The late Ann Southam (1937-2010) is an iconic figure in Canadian composition, and the solo piano cycle Glass Houses (1981) is arguably her signature work. The title makes an intentional reference to Philip Glass in order to identify the music as minimalist (doubling down on postmodernism). Southam later claimed the percussion-based music of Steve Reich to be of greater interest to her than Glass’s. The CD Glass Houses for Marimba, while containing no overt references to Reich, at the very least makes good on Southam’s admission by recasting the piano score for two five-octave marimbas. Released in July 2015, it is the debut album of Canadian percussion duo Taktus (Greg Harrison and Jonny Smith) and a welcome addition both in terms of Southam’s recorded output and percussion repertoire as a whole.
The recording is the culmination of a creative encounter that began in 2009, when Harrison had the opportunity to meet with the ailing Southam and perform one of the newly arranged movements for her. She was delighted with what she heard, encouraging him to explore other movements. Harrison and Smith performed two of the movements together to great response at Southam’s memorial. As the Canadian Music Centre manages the rights to her music, a recording project with their Centrediscs label was a logical next step. Percussionist Beverley Johnston, who had taught both Harrison and Smith, was the original connection to Southam and served as executive producer. Ray Dillard, manager and producer of venerated ensemble Nexus (another Reich connection), was brought on board and a recording retreat chosen at a wood lodge in rural Ontario, providing the perfect acoustic setting.
As a composition, Glass Houses offers a multifaceted experience to listeners in its steady flow of fast pulses, ambient clouds of harmony, and abundant rhythmic and melodic variety. Taktus selected six of the most distinctive movements, which make for an ideal length of program and diversity of musical characters. Each player takes turns handling either the ostinato—the repeating, odd-metered patterns originally in the left hand of the piano score—or the set of recurring melodies from the piano right hand. Thus, there is always a player anchoring the groove and one dancing upon it with Southam’s fiddle-music inspired riffs, many of them downright catchy.
Nos. 5 and 9 are the exuberant bookends of the set, the broad registers of their melodies bringing out a range of colors in the marimba, sun-dappled in the low end and dazzling at the top. No. 13, which Harrison described to me as “like being in a djembe circle,” has a funky feel, the pulse dialled down to open up the spaces in the angular meter. It’s in the Dorian mode and all told, reminds me most of early Reich. Significantly, Taktus worked from Southam’s original version and so the harmony is quite different than the dark, tritone-infused revision that pianist Christina Petrowska-Quilico recorded. No. 1 has a major-mode melody that evokes children’s playground calls, with a little sandbox grit thrown in by pleasantly clashing major and minor sevenths in the ostinato. No. 7 bears a resemblance to Bach’s Musette in D major, had it been written in D minor, and is the most introspective of the set. Southam’s music adapts well to the attack and decay of the marimba, which imbues the brighter passages with the joy of outdoor summer play, and the softer ones with an autumnal glow.
A great recipe relies on quality ingredients and flawless execution, and this album succeeds on all fronts, from composition to arrangement, performance and sonics. Marc O’Brien’s cover art is on the nose, and at the same time striking and contemporary. Glass Houses for Marimba is a standout among hundreds of releases by Centrediscs (many of them Canadian essentials) since its inception in 1981. It has the potential to appeal to a broader audience than new music releases tend to have and is poised to introduce a new, less category-oriented generation to Southam’s music. It wears very well with repeated listening and is just the sort of thing one might have as an on-repeat favourite.