Spiky Epiphanies: Chamber Music of Marc Satterwhite

Spiky Epiphanies: Chamber Music of Marc Satterwhite

Spiky Epiphanies: Chamber Music of Marc Satterwhite

Cover art: Conjectural Landscape I: Forbidden Conquests (detail), ©1984 by Joseph Klein.
Cover art: Conjectural Landscape I: Forbidden Conquests (detail), ©1984 by Joseph Klein.

Memento Mori 3, Sonata for Violin and Piano, Memento Mori 2, and Spiky Epiphanies recorded by J. Patrick Rafferty, violin; Dallas Tidwell, clarinet; Krista Wallace-Boaz, piano; Benjamin Sung, violin; Jihye Chang, piano; Louisville String Quartet (J. Patrick Rafferty, violin; Marcus Ratzenboeck, violin; Chien-Ju Liao, viola; Paul York, cello); Arsenal Trio (Benjamin Sung, violin; Hrant Parsamian, cello; Jihye Chang, piano)

Total Duration: 66:29

Recorded January 12, 28 and February 26, 2008 at TNT Productions, Louisville, Kentucky. Produced by Marc Satterwhite. Engineered by Phil Stirgwolt. Edited by Phil Stirgwolt and Marc Satterwhite. Mastered by Phil Stirgwolt.


Phillip Scott

Fanfare Magazine, March/April 2011 (Vol. 34 / No. 4)
Also includes review of Witnesses of Time

Texan Marc Satterwhite (b. 1954) writes avowedly “serious” music, and is not reticent about the lasting influence of his mother’s suicide on much of his work. It would be wrong to imagine that his music is therefore slow and grave; it is not, any more than the process of grieving is invariably quiet or formal. In these chamber pieces, Satterwhite posits a series of decisive gestures, occasionally ritualistic, often harsh, usually succeeding each other in a spontaneous, random way. An overwhelming feature of his work is a fascination with instrumental technique, a kind of technical playfulness. Mostly these two facets of his music support each other; in a few works, at least to my ears, they are at odds.

CRC 3021: The disc Witnesses of Time was recorded between 1996 and 2004, and released in 2006. The disc takes its title from a four-movement work for solo cello, subtitled Four Studies on Photographs by Flor Garduño. The shots in question are historical studies taken in Mexico, Guatemala, and Bolivia, which may be viewed on Satterwhite’s Web site. The first, “Wounded Angel,” combines a guitar-like pizzicato with a double-stopped theme of lamentation. Episodes of intensity and calm alternate. The second, “Tarahumara Pilgrimage,” is a quirky scherzo movement, with clever use of rapping the fingers or possibly the back of the bow on the cello strings in a Latin rhythm. Whispering, muted arpeggios usher in a different world in the atmospheric “Threshold of Incense,” while the final movement, “Tornado,” is less frenetic than expected but builds gradually over its 4:45 span. There is textural variety aplenty in this work; the composer gives each movement its own individual flavor, well conveyed by Paul York’s adroit and sensitive surmounting of the technical hurdles.

Epitafio (2001) concentrates on the composer’s lamentation style. The rise and fall of the English horn’s thematic line produces an almost human inflection, with pitched percussion providing supporting textures. This episodic work finishes on a repeated low note, a suggestion that the protagonist’s life is now over, which is most effective.

In the more playful Concertino à Tre (1995), Satterwhite discards extramusical allusions and concentrates on pure music. The unusual trio of flute, bassoon, and piano play together in four of the 10 movements; there are three duets featuring piccolo, bassoon, and alto flute respectively with piano, and three solo movements. The composer’s textural and contrapuntal ingenuity illuminates the trio and duo movements, but the solos operate in much the same way as cadenzas do in classical concertos: They hold up the flow in order to put the player through a few technical hoops, which frankly I could have done without.

The final work on this disc is the first in the series Memento Mori. The series was inspired by a multimedia installation that Satterwhite saw in Los Angeles in 1992. The style of the artist responsible, Karen Finley, is described by the composer as “often angry and confrontational”; nor do Satterwhite’s pieces shy away from strong emotion. Memento mori is a Latin phrase meaning “remember your mortality”: a reminder that everything, including oneself, will die. No doubt because of his personal tragedy, Satterwhite infuses the phrase with an underlying strain of anger (whereas others might find comfort in it). This raw emotion frequently bubbles to the surface.

Memento Mori No. 1 is subtitled Red Carnations in White Lace Curtains. Initially, the delicacy of lace curtains is evoked (by high harmonics from the cello and glistening percussion); however, the work soon heads into a thicket of Expressionistic soundscapes that are more forthright. While the composer’s technical mastery is apparent, the work as a whole does not quite gel and seems to lack a musical through-line. The calm ending is nonetheless satisfyingly achieved. Performances are excellent throughout. The strength and occasionally relentless nature of the music is emphasized by close, in-your-face sound. (The timpani sound rather dull.)

CRC 3021: The newer CD, Spiky Epiphanies, was recorded in 2008 and released last year. This disc includes the second and third in the Memento Mori series, for string quartet and clarinet trio respectively.

Memento Mori No. 2 (Hope Chest Full of Sand) continues the pattern of extreme contrasts, from its softly atmospheric opening to an episode of almost uncontrollable frenzy around the 13-minute mark. (The piece runs for 17:45.) This is a case where the sudden juxtaposition of dynamic extremes and avant-garde-derived techniques serve a dramatic and emotive purpose: Satterwhite always attempts to re-create a visceral experience and here he certainly succeeds. The Louisville Quartet is superb at realizing every expressive aspect of the work. (Its members are J. Patrick Rafferty and Marcus Ratzenboeck, violins; Chien-Ju Liao, viola; and Paul York, cello.) Similar comments could be made for Memento Mori No. 3: Ribbons on the Memory Wall, written for those stalwart new-music commissioners the Verdehr Trio, and much played. In this piece, the smooth tone of the clarinet conjures up a more traditional sound of lamentation. This work is also the most tightly structured of the three.

Spiky Epiphanies is a phrase that could be accurately applied to all the music on these discs; it sums up Satterwhite’s ethos. This 11-minute piano trio takes us down by-now familiar paths, although a passage that puts a violin line over regular, wide-spread piano chords brings a touch of Messiaen I had not noticed previously. Again the composer’s skill and ingenuity are evident, but the paucity of memorable thematic material is a drawback.

The most recent work in this program is another piece of absolute music, the Violin Sonata of 2003. It is in four movements, the first and third typically titled Elegy, with a scherzo second and a toccata to close. The elegies display the composer’s habitual juxtaposition of ideas without going to extremes. The opening of the second elegy is quite haunting; in fact, this movement is one of the composer’s most successful elegiac pieces. The scherzo bustles along to its deftly deconstructed conclusion with aplomb, while the toccata winds up the proceedings with typical raw energy.

To sum up: Satterwhite writes with a strong, personal voice; his music is always full of interest from one moment to the next, but his fragmentary structures do not always add up to a satisfying whole. When they do, as in the Violin Sonata, Memento Mori No. 3, and Witnesses of Time, the result is contemporary music of real significance. If your interest is piqued, I would recommend the newer of these two CDs; the musicians are formidable without exception, and the recording quality is more consistent than that of the earlier disc.

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