Two years ago today composer Robert Muczynski passed away. He left behind a strong output of mostly chamber works and solo piano pieces of tremendous vitality and presence. Muczynski is one of those 20th century composers who are under-performed and under-appreciated because they not fit into the worlds of minimalism, serialism, or experiments in new sounds. His music puts emotion and expression at its core, and in drawing together disparate elements into a cohesive and highly individual style his compositions are daring and traditional at the same time.
Muczynski’s Cello Sonata, op. 25 is perhaps his greatest masterpiece. It highlights his ability to draw forth a brooding lyricism from solo instruments, with sweeping melodic gestures that travel from austere beginnings to powerful heights. Rhythm is one of the most compelling features of Muczynski’s compositions, both in the aims and accents of melodic lines and in his ability to create powerful and pointed near-grooves often in groupings of 5 or 7.
This rhythmic drive together with bold and sometimes percussive dissonances give his music its other most distinctive quality: high-octane aggressive passages that keep you on the edge of your seat. There’s something very Russian about his music—not surprising considering his composition teacher was Alexander Tcherepnin at DePaul University—though Muczynski is one of those composers with a knack for drawing from disparate influences and blending them into his own unique style. His music can successfully move through contrasting ideas—including an almost jazzy, Broadway feel at times—while still making sense in the longer journey it takes you on. The epic quality of his music is furthered by the churning development of motives and stirring transitional material. His piano writing (which I’m admittedly less familiar with) can get quite wild and turbulent, and his harmonic language can go from more tonal to jarringly dissonant all in a way that makes intuitive sense. A flautist friend of mine once characterized his music as “just the right amount of crazy.”