When a composer breaks the cocoon
In the springtime, cocoons open and butterflies are born. The cycle of music in this century has seen some spring during the past dozen years or so, and the cocoon that has split open is the international atonal idiom in composing.
This idiom's smothering complexities and obscure, gnarled approach to musical syntax and sonority could no longer contain some of the composers who had been trained in that direction. A good many of them had never abandoned their deep-down feelings, instincts that didn't let them forget that lyricism and grace did after all mean something to them and to music. They had been hurt over the years by the pressure to suppress those tendencies toward warmth, and now they began to let themselves out into the open, daring to allow some of those qualities into their pieces.
One of the most successful and visible of those composers has been Stephen Albert, who in a relatively few years has snatched up an impressive array of commissions, grants, and far-flung performances. His music definitely stems from the expressionistic strain that was once (in the 1950s and '60s) the avant-garde. But charting its progress over time reveals Albert's steady growth away from the sounds and gestures that, even a decade ago, sounded obligatory, and toward a much more personal treatment of his favorite musical components: word setting and colorful sound textures.
''Cathedral Music'' of 1971 is a good example of his native lyricism's breaking through a then-current mold of amplified sounds and aleatoric trance-state devices, similar to the coming-forward of Pulitzer-winner Joseph Schwantner's music, although Schwantner held on to those same ethereal, otherworldly techniques until fairly recently.
Although there is still a definite presence of the aleatoric (chance, random passages) in his pieces, Stephen Albert has moved ''back'' into much more tightly controlled, involved textures. In fact, in the music of his that I have heard and studied, the dense-sounding texture is almost a trademark, owing both to his disposition toward contrapuntal busyness and to his love of scintillating timbres.
But with Albert, dense is not the same as thick, as heard in a recent work, ''Into Eclipse'' (1981). A cycle of arias for tenor and chamber ensemble, based on the Oedipus story, it is a kaleidoscope of brilliantly executed sonorities for the group that completes the work as a moving, gripping mini-opera. A few miscalculations in the scoring do serve to overwhelm the voice, but in sum the effect of ''Into Eclipse'' is stunning and very close to the direction of enlightened, emancipated musical thought these days, which is what makes Albert so interesting to watch for the future.
His lyricism never truly dominates the involved textures, and if he errs it is usually on the side of his love for these complex underpinnings in his vocal works. His ''To Wake the Dead'' (1978),for soprano and chamber ensemble, on James Joyce texts, is a disappointment, because listening to the rather simple, often tonal vocal line pitted against the distracting polytonal accompaniment becomes a bit of a strain after a time. Accurately as it may mirror the mercurial Joyce, the whole of ''To Wake the Dead'' is too fragmentary for any of it to be exceptionally rewarding. And even the hymnlike closing pages of the sixth and last song (''Passing Out'') do not redeem the rest of the work's confusing harmonic and gestural double-entendres or cause them to ring any truer.
An absolutely splendid work, however, is Albert's very recent ''Treestone,'' again from Joyce's ''Finnegans Wake,'' for soprano, tenor, and chamber orchestra. This cycle of songs comes the closest of anything he has written to achieving a winning balance between his veins of lyricism and involvedness. If one could be allowed the adjective ''Brittenesque,'' it could help to convey the magical, floating world evoked to deliver the texts, via many of the standstill, breathless devices linked with Benjamin Britten, whose theatrical and purely musical genius could give to the outwardly static a startlingly moving effect.
''Treestone'' is a beautifully conceived work, from the handling of its tonal and motivic material to the tempo of its mood changes. Most striking of all is Albert's success in managing the kind of long, long line that very few composers since Mahler have attempted. His sense of formal breadth and his ability to sustain it, through both a sophisticated development and an astute pattern of repetition and return, clearly show Albert's mastery.
Tonality in Stephen Albert's music is not at all along conventional lines, but it remains closer to these lines than does that of the other contemporary composers. He only grants the listener a dust-of-battle taste of tonal resolution. Albert prefers the process of fading out with sounds that are simply less tense, still retaining a fascinating haze. As his compelling music gains increased attention over the years, it will be interesting to see what he makes out of his classical sense of tension and repose.
''Into Eclipse'' will be released later this year on the Pro Arte label.