"The Tin Angel", a new opera by Daniel Asia and librettist Paul Pines.
Daniel Asia commissioned to write for Czech Nonet
The Daniel Asia Music Archive sold to Yale University
Solo works of Daniel Asia Released on Summit Records
Purer Than Purest Pure: Choral Works of Daniel Asia
Odaline de la Martinez, cond; BBC Singers; Olivia Robinson (sop); Margaret Cameron (mez); Stephen Jeffes (ten); Stephen Charlesworth (bar); Richard Pearce (pn); Elizabeth Poole, Gabriel Gottlieb (pitch-pipes)
Summit Records [product id: SUMMIT 550]
David Wolman, Fanfare Magazine, November-December 2010:
ASIA Purer Than Purest Pure: Choral Music of Daniel Asia Odaline de la Martinez, cond; BBC Singers; Olivia Robinson (sop)1; Margaret Cameron (mez)1; Stephen Jeffes (ten) 1; Stephen Charlesworth (bar)1; Richard Pearce (pn)2; Elizabeth Poole, Gabriel Gottlieb (pitch-pipes) 3; Ÿ SUMMIT 550 (60:13 &)
1Purer Than Purest Pure . 2Why (?) Jacob. Summer Is Over. The She Set. Out of More. 3 Sound Shapes
My first acquaintance with the music of Daniel Asia dates back to a 1993 recording of his Second and Third Symphonies with James Sedares leading the Phoenix Symphony on the New World label. That was followed in 2000 by Asia's First and Fourth Symphonies, again with Sedares, but this time leading the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra; and in 2008, by a violin sonata and piano trio, both recordings on Summit. All of these works were rooted in classical forms and in a type of 20th-century extended tonality that, if not exactly functional in the 19th-century sense, was nonetheless easily assimilated and digested. Asia's works were cogent, coherent, and powerful as well as moving. I rejoiced in a modern American composer who was so generously endowed with a gift for writing important and beautiful new music .
On the current CD is something rather different from the symphonic and chamber works I'd previously encountered. According to the booklet note, though the Seattle-born (1953) Asia has written extensively for solo voice throughout his career, choral music has occupied a much smaller place to date in his catalog.
Let me take the works in chronological order, which allows me to start with Why (?) Jacob, which is the most extended single-movement piece on the disc. Completed in 1979, it was written on a commission from Seattle's Lakeside School (Asia's high school alma mater) to celebrate the opening of the then new St. Nicholas Hall. Far from celebratory or upbeat in tone, however, the composer chose to write a "somewhat melancholic and certainly nostalgic" elegy to memorialize a boyhood friend, Jacob Rayman (whose name the title of the piece refers to), who had moved to Israel, served in the Israeli army, and was killed in the 1973 October war. The text is a play on the words "Jacob," "Yaacov" (which is Hebrew for Jacob), and "Yaweh" (the Hebrew God, usually transliterated into English as Jehovah). The singers in the eight-part choir (SSAATTBB) are sometimes called upon to speak their parts, and this is the only work that includes a part for piano. Following a brief, angry, disjointed piano introduction, the entrance of the choir is of a melting, mesmerizing beauty. The anger and questioning (the Why?) return, but in the end so do acceptance and consolation. At just over 12 minutes in length, this is one piece of modern music that I wish could have gone on longer. But then, that's what the repeat button is for.
The next three works, chronologically speaking, all date from 1997. They are Pure Than Purest Pure, Summer Is Over, and Out of More. Each, in effect, is a song cycle for a cappella chorus. Pure Than Purest Pure is the first of Asia's three groups of settings to verses by E. E. Cummings. The fourth number of the set, "goo-dmore-ning," reflects the off-kilter syllabic manipulation Cummings was fond of, and that Asia takes delight in as he subjects the text's word play to his quirky musical play. There's something positively English madrigalian about these songs. Take the second one, "Who sharpens every dull," substitute words like "Pox on you for a fop," and season the harmony with some unexpected progressions and dissonances, and you'll have a picture of one of the English madrigalists smiling at you through Asia's delightful settings.
They reminded me of an album I have on the Dorian label titled The Art of the Bawdy Song with the Baltimore Consort and the Merry Companions. I shan't quote some of the lyrics here in the magazine, but you can buy the album for yourself and blush in private. There's nothing quite like that in E. E. Cummings's ditties set by Asia, but the musical style is suggestive of those lusty Elizabethan-period songs.
Summer Is Over , also to texts by Cummings, is composed of seven songs that are quite different in content and style from those of the preceding set. Here Asia draws upon poems written in traditional stanzaic form, complete with rhymes, and-most importantly-expressing what Asia calls "a deeply transcendent religious experience I had not confronted in Cummings's work before." Traditional too are Asia's musical settings, which, for the most part, reflect a four-part chorale-like, harmonically oriented style of writing.
Out of More contains six numbers, again by Cummings, but this time, in choosing his texts, Asia observed that he was looking for balance and a wide panoply of emotional content, so that each song is dealing with something intimate, wondrous, and ecstatic. He tells us that "there is a careful positioning of the movements to produce an emotionally satisfying curve."
Sound Shapes (1973) and The She Set (1981) were both revised in 2008 and are heard here in their revisions, which is why I take them up last. For The She Set, Asia turned to his favorite source of song texts, the American poet Paul Pines. In an absolute sense, the set of four numbers is not so much revised as it is expanded. The additional movements came about in response to the planning of this recording. The poems are not about some idealized, romanticized, or eroticized "she," but really about separation, loss, and the "she" abandoned.
When he originally wrote Sound Shapes at the age of 19, Asia was under the influence of the electro-acoustic music crowd, Alvin Lucier, Robert Ashley, and Pauline Oliveros. Fortunately, he recovered, and another musical force of greater significance and staying power, György Ligeti, came to have a stronger influence on Asia's early development. The idea of Ligeti's sound densities in a choral setting intrigued the young composer. The work is by far the most modernistic, even avant-garde sounding piece on the program. There is no proper text, just a collection of phonemes like "ss," "ff," "th," "mm," "ta-ka," "pa-ka," "de-ke," "te-ke," and so on. Asia tells us that even when the words "solfege et dolce ma" appear in the second movement, they are employed because he liked their sound, not because they had any particular meaning. Two pitch-pipe players add non-vocal color, as do finger snaps and later a foot stomp and hand clap that conclude the piece. Parts of the thing sound positively embarrassing, as if we're eavesdropping on an act of sexual intercourse. But I'll give Asia a pass on this, chalking it up to a sin of youth. Weren't Luigi Nono and Goffredo Petrassi doing stuff like this back in the 1950s?
Five out of the six works on the disc contain some of the most beautifully written and intensely moving 20th-century choral music you are apt to hear . The BBC Singers need no introduction to fanciers of choral singing; they're among the best in the business and have been for years. Cuban-American conductor Odaline de la Martinez is the first woman to conduct a BBC Promenade concert at the Royal Albert Hall, and since then she has become a fixture in London, where she studied at the Royal Academy of Music, and where she now permanently resides. You may know her from a Chandos recording of orchestral music by Ethel Smyth.
This is a superb release, and as good a place as any to begin your discovery of the music of Daniel Asia if you haven't already made its acquaintance. He is a major American talent, and I've yet to encounter anything by him-well, we'll overlook Sound Shapes-that I haven't thoroughly enjoyed. A very strong recommendation goes to this excellent Summit recording . Jerry Dubins
Daniel Asia doesn't like soppy harmonies in his choral offerings or any contrapuntal Handelian gymnastics; rather he takes a minimalist (or should I say conservative) approach to SATB harkening back to ancient times when music was ritual and words were liturgy. This is very lean beef indeed, deliberately homophonic, and avoiding the kind of word painting that can be delightful or make you cringe. To that extent there is safety in avoidance, though there is also risk in creating too sparse a sound- his music is essential and pure, for sure, and it doesn't consciously try to be familiar. Asia's low-fat approach certainly focuses your ears on spare lines the way Gregorian chants do, producing a dreamy, hypnotic, trance-like effect. The resulting emphasis on the texts is music to any writer's ears, mine included .
An exception to the above is Why (?) Jacob (1978-79), in which a somber opening statement using piano and chorus leads to a moving combination of spoken voice, chorus, and piano. This piece, an early one of Asia's, sets itself apart from the others on this CD, except, perhaps, for the last offering, Sound Shapes (1973, revised 2008), by being more personal. Asia describes Why (?) Jacob: "The title refers to a boyhood friend of mine, Jacob Rayman, who moved to Israel in his adolescence. He entered the military as almost all Israeli youth do. He was one of the first soldiers to die in the 1973 October war." Why (?) Jacob, then, in its specific textual references, and Sound Shapes, in its playfulness, both seem more psychologically obvious than other of Asia's selections based on more abstract and less personal motivations. Perhaps the specific textual connotations in Why (?) Jacob and Sound Shapes encourages the music to be more emotionally large, while the choice of poetry elsewhere forces the music to be more coy.
In Summer Is Over, for example, based on the Cummings poem, the pure approach to choral writing is evident in the unison singing and utter avoidance of programmatic writing. I understand Asia wants to let the poems speak for themselves. I get it. The music is subservient-and the emotionally cool result will appeal to those listeners who are truly in it for the poetry as well as the music.
As mentioned above, Sound Shapes is a clever, playful piece using pitch-pipes and whispered texts to create a rousing set piece. Whether my preference for this more lively fare is significant or not, Asia, I am sure, will continue to defy the pressure to write stereotypical or derivative vocal music and will continue to be an original and much-appreciated presence in the choral universe. As evidenced by this CD, he is dedicated to writing what he considers to be quality music devoid of capitulations to public taste of either the pop or avant-garde variety. This is to be admired, and if it takes a little more effort on the part of the listener to give his music its due, Asia still deserves the attention. He chooses his colors carefully without throwing the whole rainbow at you at once, and he is meticulous and craftsmanlike about composing. And, like any meticulous piece of craftsmanship, you can't always see the miters or the dovetailing-but you know the surface is smooth and the result will last a long time .