FAIRY TALES MONSTERS AND WILD ANIMALS
Move Records MCD 567
Connie’s latest CD is divided, unlike Gaul, into five parts, two of them having to do with children’s music.
She begins with a collection of 14 pieces for guitar and speaker that are animal pieces offering illustrative character pieces of no particular weight to poems by David Elliott that the guitarist recites with a convincing Playschool clarity and theatricality. The verses are not too twee, even if the rhymes are predictable. Similarly, Connie’s guitar is rarely stretched, although her illustrations are often spry and not simple-minded pap.
Her lion is a languid prowler, one of the longer-lasting members (tracks) of this menagerie; a habanera rhythm dominates the elephant-vision’s opening and closing; not surprisingly, the giraffe is depicted in a slow-moving melody pretty much confined to the instrument’s top strings; for the zebra, Connie uses a jig format, a catchy single-note pattern obtaining throughout. The intention of the rhinoceros’ musical image is to offer – in 28 seconds – a battery of not-too-offensive sounds to represent the creature’s monstrous physical properties. Oddly enough, the sloth – a natural do-nothing – has the longest music attached to it: a slow pavane of sorts that quite properly doesn’t move anywhere harmonically.
The jaguar is comparable to the zebra in its rapid-fire content but suggests a scrap by Torroba. As with the sloth, Connie/Elliott’s panda is going nowhere, with two-bar phrases repeated over and over, although not as tedious as a minimalist exercise – here is one more animal that the composer is in no hurry to abandon. Another great cat, this tiger is packed with harmonics and muted notes as the poet offers a starlit picture with concluding Blakean inferences. Again, the habanera rhythm provides an initial basis for the orangutan – and a conclusion as well; and it’s another, more lop-sided jig for the kangaroo on one of the album’s shortest tracks.
I find it hard to follow what is being done with the buffalo which sadly occupies a climatic binary state – hot and cold; the tone is eventually elegiac as poet and musician mourn the creature’s passing. There’s something much stronger about the wolf music which almost offers a narrative from howling to loping and back again. As you’d expect, the polar bear moves slowly if regularly, eventually fading from sight.
After dealing with her wild animals, Connie moves back quite some distance to the works of Johann Kaspar Mertz, specifically pieces from Books 2 and 5 of his Bardenklange. She begins with Fingals-Hohle, which I take to be this composer’s take on his contemporary Mendelssohn’s somewhat more famous overture. It turns out to be a clever exercise in arpeggios of increasing speed and range, showing as much enthusiasm for regular patterns as Mendelssohn himself. The following Abendlied could have sat quite comfortably in the pages of the Lieder ohne worte; beginning with a chorale, then moving into a more fussy pattern rich in sextuplets which Connie treats with plenty of pliancy.
Unruhe begins with a 9-bar introduction that sets the unsettled scene, then opts for an sonorously intimate, wide-ranging development of simple material, rich in unusual spacings – not of the notes as a series but as they are placed for the instrument. It’s given supple handling which helps justify the intended restlessness, no matter how Biedermeier its underlying character. Finally, Elfenreigen starts firmly enough with not much of a tune to speak of but an amiable rustle of triplets; then, on its second page, the matter moves into descending patterns that simply burst the initial placid magic for the sake of a technical exercise. It’s smoothly handled but even Connie’s elegant delivery can’t disguise Mertz’s sudden lapse in inspiration.
Australian composer Phillip Houghton’s Gothica – Book of Spooks and Spectres originally had ten parts; here, we are offered six of them, starting with The Old Spanish Castle is Full of Vampires, Sleeping which has Spanish tropes but you have to supply your own spectres before a poke-your-tongue-out ending. The Gates That Hold King Kong are represented by a series of upward-sweeping arpeggiated chords that fade to silence; I assume these stand for the massive structure that kept the great ape imprisoned in the 1933 film but, as with much of this suggestive music, they could just as easily have set the scene for a menacing night on Flinders St. Station.
Juju seems to me too complex to stand for a fetish, but perhaps I’ve missed the point. I much preferred Spell which, for all its stop-start opening, presented a simple post-Bartok example of rhythmic disjunction. Houghton uses a number of instrumental effects in Headhunter, in particular the suspenseful pause; you can also admire the metallic scrapes he inserts, probably to remind you of the title-character’s life vocation. They of the Half Light are represented by a miniature that is quite a mobile construct but Houghton keeps his harmony ambiguous with a plethora of added notes so that you don’t see much en clair – it’s the most sophisticated of these six tracks.
Stepan Rak, a senior Rusyn guitarist/composer, has compiled a suite of Czech Fairy Tales which also require a narrator, here supplied by Connie, although her oral duties seem confined to information concerning what’s coming up. The pieces begin with a fortune-teller in a market place telling tales to children, whom he leads into a forest where they play before the advent of the inevitable witch in menacing, discordant minor mode. Unaware, you assume, the children continue playing although there is a minatory undercurrent. To flesh out the fairy nature of the suite, enter a dragon who, rather abruptly and without any musical warning, dies quietly.
To brighten the funereal mood, Rak introduces goblins – all rough slapping chords and scrapes – then fairies who are a susurrus – and a reassuring photo-shoot of the children who are all over the place – hopping running, jumping. Lost in the story of a fortune-teller returns to the opening theme and you’re in Pied Piper territory, I suppose: the children gone for good inside the fairy tales. Rak sustains the central-European/Slavic folk suggestiveness with a plethora of motifs that sound authentic, despite the dressing-up in biting, crisp harmonizations and a willingness to alter everything abruptly just for the sake of a change. You’re grateful for Connie’s commentary but, as it stands, the information is pretty lean in content and direction.
Finally, we are offered four tracks of a composition by Californian guitar guru, Jim Ferguson. This is Four Monsters, beginning with the most famous of all in Frankenstein Meets the Jazzman, which might be suggesting the mechanical rigidity that is so unreliable in the old Boris Karloff film, and you’d guess that the eponymous jazzman emerges in the unremarkable chords that provide the piece with so much of its forgettability. We are almost definitely in Poe country for The Raven Vanishes, but this bird is in no hurry to leave the scene as its laid-back funereal theme-motive makes its presence felt with some weight in this amiable ternary-format piece.
Mad Love is a waltz of a quietly manic insistence, the scenario for which one commentator traces to a Peter Lorre horror film of 1935. It’s splendidly played by Connie with a calculated uncertainty of pulse carefully adopted to suggest a kind of musical – and by extension, mental – imbalance. Lastly, The Fly succeeds in irritating through a wealth of five-finger-exercise buzzing, but the piece is brief and leaves you longing only slightly for the insertion of a satisfying swat sound.
This recording seems to have been processed largely by Connie both here, in Coffs Harbour, and in the United States. I was very impressed by the quality of the final Jim Ferguson tracks which were excellent in balance and fidelity with every detail clarion-clear. The content, as you can gather from the above, is a mixture that makes little sense to me; yes, the pieces are flights of fancy in most cases but they vary vastly in quality and what I can only call aesthetic provenance. Nevertheless, the whole compendium is a tribute to Connie’s artistry and widely spread sympathies.