TORKE: Rapture / An American Abroad / Jasper (Colin Currie/ Marin Alsop/ Royal Scottish National Orchestra/ Tim Handley) (Naxos American Classics: 8.559167)
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Michael Torke (b.1961)
Rapture Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra An American Abroad Jasper
The compositions here included were composed between 1998 and 2001. All three pieces are for orchestra, increasingly a medium that is expensive and prohibitive, but that gives a composer the greatest opportunity for colour and drama. It was the opportunity of working with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra as their Associate Composer during these years that provided the support necessary for writing these compositions, as well as the chance to have the pieces recorded. Since the boom of the late 1980s and early 1990s, when record companies were prepared to spend money generously to have music recorded and distributed, has wound down, this kind of recording project for new music has become that much rarer.
Music, like theatre, happens in time. Unlike a painting, which the viewer can understand in a flash, music must unfold through time, filling up time, and is a slave to time to make itself manifest. Yet, unlike theatre, which is effective in storytelling, music has the capacity to suspend time, to make us forget time. Storytelling takes us from A to B with the anticipation of C. The ritual possibilities of music can dispense with narrative, and give us the pulse and perfume of meditative ecstasy. In each of these three compositions, An American Abroad, Rapture, and Jasper, the melodies and rhythms may sound directional, as the foreground aural experience seems to transport us from one point to the next, but overall the music expresses a kind of celebration of itself, a state of sustained feeling for its own sake.
W. B. Yeats, in a surreal late poem, News for a Delphic Oracle, describes a mythic and transcendent sexual state. A kind of rapture:
Those Innocents re-live their death
Through their ancestral patterns dance
A brutal beating of drums may connote an earthly violence, but when it is organized and insistent, it begins to have a ritualistic effect, and excite a kind of rapture that unites the religious with the sexual. It is that kind of transcendence that I am interested in discovering in Rapture, Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra. When Yeats writes,
Down the mountain walls, From where Pans cavern is, Intolerable music falls
, he is characterizing this transfigured state as over-brimming, over-flowing, and overpowering. Since it is too much to bear, this rapture, we can only submit. The rhythms that Colin Currie plays in Rapture (in which, incidentally, he was extremely helpful in assisting me, as I was working on the piece) are shadowed literally by notes specifically assigned to members of the orchestra, so that as the percussion rhythms develop, we understand where the beats are going, because the notes assigned are like flags waving the direction. In the end, though, we understand only the general feeling of being immersed in this ritual, inviting us to surrender to the music, experiencing a feeling of immersion.
An American Abroad weaves themes and melodies that sound as if the listener were on a journey. We hear the natural naïvety an American might feel travelling abroad, full of wonderment and curiosity. We might expect to hear a transformative path from a point A to a point B, maybe even progressing to a point C. Yet the end result for listeners is more of a composite of impressions, a travel log, a slide-show of images, the lingering delight and melancholy of the romance of travel we might wish to savour in our memories.
Jasper uses a melody with the unique characteristic of employing, only once, each of the seven pitches of the diatonic scale (all the white keys of the piano are the notes that make up the diatonic scale of C major, for example). That melody undergoes permutations and variations almost as if it were trying on different wardrobes in a costume shop. Our experience is the suspended state of the melody, undergoing changes, genuflections, and other prodding, a kind of canopy of branches whose shade we appreciate though they never reach the sky.