Monday, February 9, 2015

A little about composer Michael Torke

Some 25 years ago there was a controversy about a piece of New Music written in the style of Beethoven. I wasn’t listening to much recorded New Music in those pre-internet days. I was writing it and having it performed in live concerts. I never heard the piece which may be just as well since I’ve since read some of its execrable reviews. I’ve searched on-line for a recording, of even an excerpt, but to no avail.

I only realized a few days ago that the composer of that work was none other than Michael Torke. Mass (the piece that apparently sounded like Beethoven) must be one of his rare “misses” (even Beethoven missed with Wellington’s Victory) because most of his music that I have heard is extraordinary.

Torke has a unique musical voice. Whereas many New Music composers are concerned in large part with originality and distinctiveness, Torke takes, as his sources, familiar themes and textures. He then tumbles them up in structures which are not those of the styles of music from which they are drawn, resulting in pieces which are immediately engaging but not necessarily easily understood. He says that initial rehearsals of his music are very calm because the musicians see, on the page in front of them, notation and musical ideas which are familiar to them. 

Critics list his influences. Minimalism is one that I can credit, but, on the surface, Torke’s music shares very little with that of Philip Glass or Steve Reich. Jazz is also cited but, to my ear, his pieces have about as much to do with jazz as Stravinsky’s Ragtime has with Scott Joplin or Debussy’s Golliwog’s Cakewalk with minstrelsy. 

If I have a reservation about Torke’s music it is that, once a piece is launched, the tempo and mood usually remain pretty much the same throughout. This can be tedious at times.

Torke’s best known piece is Javelin which was written for the Atlanta Symphony at the time of the 1996 Olympics. It’s an overture, a ten minute curtain raiser and a pretty good introduction to his music.

But I’m recommending that you listen to Mojave, a sixteen minute concerto for marimba. I’m a big fan of piano concertos and this piece is quite a lot like one. The mallet player, Mike Truesdell, is a real virtuoso and the Brabants Orkest (don’t you love Dutch?) accompanies him wonderfully.

You’ll notice that he seems to have solved the minimalist quandary: How often can I repeat something before it’s too often? He gets it right.

If this piece inspires you, try to find a recording of another wonderful work, Bright Blue Music from Color Music. It was written before Mass and there are certainly echoes of Beethoven and other Nineteenth Century masters in it. 

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