John Carbon: Inner Voices (CR058)

Review by Corin Nelson-Smith, Expressive Audio

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Although not technically a new record, this collection of contemporary instrumental and chamber music by Chicago born composer John Carbon has recently been re-mastered by Adaq Khan for Convivium Records, following the collapse of the MMC label for whom it was originally recorded. This re-publication has brought a range of Carbon’s unique chamber and orchestral works back to the foreground, and for good reason.

John Carbon studied composition at the Rice University and the University of California, and has since produced an impressive quantity of music including three operas, and over 70 choral, orchestral and chamber works. His natural flair for the extravagant and virtuosic lends itself particularly to symphonic writing, and his innovative orchestration and harmonic ideas make for a fascinating listening experience. Carbon’s works have been performed in a multitude of world class venues including Merkin Concert Hall New York, Carnegie Hall and Avery Fisher and Alice Tully Halls at Lincoln Center, and Boston’s Symphony Hall, so it feels like somewhat of an honour listening to these pieces at home. Admittedly, I think the vast atmospheric quality of some of the pieces, notably the ardent e forece opening movement of Inner Voices, would feel and sound completely different in a large concert venue, however the recording and mastering does a fantastic job at capturing and reproducing the emotional might behind each piece.

The CD features a selection of Carbon’s works recorded between 1992 and 2001, performed by The Warsaw National Philharmonic, Prague Radio Symphony, The Concordia Orchestra, Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble & Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra, as well as multiple talented soloists such as Claire Chan and William Koseluk. For the sake of not waffling, I shall look at the piece that interests me the most in this collection: the three movements of the Inner Voices Symphony on disc one.

This performance of Inner Voices was recorded in 1992 and performed by the Warsaw National Philharmonic, conducted by Robert Black. The symphonic work is actually constructed with three tone poems rather than traditional movements, each representing a different subject; the first being Tigers, the second Phantom, and the third Nightride. The album insert suggests that the structure of the piece is essentially through composed, and to a degree this is true, however the three movements are noticeably different enough to merit being analysed separately. I think what first attracted me to this piece was the fascinatingly raucous instrumentation, and, as a percussionist myself, the sheer range of percussive instruments that Carbon uses to create this fierce, powerful atmosphere. Just by ear I can pick out marimba, xylophone, vibraphone, bells, triangle, timpani, windchimes, tam-tam, snare, bass drum, and timbales, and I suspect there are numerous other small pieces written in the score, all adding to the excitement.

The first movement, Tigers, is a formidable exploration of some of the most powerful emotions; passion, heroism and mystery. Layer upon layer of tension is built with gripping crescendos, tribal sounding timpani interjections and almost oxymoronic delicate woodwind and string passages. The piece reminded me of waves in some ways. Gently pulling back, a momentary pause, and then a surge as the water comes crashing back up the beach with all the power of the incalculable weight of the sea behind it. It’s an incredible piece and one I think benefits from a number of listens through. I found myself noticing new things with each listen and found it continually surprising.

The second movement, Phantom, while retaining elements of Tigers, provokes an entirely different emotional reaction for me. The movement begins with a shimmering haze of strings providing a mournful backdrop for an equally mournful oboe solo, immediately introducing the overriding theme of loneliness that this movement focuses on. After the first of multiple tutti climaxes, the texture drops right back down to expose a solo violin melody which again builds up to a powerful but subtly underwhelming climax. This is followed by a horn solo, with delicate metallic tuned percussion offering an ethereal background atmosphere. The lack of pulse raising, harmonically satisfying concluding climax sums up the whole movement: build up the tension, don’t quite satisfy with the climax and return quickly to a desolate, sorrowful state. Relentless emptiness is how John Carbon himself describes this movement, and I couldn’t agree more.

The third and final movement, entitled Nightride, is a culmination of the two previous movements, building on the emotional material of Tigers and Phantom, but introducing an underlying air of violent determination and inner strength. Here the percussion really takes the spotlight, opening with tam-tam, snare, timpani and toms creating a vivid, antiphonal 3D effect which must be even more dramatic in a live performance. There is a fragment of a major melody introduced on horns that sounds almost deliberately out of place with the dissonant blasts and chromatic flourishes that they frequently play, however it is gone almost as soon as it begins, harking back to the feeling of expectancy and disappointment in Phantom. At the climax of this movement we hear every instrument clamouring, fighting and competing to be heard in a rather well-organised cacophony, which Carbon says represents the multitude of creative voices that compete to be heard in his head.

Although I personally enjoyed Inner Voices the most, all the pieces on both discs are well worth a listen and I suspect will open many listeners’ eyes, and indeed ears, to John Carbon’s very thoughtful, deliberate, and expressive form of musical writing.

Corin Nelson-Smith, Expressive Audio, May 2021

Further information

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