Lois V Vierk’s (b.1951) latest release on New World Records, Words Fail Me, encapsulates a musical language informed by a journey from the East and a lifelong passion for gagaku to the West and her use of “exponential structure” in her music. Vierk’s music is at once very personal and wide-reaching: speaking to the subtleties of timbre and the spaces between notes and reaching for expression that is just beyond language. Indeed, Words Fail Me is a marvelous collection of compositions that want to find something between what is readily expressible and what’s just beyond expressing, whether in color-changing tones or the spaces between them with intentional glissando.
The piano is turned inside out in To Stare Astonished at the Sea (1994)– the title comes from a line in “Her Triumph,” a poem by William Butler Yeats. Pianist Claudia Ruegg plays inside the piano throughout, evoking dense, dark, Cowell-esqe clusters that thump along as though they were the accelerating heartbeat of the sea. Other passages bring out the piano’s inner Aeolian harp during sweeping glissando gestures and bouncing dyads. As with most of Vierk’s work, glissandos are abundant, both big and small, sweeping and timid. If there’s one shortcoming, it might be the through-composed form. I really wanted to hear the heartbeat clusters again, but that’s just my ear’s own expectations.
Demon Star (1996) begins with a whoosh. Rollicking 16th-note rhythms give the piece a motor for the cello (Theodore Mook) and marimba’s (Mathew Gold) amicable opening dialogue. Even as the 16th-notes persist, energy levels ebb and flow making it seem like the piece wants to find some calm, but it just keeps refusing and wants to slog forward with ever-widening sweeps and interruptions. In fact, it’s not until about two-thirds of the way through that any impression of calmness enters. After all the pushing forward, it ends with lethargic glissandos punctuated by the marimba. This kind of faux-tension and defiance of expectation really gave the piece some juice.
Vierk’s glissandos take on a different meaning in Timberline (1991). Where there was a sense of urgency, here they speak to the space between the notes they oscillate, most notably between the flute (Laurel Wyckoff), clarinet (Ken Ulansey), and viola (Kathleen Carroll). Each one is gorgeous and is colored by lovely pianistic shadings. The musical exchanges are more drawn out than in previous pieces, and each of Vierk’s pentatonic phrases give the lines sugary sweetness. There is also much more variation. Her rhythms build off of themselves chaining one motive to the next, bringing about cathartic apexes accented by the percussion (Helen Carnevale). This may be part of what Vierk calls “exponential structure:” an “organizational principle that produces a precisely measured acceleration over the course of a work.” The apex doesn’t last though. Slow glissandos return the piece (via the viola and the bass (Douglas Mapp)) to a beautifully melancholy mood, though it doesn’t stick around. The piano (John Dulik) and the bassoon (Chuck Holderman) gradually bring back the momentum with thick, dark chords, giving way to a celebratory conclusion.
Like Timberline, the CD’s title track, Words Fail Me (2005), begins the first of two movements with slow cello glissandos, but here they are more subdued. The work was written after a troublesome period beginning with emergent health issues, which made composing difficult for Vierk, and the events of September 11th, which Vierk witnessed outside her apartment window. After several weeks in a daze, Vierk eventually decided to discard pieces she was sketching and began again with a single new melody which eventually formed the foundation for Words Fail Me. There are indeed hints of a melody contained within the fragments, but the phrase doesn’t seem too interested in being let out immediately, instead preferring to draw us away with slides and moans. The piano (Margarate Kampeier) intersperses sparkling repeated figures giving the cello some space to breathe. Eventually, we’re given a pulse to set the slides and moans against, and it is here that the piece really starts to take shape by moving away from its previous apprehensive self to a more outward direction. Fragments of the alluded-to melody finally emerge, ending the piece with a variant of the opening piano gestures.
The second movement of Words Fail Me was reminiscent Demon Star, though not because of any similarity between the material. It was the same kind of wanting-to-lead-somewhere-but-not-really-arriving feeling propelled by 16th-notes featured so well in Demon Star. Here, they are much darker though, as if the frustration of never arriving made the music kind of bitter. There is also a greater variety of color and dissonance, which may not be coincidental. According to Vierk, the piece was “meant as a tribute to all the people of greater New York City, as well as to all people anywhere who survive tragedy and disaster and go on with life with great resolve.” Both Mook and Kampeier keep the energy high even when pianissimo, making the closing track of this CD a gripping ride.
Vierk’s intensely personal musical language is masterfully displayed here. Each piece is performed with great skill and attention to a music that is at once informed by an East-to-West journey and a sense of personal resilience turning outward. Indeed, Words Fail Me proves to be an apt title to a CD whose music seeks to express what is beyond our worldly language.