Shards: Piano Music of Jonathan Pieslak. Robert Auler, piano (Steinway D); American Atmospheres, Bhakti (I), unburdening for piano and recording, Prednisomnia, Shards, Spiral; Albany Records, Troy 1496, © 2014, TT 49:05, $16.99. (Listing is alphabetical, not recorded order.)

Pieslak, a native of Wilmington, DE, and currently Associate Professor of Music at the City College of New York and Graduate Center, is a 1996 graduate in music of Davidson College. He teaches composition, theory, and music and radicalism. His second book, Radicalism & Music; An Introduction to the Music Cultures of al-Qa’ida, the Racist Skinheads, Christian-Affiliated Radicalism, and Eco-Animal Right Militancy, is scheduled for publication by Wesleyan University (CT) Press in Fall 2015. His first book, Sound Targets; American Soldiers and Music in the Iraq War, was published in 2009. Although he has received several awards as a composer, from such organizations as the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Jerome Foundation, and the MacDowell Colony, this appears to be the first CD released of his musical compositions.

Auler, the interpreter of these works, is his long-time (since graduate school at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor) friend, currently Associate Professor of Music at SUNY Oswego, who made his Carnegie Hall debut in 2004 and has performed widely in the USA and abroad. He was a first-prize winner in the Society of American Musicians competition and made his Carnegie Hall debut in 2004. In many ways, this product was a collaborative effort between them; their respective academic institutions provided grants to support it.

The music, composed over the period of more than a decade, is modern, but tonal, showing common threads found in Bartók, Prokofiev, and late 1980s-early 1990s rock, Latin, and funk, according to Pieslak, though I find that the works reside entirely in the classical realm. The works are indeed quite diverse in style, mood, and atmosphere, however. American Atmospheres is a set of eleven études, in the tradition established by Frédéric Chopin of writing pieces to work on difficult pianistic techniques that have an interest and appeal beyond the mere exercise, as those of Carl Czerny are. Pieslak has given them representational titles,* some, such as “Solar flares,” “Shifting tides,” “Ocean swells,” and “Sunlight reflecting off the water,” related to nature, others, such as “Coil,” “Vertigo wedge,” Rolling bells,” “Cuban carnaval,” “A Walk through changing colors,” naming activities, objects, or phenomena they evoke. They vary in length from just over half a minute to just under three minutes and are very successful in their evocation and in holding the listener’s interest; I cannot attest to their technical value. Perhaps in the future, Pieslak will be inspired to add to the set to reach the total number of 24, also established by Chopin, that many subsequent composers have sought to match, but that some (including Claude Debussy, who only wrote twelve, with titles specifying the targeted technique, such as thirds, fourths, sixths, octaves, chromatic steps, etc., not representational ones as are those of his Préludes), did not, by choice or lack of inspiration, attain? Pieslak is only one shy of matching Debussy’s!

Bhakti (I) is a Hindu devotional piece that concludes with a Shanti mantra, whose text with English translation is found on page [4] of the accompanying booklet, quietly chanted in the pre-recorded background. Pieslak says it is the first, written in 2012-13, of a set he plans to continue. It seeks to establish a meditative atmosphere rather than follow a specific Indian tradition, and succeeds persuasively. Prednisomnia was inspired and written when, as treatment for a kidney disorder, the composer was required to take a high dose of the steroid Prednisone, which imposed a rigid routine, had some strange side effects, and seemingly took control of his life; it seeks to evoke his feelings and response. It was originally composed for an ensemble of bass clarinet, piano, violin, and ‘cello, and arranged for solo piano for this CD project.

Shards is understood as “elements” or “fragments,” and was written for Auler in 2009 expressly to give him an opportunity to display his dexterity. Spiral, composed in 2001-02 and dedicated to Pieslak’s brother Brian, is a short virtuosic piece in three sections framed by an “intro and outro,” presentation and recapitulation in radio announcer terminology, and seems to coil into and over itself.

The performance is masterful. Auler’s understanding of the music and his expressive and technical skills are all eminently evident throughout. His playing is subtly nuanced and varied to match the nature of the scores perfectly. His renderings are magnificent; he exploits all of the timbres of the modern Steinway exquisitely and with a delicate and sensitive touch, avoiding thrashing and banging even in the loud moments. His rhythmic control is likewise clear and precise while remaining fluent and fluid.

The cover of the 8-unnumbered-page accompanying booklet features a photo in blues and white, which wraps around to occupy one third of the back cover, by the composer’s wife, Sabina Pieslak. It appears to show whitecaps of waves breaking against dark blue cliffs seen from above. The image is inverted on the face of the disk, making it appear to be snow-capped rugged mountain peaks. Acknowledgments and production and grant credits fill the remainder of the back cover. Bios of the composer and performer are found respectively on the insides of the two covers. The notes by the composer about the music fill pages [3] and [4] and the top half of page [5]. A note from the pianist that also discusses the music from a performer’s perspective fills the remainder of that page and page [6]. Track listings and timings are found only on the outside of the tray card.

This is a fine, albeit a bit brief début release; we hope it will have a successor.

*Those associated with Chopin’s were supplied by others, later.