Fresh Breath

Daniel Asia's approach to the voice is lyrical, if not tuneful.

Composer Daniel Asia, a University of Arizona music professor, has always run with the leaders of the pack without foolishly racing ahead and getting lost. That's been true not only of how his musical style has expanded, shifted and settled over the years, but also of how he has advanced his career and disseminated his music. When orchestral residencies for composers became meaningful and institutionalized in the early 1990s, Asia landed a position with the Phoenix Symphony. When orchestras and soloists realized they could band together and split the costs of big new commissioned works, Asia started obtaining consortium commissions that enabled him to produce large concertos and symphonies, not the standard five-minute overtures.

And now that DVD technology is securely lodged in America's living rooms, Asia and Phoenix-based label Summit Records are issuing recordings of his music in DVD format.

These are not, however, concert videos, and their very modest use of visuals may disappoint some home-theater enthusiasts. Nevertheless, the video component is sensible and a real enhancement to the music, as far as it goes.

Of two recent releases, the more immediately appealing is Breath in a Ram's Horn (Summit SMT 8000; also available as an audio-only CD, DCD 336). The disc gathers three of Asia's song cycles for solo voice and piano: the title work and Pines Songs, both setting poetry by Paul Pines, and An e.e. cummings Songbook.

Summit's packaging looks great, but imparts important information only with great reluctance. Nowhere on the outside of the CD is there any mention of the estimable performers, and their names are given only in very small print on the back of the DVD: soprano Faye Robinson, tenor Paul Sperry and pianist Tannis Gibson. Robinson's name would certainly sell some extra copies to people who love vocal music in general, and Sperry's would attract people who love contemporary vocal music. Not putting their names in readable type on the cover is a serious marketing error.

Nobody made a mistake in hiring these musicians, though. Gibson is a nimble and attentive accompanist, and Robinson and Sperry sing with the beautiful tone, accuracy, understanding and sympathy that are essential to the performance of any art song emerging, as do Asia's, from the tradition that stretches from the Italian Baroque to Ned Rorem.

Traditionalists may initially be put off by the general lack of old-fashioned, foursquare melody here (although "My Father's Name" could pass for a Jewish folk song). It doesn't take long, however, to realize that Asia's approach to the voice is lyrical, even if it's not blatantly tuneful. The vocal line in Pines Songs (1984), the earliest work here, is more angular than in the other two cycles, but it is never gratuitously acrobatic. The music and the words support and enhance each other, rather than compete.

Since the early 1980s, American poet Paul Pines has been one of Asia's two main textual sources (the other is the Hebrew Bible). Explaining his attraction to Pines' work in general, and specifically the five poems set in Pines Songs, Asia has written, "At the core of the work is man's uneasy place in the universe; that of a curious bystander to his own inner world, living in a physical world he also hardly understands. How these interior and exterior worlds meet and interact is the enigma at the center of these poems. However, it is an enigma that is often imbued with a wry and delicate sense of humor."

Pines Songs involves all the elements that have remained constant in Asia's music over the years: extended but not abandoned tonality, colorful sonorities that Asia describes as "post-serial impressionism," strong rhythms that occasionally reveal the influence of American popular music and jazz.

Breath in a Ram's Horn is a later and, musically, somewhat more conservative work of weary, wry nostalgia centered on family issues and the trappings of the Jewish faith--prayer shawls, phylacteries and the shofar or ram's horn of the title, the trumpet sounded on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

The cummings Songbook is less satisfying than its discmates, simply because cummings invented a visual syntax for each poem; word order and punctuation make little sense unless you can see the poem as a whole on the printed page. Asia tends to set each line as a complete unit, whereas ignoring line breaks and punctuation would allow a more flexible phrasing that could more easily convey the poems' meaning.

The video display on the DVD does help, scrolling the texts with the music. But those texts are also printed in the DVD booklet, along with the program notes that are accessible onscreen. The only advantage to turning on your TV when you listen to this DVD is that the words are easier to read there than on paper.

Summit DVDs, by the way, are formatted for DTS multi-channel and PCM stereo sound. That means that you can listen in either conventional stereo or the built-in surround effect available in most home theater systems. These discs do not employ SACD or so-called DVD Audio, competing formats that can be decoded only with special equipment.

A second production, available only on DVD (SMT 8001), is Sacred and Profane, a cycle of electronic tone poems composed by Asia and realized in sound by Kip Haaheim (whose first name is not to be found anywhere in the packaging or on screen). The "sacred" component of the score is a trio of works "inspired by" the sayings of Rabbi Nachman of Bratislava, a 17th-century leader of the Hassidic movement. If I understand the explanatory notes correctly, the sounds are produced by manipulating the rabbi's spoken texts electronically, harking back to Steve Reich's Come Out from the mid '60s, except that at no point are any words discernible. The two "profane" (simply meaning non-sacred) works are entirely synthesized, incorporating subtle dance elements and humorous manipulations of sound.

Some passages are slow and icy; others twitter and burble over complex, irregular rhythms. Iconoclasts of the '60s and '70s will feel right at home with this music; partisans of Bach and Mozart may feel violated and abandoned.

For each movement, the DVD displays an image by Janet Davidson-Hues. Some are abstract, nearly monochromatic compositions; others are highly manipulated shots of hands or feet. None move, and the visual stasis makes the music seem less eventful and sculpted than it really is. More active imagery--or at least pictures that change more frequently--would have served the music better. As it is, this is a disc best experienced at your most psychologically and intellectually vulnerable: late at night, in the dark, alone.

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