Whatever You Call It, `Art Music' Challenges Some Recent Recordings by St. Louis Composers

Article excerpt

THE initial difficulty in discussing music of the sort considered here is deciding what to call it. The expression "contemporary music" is fashionable, but taken literally, the term "contemporary" would seem to encompass everyone from country singer Billy Ray Cyrus to jazz pianist Cyrus Chestnut.

Once in a while, you encounter the more austere expression "serious music." Laurie Anderson gives a variation of this when she jokes about "difficult music." And then, of course, there is the somewhat abusive term "wrong-note music."

A conversation several years ago with Timothy Vincent Clark, the artistic director of Synchronia, turned up the expression "art music," which seems politically safer and might work as a euphemism for any or all of the above.

Whatever you call it, though, there are St. Louis composers and players making "new" music for the grown-up imagination - inventive and sometimes challenging music in which they insist that listeners meet them halfway. Most of these musicians seem to be having fun. And some are serious enough about getting their music across that they've gone to the trouble of recording it.

Some, like composer Fred Tompkins, are longstanding veterans of the recording studio. Last year, Tompkins rounded up some noted area talent to record "Saint Louis Music," which has a good deal to do with a St. Louis music staple, jazz.

Tompkins' career as a recording artist dates back to the mid-to-late 1960s when he worked with such luminaries as jazz stars Ron Carter, Billy Cobham, Frank Foster and the drummer from the legendry John Coltrane Quartet, Elvin Jones.

Indeed, a listener can divine traces of the Coltrane sound on "Saint Louis Music" - in at least two of Tompkins' four musical settings of poems by Emily Dickinson. Both feature pianist Carl Pandolfi and drummer Gary Sykes, and both are sung by Debby Lennon, of the vocal ensemble Pieces of Eight.

It seems important to point out, however, that while Tompkins makes use of the musical vocabulary of jazz, "Saint Louis Music" will not uniformly pass muster among jazz aficionados.

Listen, for example, to "Talk Not to Me," one of the Dickinson settings. In addition to the above-mentioned personnel, it features Webster University jazz professor Paul DeMarinis on soprano sax.

The piece begins with a soaring, muscular jazz figure recalling Coltrane from the days when he was recorded playing soprano sax in New York's Village Vanguard. As Debby Lennon comes in with the vocal, however, the sound changes. Lennon renders the poem in the dramatically shaded, emotive manner of modern operatic singing. Hence, Tompkins' setting of this Dickinson poem, while drawing on the expressive force of jazz, bears a closer spiritual kinship to "Songfest," Leonard Bernstein's orchestra and voice settings.

"Saint Louis Music" also features the talents of a young singer named Paul Blecha, a karaoke DJ at the Dirtwater Fox who has turned in several fine musical theater performances in the Metro East area. There's also a vocal from Ralph Butler. The battery of percussionists includes Henry Claude, Benet Schaeffer, Lance Garger and Jerry Saracini. And the reed players, in addition to DeMarinis, are Tyrone Perry and Carl Knox.

("Saint Louis Music" can be purchased at Left Bank Books, Vintage Vinyl, Webster Records and West End Wax.)

St. Louis Symphony percussionist Rich O'Donnell, who is also music director of New Music Circle, composed "Fire & Ice: The Music" to accompany those spectacular winter solstice celebrations that took place between 1988 and '92 at Laumeier Sculpture Park. The celebrations, you may recall, climaxed when George Greenamyer's 100-ton, kerosene-soaked ice sculptures were torched, sending flames as high as 300 feet into the night sky.

Part soundtrack, part tone poem, "Fire & Ice: The Music" atmospherically weaves gestures that originate in ritual music from cultures around the globe into a six-movement, 54-minute work laced with passion and mystery. …