September 28, 2018
The Music of Dennis Kam
Pedroia Quartet; Sirius Quartet
Mia Vassilev, piano; Amy Tarantino-Trafton, piano.
Navona Records 6179
Total Time: 47:01
Composer Dennis Kam (b. 1942) was the Chair of the Composition and Theory Department at the University of Miami, Coral Gables where he taught for some 36 years. He is currently composer in residence and associate conductor of the South Florida Youth Symphony. He studied at the Oberlin Conservatory, the Salzburg Mozarteum, the East-West Center at the University of Hawaii, Toho Gakuen (Japan), and at the University of Illinois. Salvatore Martirano was one of his composition teachers. The present recording includes his first two piano sonatas and string quartets. It allows for an exploration of the composer’s style from an early, middle, and later period of his life.
Some twenty years separate the two string quartets on this album. The String Quartet No. 2 (1986) opens the album and features the Pedroia Quartet. The three-movement work was originally written for the Composer’s String Quartet. The work is constructed along the lines of focused pitches and tonal relationships that are thus implied due to the use of repetition. This also impacts the overall form. The ideas are spread across smaller motives which are repeated across the ensemble. Arrival points on tremolo accents in the first movement help provide some formal signposts for a seven-note idea that is transformed and inverted throughout the movement. The central movement slows things down slightly with the more angular line sometimes being smoothed out for lyrical moments. The final movement continues this exploration of motives with a few cadential moments allowing for vertical alignment of the music which otherwise features these motives tossed about the quartet in an intricate, and interlocking manner.
The aspects of the second quartet have slightly softer edges in their angular writing. One can hear these ideas explored in Kam’s earlier string quartet (1966) which is performed by the Sirius Quartet. It is a single-movement work that comes from Kam’s early explorations of post-Webern atonal writing and explores extended sonics available on strings. Tight pitch constructions are part of the compositional structure here in the often sparse texture. Kam explores the way tone is produced on the strings both with hard accents and a variety of pizzicato and bowing techniques. The ideas tend to be more linear in this work.
The two piano sonatas, both about ten minutes in length, are more recent works. The pieces were composed for the very artists performing here. The first sonata (2002) would become the basis for additional instrumentation, first for clarinet, and then violin and cello. This is the solo piano version showing the initial genesis of the musical materials of rhythm and pitch. The opening thematic line is a long, and somewhat sinuous one that is laid out sparsely after a brief chordal opening. After this slow introduction, a burst of energy begins to pick things up as the smaller motives of the line are explored and move us to the opening chords again. From these ideas, Kam then works to construct this piece with repeated lines helping to provide aural signposts. The middle portion of the sonata has an almost romantic thrust within Kam’s contemporary musical language with grand gestures and traditional expanded harmonies.
The second sonata (2010) is a more mathematically precise work that takes inspiration from an opening motive from Kam’s aria “The Lovely Octave” (in the brief opera Opera 101-Opera Spoofa). It is an exploration of how time and proportions can be structured to create a tight organizational structure related to Fibonacci proportions. One hears in this work the same sort of semi-angular melodic lines that are spread across the keyboard here with specific patterns moving along and repeated for emphasis. This does help provide an aural connection for the listener in this rather interesting modern work. Somehow, even though the music is essentially “atonal”, the harmonic results are really not as dissonant as one might otherwise anticipate. Instead, the motivic ideas become the dramatic glue that helps provide shape to these alternating patterns. The central portion piles these into some rather rich extended harmonies. Both elements are then explored as the sonata progresses.
The works here are good examples of Kam’s compositional style. The quartets show the way his approach has evolved somewhat over time. The sonatas see a few more touches of traditional harmony that make them slightly more accessible, but those interested in the string quartet genre may wish to explore his work here.