Peculiar Plants
Peculiar Plants
Brian Coll
Peculiar Plants
Label: Albany Records
Released: August 7, 2010
Catalog Num: Troy 1161

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Development is a part of a plant’s nature, but the Strangler Fig develops in a bizarre manner. It innocently alights on its host tree, a tiny seed that lodges in the crotch of a branch and sends out delicate tendrils in both direction. These slender stalks grow stronger and more woody, like thick vines. They grow down towards the tree’s roots and up into its highest branches. Gradually, as these vines thicken, they strangle the host tree, sucking out its vital nutrients until it becomes merely the scaffolding around which the Strangler Fig weaves its dense and intricate web. Though despicable in its method, the Strangler Fig nonetheless develops into a plant of extraordinary beauty, its design so sculptural and graceful that it can resemble the liquid architecture of Gaudi. I was intrigued by this combination of beauty and treachery. The Strangler fig was the first piece that I composed, and it began a suite of character studies for harpsichord called Peculiar Plants.

Sacred Sisters
I decided to write Sacred Sisters because I wanted to explore my own cultural and musical heritage. My grandfather, Samuel Nathan Epstein, ran away from his home in Sellets, Russia because his father wanted him to be a rabbi and he wanted to become a musician. He made his way to Warsaw by stowing away under a rail coach and arriving in the city at night, fell asleep on the steps of the Warsaw Conservatory. The next morning, he was found by a professor, and my grandfather became his student. He completed his studies and traveled to the United States as a bass player with the St. Petersburg Symphony, eventually combining his father’s ambitions with his own by composing liturgical music for the temple. Although my grandfather died before I was born, his spirit and his genes are a part of me and I wanted to honor his memory with Sacred Sisters. To prepare myself with the musical materials that are chanted in the traditional telling of the stories of Esther, Ruth and Judith, I studied A. W. Binder’s fascinating Biblical Chant, using the appropriate tropes as the basis of my composition. As the story of Judith comes from the apocrypha and not from the Torah, I invented my own melodic motives in keeping with the traditional ones in the other two books.The stories of these three women are filled with courage and resolve. My friend, Cantor Helen Leneman has summarized their stories as follows:
The three biblical women who give their names to these three books share a willingness to defy the conventions of their day to save their people. Esther is an account of the events that led to the inauguration of the Jewish festival of Purim. Haman, the King’s courtier, drunk on power, demands everyone bow before him. Queen Esther’s uncle Mordecai refuses, and Haman swears revenge by plotting to kill all the Jews in the empire. Mordecai finds out and asks Esther to intervene. She risks her life by appearing before the king Ahashverus, and managing to uncover Haman’s plot, saves her people. The Book of Ruth is a deceptively simple story of how a poor widowed foreigner becomes the wife of a respected man of Bethlehem and the great-grandmother of King David. The story opens with the death of Naomi’s husband who had brought his family to Moab ten years earlier to escape famine in Bethlehem. When Naomi decides to return to Bethlehem, her daughter-in-law Ruth insists on coming with her. The Book of Judith is part of the books known as the “apocrypha,” a word that literally means “hidden” or “set aside.” Judith is the only heroine, who saves her people through her wisdom, initiative, and courage. The story describes the power of the Assyrian ruler Nebuchadnezzar and his general Holofernes, who have destroyed all the nations around them, except Judea. The Judean town of Bethulia is under siege and the elders decide to surrender if God does not save them in five more days. The elders ask Judith, a beautiful and wealthy widow, to pray for them. Preferring action, she takes off her widow’s garb, and enters Holofernes’ camp. Burning with desire, Holofernes invites Judith to a banquet that night. When he is drunk, she utters a brief prayer to God for strength, and cuts off Holofernes’ head with his own sword. She carries it back to Bethulia and the people are amazed at her deed. When the headless general is discovered the next morning, the Assyrians are completely routed by the Judeans. These three biblical heroines are shown using their brains at least as much as their beauty: Their highest priority is the future of their people. These qualities make them suitable role models for any era.

When John Yeh and Fontana Chamber Arts commissioned me to write a quartet involving two clarinets and two Chinese instruments, the Erhu and the Pipa, the title Bridges seemed like a logical choice, bridging the music of the East and the West. Having traveled and performed extensively in China, I was not only drawn to its music, but had fallen in love with its fascinating instruments. Beyond some superficial differences, the folk music of both countries sounds surprisingly familiar, and even the instruments have striking similarities. Working with folk songs from my own background as well as Chinese songs that I had learned, I decided to organize the piece around four actual bridges, covering a wide variety of landscapes and cultures. The first movement, Railroad Trestle Bridge in Galax, Virginia, uses the motoric rhythm of a train and the sound of a fiddle and banjo playing country music. The second movement, Stone Bridge Over A Reflecting Pool in Souzhou is based on a traditional Chinese song called Moli Hua or Jasmine Flower. The third movement, The Golden Gate Bridge, recalls the folk music revival of the 1960's and 70's in California, with particular respect paid to the singer Joan Baez, whose haunting songs had a profound effect on me. The fourth movement, The Brooklyn Bridge, has a particularly happy co-incidence. I wanted this bridge to partake of the vibrant be-bop era in New York City. In researching be-bop melodies, I came across a standard favored by many jazz musicians, “I Got Rhythm” by George Gershwin. Using only the harmonic chord changes to this tune, players crafted seemingly endless improvisations. As the song was written in the typical AABA song form, the “B” section was referred to as the “bridge”. Here was the ideal confluence of the many meanings of the word “bridge”, and I leaped at the opportunity to bring them all together in this final movement.

Jasmine Flower
I am fascinated by contrast. In music, this takes the form of the contrast between tonal grounding and chromatic tension to escape that grounding. Without tonality, chromaticism floats freely above a rootless world and has no point of reference. I chose the Chinese folksong Moli Hua because it was so beautiful, pure and simple in its flowing melody. To use this as a point of reference gave me the perfect foil to counterbalance the desire to break free of the orderly and explore the complex, asymmetrical, chaotic elements that contrast the song. Thus each variation focuses on a tiny fragment of the song - tossing it around, exploding it and re-arranging the pieces. It returns frequently to the original, to measure the distance travelled and to find refreshing relief in a world of quiet, peaceful repose.

Jack Larsen’s luscious fabric designs are the inspiration for Woven. Rather than trying to translate one art form into another, I have applied the principle of interwoven strands of colored thread to interwoven musical lines. Texture, color and design are the governing elements. Each short movement explores one combination. The work opens with Spinning, in which the motion of the loom becomes the rhythm, while the two intertwining lines exchange musical phrases, spinning around each other. The second movement, Knotted, focuses on both lines in close proximity, “rubbing” against one another in dissonant clusters. Open Weave, the third movement explores the opposite extreme, with the lines separated and spaced wide apart. Tapestry combines disparate elements, such as transparent and opaque, smooth and prickly, pale and bright, coarse and fine, elastic and brittle

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