A Fickle Sonance

a column by
Art Lange

DJ Sniff
George Flynn                                                                                                 Mary Clare Glabowicz©2011

“Words move, music moves / Only in time; but that which is only living / Can only die. Words, after speech, reach / Into the silence. Only by the form, the pattern, / Can words or music reach / The stillness, as a Chinese jar still / moves perpetually in its stillness.” In this way, with this passage from “Burnt Norton,” the first installment of his long poem Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot believes that it is within the human effort, the spark of creation as manifested by the detailed invention of form, that art is able to transcend time and encompass the “stillness” of eternity. Further on, in the third section, “The Dry Salvages,” he describes the lack of spiritual awareness in our lives, ending in a revelation: “For most of us, there is only the unattended / Moment, the moment in and out of time,  / The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight, / The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning / Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply / That it is not heard at all, but you are the music / While the music lasts.”

Eliot composed his Four Quartets not in a single burst of inspiration, but gradually, one section at a time, between the mid-1930s and the early-‘40s. Similarly, George Flynn composed the three sections of his solo piano epic Trinity independently, over a 25-year period (1968-93). The connection is not totally insignificant, because Flynn has acknowledged that the “themes and imagery” of Four Quartets were influential in his vision of the music, and perhaps no aspect of the poem is more relevant to our experience of Trinity than the concept that “you are the music / While the music lasts.”

George Flynn is hardly a household name, though he has managed to carve out a small niche in the cultish and categorized world of classical music. Born in Montana in 1937, he studied and eventually taught at Columbia University, but his primary gig was in the music department of Chicago’s DePaul University, where he taught for 25 years before retiring in 2001. Early in his career Flynn was active as a pianist specializing in New Music, and his recordings ranged from works like Ilhan Mimaroglu’s Piano Music for Performer and Composer, which involved improvisation from the pianist alongside a pre-recorded tape, to playing and arranging pieces by late-16th century British composers John Dowland and Anthony Holborne for a solo album by Jan Akkerman, guitarist of the ‘70s Dutch rock/fusion group Focus. But the most revealing and relevant of his initial recordings was in collaboration with violinist Eugene Gratovich, a 1982 album for Finnadar consisting of duos by Ives, Messiaen, Cage, and Flynn himself. Ives and Messiaen were to remain touchstones in Flynn’s later compositions – specifically, the density, dynamic contrasts, and incongruity in Ives’ willful methods of construction, Messiaen’s self-designed harmonic and rhythmic systems, and the propensity of both towards a state of energetic ecstasy. Although Cage and the graph pieces of Morton Feldman were at least in part responsible for the experiments with severely limited material in his Four Pieces for Violin and Piano (1965), Cage would represent the road not taken in Flynn’s compositional future. 

Even more so than jazz artists, classical composers are subject to the whim of record companies to establish a public reputation, and since 2000 Flynn has had the good fortune to be adopted by Southport Records (www.chicagosound.com), a free-thinking, stylistically-diversified jazz, vocal, and classical label. The most recent of their six releases to date of Flynn’s music is the most ambitious – American City, consisting of three works for large forces, the sparkling whirlwind of woodwinds, percussion, and piano American City (1998); the colorful, vigorous The Density of Memory (1997) for clarinet trio and orchestra; and the richly voiced cantata St. Vincent’s Words (1995). Flynn’s chamber music can be sampled on a pair of discs, Together (Music for Violin and Piano), and American Rest (1984), an insistent, deftly woven quartet for clarinet, viola, cello, and piano reflecting ripe chromatic melodic patterns and complex thoughts, mixing a Brahmsian autumnal sensibility with dance maneuvers and tart harmonies reminiscent of Stravinsky.

But Flynn’s most distinctive and compelling music is for piano – in fact, I’d say that Trinity and Pieces of Night (1989), the latter a sequence of three nocturnes and two interludes which, in Flynn’s words “employs the same structural and dramatic arguments, and occupies the same poetic world” as American Rest, comprise, in their two-and-a-half-hours of intense, restless, conflicted emotions, the most powerful and original compositions for piano by any American composer since Ives’ two sonatas. Of his peers, only Cecil Taylor (eight years older than Flynn) and Frederic Rzewski (one year younger) have created piano works which are of an equally impressive scale, as copiously detailed, technically challenging, and passionately expressive – music that generates a singular form elaborate and provocative enough to confront and impact the individual on Eliot’s transcendent terms.

Pieces of Night shares with American Rest a deep, intricate, and uneasy response to the Vietnam War, its ongoing aftermath, and effect on the human condition. Without attempting to be illustrative or programmatic, it suggests a number of psychological states through an elusive sense of tonality – open, but claustrophobic – and contrasting gestures that nevertheless cohere and sustain continuous forward momentum. Repeated motifs establish agitated passages, jolting rhythms, and dense, spiky textures – night is shattered like a mirror – interrupted, briefly, by softer, restrained meditations. But the unsettling, surging nightmares overwhelm the lullabies with pounding spasms, splayed clusters, and briskly arpeggiated chords. It’s an exhausting, cathartic experience, a musical metaphor for St. John of the Cross’ “dark night of the soul,” and a prelude to the ferocity of Trinity.

 Flynn’s inspiration for “Kanal” (1976), the first section of Trinity, reaches back farther in history, to the unspeakable cruelty waged upon Poland during World War II as depicted by Andrzej Wajda’s film of the same name. Here, the music evokes enormous physicality – the ear recognizes gestures, rather than motifs or intervals, which leap around, pummeling the keyboard. The effect is nearly inhuman – Kenneth Derus, in the accompanying booklet, makes an apt comparison with Conlon Nancarrow’s music for player piano. The texture thins out, again only briefly, as if isolating Eliot’s passages of speculative meditation upon our relationship to the past and future, but erupts again into bristling flurries, like quickly shifting memories, leading to almost frantic episodes of crushing violence. “Wound” (1968), the succeeding movement, was actually composed first, and predates Pieces of Night as a protest to the war in Vietnam. In performance it infiltrates the conclusion of “Kanal,” arriving unnoticed, and introducing a moderating sense of delicacy and restraint amid the rigorous, exasperated, volcanic outbursts that continue unabated. “Salvage” (1993), in part a reference to Eliot’s “The Dry Salvages” (a group of rocks off the coast of Cape Ann, Massachusetts), but also an attempt to salvage humanity, and sanity, from the ravages of war, prepares the listener for an unknown resolution. Disruptive bass rumbling and high-end fluttering, like aftershocks of an earthquake, alternate with florid, surprisingly Romantic ascending and descending passages, and the music ultimately resolves into quiet, sparse, nearly motionless serenity, unlike anything that has come before – a memory imagined, not actually re-lived, in the “stillness” of a tentative, if peaceful, future.

We are fortunate to have Flynn’s own remarkable performance of this music documented for us. He recorded “Wound” in 1974, and “Kanal” in 1986; both were previously released, separately, on Finnadar LPs. “Salvage” was recorded in Southport’s studio in 1999, and all three have been combined in Southport’s two-CD release. Southport’s producer Bradley Parker-Sparrow did an exceptional job of remastering the earlier recordings to improve their sound quality. In 2007, Swedish pianist Fredrik Ullén recorded Trinity in its 90-minute-plus entirety for the Bis label. I haven’t heard his account (which Flynn has high praise for), but nevertheless wouldn’t want to be without the authority and commitment (not to mention the dazzling pianism) which the composer brings to the music. The uncompromising complexity and confrontational intensity of Trinity, as well as Pieces of Night, reveal the rugged determination that Flynn shares with other American Maverick composers – Ives, Henry Cowell, Cage, Nancarrow, Ellington, Monk, Rzewski, Taylor, and a few others. But it’s not the sound and fury alone that makes Flynn’s achievement noteworthy. His music has a conscience.

Art Lange©2011

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