My first encounter with Dan Visconti’s music was courtesy of the Aeolus Quartet and their debut album, Many-Sided Music. Visconti’s Black Bend, which opens that CD, is a fantastic piece, at once evocative, virtuosic, and charming. Since my initial introduction a year ago, Visconti’s name seems to have become increasingly prevalent, and his latest award, the 2013-14 Samuel Barber Rome Prize, will only accelerate that trend. I was most excited, then, to receive the first full-length disc of his music, Lonesome Roads, from Bridge Records, and I am happy to report that it does not disappoint.
Viconti’s music on Lonesome Roads covers a range of styles, but it remains distinctly American. In some instances this American-ness is overt—blues, bluegrass, and ragtime all make an appearance—and in others it is less obvious, such as the influence of cross-country road trips or de Soto’s 16th century explorations of the East Coast. Comparisons to Copland and Ives are easy; there are sweeping, achingly beautiful open chords of Drift of Rainbows, and while Fractured Jams, “Jugband Jamboree” is chaotic and dissonant, it is also layered with music that might be more suited for a hoedown. Yet for the variety of influences and stylistic approaches, the album remains remarkably coherent given this underpinning.
It is not often that composers have the pleasure of multiple recordings of their music, so to be able to hear another take on Black Bend (here as string quartet plus bass), was a special treat. Here, the members of the Scharoun Ensemble Berlin take what I can only describe as a more measured, lonesome approach to this blues piece. While the Aeolus Quartet seemed to emphasize the more frenetic, ecstatic moments, opting for a foot-stomping interpretation, this rendition seems to linger just a fraction longer with each element of the music, opting instead for a, well, bluesier result. Both interpretations work well, which is all to Visconti’s credit. I find it difficult choosing between them.
An entirely different work stylistically is Fractured Jams. This set of four pieces is perhaps the most jarring, dissonant music on the disc, and they seem to stand out from the many overtly beautiful works on Lonesome Roads. At first take, it would be easy to think these pieces to be simply postmodernism redux, but even “eleven” (yes, that’s a Nigel Tufnel reference), with its emphasis on sound, noise, and virtuosity, never loses a sense of playfulness. This is not bombastic music for its own sake, but music that unabashedly exuberant. The fourth piece, “kaleidoscope rag,” may be intentionally disjunct and scattered, but it never loses the sense of being a ragtime. It is this groundedness that makes Visconti’s music so effective; even his more far flung explorations, which are musically fascinating, never abandon the listener.
Then there are pieces such as Drift of Rainbows, which are unapologetic in their beauty. Incorporating electronic delay and blow-organs, Visconti creates a lush, slowly moving landscape of slowly shifting chords. Even within the short span of five minutes, he manages to evoke the spaciousness of the American West. The opening of the piece Lonesome Roads, makes wonderful use of the resonance of the piano, setting the tone for this cross-country journey through the following six movements.
Overall, this is fine CD, with fantastic performances by the Scharoun Ensemble Berlin and other guests from the Berlin Philharmonic. This is a wonderful introduction to Visconti’s work, and I look forward to hearing more in the future.