A Quiet Madness has been described as "hypnotic, playful, and even at moments celestial," (textura) "healing balm for the anxious soul," (EarRelevant) "...grace and tranquility...," (Sharps and Flatirons), "...joyously lyrical..." (New Music Buff) and, "an astute and contemporary sonic expression of the 'quiet madness' playing out on 24-hour news TV channels or as an infinite scroll on our smartphone screens." (Spellbinding Music)
William Susman’s album A Quiet Madness immediately immerses the listener in a peculiarly specific and undeniably beautiful sound world. This sound world is both absorbing and thought-provoking, allowing the ear and mind to make their own connections without feeling overwhelmed by sonic or narrative constraints. Susman’s precise harmonic and rhythmic languages invite us into a subdued, enchanting expression of madness that roams all over the map, akin to the mind wandering during a rainy day—or, perhaps clairvoyantly, akin to the strange passage of time spent in self-isolation during the collective trauma of Covid-19. Susman is adept at juxtaposing non-Western musical techniques, such as Afro-Cuban clave and montuño, with Western classical stylistic devices. The juxtapositions heard in A Quiet Madness are seamless, even though their instrumental colors range widely from one piece to the next. While the album is best enjoyed all at once, it consists of several sections differentiated by their texture, rhythmic energy, dynamics, and instrumentation. These unhurried gradations glide into a heterogeneous sonic environment that still manages to coalesce into a cohesive whole.
A Quiet Madness unfolds across six pieces that were composed between 2006 and 2013. Susman assembled the order of these pieces on the album into a unified sonic trajectory that builds from its serene opening, the violin/piano duo Aria, to the propulsive Zydeco Madness and the driving chords of the concluding piece Quiet Rhythms No. 7. Aria is a part of Susman’s opera-in-progress, Fordlandia. On the album, Susman performs the piano part, accompanying Karen Bentley Pollick on violin. Aria sets the stage for this transformation with its interlacing melodies that periodically climb in intensity and then unspool into elegant, wandering threads. The next five pieces alternate between three solo piano pieces called Quiet Rhythms and two pieces with contrasting textures and structures: Susman’s 2011 piece Seven Scenes for Four Flutes, which is recorded and multi-tracked by a single flutist, Patricia Zuber, and his 2006 work Zydeco Madness, played here by Stas Venglevski, who also performed the piece’s premiere. The assortment of skilled and intuitive performers renders a musical space that is ideal for Susman’s gradual yet substantial changes in harmony, timbre, and rhythm.
Although Susman describes the solo piano sections on this album as “quasi-interludes that also act as segues,” each of the Quiet Rhythms is in itself an intricate and autonomous musical exploration. These pieces are performed by the Italian pianist Francesco Di Fiore, who is himself a composer working in a post-modern post-minimalist language in the vein of Susman’s. The three Quiet Rhythms heard in A Quiet Madness are taken from Susman’s larger collection of Quiet Rhythms, each of which consist of a “prologue” and corresponding “action.” Susman composed the actions before the prologues, a compositional process that results in more effective foreshadowing of what's to come. The prologues introduce the general shapes of the chords, allowing both the performer and listener to get acquainted with the unique sound world of an individual Quiet Rhythm. The actions then expound on this introductory harmonic groundwork; while the prologues are non-syncopated and “smooth,” the actions are syncopated and rhythmic. The effect unfolds through a subtly climbing temporal growth, rising out of moment-by-moment oscillations. These oscillations develop not only vertically but horizontally, through Susman’s use of aural illusions: “The amplitude cross-fade creates somewhat of an aural M.C. Escher effect where the ear may focus on either the left or right hand.”
The swirling introspection of Quiet Rhythms contrasts with the textures and pacing of Seven Scenes for Four Flutes and Zydeco Madness. Seven Scenes for Four Flutes evokes a sequence of abstract yet vividly colorful scenes that flit through seven distinct textures and interject a bright, breathless liveliness between the darker, more subdued energy of the Quiet Rhythms. Even greater contrast can be heard in Zydeco Madness, which Susman composed in 2006 as a response to the tragic events surrounding the Hurricane Katrina disaster. Susman, who had lived in New Orleans for a year and a half, was horrified by the politicized reaction to the devastation: “We all saw horrific news reports of people’s stuff floating, drifting and burning in currents slick with oil. I had this vision of someone’s accordion floating in this mess, and morphing into some giant monster accordion dripping with the fallout of toxic sludge.” This vision propelled him to compose Zydeco Madness, for Bayan, a large button accordion. In contrast to the other tracks, Zydeco Madness is unabashedly disjunctive and agitated; Susman has explained that “the piece is episodic, jump-cutting from one event to the next like a news report.”
Zydeco Madness leads into the final track, Quiet Rhythms No. 7. Despite its weightier, knottier texture, the listener can hear echoes harkening back to the earlier Quiet Rhythms, while also being made aware of the larger transformation that has taken place across the album. The introductory clave patterns and layered polyrhythms of Quiet Rhythms No. 1 set the tone for a musical atmosphere that effortlessly brings us to these concluding moments. This subtle thickening of intensity and density ultimately creates a musical experience that fluidly merges seemingly disparate sonic and narrative structures. Although Susman’s approach is grounded in rhythmic specificity, the minute details contribute to an overarching sonic trajectory that flows easily from one moment to the next. This ability to interweave evolving musical and extra-musical elements encourages an aural and narrative association between “quiet” and “madness,” two presumably dissimilar concepts that might overlap more than we think. Susman’s finely-honed mastery of rhythmic detail is on full display here, but just as significant is the development of both texture and energy that captivates the listener from beginning to end.
William Susman has created a distinctively expressive voice in contemporary classical music, with a catalog that spans orchestral, chamber, and vocal music, as well as numerous film scores. AllMusic calls him an exemplar of “the next developments in the sphere [of] minimalism,” and Gramophone has praised his music as “texturally shimmering and harmonically ravishing.” Susman’s training as a pianist in both jazz and classical traditions was influential in his evolution as a composer, and his music is notable for its integration of global influences.
Karen Bentley Pollick is one of America’s leading contemporary musicians, performing a wide range of solo repertoire and styles on violin, viola, piano, and Norwegian Hardanger fiddle. She currently serves as concertmaster of Valse Café Orchestra in Seattle, and Principal Second Violin and Festival Artist with the Colorado MahlerFest Orchestra in Boulder.
Francesco Di Fiore, pianist and composer, was born in Palermo. He launched his professional career in 1986, performing hundreds of concerts worldwide. In 1993 he won the “XV Internationales Kammermusik Festival Austria Waldviertel” in Horn, Austria. His album Pianosequenza features piano music in film, including Susman’s score to When Medicine Got It Wrong.
Patricia Zuber has performed with many major orchestras in the New York area including the American Symphony Orchestra, New York City Opera, New York City Ballet, American Composers Orchestra, New Jersey Symphony, and the Westchester Philharmonic. She appears regularly with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra at Lincoln Center. She performs in Duo Zuber with her husband, percussionist Greg Zuber.
Stas Venglevski is a native of the Republic of Moldova, part of the former Soviet Union. A two-time first prize winner of the Bayan Competition in the Republic of Moldova, Stas is a graduate of the Russian Academy of Music in Moscow, where he received his Master’s in Music under the tutelage of famed Russian bayanist Friedrich Lips.
released January 20, 2021
Karen Bentley Pollick, violin (track 1)
William Susman, piano (track 1)
Francesco Di Fiore, piano (tracks 2, 4, 6)
Patricia Zuber, flute (track 3)
Stas Venglevski, accordion (track 5)
His music has earned praise from Gramophone as “texturally
shimmering and harmonically ravishing,” from Fanfare, "crystalline . . . and gloriously lyrical,” and The New York Times, “vivid, turbulent, and rich-textured.” Textura describes Susman as “not averse to letting his affection for Afro-Cuban, jazz, and other forms seep into his creative output.”...more