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Volume 25 Issue 28 - 2017-07-14

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Gregor’s Bed
Scatter My Ashes

Recent Discoveries From the Realms of the Experimental and Avant-Garde
Wanda Waterman
Volume 22 Issue 30 2014-08-01

Where Multiple Streams of Inspiration Joyously Meet and Mingle

Album: Scatter My Ashes

Composer: William Susman

". . . Scatter my old bones.
I am keeping the young ones
fresh, strong the blood circles
and weaves me into a whole piece
with long slender red thead
buried under my skin."

- from the poem by Sue Susman, forming the lyrics for the title track in Scatter My Ashes

Poet Sue Susman was taking some solitary repose in a rural cabin in Illinois where she often went to write and to take long walks alone. One winter’s night, while standing outside in the cold and looking up at the stars, the words came for "Moving in To an Empty Space," a poem whose introspective lines eventually found their way into a composition by her brother—composer and pianist William Susman—along with a number of her other poems. Her poem "Scatter My Ashes" formed the text for the title track of this album.

The poems of his sister seem to arrive, first, from a melancholy soul and, second, from the common unconscious of a culture unnerved by rapid transitions, growing shallowness, and ignorance. A culture cut off from both history and the lessons of the past. In the track "Moving to an Empty Space" we explore the absurdity of postmodern solitude by means of the poem itself, which William couches in elements of circus music, effectively making the listener question her sanity.

But there’s light and shadow here; there are passages of good cheer on this album that utterly belie its ominous moments and make you wonder if you heard right.

It’s an aesthetic formed from a collage of influences. If one were to characterise his music in a metaphor, that metaphor might be "roundabout." His body of work seems like a swirling junction of rhythms, styles, instrumentation, genres, and colour.

William Susman has always cast a wide net for inspiration, sometimes close to home (as shown by his use of his sister’s poetry), and sometimes further away, such as historical events (his 1988 composition "Uprising" was based on the the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943), literature (His "Angels of Light" was based on a Mark Helprin novel), the music of other composers, photographs ("Trailing Vortices" was inspired by photographs found in "An Album of Fluid Motion," by Milton Van Dyke), and current events (as in "Zydeco Madness: To the Forgotten of Hurricane Katrina").

Each track is short for a classical piece—they’re more the length of top forty pop songs than chamber music—but they’re densely packed with musical victuals. The first track starts out with a computer-perfect piano rhythm overlaid by the syncopated syllables (they sound like drawn-out laughter) of soprano Mellissa Hughes (who sings the texts with the slow, rising pulse typical of much new music), and right away we see the harmonious intertwining of jazz and Western classical, of straight rhythm with swing, of notes rich with sobriety overlaid by cheerfully rippling melodies.

This album, in addition to being delightfully listenable, serves as a short introductory course in new developments in serious music, developments so important I think we should mention them here.

To name a few:

• Fibonacci series: A mathematical series of numbers used to plan gradations and relationships in musical scales
• Minimalism: A pairing-down of music to its most basic elements, using repetition and rhythmic patterns to create a forceful effect, and favoring electronic instruments
• Shepard tones: Sounds generated electronically by superposing sine waves separated by octaves, creating the illusion of tones descending or ascending in pitch when they’re really staying the same (sounds a bit like an airraid siren)
• Risset’s rhythmic effect: A breakbeat that just keep accelerating (I dare you to listen here)
• Isorhythm: An arrangement of tones in repeated rhythmic patterns (a technique used by John Cage)
• Algorithmic composition: The use of algorithms to generate tunes (nowadays this is done with computers)
• Microtonal composition: Writing music using tone intervals smaller than a semi-tone (think blues notes and the sound of Northumbrian smallpipes)

Elements of Susman’s jazz background emerge in "Eternal Light," which is strangely reminiscent of Porgy and Bess—it’s not bebop jazz but rather closer to the classical jazz interpretations of Gershwin and Bernstein.

Susman, you simply must write an opera. We’re all waiting.

Wanda also penned the poems for the artist book They Tell My Tale to Children Now to Help Them to be Good, a collection of meditations on fairy tales, illustrated by artist Susan Malmstrom.

 

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