American Composer: Trevor Weston

By Kyle Gann

Somewhere between Boulez, jazz, minimalism, and gospel hovers the music of Trevor Weston - and not very close to any of them. From New Jersey originally, he studied at Tufts and Berkeley, and spent two years (1994-6) in Paris on a fellowship, where he had a brush with IRCAM, Boulez's musical research institute. Weston has lectured on blues, ragtime, and jazz, and part of his academic research has been on African-American composers in Charleston, South Carolina. A lot of his music is choral, and pragmatically written for church choirs, sometimes with a gospel tinge, sometimes more smoothly liturgical. Yet he's fond of glissandos and uses them effectively. His most conventional-seeming works can slip into avant-garde gestures and back. A little minimalist repetition takes over now and again. In short, Weston is in the very American position of absorbing an enormously diverse and mutually canceling array of styles and techniques - and somehow he's forged a style in the middle that's homogenous and logical, despite audible DNA pulled from all corners of the musical map.

Take his 2008 orchestra piece Messages. From the way it starts by dividing the strings into many separate lines echoing each other, you might suspect some influence from Ligeti's "micropolyphony," yet the studied repetition of a minor third sounds a little postminimalist, too; Ligeti and minimalism overlap a little, so that makes sense. But the violins start glissandoing through that repeated minor third, and the rhythm picks up a jazzy feel. Repeated notes dot their way through the orchestra, but the tonality's a little tense: more Bartok than John Adams. Then drums on regular off-beats begin to impose a dancelike rhythm. By this point you look at the program notes, and find that the music is an homage to the calls of the African-descended Gullah people of the Carolina islands; the glissandoing thirds mimic their singing patterns. After a pause, the strings begin languorously sliding through luscious parallel chords, a gesture both sensuous and avant-garde. It's all in there: European modernism, Gershwin-y jazz, African-American vernacular, a little postminimalism, and some post-war timbral effects. Because we associate these devices with different musical worlds, it reads like it must be a hodge-podge. But listened to with clean ears, the entire piece flows logically from that opening minor-third motive. Weston's just learned to respond to all the musical worlds he's worked in in a single, unified gesture.

It's no small feat - a tough balancing act for any young composer these days, but especially for one who's trained among the European avant-garde, teaches college theory (at Drew University) but finds himself working with church choirs and in the African-American community. A 2002 choral song Ashes is based on Psalm 102. It starts off cautiously from a single pitch (as many of Weston's pieces do, even instrumental ones) and spreads out into ever-shifting tonalities. On the words "for I have eaten ashes as it were bread," the voices begin to separate out temporally, and the following line "and mingled my drink with weeping" is sung unsynchronized, each singer at his or her own pace. The pitches are carefully chosen to make the resulting chord shimmer among different triads. No one would expect such a conventional-seeming song to seep into such a Feldman/Lutoslawski-style technique - nor do such techniques usually have such ambiguously tonal results - but the transition is gradual and the effect spine-tingling.

Weston's "public" works for chorus or orchestra are vernacular-inflected, but his chamber music is typically musing and introverted. Its title notwithstanding, Verve Music for flute, oboe, and cello (2004) is mostly slow and thoughtful, characteristically poised between polyphony and homophony. Seeping into tremolos and glissandos, chords turn into textures, textures turn back into chorales. Weston's rhythmic sense is gentle and surprising, sometimes flowing with the meter, sometimes effacing it. The music is almost meditative, but never quite static. Songs of the Anonymous Lover for soprano, viola, and cello (2001) borrows and possibly even quotes from a 14th-century idiom, but keeps turning it in unexpected chromatic directions. One of my favorite Weston works is a piano piece Eurythmy Variations (2007), a set of variations on a series of chords - not on a series of harmonies, like a chaconne, but on the actual variably consonant sonorities. Ralph Shapey has explored this territory (Fromm Variations) in more granitic, tension-ridden terms, but Weston's chords are like a sylvan pond occasionally disturbed by the sport of some water animal. He's not afraid to let music breathe and take its time, even pause for a long moment.

Weston's chamber magnum opus (and best piece so far, I think) is Life Goes (2004), which sets a series of gnomic haiku by Lewis Alexander for soprano and mixed ensemble - flute, clarinet, harp, vibes, cello. The first song's text is, "Life goes by moving / Up and down a chain of moods / Wanting" - and the music moves up and down in propulsive rhythmic interplay and bemused perplexity, until at the very end the soprano sings unaccompanied what life is wanting: "what's nothing." In another song ("I shall spend my moods / Like a rose discards its leaves / And die without moods"), the instruments dot the soprano's calm line with delicate Webernesque klangfarbenmelodie, except that the chords are consonant and rhythms in stately quarter- and half-notes. The techniques in this Eastern-tinged concert piece are given more avant-garde leeway than in the choral pieces, but the concentration on minor thirds as a starting point remains a personal touch.

Life Goes makes explicit, through its text, what the inner strength of Weston's music is: a kind of Zen renunciation. I read somewhere recently where some European Great Man complained that Americans don't have enough angst in their music - well, screw him - but Weston ventures into dissonance, weirdness, even muted violence, without the angst. Despite considerable rhythmic energy and a certain playful complexity of texture, there's an attractive calm at the center. He can move away from it and back without chasing after climaxes or catharsis. And it's probably not coincidental that he's also been trained into a wide range of classical and vernacular styles and found himself a nice place right in the middle.

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