Liner Notes: Tremors from a Far Shore
The violin music of James Aikman is as deeply alluring as it is exacting; the qualities that make his work exciting, inventive and fresh, also create an emotionally complex landscape. This complexity and unremitting dramatic tension derive from the music's many abrupt shifts in syntax, at both the structural and melodic level. Ideas are never left to linger or rest; even when the music is at its most serene, the listener is on edge. For this composer, settling in on a particular melodic and textural thread is an act of subtle deception, a way to lure the listener deeper below the surface. One is left hanging on as ideas are expanded and compressed with Haydn-esque aplomb: musical development via the art of surprise, at times elegantly restrained, and at other times boldly extreme.
Yet despite its astonishing unpredictability, Aikman's music is also deeply grounded in both the past and the present. The violin writing is saturated with references, both procedural and thematic, to past masters like Beethoven and Brahms, whose music for the instrument was at once completely original and utterly idiomatic. But even more striking are the truly inventive textural landscapes found in Aikman's piano parts. Inspired by composers such as Ligeti and Lutoslawski, with some American ingenuity thrown in, this composer renders a piano part that is more than mere accompaniment; he creates a fresh relationship between the two instruments. Through the use of remarkable juxtaposition of texture, mood and length, the music develops both narrative and visual appeal.
In the opening movement of his first sonata (1986), Aikman explores the modernist gesture as a point of departure for a dreamy violin line; the result is a stunning work of art by a composer still exploring the boundaries of his language. Static harmony shares a space with diatonic melody, pathos and longing lie adjacent to modernist gesture, and feelings of existential alienation share the canvas with a penchant towards the sentimental. What follows is music of extreme agitation, but not one of a typical sort, for it is anxiety framed by an unanticipated tunefulness. One element seems to be chasing after the other; the expected resolution is that melody will win in the end. But in the second of the work's two movements, we hear both fiery toccata-like music and a tuneful cinematic score. By the work's final measures, texture wins out over tunefulness as the piano pushes out cluster-like sonorities, punching a hole through the musical surface. The tonic one-chord is created, not through melodic resolution, but through sheer brute force and insistence-the anticipated melodic resolution is now veiled by this final explosion of energy.
In his Fantasy for Violin and Electronics from 1989 (revised 1991), Aikman once again reaches for a dream-like quality at the beginning, but this time he takes us into another realm of musical thought. This is not really computer music, but electro-acoustic music sitting in for the ultimate space-age orchestra, stretching, warping and bending into shapes one could hardly create with purely acoustic instruments. Even reverb becomes a part of the orchestral palette. But with his usual sense of inspired timing, Aikman suddenly launches the music into a macabre scherzo, with the electronic part looping back in on itself while the violin soars upward-the effect is truly cinematic. In the end, as the music breaks apart, a sonic pathway leads us not towards the darkness that we might have anticipated, but to a place that is utterly understated, unresolved and certainly less final.
In his Sonata No. 2 from 1994, Aikman's music takes on an entirely new quality, as if the composer was shedding his more studied, modernist skin. The music is now more open and individual in its approach towards form and language-it is a defining work in his oeuvre. Regarding the Second Sonata, the composer and theorist Andrew Mead writes:
"I am tempted not to ruin the surprise of the opening of this work, but even on repeated hearings I am struck by the compositional daring of withholding the violin for nearly a third of the first movement. The effect is to throw one's attention over much larger spans, and indeed in light of this opening, I hear the movement-breaks as local interruptions of a continuity that spans the work as a whole. All three movements partake of the same melodic and harmonic repertoire, and it is only their differing surface textures that separate them. For all of the immediate sense of variety in this work, it seems like one great breath from start to finish."
Aikman builds on this previous work in his Third Sonata (2002), which flows effortlessly and with an apparent improvisational ease. This is particularly true of the toccata finale, where deeply imbedded grooves and melodies unfold at a natural and unforced pace. While the first movement is a relentless, reiterative block of sound lasting just over a minute in length, the second movement is, by comparison, a fully evolved, lyrical narrative of almost operatic proportions. Its length is practically three times that of the outer movements combined--Aikman now creates a slow music with the more plaintive moods we understand as intrinsically American in style. Yet even in this lyrical universe, we experience subtle, mercurial changes of shape and cadence, coupled with a constantly shifting sense of timing. Throughout all of the music, ideas are leavened by a constant capriciousness and strengthened through an unyielding commitment to the rigor of self-invention. It all culminates in this third sonata, where transitions feel like musical cliff hangers, and everything changes without warning; new ideas arrive and depart with unexpected elegance and grace.
- Peter Robles, New York City, 2005