Fanfare

Paul Pellay’s notes to his collection of short pieces for violin solo, arranged in seven books (with the seventh recalling the first), recount his having begun the set with a piece requested for an astro­nomical program that became the first —and generative—miniature in the compilation, which grew for a period of two years and consists of various sequences of artistic, political (beware—one American political party and its members come in for biting satire), and even astronomical references. The seven books: simply Book 1; Black Studies (after Goya); Mid-South Recollections; Dovetail Variants, Deviants and Digressions; Serena (Polittico Ungarettiano —illustrating line by line a poem by Giuseppe Ungaretti); Con(Di)vergences; and finally, simply Book 7. The musical language of these pieces extends beyond traditional harmonic idioms, though not far beyond violinistic ones. The six pieces of the first book (from 2003) alternate political caricatures (Condoleezza Rice— “Consolazione per Condoleezza”—John Ashcroft, and W) with three occasional pieces. In their range of moods and their employment of violinistic devices and textures, they resemble Bela Bartok’s. But the fiendishness extends as noticeably to the subject matter as to the materials themselves, although not all of the pieces revel in the diabolic; “Past Silence’s Dusk,” the first book’s fifth number, sounds evocative and haunting, in the manner of the finale of Bartok’s Solo Violin Sonata.

Book 2 (2003) begins with the almost frightening “Sabbath Rounds,” a sort of perpetual motion based on El gran Cobron, and builds to even more forceful violence, as in his music representing Duelo a garrotazos. Some of the pieces, as the “Saturno devorando a un hijo,” add extraneous sounds to the native timbres of the violin (and this particular piece seems to require Skaerved to tune the G string down as he plays).

Book 3 (2003) begins in a different vein, “Mid-South Recollections” referring to the compos­er’s sojourn in Memphis, Tenn. (he dedicated the book to Sandra Cox, with whose family he spent time during those years). Some of the pieces he planned as (almost) straightforwardly descriptive, such as “Shimmying with Zeus,” which relates a flight out of Memphis into a stormcloud and “As Glass Particles Descend,” the longest and one of the most thoroughly developed of the allegories, mimicking the delicate though unnerving sounds of ice built up by a storm.

Book 4 (2003) presents a set of variations, all bearing Italian titles. Whatever their titles or intentions, concrete or abstract, they employ musical and violinistic techniques almost identical to those from which the previous books have been constructed.

Book 5 (the last from 2003) consists of five musical glosses on the five lines of a poem by Ungaretti, mentioning consecutively, fog, stars, cool sky, fleeting images, and an eternal vortex. The references take the form of tremolos, soaring passages, and sparkling staccatos, lyrical melodies, diaphanous ones, and, finally, twittering ones, respectively.

Book 6 (2004), according to the composer, takes up where Book 5 left off, resulting in a sort of sequel. It consists of 13 pieces, representing, as did Book 4, variations of a kind —but these with, as the composer points out, a sort of theme.

Book 7 (2004) returns to some of the ideas in Book 1, beginning with another political portrait of W, based on the final triumphal march in Igor Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale, a pastiche that could serve, except perhaps for its political irreverence, as a recital encore. In “A Sparkler for A.R.T.” the recipient of the tribute, a sincere one in this case, turns out to be Augusta Read Thomas, a friend of the composer’s from the Royal Academy of Music. “19.5.04” celebrates the 50th anniversary of the death of Charles Ives. And finally, “Cosmic Buckaroo” returns to the beginning of Book 1 (“Riding the Comet’s Tail”), which served as the origin of the entire collection.

Some listeners may wonder whether the variety of musical and violinistic materials of these 55 pieces, however brief, might be incommensurate with the variety of their extramusical references (Bartok managed it in his sets). Still, there’s no reason anyone should feel compelled to listen to all 111-odd minutes in a single session. If it isn’t a modern-day set of Paganini’s caprices, it’s still interesting and even —though perhaps more so in small doses—fascinating. And violinist Peter Sheppard Skaerved plays with technical acuity throughout, bringing to bear on the set his own sharp intellect and sense of characterization (all of which the engineers serve well in clean record­ed sound).

—Robert Maxham