Dusman Flashpoint Neuma 149

Linda Dusman (b. 1956)

Flashpoint for bass flute (2023)
Dream Prayer Lullaby for violin (2018) 
Lake, Thunder for B-flat clarinet and trombone (2015)
Dancing Universe for violin, cello and piano (2016/2023)
Corona Bagatelles for cello and piano (2021)
and numberless quotidian happenings, for bass drum (2022)
Mother of Exiles, for chamber orchestra (2019)
Various performers (listed after the review)
rec. dates unknown; University of Maryland, Baltimore, USA & Associazione Musica nel Mendrisiotto, Mendrisio, Switzerland (Dancing Universe)
Neuma Records 149 [61]

The music of the current Professor of Music at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Linda Dusman, is typically touched by environmental, political and social concerns. Her biography on her college page suggests that much of her recent output has been influenced by the surroundings of Cape Ann in Massachusetts, where she holidays each summer. Although the present monograph presents a generous selection of instrumental, chamber and ensemble work, Ms Dusman also seems to take a keen interest in sonic art and the use of technology. The pieces on this album were all composed between 2015 and 2023, and in many of them she reflects upon several staples of the contemporary news cycle, including climate change – specifically the devastation caused by wildfires (Flashpoint) – the global pandemic (Corona Bagatelles), and the ongoing catastrophe faced by refugees around the world (Dream Prayer Lullaby, Mother of Exiles).

Flashpoint is a brief and demanding solo for bass flute in which the performer is asked to incorporate vocalisation (both independently and through the mouthpiece), as well as to exploit the bass-flute’s potential for resonant, percussive effects (the pops and crackles of spreading fire are convincingly mimicked) and to extend the instrument’s potential for colour and harmony by the liberal use of multiphonics, which play a full part in the piece’s hushed, rather moving denouement. Lisa Cella provides a virtuosic, communicative account. 

Similarly, thought-provoking is the violin solo Dream Prayer Lullaby which combines the melodic features of lullabies from around the globe (Africa, the Middle East and most tellingly in this case, the Andes) with gestural fragments from Paganini’s 6th Caprice. The composer has clearly been moved by the events which took place on the southern border of the United States during 2018 when the children of families seeking entry from Central America were forcibly separated from their parents, a harrowing episode which seems to have been repeated elsewhere with depressing regularity during the five years which have followed. The modal inflections emerge from a sustained tone at the outset of a piece which soon takes on the form of a moving collage of half-remembered melodies, textures and silences. Airi Yoshioka negotiates its technical and emotional challenges with grace and tact. 

The duet Lake, Thunder is a collaboration between the improbable combination of E. Michael Richards (B-flat clarinet) and Patrick Crossland (trombone). In a succinct booklet note Alexandra Gardner characterises the work as a ‘meditation on energy’ although the energy evoked here is latent and potential rather than active. Again, the key material emerges from an extended single note, here on the clarinet. Motifs shadow, mirror and overlap with each other in a restrained fashion; an occasional low trombone blast suggests something is imminent, but Dusman keeps any potential surprise at arm’s length. Lake, Thunder is rather undemonstrative; microtonality is present yet skilfully and subtly embedded within the flow and the two instruments interact in surprisingly apposite ways. 

Then comes Dancing Universe, a nine-minute piano trio written in memory of the composer’s parents who both passed away in 2015. The piano, violin and cello combination seems to be one of Linda Dusman’s favourite ensembles; there are two other examples listed in the catalogue on her website. Inevitably, this piece is especially personal – within its span she incorporates fragments of old hymn tunes that were dear to her parents and whilst outwardly Dancing Universe seems to follow a more conventional arc than its companion pieces on this disc, it displays a power and poignancy which is quietly riveting. It proves to be another Dusman work which concludes on a note of hushed evaporation. Seemingly familiar melodic shapes materialise, but disappear before the listener can fully grasp them. It is performed with considerable respect and attention to detail by the Trio des Alpes; this is the one piece on the album that was recorded outside of Baltimore. The venue in Switzerland seems especially conducive to this music; the recording seems to be the most natural on this disc. 

If the title of the Corona Bagatelles provides a pretty clear clue to the background of this sequence for cello and piano, most of the names of the five miniatures which constitute it: Silent City, Quarantine Summer, Cape Ann Gulls: Pecking Order, Spring Torpor and Binding (Variations on “A”) are even more explicit. Yet these little pieces are not simple diary-like reflections; Alexandra Gardner reveals that the musical material contained in the set derives from “…a musical cryptogram of 1273 amino acids, which, chained together, create the spike protein of the COVID 19 virus”. The music is enigmatic enough to conjure emotional responses which will surely vary considerably from listener to listener. Appropriately, the Cape Ann Gulls referred to in the third piece evoke a language which hints at Messiaen without recourse to obvious imitation. “Spring Torpor” is spare and discomfiting; the concluding “Binding” is dedicated to a composer colleague of Dusman’s who passed away during the pandemic, although it seems more angry than elegiac in tone to my ears.

The intriguingly titled and numberless quotidian happenings is a quirky seven-minute piece for a bass-drum which only infrequently seems to resemble a bass-drum. It’s a sequence of rather diffuse phrases, gestures, and episodes in which the drum’s expressive vocabulary is extended by percussionist Tom Goldstein’s recruitment of everyday objects such as combs, threaded rods, as well as a reinforced arsenal of extra sticks and beaters. Dusman references Cape Ann again in this work by incorporating words and phrases from a poem about the geology of the area which are recited during the work by the drummer, and from which the piece’s inscrutable title is drawn. Other listeners may respond more favourably to this rather fractured piece than I did. 

The album concludes with its largest scale offering, Mother of Exiles for a chamber ensemble of eight players; two wind, three string, piano, harp and percussion. This 2019 reflection on the ‘State of the Union’ as it were again refers to the lullabies which featured in Dream Prayer Lullaby. One of these is introduced gently by the harp before the extended ensemble begin to riff around the melody as well as the more exotic rhythmic implications of African and Middle Eastern music. The flow of the piece is interrupted by peppery solos and duos, whilst the original harp tune returns roughly halfway through to drive a fluent and colourful interlude. Dusman handles this larger ensemble with flair, good taste and no little imagination whilst demonstrating an exceptional feeling for colour and texture; indeed, this impressive piece is likely to leave listeners eager to hear other examples of her work for larger instrumental groups. 

The individual musicians involved in this project strive to make the best possible case for Linda Dusman’s music; they are evidently comfortable with her style and strategy, whilst the Neuma production team has done a pretty good job in managing several different instrumental combinations. Ms Dusman is certainly not one of those composers who needs a megaphone to broadcast the merits of her music; on the whole it speaks most eloquently and expressively for itself whist easily holding one’s interest during repeated listens. I happily commend this disc to those readers whose curiosity extends to some of the less fashionable currents in contemporary American music.

Richard Hanlon

Availability: Neuma Records

Track list with performers:

  1. Flashpoint 
    Lisa Cella (bass flute)
  2. Dream Prayer Lullaby
    Airi Yoshioka (violin)
  3. Lake, Thunder  
    E. Michael Richards (B flat clarinet), Patrick Crossland (trombone)
  4. Dancing Universe 
    Trio des Alpes: 
    Hana Kotkova (violin); Claude Hauri (violoncello); Corrado Greco (piano)
    5-9 Corona Bagatelles
    Gita Ladd (violoncello); Daniel Pesca (piano)
  5. and numberless quotidian happenings  
    Tom Goldstein (bass drum)
  6. Mother of Exiles   
    Inscape Chamber Orchestra/Richard Scerbo