“Dreams and Yearnings:” Martin Bresnick’s Prayers Remain Forever

Composer Martin Bresnick’s Prayers Remain Forever seems to rest at the apex of nihilistic thought and religious comfort. This odd meeting of two conflicting ideas stems from a poem entitled “Gods Come and Go, Prayers Remain Forever” by Yehuda Amichai. It highlights how languages, people, belief systems, and other matters of the physical world will come and go, but that prayers – our “dreams and yearnings” – are the only things that will remain. This premise only scratches the surface of how deep this collection of chamber and solo works really goes. Each piece pulls the listener into a sound world all its own.

The first track, Going Home – Vysoke, My Jerusalem was inspired by two distinct memories of Bresnick’s. The first was learning to play the oboe as a child and the second was visiting his grandparents. Every visit, his grandmother would recall how her entire family was murdered in their homeland of Visoke Litovsk. Despite the dark imagery, the work is surprisingly hopeful, and Double Entendre’s blend is impressive on this track. They all seem to leave room for each instrument to stand out and then recede back into the fabric easily. The piece starts with the oboist Christa Robinson and violinist Caelb Burhans playing in the tense upper registers of their instrument immediately establishing a tense mood. The violist John Pickford Richards and cellist Brian Snow initially resolve this tension but add to it as the piece progresses. In the end, Robinson’s klezmer-like turns and melodies against the straining of the string trio leaves the listener emotionally raw.

Bresnick transforms an old seven second recording of Ishi, the last member of the Yahi-Yani Native American tribe, singing the “Maidu Doctor’s Song” into the cantus firmus of Ishi’s Song. This piece is primarily a piano solo, but Lisa Moore opens the piece by both singing and playing the original song in unison. Layers of material are slowly added and built upon in the mode established by the original song. Bresnick has a great sense of how to layer his ideas on the piano, but Moore’s dexterity gives the piece the clarity it needs.

Characters of Franz Kafka’s are represented musically in Bresnick’s Josephine the Singer. This piece could be a study in orchestration for the violin as Bresnick tries to bring the listener into the world of a mouse. The violinist, Sarita Kowk, is almost exclusively playing on or behind the bridge throughout the piece. Usually the effect is shrill and squeaky, but Kowk gives it a delicate and gentle sound. It quickly draws the listener in to focus on the shear virtuosity of the music rather than the thin elements that begin the track.

Martin Bresnick

Martin Bresnick

A Message from the Emperor strikes down a different path. Michael Compitello on marimba and Ian Rosenbaum on vibraphone both play and speak their way through the story of an emperor’s message unable to be delivered even after the ruler has been long gone, echoing the nihilistic element of the album. The music becomes very engaging right from the start as the speaking parts and the development of the musical elements work in tandem to unveil Kafka’s story. Compitello and Rosenbaum’s performance always pulls the listener along and is masterfully executed.

Goya’s etching from The Disasters of War depicts poor onlookers kneeling as a coffin on a cart passes by pulled by a donkey. In Strange Devotion, Bresnick emulates this etching as well as Marx’s thoughts that religion is both “the opiate of the people,” but also “the heart of a heartless world.” This solo piano work is starkly different from earlier tracks in both style and mood. The opening isolated trills imitate the shaking bells on the donkey pulling the cart and are starkly cold against the mournful mood of the piece. A slow melody and counter line start to plod along increasing with intensity, but there is nothing joyful about the climax. Lisa Moore has a great sense of line and overall shape throughout the piece. Even the shaking trills are delicate and thoughtful.

The album concludes with its title track, Prayers Remain Forever. Each section of the piece has such distinct characters, and TwoSense’s sound is rich and executed with incredible precision. The introduction is reflective and long with cellist Ashley Bathgate playing intense notes resting in a high register. Crunchy chords are interspersed behind it almost randomly. The next few sections are propelled forward by running 16th note figures by Bathgate, then by Lisa Moore on piano, but throughout the work there is a persistent level of intensity that is in constant flux. Bathgate and Moore’s abilities are put on full display in this piece and the female duo holds nothing back.

Martin Bresnick’s Prayers Remain Forever is an incredible collection of works that vary as much in style and mood than any other composer I’ve heard. The depth of the music and Bresnick’s ability to pull the listener all the way down into those depths is impressive. What’s more, the paradoxical thoughts behind the music are imbedded in the compositions. Truly a must listen for lovers of well-crafted music.

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