Martin Bresnick's Playful Sound Spans the Blues to Goya

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Given his Yale teaching post and the number of composers he has mentored there – most notably the Bang on a Can founders Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe and David Lang – Martin Bresnick may wind up being remembered as the Nadia Boulanger of the late 20th-century American scene: a rite of compositional passage embodied in a single instructor.

But his influence moves beyond any pedagogy available to only an elite few students, since much of what the Bang on a Can aesthetic comprises derives from Bresnick’s own works. A stylistically polyglot, liberal attitude permeates his oeuvre, most noticeably in the odds-and-ends suite of works titled Opere Della Musica Povera (or Works of a Poor Music), released on the CRI label in the '90s (before Cantaloupe, the Bang house label, was up and running).

In that cycle, you have not only a mix of ensembles – like a chorus, or an early appearance by the Bang on a Can All-Stars – but also a range of musical languages. There’s the serialism of “Follow Your Leader,” and the classic post-rock, post-minimalist textures of “Be Just!” (later re-presented by the BOAC All-Stars for Cantaloupe’s own Bresnick-centric album, with other key works such as Bresnick’s Piano Trio and String Quartet No. 2). And then there is the hymnal “New Haven.” Tellingly, none of those pieces is purely wedded to the sound-system that it most clearly evokes; Bresnick enjoys seeming to follow a strict system, but in fact bending its rules.

Nowhere is that playfulness more in evidence than on Bresnick’s two different recastings of the blues song “Spoonful,” by Willie Dixon. On Bresnick’s “Fantasia on a Theme By Willie Dixon,” the Povera players are instructed to keep the time (mostly) rockish and consistent, but are then given thick chords to play that are considerably more astringent than those of the original. It ends with a cool-feeling, hocketing restatement of the original theme on vibes and violin and electric guitar.

“Willie’s Way,” for solo piano, keeps closer to the harmonic beginnings of “Spoonful,” but plays with pacing more dramatically. As performed by Bresnick’s muse, Lisa Moore (complete with lap-slaps and vocalizations that interrupt the piano part), this second iteration of the Dixon tune shows how many stylistic variations Bresnick can work upon the same theme.

One of Moore’s other performance highlights in the Bresnick canon is the comparatively recent work Caprichos Enfaticos, titled after a series of Goya prints depicting the horrors of war. Joined by So Percussion (and thus a new generation of adventurous performers eager to cross idiomatic boundaries), Moore makes her way through Bresnick’s cycle of 6/8 farandula chain dance-forms, originally native to Provence, with a fervor that suggests the grave ritual of combat. For all its dark subject matter, the excitement generated by its realization of a contemporary classical music alive with all the influences of global music traditions is its own kind of education – one that’s by now familiar to plenty of other composers who’ve studied under Bresnick, either formally or simply by following his example.