Swiss composer and performer Martin Schlumpf (b. 1947) is little known in this country. In fairness, however, the words “Swiss composer” themselves are little known in this country, and as professor of music at the Zurich University of the Arts and a longtime jazz instrumentalist and composer, Mr Schlumpf is prominent enough at home. This disc, released by Navona Records (an independent American label feeding off the Naxos art-music machine) in May, is his first American release; another disc of concertante works is in the works. What it reveals is a composer surprisingly “American” in sensibility.
The Clarinet Trio, not the string quartet from which its title is derived, is the centerpiece of this album, by the composer’s own admission. This trio owes much to Elliott Carter’s String Quartet No. 1, almost to the point of seeming like a minimalist discourse with it; while the striking “frame” of Carter’s seminal work has no parallel, a large part of both works consists of even strings of notes moving at different tempi, often in counterpoint with one another. This polyrhythmic background is set up in an opening that seems to fade in from silence, a rocking two-against-three rhythm in the piano gradually being filled out into a four-against-nine rhythm in clarinet and cello. Minimalist as the opening may be, the latent energy generated by these increasingly elaborate polyrhythmic structures becomes relentless in its drive and variety. This is a very gestural piece; there are no specific themes or melodies that are developed, nor does the music ever coil in on itself, but continues in a seemingly endless progression, at times somewhat tedious due to the combination of fast tempi, high volume and few if any waypoints to guide the listener.
Admittedly the score, provided in PDF form along with the audio thanks to an ingenious partition of the CD, is much more “Carterian” than the actual sound of the piece (thanks to the polyrhythms and frequent “metric modulations”). In overall sound it is much more heterogeneous, the only constant being a harmonic and sometimes melodic influence of jazz, in keeping with Mr Schlumpf’s background as jazz multi-instrumentalist and improviser. Passages clearly redolent of Ligeti are juxtaposed with music that could have been written by Leonard Bernstein. Carter is only noticeably recalled at the start of the central “slow movement”, one of the few islands of calm in the piece, as isolated sounds suddenly take on a much greater importance than the rhythmic games the music has been playing.
Considered as an introduction to Mr Schlumpf’s chamber music, this work is the best candidate of the three on the CD. It is pleasant enough to listen to and, formally speaking, lacks the jarring juxtapositions of the others; it also has the advantage of not opening with a long section of music that sounds basically the same throughout. When one comes down to it, however, there are only a few striking moments that remain in the memory afterwards. One of them is near the end, where a recurring “groove” idea slowly breaks down like one of Ligeti’s perpetual motion machines into ripples of ascending and descending fifths that in turn gradually contract into a furioso passage. It is almost visual, comparable to an Escher painting of fish turning into birds, and gives a real sense of evolution which is often lacking elsewhere in the piece.
The other works showcased here are less integrated in character. December Rains for solo piano is a quasi-minimalist toccata followed by a slow jazz number, both suffused with the spirit if not the energy of Ligeti, but cast in a tonal language that brings the American minimalists more strongly to mind. Mr Schlumpf makes no attempt to unify these two movements, nor does any unification seem necessary; they are complete in themselves.
Summer Circle for string quartet, which lent its title to the CD, is an odd mixture of Steve Reich and Karel Husa. This work is an adaptation of Mr Schlumpf’s earlier saxophone quartet, Winter Circle, but I should imagine a rather free one; it is quite well suited to the strings and brings an expansion of range, harmony and colour well beyond the saxophones’ capabilities. Much of its flow consists of short repeated patterns to which any harmonic or rhythmic alterations are purely colouristic, but now and again it breaks out into hyper-expressionist, post-tonal stretches that bear no apparent relationship to what came before. There is even a series of quotations from other string quartets, which—as quotations often do—only serve to remind the listener of much better pieces they could be listening to. (I’d forgotten how much I liked Janáček’s Kreutzer Sonata Quartet.) As the title might imply, the form of this quartet is circular: the end is a mirror of the beginning, with the instruments dropping out one by one to leave only the solo violin that started the piece. It must be added that while its occasional gearshifts could be frustrating, this piece was easily the most fun to listen to.
The outstanding feature of this disc is the inclusion of PDF scores. Listening to music with the score is, of course, not always ideal—Beethoven’s late quartets in particular have always seemed to me to benefit from listening in total darkness—but for contemporary music, even such “conservative” contemporary music as Mr Schlumpf’s, the score often provides invaluable insights into the composer’s inspirations and working processes. It is a disc well worth owning for that reason alone, and, one hopes, an idea other labels will take into consideration.
Martin Schlumpf, Summer Circle (Navona, 2012) | Buy on Amazon
Jay Greenberg is a composer and avid devourer of contemporary music.