Quiet Songs Liner Notes by J. Andrew Dickenson
I remember my first winter in Manhattan. It was bitter cold, like all Northeastern territories are at that time of year, and Mother Nature was threatening a heavy snowfall that finally came in the middle of January. When I woke that morning something immediately felt different, but it took me a few minutes to realize what it was: The city that never sleeps was quiet.
By now, we are all used to living in a world of motion. We are accustomed to obtaining everything, from deliveries to information to breakfast, quickly. The faster we get things today, the sooner we want them tomorrow. The snowfall, however, had stopped the constantly moving city in its tracks and forced it to pause for a moment. With cars covered in a blanket of snow and roads unusable, we found solitude in silence, the sound that is rarely heard in a city of eight million.
Quiet moments can often be hard to find, and when we do discover a moment for reflection, it often will not last very long. Silence can be deeply personal and a time to refresh ourselves and, when the daily rumble of life to which we are accustomed ceases for even a few minutes, it can also be jarring and haunting. A peaceful walk in the evening as the sun sets, the gentle chirping of birds as we eat lunch in Central Park, the rumbling of an ocean while we lie on the beach, a moment of spiritual meditation, or a stirring melody- these are moments that must be cherished.
The music on this CD captures the magic of these tranquil moments. With styles ranging from Baroque to Jazz, each piece is a personal reflection of solitude.
Setting the tone for the CD is the enchanting Aria (Cantilena) from Heitor Villa-Lobos’s Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5. Meditative and haunting, the piece begins with a short, rhythmic introduction on the guitar. Almost as if the voice is reluctant to join, it creeps in without words — a single note on the vowel “ah.” The soaring melody evokes images of beautiful landscapes, luminescent moons, and longing for a lover, reflections that are echoed in Portuguese during the middle, più mosso, section. After a dramatic declaration, the wordless, haunting melody returns, this time with an even softer hum.
Both Bachianas Brasileiras and the following guitar solo, Prelude No. 3, were written in homage to Johann Sebastian Bach. The Bachianas Brasileiras themselves are a set of nine pieces, each written with the intention of combining Villa-Lobos’s love for the baroque master with the rhythms and melodies of his homeland, Brazil. Originally written for an orchestra of eight cellos and soprano, the Aria, with this arrangement by the composer himself, reflects Villa-Lobos’s passion for two of his favorite instruments, the guitar and the cello.
Prelude No. 3, from the composer’s set of five for guitar, bears the subtitle “Homage to Bach.” Although it may be difficult to find a specific citation of baroque music in the score, the piece does make innovative use of historical techniques such as pedals, voicing, and arpeggios. The homage, perhaps, is not so much in the character of the music as it is in stylistic reverence for the compositional master.
Johann Sebastian Bach’s devotion to God and the church is evident in all of his music, though his song settings give him the opportunity to express this devotion in words. The three songs in this set are from a collection of 954 spiritual songs and arias compiled by Georg Christian Schemelli, a well-known cantor of his day. The preface, published in 1736, explains that Bach — Electoral Saxon Capellmeister and Director Chori Musici in Leipzig — composed or “improved” melodies and figured bass for many of the texts. Accompanied here by the gentle sounds of the guitar and interspersed with two movements from the third lute suite, the songs become intimate portraits of faith. Lyrical and gentle, the harmonies are appropriately uplifting and contemplative as the words and melodies profess spirituality, admiration, and awe.
In contrast, David Leisner’s Outdoor Shadows are five songs that profess a love for the earth, nature and humanity. Speaking of sun that gives “the tan of earth to me,” birds that have achieved “freedom that flows in form,” and earth’s “nitwits numskulls universal nincompoops,” the poems by Robert Francis describe the natural world with admiration, color, and wit.
Francis’s “lyricism and impeccable craft make the poems eminently settable to music,” writes Leisner. “His interest in all things natural and simple resonates with mine. In 1985, when I wrote these five songs on a commission from the University of Arizona and the Tucson Guitar Society, these were the most important compositional issues for me, and, I might add, this was determinedly out-of-step with the prevailing interest of the musical composition establishment in complexity and all things cerebral.” The listener will find the accompaniment for these songs often written as a single line, colored with more traditional guitar arpeggios and chordal accompaniment. The joyful melody of the last movement, “Sing a Song of Juniper,” is bolstered by energetic strumming.
The haunting arpeggio and melody that introduce John Duarte’s Five Quiet Songs are an appropriate beginning to a set of deeply personal music. Written a year after the influential female French guitarist Ida Presti died in 1967, each movement is a vignette describing the frailty of humanity. Spiritual and profound, these songs capture a side of Duarte’s music — and of himself — that speaks of life and its brevity.
New York guitarist Frederic Hand has established a recognizable style that interweaves his classical training with a lifelong love for jazz. “Musical boundaries are routinely being crossed,” he writes in his program notes for “Missing Her,” “and the result is a lot of new and exciting music.” Originally written for a small ensemble, this melodic piece combines jazz harmonies with classical arpeggios, and even includes an improvisational section. Nostalgic by its nature, “Missing Her” effectively evokes longing and desire from the singing, luscious chords.
“If, in its proper sense, the term ‘classic’ refers to something that is a model of its kind, and that has survived the test of time,” writes John Duarte, “the songs of George Gershwin are indeed ‘classics.'” Perhaps some of the most familiar music in the American repertoire, Gershwin’s songs are brief glimpses into a past era of vibrant Americana. Each song captures the invigorating breath of life that Gershwin was capable of in his music. Duarte’s arrangements are refreshing and innovative, reflecting his keen understanding of and affection for this wonderful music.
As the snow receded and melted away that winter, snowplows began to roam the streets, people left their apartments, cars were shoveled out, and the pulse of the city gradually returned to normal. But the memory of that moment and the solitude that we felt as a city will remain forever.