Pianists Greg Anderson & Elizabeth Joy Roe’s When Words Fade, with work by Vivaldi, Mozart, Bizet, Schubert, Radiohead, Coldplay and more

By Daniel Garrett

Anderson & Roe, When Words Fade
Produced and recorded by Steven Epstein
Executive Producers: Eric Feidner, Jon Feidner
Steinway & Sons
ArkivMusic, 2011

The pianists Greg Anderson and Elizabeth Joy Roe, as glamorous as they are creative, have put together a beautiful, brave, and brilliant collection, When Words Fade, rooted in idea that different kinds of music have great value: “Why has the classical/popular divide been the governing division in music for the past 80+ years? The idea that classical music is serious and popular music is unsophisticated is simply false. We want our listeners to feel free to dispense with labels,” Anderson has said. The album When Words Fade contains the work of Vivaldi, Schubert, Rachmaninoff, Schumann, and others, with surprises. “Billie Jean” is hardly recognizable for its source in popular music, Michael Jackson’s record-shattering album Thriller, but what the original and this interpretation share are energy and momentum, intensity and a certain unexpected grace—and the music sounds genuinely complex. Anderson and Roe play “I Feel Within a Rain of Tears” by the Italian priest, violinist, and composer Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741), who wrote for violins and orchestras (The Four Seasons), music known for strong rhythms and contrasts, though “Rain of Tears” has a certain delicacy despite having weeping as a subject. Composers, and their interpreters, can very their methods, and need not be predictable. It is tempting to think, for instance, of much of European classical music as an excuse for a promenade or a waltz, but the music here, such as Mozart’s “Papageno!,” has despite a whimsical quality a touch of speculative drama. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), a child prodigy, may have matured to live a life of illness and poverty, but the happy music he created—sonatas, symphonies, and operas such as The Marriage of Figaro and The Magic Flute—has lived long after he was placed in his unmarked grave. Here, Mozart’s “Papageno!” is formal but warm, a fit, forceful dance of notes.

With an opening exposition of quiet little notes, Bizet’s “Carmen Fantasy” gains dramatic energy—it’s a multi-part longish piece, and far from effete. The French composer Georges Bizet (1838-1875) was known for his realistic operas—The Pearl Fishers, Fair Maid of Perth, Djamileh, and the 1875 Carmen—and writing for theatrical characters, at its best, carries human heat; and it is a heat that remains perceptible. With Anderson and Roe’s interpretation of the Bizet music, after a great deal of motion, the notes slow, like halting steps, as if a change of direction were being considered. A decision is made, and the pace picks up again, as if habit, journey, and temperament have been renewed. It’s a wild ride. Schubert’s song “The Erlking” (or, “The Erl King”) is about a death figure, and it is one of the many songs for which the Austrian composer is known. Franz Schubert (1797-1828), taken as the foundation of German art songs, is celebrated for the harmony and melody in his work, work considered romantic. Schubert wrote “Winter’s Journey” (the often performed “Winterreise”); and he wrote his “Swan Song” (“Schwanengesang”) a year before his death. With all its heavy, rising notes, Schubert’s “The Erlking,” here, verges on melodrama. The Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff’s always wordless “Vocalise” is, also, a bit heavy, somber. Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) used modern harmony within traditional form, writing songs, concertos, and operas (one opera was The Miserly Knight, and he created a cantata based on Edgar Allen Poe, The Bells). He, like his interpreters Anderson and Roe, was interested in reconciling the old and the new.

The performers Greg Anderson and Elizabeth Joe Roe met at Juilliard and began to work together, appearing in concert, at festivals, on television and radio and in other settings. They believe in what they are doing, and want their work not only to be admired but to have power—and, thus, are attracted to work with power. Their task is not easy, as a listener can become impatient with instrumental music, especially classical music, as its architecture takes attention and time in which to show itself: a few notes, or a few bricks, does not a structure make. Anderson and Roe are pursuing their ambitions from several angles, and it is shrewd of them to interpret popular music by Michael Jackson and Coldplay, as well as to explore the work of classical composers such as Mozart and Schumann, and theater composers such as Bizet, and Jacques Brel (1929-1978). Brel’s “Mathilde, Marieke, et Madeleine,” written with Gerard Jouannest, moves from relative rest to quickened movement, and returns to near silence before developing something ruminative. It could be arrogant to insist on presenting music inspired by words while denying us those words, but Anderson and Roe, more often than not, manage to communicate. There is a focus on night in some of the songs, part of a thoughtful collection. Small, spare, subtle, romantic songwriter Robert Schumann’s “Moonlit Night” is a delicate, pretty piece. The German composer and essayist Schumann (1810-1856) wrote the piano suite Carnaval, and songs inspired by the poetry of Heinrich Heine; and his songs have become the most popular of art songs. A transient experience is suggested by the Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos’s “Aria/Lo, at Midnight,” with its little pulses and increasing intensity, as if something, a glimpse, an encounter, is allowed to perception for only a short time. Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959), an educator and composer of many forms, studied indigenous tribal music in Brazil, and sophisticated French music in Paris. Did he bring together intensity and evolved form in the aria? Yes.

Full of energy, one thinks of Radiohead, Beethoven, and jazz listening to “Paranoid Android,” something that is understandable as it is a piece by the rock band Radiohead. It precedes “The Glitt’ring Sun,” written by Thomas Arne (1710-1778). The song “Viva La Vida” is immediately recognizable, which says something good about Coldplay and how much traditional musicianship the band is able to bring to its popular work, the piano being a prominent instrument in the band’s songs. “Viva la Vida” closes Anderson and Roe’s When Words Fade, which is good, pleasing, and unique enough to gratify time and thought.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader. He has an internet log, “The Art Notes of a Solitary Walker,” focused on visual art. He has written a novel, A Stranger on Earth.