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EXPLORING MUSIC : Constructed with Skill and Originality

The MHS Review 392 Vol. 11 No. 14 1987

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Robert Maxwell Stern


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It's certainly true that through the ages styles and sounds in music have changed. Instruments, too, have changed and new ones have been in­vented. But the forms of music, when brass tacks are revealed, have not. Symphonies have been symphonies and always will be, whether they come from Mozart or Ives. Opera by Monteverdi, Philip Glass, or anybody in between is (you guessed it) opera. The same holds true for chamber music.

Before the blue bloods turn this page with a supercilious snap, I might as well explain by way of historical background. Strictly speaking, chamber music is (literally) music to be played in a room (da camera) as opposed to music to be played in a church (da chiesa). As a general rule, chamber music is played by a small group, usually with one player to a part (although there are snobbish arguments to that, too). In any case, the overall idea is ensemble activity, except in certain cases when in­dividual parts emerge from the general texture.

As long as there have been elite classes to employ musicians and com­posers there has been chamber music. It hit its stride and form, however, with the quartets by Boccherini and Haydn. The form was nurtured by Mozart and the young Beethoven, who later began to expand and alter the genre. Schubert brought it toward romanticism; the middle romantics, such as Mendelssohn and Schumann, greatly favored the form.

In the second half of the 19th cen­tury, chamber music was written by Franck, Brahms, Dvorak, and others as a particularly personal vehicle. Later composers, such as Debussy, Ravel, Schoenberg, Bart6k, Milhaud, and Stravinsky, created very notable chamber music, as did Hindemith, who called it Kammermusik.

The modern composers' idiom, of course, differs immensely from that of Boccherini and Haydn, but structural­ly the movement-by-movement layout has changed but little. The chamber piece has certainly preserved its original 18th-century patterns no mat­ter what the musical ideas and dialects with which composers have chosen to fill out those patterns.

Paul Nash, in this collection, has certainly filled those patterns via the idiom of jazz. Night Language (the ti­tle comes from a poem by a young San Francisco poet which was inspired by this music) intrigues in many ways, but especially in its great variation of in­strumentation and style. The com­poser, in his notes, has described it as a striving ''towards a synthesis, . sometimes a juxtaposition of concert music and full-blown jazz."

The listener will find, within the nine compositions contained in this recording, pieces inspired by 19th­-century romanticism, baroque polyphony, bossa nova rhythms, the style of Charles Mingus (delightful!), and African flavors--each piece con­structed with enormous skill and great originality. Outside of the three solo pieces, this certainly is chamber music. There can be no argument about that.

Review of Night Language: Music by Paul Nash

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