by Phil Muse for Atlanta Audio Video Club, reproduced here with permission
“…but not simpler,” music of Tod Machover
The iO String quartet; Michael Chertock, hyperpiano
Paul Mann, Odense Symphony Orchestra
I know I’m getting along in years when I start encountering composers that I’m old enough to beat up. In the case of Tod Machover (b.1967), I’m afraid I will have to spare the rod. Not that he isn’t already spoiled enough as it is by an evident delight in strange, rare and beautiful sounds and musical colors worthy of the early years of childhood. But in these newer works, all composed 2001-2011, he shows a mature awareness of form and design that makes them all memorable experiences – and makes us realize that great new music didn’t come to an end just because composers stopped wearing long, shaggy beards!
Of course, Machover is still himself in his never-ending quest for ways to make musical colors ever more fetching and stunning. But the controversial figure who was once described in print as America’s “most wired composer” has tempered the electronics in these new compositions in favor of the natural timbres of the instruments themselves, tastefully enhanced by an electronic element that creates a vibrant halo illuminating the natural instrumental sounds. Or conversely, as Machover describes what he does in his 2001 work Sparkler, the sounds of the orchestra “push, pull, twist, and morph” with their electronic extensions. At the same time, Machover’s controlled venturesomeness in terms of rhythm, tempo, and dynamics makes the music so scintillating that “Fireworks” would have been a likelier title for this work.
Machover’s exquisite attention to line and form is most evident in the trio of splendid short works for string quartet that he created between 2004 and 2011, largely at the urging of the Ying String Quartet. Indeed, he nods handsomely to the ethnic background of the Ying family themselves in the title “Three Hyper-Dim-Suns.” As with the eponymously-named tray of delicacies that tempt the palette of the patron in a Chinese restaurant, these dim sun are bite-sized and flavorful. The subtitles of the three short movements, “Glade,” “Winding Line,” and “Punchy,” aptly describe their predominant affect. In Interlude I (2006), we have a Beethoven-like sense of the layering of sounds within the quartet medium in addition to its strong linear thrust. In Interlude 2 (2011), subtitled “After Byrd,” the noble polyphony of the Agnus Deifrom the Renaissance composer’s Mass in Four Voices serves as a springboard for Machover’s febrile imagination.
As they did in the previous trio of works, the New York-based iO String Quartet play with total conviction in Machover’s first full-scale work to date for the medium, “…but not simpler.” They pay full justice to a solid work whose enigmatic title the composer explains as a reference to modern life itself as filled with “glimpses of equilibrium that feel straightforward and well-earned, but hopefully not simplistic.” Finally, Paul Mann and the excellent Odense Symphony Orchestra, augmented by an expanded battery of percussion, return in Jeux Deux for Hyperpiano and Orchestra. The title pays homage to the Jeux of Debussy, a work that it resembles in its sense of play and propulsion, though the steady pulse underlying Ravel’s La Valse might seem a likelier inspiration. Here, Machover utilizes his “hyperpiano” concept, in which the grand piano, played with consummate sensitivity by Paul Chertock, interacts with the Yamaha Disklavier in a way that augments, transforms and splinters the music, sometimes releasing a volley of pre-composed notes in greater profusion and rapidity than a live pianist could possibly play them. The result is an absolutely stunning experience for performer and listener alike.