You are standing between two mirrors. You turn to face one and are confronted with infinitely repeating reflections of yourself: this is one kind of recursion. Another type is when there is a picture on the cover a book showing someone holding a book, which has a picture of the same person holding the same book, and on and on, ad infinitum. In math and technology recursions are also related to fractals, in which the part is identical to the whole at any scale. Recursions is also the name of the debut solo album by violist Nicholas Cords.
That's a lot of mental baggage to put into the title of a record. Perhaps it is Cords's way of nudging his listeners to the realization that the music within is, despite spanning centuries and continents, self-similar. His selections certainly make full use of the viola's dark-hued tones and rich timbre. The music is emotional, sometimes almost anguished, and often filled with broad strokes rather than virtuosic details - although the playing is flawless, as you would expect from a member of both groundbreaking string quartet Brooklyn Rider and Yo Yo Ma's globe trotting Silk Road Ensemble. Recursive though it may be, there is nothing repetitive about this album.
The opening track, Heinrich Biber's Passacaglia, has a haunting, almost medieval air, despite being composed in 1676, and leads perfectly into Port Na BPucai (the music of the fairies), a traditional Irish theme arranged by Cords. In barely 14 minutes we have traveled from Baroque Salzburg to a timeless Irish past, finding commonality of feeling between the two. The Biber piece is part of a larger work, the Rosary Sonatas, which details the life of Mary in 15 settings but if there is any irony in setting it beside "fairy music," you won't find it here.
British composer Edmund Rubbra's Meditations on a Byzantine Hymn 'O Quando E Cruces' from 1964 follows, and another theme emerges, that of translations and transcriptions. The Biber work, after all was originally written for violin and the Irish tune is often played on the uilleann pipes. Like Biber, Rubbra draws on the monophony of medievalism before moving into some decidedly un-hymn like dance rhythms, sometimes plucked or strummed in an almost off-kilter fashion. This is no intellectual exercise, however - there is a mood of exploration that carries you through.
Armenian folk tunes are the basis for Alan Hovhaness's Chahagir (1945), one of only two American works on the album. There is no cheap exoticism contained in the piece; rather it is a passionate essay that fully respects the composer's Armenian roots. Cords's playing is fiery, but always in control.
The next piece, Five Migrations, composed by Cords's himself, totals just over seven minutes yet is the heart of the collection, drawing together all the themes and variations contained within. An overview:
- Timegate (:51) Multitracking allows Cords to play a spacy melody over his own ostinato.
- Stilted Reverie (:48) Combines scrapes, drones and an eastern-tinged tune.
- Anachronism (2:07) A subtle glitchy undertone supports a song of shadowed sunshine.
- Labyrinth (:56) Fractured plucking and strumming adds up to a neat little machine of sound.
- Landing (2:21) The most obviously recursive work here, this is like a folk song in the form of a round and is reminiscent of Penguin Cafe Orchestra.
Five Migrations is an exciting and detailed piece, full of intriguing possibilities. The last section segues naturally into Stravinsky's brief Elegie (1944), which is somber and reflective, providing an apt antechamber for the closing piece, Paul Hindemith's Sonata for solo viola, Op 11, #5 from 1923. Astringent, sometimes almost angry, Hindemith's music here seems to be pointing out something that is glaringly obvious to him but unseen by the rest of us. There is some very dense writing in the sonata, with the occasional flashy run, and Cords dispatches the many challenges with bite and flair. This is a fairly early work by Hindemith, composed before he was 30, but Cords finds a through-line and a maturity of conception that other recordings seem to have missed. It's not an immediately welcoming composition, but repeated listening reveals much to engage with.
Hindemith's final movement is called In Form und Zeitmass einer Passacaglia, which loosly translates as "in the form and correct timing of a passacaglia." Not only is this yet another instance of a composer drawing on and translating from another time and place, it also snaps us right back to where we started, with that earlier Germanic passacaglia.
The word "passacaglia" derives from Spanish words meaning "to walk the street," but what Nicholas Cords has given us on Recursions is no mere stroll but a full-on excursion through times, time, and places. Book your ticket.
Recursions is released March 12, 2013 on In A Circle Records. Catch Nicholas Cords and Brooklyn Rider in a free concert on May 5th.