Hats Off, Gentlemen…
Nine or ten years ago I made the dramatic switch to Sibelius™ music notation software—dramatic for me, at least, because until that time I had been struggling along with a combination of hand written scores and an older, less user-friendly software program. Sibelius™ was an instant revelation, and I have not looked back, but the turning of that particular corner is not the subject that this entry is meant to address. One of the collateral benefits of entering the world of the Finn brothers was an introduction to the Website SibeliusMusic.com, which was meant to be a form of self-publishing for user of the software. Although my participation in that site has diminished—for various reasons—one of the blessings it bestowed was an introduction to many self-publishing composers of varying degrees of accomplishment and experience, some of whom remain good friends even now. I am also happy to say that by participating in the site I also discovered some extraordinary talents—one of whom (“At last!” I hear you say) is the subject of this disquisition.
Darren Russo, born in 1984 in Montreal, Quebec, will graduate from McGill University in music composition in December of this year, but our acquaintance goes back to the days when he was first laboring away as an undergraduate. I first knew of Darren as one of a handful of talented young composers who participated to varying degrees in the discussion forum of SibeliusMusic. Naturally, I investigated his music, which showed definite promise at that time, even if it seemed somewhat academic. Gradually, that changed, and as the years went by and Darren posted more of his new compositions on the Website for viewing and listening, I came to understand that his was an extraordinary imagination and a promising talent. Through our e-mail and online conversations I have learned that, even though we are separated by some twenty-five years or so, our backgrounds and our journeys toward classical music and composition are not all that dissimilar. For example, both of us apparently fell down the unexpected rabbit hole by way of hated piano lessons that “took” in spite of being despised, and through the courtesy of mothers who were more paragons of determination than musical appreciation. Mother Russo’s reported catch phrase—“Darren, stop banging! Play something nice!”—has an all too familiar ring to it. I could spend some time drawing comparisons that may or may not contribute to my perception of Darren’s work as worthy of note, but as this is not meant to be a biography—a fence at which I would most certainly balk—I will pass over the similarities of a lack of family grounding in classical music, or a self-directed course in discovering the works of the canon with only this tiny mention. However, the idea of classical music and composition as a form of rebellion is not unfamiliar, and in Darren’s life this was certainly so, by his own telling. I hope it is not an exaggeration to say that this sort of self-scripted curriculum often produces the most imaginatively diverse work later on, and this is one characteristic of Darren’s music that appeals to me a great deal.
[Note: most of the links laid out in the following are to Darren’s scores on the SibeliusMusic Website, which may require that you download the Scorch plug-in if you wish to view them.]
Unsurprisingly, of course, there is an element of the iconoclastic and experimental that Darren brings to the fore. This is not to say that he is determined to reinvent the wheel—by his own account, one of the things that he has learned is that “tonality is not dead (as my CEGEP composition professor was determined to convince me). And it can still sound fresh and interesting, and yes, even still be used in original ways.” What’s not to love about that attitude? But I always bear in mind that there is sometimes an intrinsic appeal in the work of the young for someone who has been around for some time; it may be stereotypical to say, but the young and emerging composer will sometimes take risks or set out combinations that an older composer might not contemplate. Listen, for instance, to the contrast and conflict between the lyricism of the second of the Songs of Innocence, “No More” and the free-form, stream-of-consciousness lyrics with their “shocking” elements that almost escape one’s notice because of the beauty of the music. There is often going to be an appeal in such incongruity, particularly when it is viewed from the other end of the chronological spectrum, probably because it would be as inappropriate or unlikely for a composer like me to write such a work as it would be for me to buy a pair of skinny jeans from the Gap. But I do not think we should make the mistake of thinking that this incongruity is a sign of thoughtlessness or naiveté. Listen again, and the bitterness of the work is amplified by the simplicity of the setting. To my ear, this is a sophisticated approach that is all the more appreciated for being, perhaps, unexpected.
Completely without bitterness, however, is the fourth of the Songs of Innocence, called, somewhat confusingly, “Introduction.” Of course, this is the title of the William Blake poem that provides the text, but it is still somewhat strange (and yet characteristic) to see the fourth song of a cycle called “Introduction.” However that may be, this altogether charming setting is a masterpiece of melody and instrumentation, and while it is not, perhaps, everyone’s ideal example of the “innocence” evoked by Blake, it is nonetheless a perfect setting for Darren’s intention, and in its demand for attention and worthiness of having gained that attention, it is a prime example, too, of the marriage of old and new that colors the composer’s music both musically and textually.
There is an element of theater about Darren’s work that not only works amazingly well, but is quite beguiling. Listen to the recording of his Tick Tock, Bang Bang for a superlative example of his dramatic sense as well as his approach to humor. I really wish we could see the visuals that went along with this piece, but even in the audio-only recording it is an enchanting success. As Darren has said, “It’s more than music, it’s theater! Double success; it made a room full of people laugh.” Surely that is not an unworthy goal.
Continuing with the dramatic sense, listen to a selection from the collaborative work, Hansel and Gretel, in particular the “Blackbird Chorus 1.” Darren has told me that he does not consider this his finest work, and that the performance itself was something of a curate’s egg, but I think that is a problem that often affects collaborative works. Darren’s contributions to the work are worth reviewing, particularly because of the glimmer that one may get of the future, when he moves on to dramatic works of his own, as I am sure he will do.
A completely different approach to vocal/choral music is reflected in Darren’s Missa Syllabis. Composed in the amazingly short span of five weeks, this is an amazing piece, and while some may question the appropriateness of the dissection and syllabification of the texts, I feel that this is just the sort of imaginative leap that demonstrates the importance of Darren’s imaginative voice. After studying this work I came to the conclusion that Darren’s response to and use of the text is one of the few that makes sense in this properly non-religious age. I have always regarded the somewhat overly earnest attempts at setting various religious texts as concert works to be somewhat misguided, mainly because it seems a bit silly to use texts that essentially have no meaning in a concert setting, either because of the venue, the secular nature of the audiences, or, not least, because they’re written in a dead language that no one understands. Listen particularly to the “Kyrie” and the “Agnus Dei.” The first is profound and eerie experiment in sound alone, and the second is a more lyrical and emotional approach. Throughout the work, Darren’s approach in using the texts as scaffolds for sound pictures makes perfect sense, and the whole is an important work. Do not miss the glorious chaos of the “Gloria” of this work, either.
Other works that have not been performed, to my knowledge, are the two Grande Nocturnes pour Orchestre. Fine examples of orchestration, they are worth seeking out even in their synthesized versions. Parts of them involve true “edge of one’s seat” listening.
There are a handful of semi-virtuosic piano pieces available for review, as well. Of particular note is the Étude—Hommage à Chopin, but there are some others that are amazingly fleet-footed, technically demanding, and almost aurally frightening at times. A notable pianist himself, who was determined to master the first movement of Beethoven’s “Pathétique” Sonata at the age of fifteen because it was, in his words, “loud and violent; it was punk rock,” Darren’s approach to pianism is not of the parlor variety, certainly. You have a rare look at the man himself in the performance of the “Variations in E-flat Major”, available on YouTube. I have a sense from his work that he may move more properly into music theater or opera—certainly drama of some sort. But there is no guarantee, and I truly hope for more works for the piano from his hands.
I hope that this short discussion has inspired you to further investigation—certainly I hope that you will keep your eyes and ears open for new and important work from Canada, for certainly it will come. Just one final word, however—in the title of this post I have made a reference to Robert Schumann’s famous assessment of Chopin, but I would not want anyone to assume that I am advocating the use of “the G-word.” In fact, I think that the word “genius” has suffered from overuse and too liberal application in undeserved directions in recent years. However, let it not be lost on my small audience that Schumann made his assessment (and the later one regarding Brahms) on very slender evidence, even though he was later proven correct on both counts. I will consider myself profoundly fortunate, if not quite prophetic, if my initial impressions of the music of Darren Russo are similarly vindicated. If asked at this moment, I must say that I have every confidence that they will be.Darren Russo