The legacy of the late American composer, conductor and longtime Cornell University professor Steven Stucky (1949–2016) is memorialized in Into the Silence, an album of works for violin and piano released by the adventuresome independent label New Focus Recordings in 2017. The album includes performances by violinist Nicholas DiEugenio and pianist Mimi Solomon of sonatas by Stucky and his teacher (and Cornell predecessor) Robert Palmer as well as of shorter works by Stucky’s own former students Tonia Ko and Jesse Jones. Though three generations of composers are represented with music composed across a gap of almost six decades (Palmer’s sonata dates from 1956; the Stucky, Jones, and Ko works were all written within a year of one another from 2013–14), the album’s remarkable stylistic consistency speaks to Cornell’s central role in cultivating that particular aesthetic strand in American music to which various “Neo-” prefixes are so frequently appended: “Neoclassicism,” “Neoromanticism,” and the like.
But such taxonomies of style have only limited utility, and the disc’s featured composers distinguish themselves in diverse ways. Palmer’s Sonata for Violin and Piano, cast in a traditional and weighty four-movement plan prioritizing slow-to-moderate tempi over fast ones, exhibits much of the “grave lyricism” for which Stucky admired the composer in his 2010 tribute for New Music USA: the first movement finds a sinuous, chromatic monologue in the violin unfurling over darkly-chiming octaves in the piano, with the third continuing in much the same vein after an extensive second movement alternating stern, march-like figures with rhapsodic musings from both instruments. The finale opens with a sweetly melodic accompanied solo which becomes gradually more discursive and wide-ranging, eventually developing into a toccata with a whiff of the Ivesian hoedown (Ives was among Palmer’s favorites, as Stucky notes).
The most obvious precedent to Stucky’s Violin Sonata comes not in the form of any of Ives’s essays in that genre, nor in the Classical or Romantic models, but in the concise, mysterious Debussy sonata of 1917. Writing almost a century later, Stucky borrows that work’s three-part design (even as far as suggesting Debussy’s movement headings in the “Interlude” and “Scherzo-Finale”) and retains some of its elliptical expressive posture, but demonstrates a greater disposition toward the sparely lyric than toward the French composer’s glittering, fantastical textures. The work begins with the violin almost unaccompanied, spinning out into the upper register a widely-spaced melody which prominently features the open-fifth sonorities characteristic of the instrument. Triplet figurations passed between violin and piano form the main body of the first movement; a short closing section brings the violinist neatly back down to the solid ground of the open G string in a mirror-image of the introduction. This G serves as the starting point for the following “Interlude” (linking pitches connect all three movements of the work); Stucky referred to this introspective fantasia in his own notes as being “something like a sketch for a slow movement.” Far away, then, from the curiously fugitive world of Debussy’s “Intermède.” But Stucky does arrive at a fleet “Scherzo-Finale,” whose profusion of nervous triplets and repeated notes recall the first movement as well as the music of Witold Lutosławski, about whom Stucky’s 1981 biography remains one of the crucial texts on the Polish composer.
Such music also features prominently in the second movement of Tonia Ko’s Plush Earth in Four Pieces, providing a fitting link between the world of elder statesmen and that of a new guard. Ko is both a composer and visual artist, and her music exhibits something of the sculptor’s attitude in its frequent presentation of simple, unadorned materials in the manner of objets trouvés. In the first piece, staccato articulations and violin pizzicato sounds ricochet against piano arpeggiations with short glissandi to close; in “Jewel,” the aforementioned repeating figures are interposed with high twittering (or ‘glinting,’ to continue Ko’s own metaphor). The glissando is developed slightly further in the third movement, while the last, “Mud,” begins with obscure, low piano music as a basis for simple, climbing scalar formations in both instruments. Nothing is fussed over or elaborated at length (the whole thing is over in under 12 minutes), but the work gains from concision.
Jesse Jones’ …in dulcet tones is of a similar scale and scope to Plush Earth, and brings together in microcosm nearly all of the most prominent figurative elements of the other pieces on this album (though the Debussian filigrée which Stucky eschews is richly paraded here). Distant arpeggiations, bell-tones, rapid toccata-like music and a series of dramatic denouements give a cinematic sense. A single-movement concertpiece in one long (if frequently interruptive) arc, Jones’s is perhaps the most straightforward of all the works collected here, a fitting counterpoint to the more complex sonatas and mobile-like structures of Palmer, Stucky and Ko.
Into the Silence coheres well as a tribute album, and its inclusion of Ko and Jones’s music alongside the previously-unrecorded Palmer sonata leaves a favorable impression of homage both to Stucky’s roots and living memory. DiEugenio’s terse, spare approach bears noting, sometimes recalling the deliberately-astringent style of Paul Zukofsky—he seems particularly well-suited to the austere works of Stucky and Palmer, though this stance sometimes threatens thinness in the violin’s middle-high register. Mimi Solomon likewise plays commendably, with color and verve; together the two present a touching, committed testament to a unique presence in American music.