The history of American expressionism (as opposed to expressionism in America) is long and storied, as well as, to my mind, greatly and deeply misunderstood. Despite the fact that American poets have, in the words of critic Martin Boykan, “always thought of America as a haunted and tragic place,” there’s been an expectation that America’s composers project what Boykan called an American attitude of “professional cheerfulness” that sounded a “false note.”
Composers whose music communicated through expressionist tropes such as pantonality, angular melodic lines, and emotional extremity, were often considered somehow “less American,” or probably more accurately “more European,” than Americans writing in more conventionally “beautiful” styles. It was (and is) often thought, too, that music with expressionist qualities was limited in expressive range, so that only “negative” emotions and states of feeling could be expressed.
Carter Sessions Eckardt, the new disc of American music for violin and piano or solo violin by Miranda Cuckson (with pianist Blair McMillen) should go a long way towards providing a corrective to this misunderstanding. (Buy it from the label.)
Elliott Carter‘s 1973 Duo is given an expansive reading here, highlighting the dramatic and dramatically changing relationships between the violin and piano. The highly charged phrases and structure of this complex work are clearly characterized by Ms. Cuckson and Mr. McMillen in a performance of power and charm.
Jason Eckardt is among a group of younger composers rediscovering the pleasures of expressionism, but in a very different mode. Eckardt’s Strömkarl (2013) was written for inclusion on this program. It explores a playful side of the Modern and expressionism—its wide leaps, sometimes sparse textures, and sudden bursts of frenetic activity are expressive and exciting. I’ve heard some other pieces by Jason Eckardt, and I think he’s a composer worth keeping an eye on.
The real revelation of this disc (the high level of playing is not a revelation, because I’ve heard Cuckson and McMillen before, and they are always this good) is Roger Sessions‘ magisterial Sonata for Solo Violin, composed in 1953. With its long, arching phrases and intense expression across a wide range of moods and rhythms, and its expansive structure (lasting over thirty minutes), the Sonata is a Herculean task for the player. It is no carriage ride through the park on a spring day for the listener, either. But its difficulties are rewarding; in fact, they are part of the reward. Cuckson’s performance is direct, authoritative, and probing. In her extremely well-written and informative notes, she tells us that it was this piece, along with the Carter Duo, that set her on her artistic path. We can all be grateful that she is following the path with such grace and artistry.
Watch Cuckson and pianist Ning Yu perform Xenakis‘s “Dikhthas”: