Jeremy Gill works at Settlement (1st review)

Jeremy Gill's ancient sounds and rituals

Gill: Don't sit near the gong.
Gill: Don't sit near the gong.

In a very basic sense, music is the artful manipulation of sound. Performers and composers understand this concept at a deep level. Some considerations are purely practical, such as the ability of musicians to hear each other in a given acoustical environment. The Philadelphia Orchestra, for example, developed its distinctive sound after a century of working so hard to hear one another in the challenging acoustics of the Academy of Music.

The mastering of the blending of different sounds is a crucial measure of a composer's ability. An acoustician friend once told me that the orchestral music of Mozart, above all others, is the easiest to project into a hall because the timbral relationships in the writing are so uncannily well connected.

Jeremy Gill's music is particularly concerned with sound qualities, to the extent that he'll move his performers to different parts of the hall during the course of a work, as was the case in the Philadelphia premiere of his 2009 work Soglie, Serenate, Sfere, for oboe and two percussionists. Settlement Music School's main recital hall is small enough that this kind of musical chairs playing provided unusual dramatic shaping to the flow of the piece, as well as some alarming incidents for the audience.

Seated near the gong

In an early section, for example, I found myself seated a few paces in front of a percussion kit that included a gong. Sure enough, at the climactic moment, the ear-shattering crash drowned out all else. I admit I was relieved when the gong performer— the excellent Gabriel Globus-Hoenich— moved to the back of the space, along with his percussion partner Mari Yoshinaga, while the oboist ToniMarie Marchioni moved from the center of the hall back to the front.

But this shift also altered the music's emotional shape— pulling the sound away, creating a distance of not just space but time, as Gill evoked ancient, even primeval impulses. I've heard Gill make similar broadly cultural and ritualistic allusions in earlier works. It seems to be a signature for this promising young composer.

Sensual exploration

Gill's solo piano work from 2007, Book of Hours, also resonates with a kind of exotically sensual exploration of sound. Formally, it's a nine-section piece of taut construction, inspired by the medieval book of prayers of the same name. The dense, sometimes ecstatic writing seems like the composer's attempt to yank the musical guts out of the instrument, an effect strongly abetted by the brave playing of Feifei Zhang, who controlled the wildness of the work without wholly taming it.

A particularly interesting feature of Book of Hours is its use of long passages of undamped piano string playing. When the damper pedal is continuously depressed, the notes sustain as long as the string continues to vibrate, allowing for a gauzy reverberation of tones that mimics the polyphonic sound of monks' voices bouncing about a vast stone cathedral.

Programming hiccup

Gill shared his program with three other composers, concluding with a bravura performance of the last movement of Olivier Messiaen's Visions de l'amen for two pianos, with the composer joining Zhang on stage. The effusive music displayed an overt and unapologetic reference to Gill's influences.

The inclusion of Benjamin Britten's oddly bland Temporal Variations for oboe and piano seemed like a programming hiccup. But the vibrant opener, a superbly rendered performance of Steve Reich's 1994 work Nagoya Marimbas by Yoshinaga and Globus-Hoenich, showed off the dazzling writing of a kindred sound magician.♦

To read another review by Tom Purdom, click here.

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