• Les Quatre Temps Cardinaux
: Review

The Boston Modern Orchestra Project and conductor Gil Rose bring their customary level of care and commitment to this stunning, fifty-minute realization of material by American composer David Felder (b. 1953). The BMOP, which recorded Les Quatre Temps Cardinaux on October 13, 2014, are joined by soprano Laura Aikin and bass Ethan Herschenfeld, all forces coming together to produce a seminal reading of Felder's creation. The work integrates acoustic and electronic elements into its expansive design, as well as lyrical vocal passages, poetry readings, and tumultuous orchestral episodes. Teeming with detail and unified by repeated reference to René Daumal's titular poem, Les Quatre Temps Cardinaux provides a representative sampling of Felder's style and approach. Among his many accomplishments, he's been a dissertation advisor for more than eighty composers in his position at SUNY, where he has been a dedicated professor and mentor since his arrival in Buffalo in 1985.

Grounded in the poetry of not only Daumal but also Robert Creeley, Dana Gioia, and Pablo Neruda, Les Quatre Temps Cardinaux advances linearly, of course, but is also cyclical in keeping with the “four cardinal times” enumerated in Daumal's text: dawn, noon, sunset, and midnight. In a manner reflecting the human experience of time, the linearity of the text's structure—four stanzas of four lines apiece, two lines of which follow a striking image (e.g., “The black hen of the night”) with two of salutation (“Hail the white, hail the yellow”)—is undercut by repeated returns, the opening stanza, for instance, appearing four times over the course of the piece: spoken first, sung by the soprano next, sung by both vocalists in the second part, and revisited by the soprano towards the end. Adding to the sonic richness of the presentation, the poets are presented in different ways, Daumal's words spoken (though by another), Gioia's read by him, Neruda's garbled into unrecognizability, and Creeley's also electronically altered in one of the two parts featuring his material. While Daumal's is the central poem, each text in its own way addresses the notion of time's centrality and our Proustian experiencing of it, the way in which separable times collapse to become a transtemporal whole.

In keeping with its arresting design, Felder has the work emerge out of near-silence, with a faint bass drum audible before the the recorded voice's entrance, the recitation in French instantly lending the presentation a distinctive aura. An accumulation of instrumental sounds and wordless vocals suggests awakening, the music swirling tumultuously in a manner reminiscent of the similarly phantasmagoric opening to Del Tredici's In Memory of a Summer's Day. As mentioned, the text from the opening is repeated, this time by both singers in ascending manner, their step-wise scaling amplified by an increase in the volume of the orchestral surround. Creeley's Spring Light is then sung by Aikin against a backdrop that shifts from a shimmering, electronics-enhanced backdrop to a percussion-heavy one, the poet's own recitation capping the movement in a micro-stutter treatment that renders the words indecipherable.

The work's second part begins with a brief fourth part, Herschenfeld declaiming Daumal's second stanza with a force almost exceeded by the orchestra, after which the fifth matches its intensity with Aikin singing in an upper register, the orchestra again almost overwhelming the singer in the fury of its expression. The energy level during this noontide-associated second part is explosive, which makes the relative calm of the gong-like sounds that usher in the winter-oriented third part all the more welcome. After wordlessly surfacing amidst icy harmonics, Aikin voices the third stanza of Daumal's poem before turning wordless again, this time using quarter-tone shifting to evoke a woozy, dreamlike realm. Reinforcing the winter theme is Creeley's reading of his Buffalo Evening, its text referencing the season directly in its line “Winter sits quiet here, snow piled by the road, the walks stamped down or shoveled.” The cyclical concept surfaces too in Herschenfeld's sung treatment of the poem, his rendition punctuated by the BMOP's ever-mutating backing. At this stage, the work decompresses for its most intensely electronics-styled section, with icy sonorities strengthening the impression of wintry isolation and stillness.

Gioia's recitation of his Insomnia initially startles in shifting the sound design abruptly from electronic atmospherics to a conventional reading voice, the change signifying the transition from winter to night, but Herschenfeld's subsequent vocalizing of the text, especially with the BMOP as accompaniment, re-establishes the daring character of Felder's design. The text, naturally, reference time, in this case noting how the noises a house makes during the night can engender musings in the sleepless owner about time's irrevocable passage and life's tendency to slip-slide away. Herschenfeld's deep voicing of Daumal's fourth stanza brings the work to a seeming close, though a postlude featuring battering drums, horns, and the soprano returns us to the emergent tone of the work's opening minutes.

Felder's work is an unremittingly gripping creation that is even more rewarding when full attention is given to the concept behind it and the texts he used to amplify its meanings. More than a remarkable work of singular character, Les Quatre Temps Cardinaux is further distinguished by the conviction Rose, Aikin, Herschenfeld, and the BMOP bring to the performance. The demands made upon the vocalists and the orchestra are considerable, but all meet the challenge handsomely.

September 2020