taking.
Criticizing modern music is always a daunting task. One only has to keep in mind what some of Beethoven’s critical contemporaries had to say about his ninth symphony, to be very careful about one’s own value judgments. One man’s noise is another man’s music. In a novel I happen to be reading, one of the characters talking about late 19th century music in Vienna says: “There is so much music there that is new, innovative in concept, challenging to the mind.” These are words that could well apply to the music on Sonograms, but he is talking about the waltzes of Strauss. Today’s challenging innovations can often become tomorrow’s canon.
So if I must confess that though much of Walter Steffens’ “Ecstasy” for string quartet sounded to me much like background music for a slasher flick on the first couple of hearings, I must also confess that the more I listen, the more it begins to make sense. Played here by The Panorma Quartet, the piece runs through a variety of moods and rhythms and much according to the album notes is left “in the hands of the performers.” It is clearly challenging music.
Steffens is also represented by “Four Watercolors After Paul Klee,” a set of musical interpretations of paintings. Each of the four is a solo piece written for a different member of the recorder family—tenor, alto, tenor and sopranino. German recorder player Benedikta Bonitz plays each of the four, as well as all the other recorder music on the album.
Indeed the album begins with her fine rendition of a haunting tenor recorder piece accompanied by cello and kandjira (an Eastern drum much like a tambourine) called “Thyepolia” by Gheorghi Arnaoudov, a Bulgarian composer. There are also two evocative recorder pieces by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, “Arbos” for seven recorders (the seven lines overdubbed by Ms. Bonitz) and three triangles, and “Pari Intervallo” for four recorders.
The rest of the album is devoted to three piano pieces played by Bulgarian pianist Angela Tosheva, much of it some of the most demanding music on the CD. Polish composer Pawel Szymanski’s “Two Studies” asks the pianist to play with what the liner notes call “blindingly fast speeds.” There is much in them that the listener will find somewhat easier to understand. On the other hand, I found “Evryli” by Yannis Xenakis is a bit more difficult to come to terms with. “Sonograms,” the title piece by Georgi Minchev is made up of five short movements with some allowance for improvisation on the part of the soloist.
Luckily there are elaborate explanatory liner notes from composer Eric Salzman. He provides information on who these composers are and technical explanations of what they are doing. They are an invaluable aid to the listener. The notes also include reproductions of the four Klee watercolors referenced in the Steffens composition.
Anyone interested in learning something about some of the variety of new music at the end of the 20th century will find Sonograms well worth his time.