WOMACK: Walk Across the Surface of the Sun (2008). strung out (2007). An Intimate Moment (2007). Scherzophrenic (2005). Koto Coloring Book (2008). water (falls) (2006). A Glinting Edge of Sky (2008). A Little Something Extra (2007).
AURA-J/Tôru Sakakibara; Ignace Jang (violin); Reiko Kimura (koto); Thomas Rosenkranz (piano); I-Bei Lin (cello); Seizan Sakata (shakuhachi).
Albany TROY1175 TT: 71:44.

More is less. Donald Reid Womack (b. 1966) grew up in the American South. He received degrees from Furman and from Northwestern University in philosophy, music theory, and composition. He has spent time in Japan and now teaches at the University of Hawaii. Eclectic, he has based his music on Southern folk tunes, jazz, rock, and Pacific Rim music. The works here fall mainly into the latter category, although often these strains co-exist. Almost all of the scores recorded here use at least one traditional Japanese instrument.

I hesitate to say this because I know so little about Japanese music, but it seems to me as if Womack -- at least in these works -- doesn't want to re-create the traditional forms, although he does incorporate some of the sounds. He differs from a composer like Colin McPhee, for example, who tries to re-create the gamelan orchestra in Western terms.

Indeed, the first item on the program, Walk Across the Surface of the Sun, shows the opposite - an ensemble of traditional Japanese instruments play with manic Western energy. Percussive cross-rhythms and syncopations drive the music along. It may well count as my favorite piece on the CD. It won't let my fingers or toes keep from tapping. I have no idea, however, how the title relates to the music. Womack provides a poem:

strange places to be

float in a raindrop
ride a bolt of lightning
walk across the surface of the sun

Of those three, "ride a bolt of lightning" comes closest to the music's spirit. However, it might be well to point out that for many of the pieces, the title functions not as information, but as huckster to get people inside the tent. Womack's titles, except for "Scherzophrenic," fail to thrill me. Most of them have the new-age-y vagueness people often mistakenly associate with real poetry. Nevertheless, it doesn't bother me all that much. A composer could call his composition "Albert," if he wanted, as long as the music held interest.

For violin and koto, strung out begins in what seems to me traditional Japanese musical contemplation. Following this, however, a more agitated mood gradually unfolds. More Western-style syncopations creep in. These suddenly cut off, for another slow windup and fastball. The rhythms become even jazzier, and the koto sounds more and more like a Western harp. The music builds to an angry climax, before the contemplative music steals in again for a quiet close. The score has no development in the classical sense, but it keeps listener interest for nearly 12 minutes with just two instruments. Pretty impressive.

An Infinite Moment for violin and piano reminds me a bit of Copland pastoral -- slow, telling progressions of widely-spaced chords and terse melody, all trying to burrow inside you. Womack sets up interesting contrasts between consonance (usually in the piano chords) and dissonance (the violin against those chords). It seems shorter than it actually is, one clue to its quality.

In Scherzophrenic for solo cello, the composer sets out to write a virtuosic piece, a more or less traditional scherzo. Again, a relentless forward impulse drives the music. Lots of double-stops and rocketing between the extremes of the instrument's range pile rub shoulders with different bowings. About the only string technique Womack doesn't resort to is pizzicato.

However, by the time I got to Koto Coloring Book -- a suite of seven pieces for solo koto -- I began to tire. There's nothing wrong with Koto Coloring Book in itself. However, although very well-written, it seems like I've heard it all before -- and recently. "Black Hole," for example, exhibits the same rhetorical structure as Walk Across the Surface of the Sun and strung out. Indeed, nearly all of Womack's fast music on this disc takes the same approach, and even the liner notes betray the composer's inability to come up with different descriptions. He seems to resort to the same types of riffs, employed to the same general ends, rather than to something new. Only the instrument has changed. This may come down to a simple matter of poor programming. Since I don't know any other music by him, I don't really stand on secure critical ground.

The composer describes water (falls) -- somewhat wishfully, I think -- as a sonata. It consists of three movements for piano: "cloudburst," "a suspended liquid veil," and "rain down." Unfortunately, I have just finished listening to a few different versions of Beethoven's "Hammerklavier," so I'm undoubtedly not in the right frame of mind to go along with Womack on this one. The score describes three states of rain. The first movement, "cloudburst," is more of the same kind of fast music we've heard before. However, the second movement, "a suspended liquid veil," I find lovely. "rain down" is fast music, but for once fast music of a different type, quite interesting in its own right. Womack notes the influence on the sonata of Ligeti's etudes, and I can see his point.

Even at nearly ten minutes, A Glistening Edge of Sky, for koto and the shakuhachi (flute), sings intensely. Womack considers it the piece of his that comes closest to traditional Japanese music. Koto and flute play their own material at what seems like an illusion of each player's independent pace. Yet the two strains fit each other. The score has the concentration of a haiku.

The composer describes A Little Something Extra as a companion piece to An Infinite Moment, written in the same year. This morceau's a bit of le jazz hot, à la the Copland piano concerto. It's a quick delight.

The performances are without exception committed. Some of this music isn't easy to bring off, since it doesn't hide behind a lot of notes. Yet something failed to satisfy me, and I suspect it's the programming. If I would hear any of these pieces in isolation, I'd be happier. En masse, more is less.

S.G.S. (February 2011)