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Chronicle of the NonPop Revolution
by Carson P. Cooman (1999/2000)
The purpose of this essay is to provide a brief commentary on and introduction to the work of American composer Gwyneth Walker (b. 1947) and to provide some suggestions for the beginning the exploration of her work. Extensive biographical and other information for Walker is readily available at her website at: http://kalvos.org/walker/
Walker's output is large, consisting of numerous works in nearly every form. What is perhaps most notable about her catalogue is the incredible diversity it contains -- her works range from concertos for professional soloists and orchestras to folk song settings for school choruses. Her work is characterized by a tremendous energy and a strong sense of humor. Even in her most calm and serene pieces, there is a constant undercurrent of energy -- a lifeblood that ties the music together. Many personal stylistic traits appear throughout her work including elements that have often been classified as characteristic of "American music" (including the strong rhythmic sense, open sonorities, and influences of rock, jazz, blues, and American folk music). She is strongly in the American tradition of composers such as Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein -- but is a slave to no compositional school or prescribed style. Her music is recognizably her own and thoroughly original.
This is music of a composer who has a tremendous love for life and a love of writing music. Her work is always accessible, although never simplistic. The sense of craft and structure is never in doubt -- each note was placed with care and thoughtfulness.
These works show that they were written by a composer who loves performers and the connection with people that comes from live musical performance. Her firm grasp of instrumental and vocal writing has led to the creation of works that are written exactly to abilities of the performers involved.
The moods explored throughout her works are incredibly varied -- ranging, for example, from a humorous and highly theatrical portrayal of a baseball game (Coming Home from Traveling Songs for String Quartet ) to a poignant elegy in memory of her uncle (In Memoriam  for solo cello).
She has garnered many awards and accolades from organizations of all kinds (including the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Vermont Arts Council) -- however, the greatest accolade is that her work is in continual demand. Her music is performed frequently, and she receives continual commissions for new works from orchestras, choruses, chamber ensembles, and soloists.
Analytic commentary is, however, only a poor way to get to know the works of any composer. Thus, hearing or performing this tremendous music is the best way to get acquainted with its energy, beauty, and capacity for creating pure enjoyment.
Walker's works appear on a number of commercially available CD recordings. Recommended here are four of those CD recordings that are readily available and together serve as an excellent overview and starting point for beginning the exploration of Walker's work.
This excellent recording contains works in the choral and chamber genres. It contains a few of Walker's smaller chorus works (her very popular White Horses (1979) and the small Cheek to Cheek ) and a large work for chorus and string quartet (The Golden Harp ). The Golden Harp is an extensive cycle on the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore. The large diversity of moods in this choral cycle serve as a very good introduction to Walker's choral writing. Furthermore, the texts of Rabindranath Tagore deal with themes and ideas which continue to interest Walker throughout many of her works. This disc also contains Three American Portraits (1988) which is Walker's first string quartet. This three movement work displays the tremendous energy and lyric beauty that runs throughout her music. The performances are live ones given by the Arkansas Chamber Singers and the Quapaw String Quartet (members of the Arkansas Symphony).
APAD Digital Recordings
810 W. Kilpatrick
Cleburne, TX 76031
This live recording was produced by performers and organizations from Walker's home state of Vermont -- the Sounding Joy! chorus of Randolph and the Montpelier Chamber Orchestra. Along with works of two other composers, this disc contains a performance of River Songs (1996) for chorus and orchestra. A large work in three-movements, River Songs consists of settings and re-workings of familiar American folk songs and spirituals into a large choral edifice ("Deep River", "A Mule Named Sal," and "The Water is Wide"). This work showcases well Walker's tremendous ability to take traditional material and combine it with her own to make it seem totally new and fresh. This is one of her very finest chorus and orchestral works and is given an excellent performance on this disc.
This recording of works by four American composers contains a recording of Walker's violin concerto, An American Concerto (1995) for violin and orchestra performed by the Czech National Symphony Orchestra. This concerto has many of the hallmarks of Walker's style throughout -- the first movement is a very energetic rhythmic romp; the second movement is a serene elegy; and the third is a jazzy "stroll." It shows the diversity within Walker's large catalogue of orchestral works as well as her fine understanding of orchestration and instrumental color.
Albany Records U.S.
Albany, NY 12207
This tremendous disc is devoted entirely to Walker's vocal music (song cycles and arias).. It opens with Though Love Be a Day (1980), an oft-performed cycle on poems of e. e. cummings (one of Walker's favorite poets) and Walker herself. Also included is Walker's jazzy cycle to poems of Lucille Clifton, No Ordinary Woman! (1997). A few extracts from Walker's operas also appear on the disc ranging from extracts from comic operas to the lovely lullaby Sleep, Little Bird (1982). The Walker-Eklof Duo (Denise Walker, soprano and Estrid Eklof, piano) has been performing Walker's songs for many years and are ideal performing forces for these works.
117 Goose Green Road
New Hartford, CT 06057
Phone/fax: (860) 829-0764
The Albany disc is available through most dealers and music stores. The others are released on smaller labels -- these discs are available directly through the labels themselves.