Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Visual Music/One-Off - G. Ackley Brower's 3 Sketches

Ahhh, the Public Domain.  The internet's pluralism and bottomless volunteer personnel allows for media you would have never heard of rise to the surface by the power of copyright holes, and the Sibley Music Library has been a great friend to me in this regard.  Wide field searches can catch you all sorts of stuff, and when Grover Ackley Brower's 3 Sketches for piano, op. 6 came up I noticed the odd detail of a missing death date for its composer.  This can sometimes be a sign of a composer so bad nobody much cared to follow his life to the end, but it occasionally points to something else, such as with the infinitely mysterious Dante Fiorillo.  Brower made his career editing other people's works, such as Schubert, Mendelssohn and Easthope Martin, and most notably books by Sergei Taneyev, but was also a pianist and composer with a symphony, string quartet and piano sonata under his belt.  Not that I was able to find any of those scores in Worldcat, of course; the 3 Sketches are his only published works anybody felt like keeping around.  For personal reasons, the 1920 publication date, the word Sketches in the title and the fact that he assigned an opus number to the thing were all intriguers, and upon opening the file I was greeted with surprising style and class:

1920 was a bit before Modernism started to take hold in American classical music, but the ad wizards behind Carl Fischer were inspired in their choice of designer - this is the very definition of pre-Deco minimalist class.  The use of empty space is phenomenal in just the way that I can't fully explain it, but maybe that wire-frame, enormous 3 knows how to.  As most publishers stuck with white for their margins as to save on ink, this jet black stare would've been an intimidating presence on the shelf.  There's something overwhelming about the combination of a solid black wall and that small print, kind of like how the title of Edwin Roxburgh's Labyrinth overwhelms the publisher name at the bottom.  The fonts are actually more akin to the 40's and 50's than the end of the 10's - I've seen the "opus 6" font in a lot of trailers for b-grade horror movies from the 50's.  It's a beautiful piece of enticement - you have no idea what it hides, but you want to find out.

As for the piece itself, Brower was raised in the finest clubs New York had to offer, and his Sketches are steeped in that kind of jazz-informed salon-impressionism that John Alden Carpenter and Howard Hanson pulled off so well in their piano works, though perhaps more on the salon end of things than the impressionist.  His trick is to keep things unpredictable, rapidly shifting key, texture and tempo to give the illusion of improvisation.  Brower clearly had an ear for the French Way but never plunges into experimentation, his figurations always familiar and pianistic.  Romantic performance practice was still the norm, and so a player who was already used to pushing and pulling for dramatic effect would find a lot to work with here, and much of the piece relies on surprise and coyness.  The catch is that the pianist has to commit to the goofiness completely, or else the piece will just seem odd and poorly written.  The good news is that Philip Sear, a British pianist who I previously featured in my article on Theodore Gouvy and his pen-named nephew Opol Ygouw, pulls the movements off nicely.  He also seems to know the most about Brower and his career, or at least a tremendously nerdy student of his does, as I wasn't able to find out much of anything beyond what he wrote in the video description.  The Sketches probably won't become your favorite piece now or later, but it is charming, unpredictable and quite fun to play, and that cover is to die for regardless of its contents.  Print, play, listen, excellent.


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