Humans are quite remarkable when it comes to determining sizes. We can estimate how many people it will take to complete a job. If blindfolded, we have the skills to determine whether we are in a large amphitheater or small room. We can estimate the size of an airplane by its approaching sound. But music is the ultimate deceiver, isn’t it?
Hypothetical and literal size are beautifully separated in the newly released album of music byPeter Garland (b. 1952), Waves Breaking on Rocks. The album consists of his piano work, “Waves Breaking on Rocks (Elegy for All of Us),” and his piece for tenor and chamber ensemble, “The Roque Dalton Songs.” Garland is an American composer whose works have often been considered post-minimal.
Waves Breaking on Rocks pairs two very different compositions. The topic of deceptive “sizes” of the pieces spawns from the size of their instrumentation: “Waves Breaking on Rocks (Elegy for All of Us)” is for solo piano while “The Roque Dalton Songs” employ many musicians—but their impressions reflect the opposite. The piano work is expansive and watery, conjuring large images and panoramic landscapes. The songs for tenor travel in a narrower path—tribal in their percussion, gospel-like in their tone pairings, and purposefully targeted, they give off a small, focused vibe. Both of the pieces benefit from their aural sizes, and create an album of sounds that is attention grabbing and varied. Deceiving isn’t always a bad thing.
“Waves Breaking on Rocks (Elegy for All of Us)” is a suite of elegies. Divided into six parts, the suite commemorates six different people that Garland has lost in his life. It is composed almost entirely of chords, and creates more of a space than a linear narration. Each section might not get stuck in your head, such as a certain sentence from a lost one might not, but the overall ambiance of that person can be surfaced with subtle things, and this piece creates those moods.
Pianist Aki Takahashi could not have performed the piece better—she keeps the serene lines of the suite flowing and consistent with the stories being told. The last piece in the suite, “Waves Breaking on Rocks 2/Autumn (Again),” shows her control and ability to avoid even slight dynamic rises that would break the tranquility of the piece.
The suite begins with “The White Place,” referring to the limestone formations in Abiquiu, New Mexico called Plaza Blanca, and commemorates the photographer Walter Chappell. Beautifully piercing, monumental chords set up the foundations for each phrase of the piece and are followed by smaller, controlled hills of hushed tones. The entire suite utilizes ostensibly simple chords, but when listened to they create a dreamy story that is complex in the way nature is seamlessly intricate.
Through each of the pieces, the chords unravel into wandering and separated lines. Significant change comes in “A House in Island Bay,” composed for poet Alan Brunton. The listener is reminded of small rocks rippling on a lake as still as glass. It progresses to the intense solidity of previous chords. The last two sections of “Waves Breaking on Rocks” are Americana in their own ways—“Sierra Madre,” composed for composer Lou Harrison, is homey and nostalgic and is the only section to use violin, and appropriate and comfortable addition. “Waves Breaking on Rocks 2/Autumn (Again)” is a still and jazz-tinged piece, and is almost impossible to listen to without stopping for a minute (or five minutes and forty six seconds) and being absorbed by it.
“The Roque Dalton Songs,” the second collection on the album, is a collection with much more of a landing spot than “Waves Breaking on Rocks.” Though the instrumentation is larger, it is less expansive, and this isn’t a bad thing. The listener’s brain follows the music in a more direct line—if “Waves Breaking on Rocks” was a walk in a meadow, “The Roque Dalton Songs” are a hike through a specific path. Roque Dalton was a Salvadorian poet and revolutionary who was executed during El Salvador’s civil war. Five of Dalton’s poems were set to music by Garland in this piece. The poems range from free verse to dialogue to prose (“he was a really super cool guy” is probably my favorite line), and they seem very human, like Dalton can be seen scribbling the words onto paper right in front of you.
The chamber ensemble, Santa Fe New Music, is comprised of percussion, harp, piano, trumpet, bass clarinet, and violins. The ensemble is successful in layering the very obvious sheets of sound—the percussion, piano, and harp construct a stable foundation, the bass clarinet and trumpet create the walls, and the violins occupy the figurative room of sound. The tenor John Duykers keeps a triumphant tone throughout the entire collection, and conquers the sometimes out-of-the-blue high notes. The music keeps a dance rhythm, resolving itself at the end of each phrase, and doesn’t really break free of this except for the second piece, the smooth and sly “Como La Siempreviva,” and inside the fourth piece, “History of a Poetic.” The final piece, “Como Tú,” employs the harp in a refreshing way by retaining the previous piece’s dance like feel. However, it makes it more of a sensual one, like a dance between two people in privacy.
A piano is one object. A chamber ensemble is many. But sound is one idea, and Peter Garland’s album Waves Breaking on Rocks enforces that. Deceived or not, these are waves worth listening to.