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CD Feature/ William Stalnaker: "About Lear and Others"

img  Tobias

The two most important things in the life of William Stalnaker are music and his family. It should therefore come as a no surprise that he should pay equal respect to both of them on the occasion of the first album dedicated exclusively to his own music – with all the excitement, happiness and sad memories that come attached to that.

Stalnaker is one of many who have found their professional calling in teaching, but have never stopped composing. His influence may be found in the development of young talent in the USA, through his work as head of the music department at Portland State University, as co-founder of the Summer Festival Chamber Music Northwest or as father to Cellist Sara, whose capacities as a solo artist and as part of the Providence String Quartet also feature on this disc.

“About Lear and Others” could never completely summarise his achievements, nor can it fully convey where Stalnaker presently stands as a composer. It is a huge task for any artist to not merely fill the 77-odd minutes at his or her disposal, but to actually make them seem coherent and representative. The solution chosen for this album reveals a healthy pragmatism on his side: “My choice was to include works consistent in style and dimension” – possible excentrities, one-offs, odd ducks and singular experiments therefore had no chance of inclusion from the outset.

You could, of course, argue that Stalnaker has slightly overdone it. His “Second String Quartet” returns in an orchestral transcription as a one-to-one “String Symphony” and “Re Lear” is presented both in a chambermusical setting and as a dialogue between Sara Stalnaker’s instrument and actor Noah Brody. Maybe one or two brief maverick compositions or an addition to his oeuvre from a different perspective would have been nice without disturbing the flow. But then again, there’s no arguing that the record manages to provide for enough variation to keep things interesting while getting his style across perfectly.

Speaking of which, William Stalnaker is a happy child of the Avantgarde. While he reduces it to the descriptive term of “atonal chromatism” and leaves “questions of expression and beauty” to his audience, there is a lot more to be said. His pieces certainly have a rhythmic elation to them, which contrasts with their brittle harmonic language. Melodic arches always seem to be upwardly curved, ascending weightlessly, before their helium supply abruptly runs out and sends them spiralling down again.

This bipolarity means that many of the tracks on “About Lear and Others” have both a smiling and a crying face to them. The one-movement “First String Quartet” (whose opening and finale are separated by a writing break of thirty years) sounds both tender and tragic, consoling and confronting and the dichotomy is continued in the “Second String Quartet”, another family-influenced score and a dirge for his son Daniel, filled with nostalgic dreams of better days.

The compactness of Stalnaker’s short melodic phrases is possibly most apparent in the solo Cello stirrings of his daughter Sara in the “Re Lear” transcriptions. Rather than representing separated chunks of a continuous tension arch, they appear to be of a responsorium-nature, as if the composer were constantly questioning his own thoughts, all circling around a reoccurring theme.

This inner conflict may be a reason why the general public has not quite caught on to him, even though ensembles such as the Moscow String Quartet turned to his talent for commissions: In a chaotic world, many regard the composer as a supplier of certainty, solutions and definite answers. William Stalnaker does not seem to want to provide them with that, nor is his work marked by the drastic proportions which could turn him into a novelty act. Maybe it doesn’t matter either. Fame, after all, hardly seems to be a good worth chasing for a man who regards music and his family as the most important things in life.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: MMC Recordings

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