On his New Yorker blog, the magazine’s music critic Alex Ross singles out “Ten Exceptional Recordings” of 2009. One, sharing the hit parade of the most prominent U.S. writer on classical music with recordings of Mozart, Schubert and Ravel, is Canadian. I discovered Eve Egoyan’s recording of what Ross calls Ann Southam’s “immense, mysterious piano piece” Simple Lines of Enquiry a few weeks before Ross started raving about it on his (other, former) blog. I believe it was this Star review that tipped me off. I’ve been reluctant to write about Southam’s work because it’s, well, immense and mysterious, but clearly it has a powerful hold on the attention of at least some people who hear it, and more should hear it.
It’s atonal in construction — if I understand the liner notes, each of its 11 movements is based on a separate 12-tone row, a 90-year-old technique for making sure you can never tell what key it’s in. It’s glacial in pace. Ross links to an Amazon page with long samples from the work, and what you hear there is pretty much what there is to hear: sparse block chords, long pauses, short ascending passages, another chord, another pause. It’s chilly stuff with more than a whiff of the academy about it. But it’s fascinating. I think part of it is Southam’s discipline — the damned thing never builds to an identifiable climax, never gets simpler, never speeds up — and the pianist’s obvious respect for the material. Part of it is the happy coincidences that produce, every now and then, juxtapositions of notes that sound like fairly congenial chords, which then give way to more immense mystery.
It’s very reminiscent of the music of Morton Feldman, whom you also don’t know; Ross’s mighty profile of Feldman is here. (In the acknowledgments to my book, I wrote that I’d listened to a lot of Feldman and Bruce Springsteen while I was writing, which was true. Nobody ever asked who the hell Morton Feldman was. Nobody reads acknowledgments.) Southam’s work, already one of the most prominent Canadian compositions of the past 30 years because it has caught the fancy of one prominent critic, sounds as though it was written as a response to Feldman’s question: “Do we have anything in music for example that really wipes everything out? That just cleans everything away?” If you have an ear for quiet adventure I cannot recommend Southam’s piece highly enough. You’ll find it on iTunes — it’s a funny world — or you can buy the physical CD here.