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Eugene O'Brien: Algebra of Night

by 21st Century Consort

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Composer Eugene O’Brien teams up with Washington D.C. based ensemble The 21st Century Consort, led by conductor Christopher Kendall, for an album of two of his ensemble compositions, Algebra of Night and Elegy to the Spanish Republic. The two pieces both take inspiration from a constellation of sources related to iconic places. Algebra of Nightfor voice and piano quartet sets poetry by six poets who lived in Manhattan at some point and whose work was shaped by the experience of that multi-layered metropolis. Elegy to the Spanish Republic for nine instruments is a “musical addition” to Robert Motherwell’s powerful series of paintings in response to the Spanish Civil War. In both, O’Brien displays his deft, subtle intuition for how to write music that emerges from a pre-existing context while retaining the integrity of both the music and the extra-musical source of inspiration.
Algebra of Night opens with a Fauré-inspired, impressionistic setting of Mark Strand’s “Moon.” It provides a fittingly expansive entryway to this sensuous nine part song cycle. “Old Postcard of 42nd Street,” a setting of Charles Simic’s poetry, captures the animated and sometimes mechanically detached undercurrent of life along the infamous boulevard. Edwin Denby’s “New York, dark in August, seaward,” delves deeper into Gotham’s nocturnal world, as a walking bass line in the cello and Bill Evans-esque piano voicings paint the Chelsea nightscape. The first of two instrumental interludes follows, with a title taken from a Ginsberg poem, “Burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.” Angular, geometric cello and piano figures spar with searing interjections in the high strings; gradually the temperature rises, culminating in a furious violin solo passage over fierce chordal accents.
Frank O’Hara’s “Avenue A” narrates a slice of life in New York’s East Village; O’Brien skillfully captures the urbane comfort of being part of a close knit community inside a massive, anonymous city with light, detached piano articulations and charmingly expressive textures in the strings. “Lullaby” reflects the straight-forward lyricism of W.H. Auden’s poem, with undulating lines in the strings providing a pad for Deanne Meek’s lush soprano. “The Mad Scene” contains some of the set’s most virtuosic music, specifically in the fleet passagework in the piano part. The work’s second interlude, “Of sorrow from the moonstruck darkness,” is a poignant, elegiac fantasy, including an embedded quote from John Dowland’s famous song “Flow my Tears.” The final song and longest in the piece returns to Frank O’Hara’s texts, specifically his “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island.” The title of the poem turned out to be portentous, as O’Hara would ultimately die on Fire Island in an accident. O’Brien’s text-driven setting is energized and focused on the unfolding narrative.
The violence of the subject matter is apparent in the taut opening to Elegy to the Spanish Republic, with impassioned material in the strings and charged swells in the winds and trumpet. The piano and vibraphone are often assigned the role of catalyst, triggering a cascade of passagework in the other instruments. O’Brien gradually establishes more reflective material, interspersing it in alternation with the vigorous passages before it elides into a contrasting, middle section featuring a tentative, heaving motif. He mixes light with dark, pitting marionette-like material in the strings and high winds against lurching stabs in the piano and vibes and an ominous melody in the trumpet doubled in the ensemble. This multilayered texture gives way to monolithic towering chords that alternate with a resigned melody in piccolo and trumpet, an echo of the exuberance of military music. O’Brien closes this requiem to the horrors of war with apt discretion — absent is the bravado of brass fanfares or the triumph of resonant chords. Instead we are left with the hollowness of two instruments, spread apart intervallically, intoning frayed melodic remnants.
Throughout these two works, Eugene O’Brien displays a mastery of expressive shading, capturing these nuanced texts and complex historical contexts with fitting musical grace. This is perhaps the greatest challenge of composing music that is “about” something, the wisdom to let the subject matter breathe in its own deep expressive context. The 21st Century Consort’s performances are finely tuned into this characteristic of O’Brien’s music, never stepping beyond the embedded expressivity that the music calls for at any given moment.

- Dan Lippel


released July 21, 2023

Algebra of Night recorded February 22-23, 2015, Nan Tucker McEvoy Auditorium, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.
Manager: Boyd Sarratt
Recording engineer: Mark Huffman
Producer/editor: Joseph Gascho
Post-production mixing/mastering: D. James Tagg (Stagg Sound Studio)
Mastering: Antonino d’Urzo (Opusrite Audio Productions)

Elegy to the Spanish Republic recorded October 10, 2021, St. Mark’s Episcopal Church Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C.
Manager: Boyd Sarratt
Recording engineer/editing/mixing/mastering: Antonino d’Urzo (Opusrite Audio Productions)
Co-Producers: Eugene O’Brien and Christopher Kendall

Design, layout & typography: Marc Wolf, marcjwolf.com

Cover image
Robert Motherwell, Elegy to the Spanish Republic XXXIV, 1953-54. Collection Buffalo AKG Art Museum. Gift of Seymour H. Knox, Jr., 1957 (K1957:6). Photo: Art Resource, NY. © 2023 Dedalus Foundation, Inc.
Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.




New Focus Recordings New York, New York

New Focus Recordings is an artist led collective label featuring releases in contemporary music of many stripes, as well as new approaches to older repertoire. The label was founded by guitarist Daniel Lippel (who is the current director), composer engineer Ryan Streber, and composer Peter Gilbert in 2003-4, and features releases from many of new music's most active performers and composers. ... more

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