L.08.5: “Odd Man” In!

ModBerMan Trio: Odd Man

CD review
The Atlantic Monthly
Charles Serittella, critic

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  • The great philosopher Georg Christoph Lichtenberg once opined, “When we read odes our nostrils expand and so do our toes.” I never knew what he meant until recently, when I heard Lyles’ “Trio for Piano, Trombone, and Soprano Saxophone” performed by the ModBerMan Trio and originally recorded at the New York Public Library’s “Odd Man Out Series.” Not only my nostrils and toes, but as the work itself dilated to fill the universe of its three movements, my brain and soul expanded as well.

    I was well aware of Lyles’ symphonic output, disturbingly familiar as it has become in recent seasons, but this is the first of his chamber works I have come across. No doubt my lack of awareness can be attributed to the lack of recordings of this part of his oeuvre, a lack I call upon our recording industry to rectify: more, more more!

    Working in what he has chosen to call his “post-minimalist” style pass4sure 140-420 (a label that has unfortunate associations, particularly as it is misapplied to his work), Lyles has crafted a stunning if difficult canvas for three widely disparate instruments. Indeed, without the skill of Maila and David Springfield and their colleague Joren Cain, it would be easy to imagine this work falling to pieces.

    However, it did not fall to pieces: it cohered, it jumped, it soared to its ethereal conclusion. But I get ahead of myself.

    The opening movement, labeled “Andante,” is a lovely nocturne, pass4sure ST0-075 beginning with Lyles’ trademark arpeggiations in the lower piano. Soon joined by the saxophone and, improbably, by the trombone, the figures change colors like watercolored fireflies until the wind instruments are released into a rhapsodic theme that hovers about the piano’s continued swirling. The whole thing eventually dies away the same way it came, and we are left thinking that this movement alone should have been enough.

    That feeling is an illusion, disproved by the impish scherzo that follows. The winds play hide and seek with a quirky little theme that dives in and out of the irregular rhythms of the piano’s chordal accompaniment. I was reminded of the peasant dance of the scherzo of Beethoven’s 6th, where the peasant band can’t quite keep the beat and neither can you. Without having seen the score, I presume Lyles resorted to multiple time signatures to achieve the same feeling, but I could easily be wrong.

    A wild, horrid, downward rush in the piano announces the opening of the final movement, labeled “Allegro agitato,” and it is clear the music has a dark message to impart. All three instruments pound and repound the descending theme without regard to meter or key until surely, one thinks, neither the composer nor the musicians—nor the listener—can stand any more, and then suddenly, gratefully, the whole piece bottoms out with what sounds as if it might be the longest note ever held by a trombone. (My brain rattled with the dreadful anticipation that it might be yet again assaulted by the main theme.)

    But the piano begins to rebuild its arpeggiations from the first movement, and the winds play an inverted form of the downward theme that allows us to rise from the ashes of the opening conflagration, lifting higher and higher until they are playing softly repeating notes, calling one to the other as the piano floats toward them, above them, and away.

    It left me quite breathless, and if you admire Lyles’ symphonic output, you will be quite astonished as well. He has crafted, from three unlikely instruments, a completely winning work.

    The other two works on the disc, while as effectively played by the ModBerMan Trio, do not offer as…

    8 Thoughts on “L.08.5: “Odd Man” In!

    1. OK, I’m sold. Where can I procure a copy?

      Love the cover, btw.


    2. The Pulitzer committee should have read Serittella’s review. I understand the “Symphonies” getting passed over year after year–the committee has lacked an appetite for pastiche for the last decade–but his Trio has some bite to it.

      I will say it’s interesting how critics can hear totally different things. This recording of the Trio got mentioned in a piece in The Nation recently. Six or seven works were touched upon in an assessment entitled something like “American Ears Have Ceased To Hear–Leftist Voices in the Vacuum.” The commentator suggested that the general public is incapable of mentally processing as music what Lyles and the rest of this new school of “Angry Progression” composers have been producing for the last five years or more. Consequently, it was perfectly reasonable to characterize the Trio, for instance, as a “conspiracy of muscular spasms wriggling under the sonic radar.” Pretty extreme compared to The Atlantic.

      I like the Trio. I find it soothes me particularly when I have to do some re-potting.

    3. The Nation
      Dear Editor:

      I feel I must object to Victor Orlov once again using that pernicious term “Angry Progressionist” to describe my music and some of my colleagues. [“American Ears Lose Touch: Leftist Voices in the Vacuum,” Sep. 09]

      Most of us who are lumped together under this inadequate label have so little in common (musically, of course; I find that most of us share a predilection for fine Scotch and dancing Dionysically around fires of an evening) as to make any astute reader wonder if the critic who uses it has ever had so much as a course in music appreciation. I know for a fact that Mr. Orlov has had several, so his writing can only be taken as deliberate obtuseness. What does “conspiracy of muscular spasms wriggling under the sonic radar” even mean? And was that in the nocturne or the scherzo?

      Further, what my politics—which I am proud to say are considerably left of even President Obama’s—have to do with how American consumers react to my music is quite beyond me. I have always considered myself a hidebound reactionary, musicologically-speaking-wise — really, symphonies? — but apparently Mr. Orlov is under the impression that I am so far avant garde that I have left the average American behind. Modesty forbids me to say anything other than that has not been my experience with audiences.

      And here I was just trying to write a pretty tune. Perhaps Mr. Orlov should have his own hearing checked.

      Dale Lyles

    4. Victor Orlov Replies:

      Lyles has always had the reputation as the most prickly of fellow travelers. My comments on his Trio were intended as an indictment of an American culture that clearly is clogged up in a resurgence of bourgeois complacency, certainly a surprise in this postmodern era. Other than quibbling with my choice of the phrase “sonic radar” when perhaps “sonar” would have made more sense, I can’t understand why anyone would resent what was clearly meant as a compliment. Perhaps Lyles would have preferred if I had said he stands revealed in his Trio as a Marsias resisting being flayed to the bone by his own Apollonian quietism. That, too, he should interpret as a compliment.

    5. Dear Victor,

      Apology accepted.


    6. Turff on April 17, 2008 at 7:30 am said:

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      Rock Band: Various Tracks
      from Xbox Live’s Major Nelson by Major Nelson
      Content: Avant Garde Pack 01
      Price: 440 Microsoft Points
      Availability: Canada and United States
      Size: 95.26 MB
      Dash Text: [ESRB: T (Teen) LYRICS,MILD SUGGESTIVE THEMES] Build your Rock Band library by purchasing this song game track pack: Avant Garde Pack 01. This pack includes “Imaginary Landscape No. 1” by John Cage, “Trio for PTSS” by Dale Lyles, and “Symphonie Pour Un Homme Seul” by Pierre Schaeffer. PLEASE NOTE: this music game track pack includes three music game tracks at a discounted rate over individual purchases. Many Rock Band songs are available as both a multipack and as a single game track. These songs are exactly the same (unless expressly noted as a special version or remix). Be aware that it is possible to download the same song twice so please carefully consider your purchases. For song credits, visit http://www.RockBand.com. There are no refunds for this item. For more information, see http://www.xbox.com/live/accounts.

    7. Pingback: Dale Says : A little work

    8. Pingback: Dale Says : I’m tired.

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