Fanfare Review - These are Different Times

KINOSIAN The American Story. Evocation: In Memoriam (9/11/2001). The Four Elements Ÿ Upton TrŸ ALBANY TROY 1151 (62:17)

Mary Lee Taylor Kinosian is the violinist of the Upton Trio (with Dusan Vukajlovic, cello and Billy Shepherd, piano), based in Columbia, South Carolina. She’s obviously a multi-talented and vigorous musician; her pieces have energy, flow, and aren’t afraid to pile on the notes—but in the service of genuine expression. The trio plays her music passionately (it’s good to see such mutual support among players), and I salute the natural, unpretentious way they make this new music an integral part of their profile.

The three pieces are all programmatic, and two are suites. The American Story(2007) is a five-movement portrayal of American historical themes, centering on the issue of race and its effect on the nation. It has a blues movement as its second and an Irish reel as its third, though for my ear the music starts to assume a more individual profile when the composer writes in an overtly Romantic medium in the final two. Evocation (2002) is a 9/11 piece, though it has two extended fast sections that remind me very much of the harmonic progressions one hears in Piazzolla’s tangos. The Four Elements (2006–07) is, while programmatic, more abstract, and benefits from this. Kinosian writes in a full-throated tonal language here that’s surges along with the pleasing grace of a good pop song. This leads to the big issue, that of aesthetics. The title of the disc is “Times Are Different.” But different from what? If Kinosian and the Uptons are suggesting that this music, based largely on popular, ethnic, and more conservative classical styles, is different from the big, bad, atonal modernism of a while back, well, yes, but that’s a straw man by now. That sort of music hasn’t held sway for at least three decades; in fact, from my perspective, it seems that almost every younger composer now wants to write hip, fresh, rhythmically snappy music referencing popular styles. The only problem is that there’s so much of this written that it’s the new cliché, and it, too, starts to sound rather faceless.

So Kinosian’s music faces the burden, ironically enough, of sounding old-fashioned nowadays (not 1885 old-fashioned; I mean c. 1985 old-fashioned). The good news is that while her overall sound is not that inventive, the details within it often are. She’s not afraid to create heterophonic wailing and layer things on, as in the blues movement of The American Story. The 9/11 piece, even though I find its general tone almost inappropriate for the subject matter, does end in a final few bars that defy easy expectations and suddenly create some space for contemplation. And theElements is best at going deeper into its material, such as the glissandos and harmonics of the second, Impressionistic “Air” movement, final “Fire” movement, which actually takes on a character and energy that doesn’t sound derivative, just infectious.

It seems to me that composers who take this approach of writing within given stylistic templates may need to rethink how they do it, if they want to do more than have the success of a one-time crowd-pleaser that sounds less interesting with each successive encounter. Either they’ll need to choose languages that are so far from their own roots that they can’t help but be inventive (because they misinterpret the source; that may seem perverse, but Steven Mackey’s Indigenous Instruments is a great, successful example thereof)—or they’ll have to bring a truly idiosyncratic personal take on the material that makes us hear it in a completely new manner (think Ives).

Kinosian is on the front lines as a performer, and I know she has to weigh such considerations with the pleasure her concert listeners probably get in the moment from her music’s familiarity with other works they know. I don’t want to dismiss that. I can assess the scene, but ultimately I’m not in her place, so I won’t play judge and jury. But I think there are signs of a truly vital musical personality here that will actually find even more exciting material the more she pushes her envelope (as in the final movement of the Elements.) Time will tell.

Robert Carl