John Allemeier, Deep Water: The Murder Ballads: “Poor Ellen,” Madison Park String Quartet (Karl Giles and Jenny Topilow, violins, Kristen Swanson, viola, & Mira Frisch, violoncello); “Pieces of Silver,” Erinn Frechette, flute, John Sadak, clarinet, Jenny Topilow, violin, Mira Frisch, violoncello, Scott Christian, percussion, Shawn Smith, conductor; “Deep Water” (“Omie Wise”), Erinn Frechette, flute, John Sadak, clarinet, Reese Manceaux, saxophones & English horn, Michael Hackett, flugelhorn & trumpet, Emily Jarrell Urbanek, piano, Scott Christian, timpani; Albany Records, Troy 1488, © 2014, TT 56:23, $16.99.

These chamber works are inspired by three folk/popular ballads which were in turn inspired by actual murders that occurred in 19th century North Carolina. Ellen Smith was shot by her lover Peter DeGraff in Winston-Salem in 1892; the ballad has him living to visit her grave, but he was hanged on February 8, 1894. Frankie Silver killed her husband Charlie with an ax in Morganton on December 22, 1831; although it was actually in self-defense because she had been physically abused by him, she was hanged on July 12, 1833, because she disclosed this abuse only after the death sentence. Jonathan Lewis drowned Naomi Wise in the Deep River near Asheboro in 1807; two boys who were fishing discovered the floating body. Jonathan was caught and indicted, but escaped; caught again in 1811, he was tried in 1813 – for breaking out of jail – found guilty, and sentenced to and served 47 days, so the murder went unpunished. Note that they are arranged in reverse chronological order.

In addition to the details of the murders recounted in prose, the rhyming texts of the ballads are printed in the booklet, but they are neither sung nor spoken along with the music, which was written for a dance theater work created by choreographer E.E. Balcos at UNC-Charlotte, where both she and Allemeier are professors, and premièred there in a single performance in May, 2013. “Poor Ellen” is in two parts, each of which subdivides, the first into two movements and the second into three. “Pieces of Silver” is divided into three movements, “Deep Water,” into four. Some of the titles of the movements characterize episodes/actions of the stories or aspects of the personalities of the principals; others, such as “Overture,” are more traditional musical terminology.

This is somewhat akin to writing music for a film, which has to support but also take the place of and evoke the image when excerpted in a recording, though actually more complex in this instance because this music attempts to follow the facts more faithfully than the ballads do while also incorporating elements of their melodies. The ballads behind “Poor Ellen” and “Pieces of Silver” are told from the perspective of the murderers, the former straying dramatically from the facts. “Deep Water,” told more journalistically from the perspective of a third party observer, presents a complex challenge in this scenario, however, since the musical work does not follow the chronology or factual evolution of the narrative.

While the audience of a theater performance is aided by the presence and movements of the dancers in visualizing the actions/events, the listener sitting at home does not have this crutch. The pieces might be much more effective as musical forms if the ballads were spoken and the music, broken into segments to allow for that recitation. I think, for example, of Claude Debussy’s theater piece Les Chansons de Bilitis for chamber ensemble using twelve poems from Pierre Louÿs’ collection of the same title.

A better solution would have been to offer a traditionally sung rendition of each ballad before the corresponding work, as was done at the première. The availability of over 20 minutes of unused space on the CD would have easily allowed this option, and it would certainly have resulted in a better musical product. The descriptions by James A. Grymes in the booklet, pointing out the coordination of the music to the episodes of the stories, help but don’t really suffice for the listener to make the connections and follow their development; they ask the listener to do too much work, especially if the original ballads – both words and tunes – are unfamiliar to her/him.

The music is tonal and evocative, generally bluegrass/folk- or traditional-like, with “Poor Ellen” the closest to these roots, sometimes dramatic, sometimes plaintive, and very effective, making for very interesting and enjoyable listening. There is considerable diversity among the musical treatments of the three incidents/narratives, with the varying instrumentation as well as the motifs and the style, with “Pieces of Silver” and “Deep Water” (“Omie Wise”) being closer to each other than to “Poor Ellen,” just as is the case among the strophic forms of the three ballads that inspired them, although in this form “Poor Ellen” and “Pieces of Silver” are the two which more closely resemble each other. The music successfully holds the listener’s attention, balancing repetitive motifs and new elements with returns of earlier components and creating a sense of progression leading to transformative climaxes and ultimate resolutions.

The  twelve-page booklet’s cover art, “murder,” by Colleen Coover, is eye-catching: an advancing gray-haired and gray-fleshed woman, seen from the side and ¼-turned to her left, wearing a gray-belted white short-sleeved dress with blood on its front and white heels, holds a white knife with blood on its pointed end in her right hand, her left arm with spread fingers stretching out behind her, turning her head to her right towards the viewer, stands beside an arm in a gray sleeve with a white hand, fingers curving down into a pool of blood stretching in from the right edge, the whole on a black background with the composer’s name and the subtitle printed in red, the title in gray in the top left half. Credits and acknowledgements are printed in white on black on the back cover; the recording venue was Acoustic Barn Studios in Charlotte, with “Poor Ellen” recorded in August 2011, “Deep Water” in July 2012, thus considerably both before the live performance, and “Pieces of Silver” in June 2013, soon after it. The bio of the composer occupies page 2 with a photo of him on page 3; the notes and ballad texts fill the unnumbered pages 4-9, all texts in standard black print on white. Track listings with movement titles and timings are found on the outside of the tray card, in white printed on black to the left of the woman’s left forearm and hand with the bloody knife reaching in from the right edge.

Note: The quartet performs at UNCC on Nov. 16, 2014. For details, click here.