Patrick Smith‘s new CD, Reflections, Horn Music of Paul Basler, is an inspired journey through the range of human experience and emotion. Smith’s artistic finesse, velvety sound, and careful attention to detail, paired with the vast expressive landscapes inherent within the works themselves, evokes a purity that can only be summed up in one word: honesty. This CD expresses countless lived, perceived, and visceral experiences — derived from both the performer and composer — and presents a rare and unique gift to the world of music.
Smith’s motivation for his immersion in Basler’s (b. 1963, Milwaukee – ) compositions, as opposed to those of more classic or traditional composers for the horn, was threefold. First, he wanted to bring awareness to Basler’s compositions—to serve as a proverbial emotional guide to students and professionals for the composer’s embedded musical intentions. Second, Smith wanted to exemplify the hierarchy of expression within each piece—to emphasize the freedom with which Basler demands that his works be performed, as opposed to merely a strict/rigid marriage of rhythm and technique. Last, and perhaps most importantly, Smith wanted to convey a personal connection—often having walked into lessons with Basler to discover newly composed works awaiting him for immediate exploration, the composer seated at the piano ready to “give it a go.”
Basler’s compositional style is a prime example of “musician-first music”—devoid of arrogance, and yet demanding an inherent virtuosity that is totally subservient to the music. Often times, artists favor works by other, perhaps more “traditional” composers, in an effort to showcase flashy technique and dynamic volume. Basler’s music, however, demands a performer’s personal introspection, a delving into the most vulnerable parts of the self, in order to effectively deliver the essence of the music to the listener. His famously rich harmonies— his lush chords, and vivid use of color spectrum— have the power to ensnare anyone’s senses. For Smith, this was all-the-more truthful, given his personal experiences learning and collaborating directly with the music’s source.
The CD begins with Serenade, composed for Smith in 1997. At that time, the piece featured a new sound: a previously unexploredrealm of lightness and freshness. Delicate piano arpeggiations set the scene, providing a rich foundation for the light, jaunty, and yet majestic, horn melody. The work glides through a range of emotional colors, intermittent agitation and wild excitement, all the whilemaintaining the opening’s calm and joyous motif. The middle section offers a ballad-like atmosphere with its singable melody, speckled with distant yearning and uncertainty, that effortlessly floats atop an rich tonal palette that evokes curiosity and wonder. The opening theme returns to conclude this overarching binary musical form that does not lack in complexity and remains steeped in the essence of a lived life.
The influence of Basler’s own life experience exerts itself throughout his oeuvre. We trace one such example in the lingering, profound influence of his time well spent as a Fulbright Scholar (1993-4) teaching at Kenyatta University in Nairobi. His quintet for horns (heard elsewhere), Harambee (meaning “all put together” in Kiswahili, and the Kenyan motto since 1963) features two horn soloists that are accompanied by three horns, or a three-part horn choir. It was composed for Charles Snead (University of Alabama), and sent ripples throughout the horn community with its innovative sound and use of Kenyan rhythms and folk-like melodies. For us, here, in Majaliwa (a message of “fate” or “God willing, we will meet again” in Swahili) the listener experiences that same Kenyan influence of mixed-meter and pentatonic themes.
Basler’s Reflections (2006) emerges from a particularly tumultuous period in his life. Again in this work, we see the immense influence of an honest, lived life, of a life experienced, as the work is the sequel to, both, his Canciones, for Horn and Piano, and to Lacrymosa, for two horns and piano. Its five movement format mimics the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. The first movement represents a calm before the storm; the initial quiet contemplation that follows any emotional trauma. The second is an eruption, a realization, a blur of anger and sadness under a blanket of fear. The third, numbness—a void of emotion. The fourth is a sarcastic, feigning of contentment—the proverbial, sarcastic response of “No, I’m fine. Really.”—a sort of inner tantrum trying to silence pain with false niceties and forced happiness. The fifth, and final movement, represents true and honest acceptance. Perhaps not quite happy, but a genuine hopefulness and willingness to move forward in life.
This final movement of Reflections, “Epilogue,” portrays one musical representation of the shared human experience present in Basler’s compositions. Here, it is depicted by a series of emotional pleas heard in the piano and joined with a common theme (~2’30”). Basler originally conceived this combine(d?) musical gesture for a choral work entitled Amor Que Une Con El Amor Grandisimo (Love That Unites With Great Love), an homage to his former and longtime partner. Smith unequivocally meets the challenge of musically representing such emotional complexities throughout the entirety of the CD, but “Epilogue” is the stand-out example. Perhaps the verybeauty of music is that: what one melody evokes in one person can in fact evoke something entirely different in someone else. But the magic is how it connects us to each other. We are but the sum of our experiences, as human beings, and allowing ourselves to connect is perhaps the most human experience of all.
Of course, Reflections (the CD), isn’t all so emotionally fraught; it features joy and frivolity as well, culminating with The Bill and Brice Polka (composed for renowned French hornists William Purvis and Brice Andrus). As suggested in the name, the piece is, frankly, a fun time—a comedic duet indicative of Basler’s robust and immensely energetic personality.
Basler’s music is amazingly accessible to players of a wide range of age and ability. Of course there are technical demands, e.g. “The Drunken Sailor” from Three Folk Songs. Some might dismiss this as out of the reach of a young player, but that would be a misconception of Basler’s universal musical intent. His music demands much more from an emotional perspective than right notes.Right notes are important, absolutely – they are important to Basler. Technique is important, too. Both are tools necessary to truly effectively convey all of the emotional intentions imbued within all music. That said, technique isn’t everything. The essence of Basler’s music is that there exists an element of performance that takes precedence over technique. A player can whip up and down the horn with fierce agility and precision. But, if they aren’t connecting to the music, let alone the audience, what purpose does that, or the performance for that matter, serve? What are all of those countless hours of scales and articulations, arpeggios, trills, and leaps worth if they are used to showboat and intimidate?
So many performers miss this precedent and fall short of conveying the universal musical intent imbued within the music of Paul Basler. Why does this happen? Perhaps it is societal: a cultural, lack of willingness or ability to truly be vulnerable. Musicians, so frequently,shield themselves from critics, growing a thick skin, divorcing themselves from their “playing selves,” to separate the “you” that performed from the “you” that is a person. With this constant, incessant tooth-and-nail scrambling to stand out while maintaining emotional fortitude, could it be possible that musicians have grown desensitized? That constant efforts of self-preservation have isolated them from the emotional vulnerability necessary to convey and relay basic human experiences through music and sound? But isn’t the very point of music to be connected?
Musicians, especially young musicians in an increasingly saturated and competitive market, spend an exorbitant amount of timeshutting themselves away from the world, pulling out the etude books only to fulfill their daily, mindless regurgitation of endless permutations of the same scale patterns and articulation studies. Diversity, flexibility, virtuosity is all a goal, but it is not the goal. How many different ways must one be able to execute staccato before it can be musical? How high is high enough – how low is low enough? How loud, how soft? Musicians: constantly treating themselves like human apps – each grappling hand-over-fist to download the next software update, the new package that will provide their personal operating systems with more data, more flexibility, more efficiency to deepen the toolbox of proficiency. With each new acquired skill, surely that will make them the next “best.”
But what of the human element?
The purpose of even having all of these tools is to use them, to apply them to the plunging depths of human experience. Basler’s music demands this, it requires this of all who perform his music.
This music is a gift to us all. It teaches us to allow that “something-greater-than-ourselves” to guide us through not only performance, but also life. His music reminds us that there are arguably more important, more beautiful things, to musicianship than the speed of a trill or a double-tongue. It illustrates that if we don’t make something of life, then life will make something of it for us. The wheel doesn’t stop turning once that Short Call high-C is nailed, or after hammering through Shostakovich “low-tutti.” Technique must serve the music. Showmanship, while arguably impressive, does nothing to better the world we all live in.
Basler’s deep, emotional motifs are the axis around which he balances his music—possibility vs. constraint, joy and adventure vs. thegnarled, twisting paths of life. To expressly and physically write such dichotomies directly into the score of music is antithetical to the very empathy the music is designed to summon. Inarguably, Smith is a master technician. Above all, however, he is an extraordinary empath. His innate abilities are laid clear for all to witness on this CD. Smith is, without a doubt, connected, heart and soul, to the message of the music. His relationship with the composer, to the music, and most importantly the sum of all of his life experiences allow him to emote in such a captivating way—with pure unadulterated honesty.
Etude books can not teach empathy—love, or fear, or joy. Experiences cannot be downloaded, they can’t even be practiced—they must be lived.
Reflections: The Music of Paul Basler is now available for download and streaming in iTunes and Spotify.