A couple of years ago while surfing the Web for stray recordings of Latvian music, I came upon an obscure Danish compact disc of music by a Latvian-born composer who was completely unknown to me at the time—Indra Riše. Born in Latvia in 1961, where she studied piano and composition, she left for Denmark in 1993 for advanced study on a state scholarship and has lived there since. This second release of her music, The Return, has afforded me a welcome opportunity to get to know her music, and I’ve recently seen an announcement for a third release from Sweden, so she is clearly a rising star.
The Return has tremendous variety and begins with "The Return," written for the piquant combination of mezzo-soprano, flute, cello and accordion. The work presents an interesting paradox: while I did not find it particularly compelling as I listened to it, the impression left by the music is oddly haunting and effective in retrospect. Certainly, one usually has to hear an unfamiliar work several times before having a clear sense of it, but somehow this music felt so fragmented every time I listened to it that I didn’t sense a logical progression of events.
However, repeated listenings have enhanced the effect of the music in my memory, so perhaps the logic of this music is less obvious. Sometimes vaguely Mahlerian, gently nostalgic and wistful, occasionally bittersweet, there is an overall feeling of disjointed and fractured memory. The text by Kārlis Skalbe, one of the most beloved of Latvian poets, is powerful enough to withstand such an unusual adaptation with no loss of impact, but this is a very different way of treating his poetry than I can recall any other composer having done.
Some of these characteristics of experience versus memory are shared by "Pictures of Childhood," but in a more unusual way. The work consists exclusively of electronically distorted or morphed vocalizations, sounds and words from a solo singer, resulting in an often bizarre variety of effects, evocations and reflections on childhood memories. The first movement, with clever and often amusing chugging and hissing, seems to recall a train ride. The second is filled with the sound of barking dogs, but I was hard put to detect the fear that the composer claimed to evoke. The third consists of a chittering, chirping background with an aimlessly meandering vocal line. Perhaps a very young child listening distractedly to an improvised lullaby amid everyday sounds?
The earliest work in this program is "Three Colored Stories," for solo piano. Brilliantly played by the composer herself, its three movements sound rather French at times, though by no means derivative.
A more spiky and abstract work, the "String Quartet" is somewhat Stravinskyish at times, and occasionally reminscent of Pēteris Vasks’ music, in a laconic way.
Finally, the very emotive and sometimes raucous "Out of Darkness" is for solo saxophone, using a variety of techniques and playing styles, and progressing through a series of moods. The subtlety of mood and timbre is probably quite challenging and interesting to the player, but this piece did not draw me in like the other works on this album and I didn’t find it very appealing, either as I listened to it or recalling it afterward. Perhaps it wasn’t meant to be, since it is about "unresolved conflict."
This is a splendidly produced, generously filled album with stellar performers and a superb recording, with program notes in four languages. Not aggressively avant-garde, much of this music still requires mental involvement and a readiness to approach it on the composer’s terms, not as mood music or mindless ambience. After an initial listening, I didn’t think I would come back to this disc very often, but some of it is so unexpectedly intriguing and haunting that I find myself being drawn to it more than I expected. Much of Riše’s music deals with memory, moving musicologist Ilze Liepiņa to write, "allusions to childhood and fairy tales are always important to the composer: being childish means for her being emotionally genuine and wise." Challenging as it may be at times, this is certainly sincere music. If you are moderately adventurous you should give it a try.
Dacapo Records, 2000
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