I would defy even the most enthusiastic reviewer or listener to get their head around the complete compositional output of Carson Cooman. His webpage indicates that his latest (2015) offering is the Partita Semplice for organ (manuals only): it is catalogued as op.1123. This is a lot of music to explore: a tremendous amount to have composed over the last 15 years or so of musical activity. It beats Carl Czerny’s op.861 for a start. Looking at the discography on the same site discloses that a fair proportion of these works have been recorded. There are more than 25 Cooman CDs currently listed on the Arkiv catalogue.
The liner-notes explain that Carson Cooman, who was born in 1982, is an American composer with a ‘catalog of hundreds of works in many forms – ranging from solo instrumental pieces to operas and from orchestral works to hymn tunes.’ His studied under an impeccable list of teachers, including Judith Weir and Bernard Rands. Cooman is also a concert organist. More than 150 new works have been written for him by a diverse range of contemporary composers. Not content with composition and recital work, Cooman writes extensively about musical subjects and serves as a consultant, advising composers and performers on practical matters such as estates and archives.
The first piece, Shoreline Rune was written in 2014 and is assigned op.1083. It is conceived for string orchestra and harp. This work is dedicated to the British composer and Cooman’s one-time teacher, Judith Weir. The imagery is based on the idea of the listener standing on the sea-shore and experiencing an ‘entire tide cycle compressed into five elongated minutes’. I am not sure where the Rune — ancient writing, or symbol with mysterious or magical significance — part of the title enters into the equation, unless it is contributory to the sense of timelessness that the composer has created in this very beautiful piece.
Carson Cooman writes that for him a symphony is a piece of music that ‘attempts (in some rather small way) to make an artistic comment on a ‘big topic’ whether that be emotional/psychological, societal or natural.’ They are personal responses to ‘big ideas’ not a ‘comprehensive grand statement’. His symphonies are not based on any particular instrumentation, duration or form.
The present Symphony No.4 Liminal ‘addresses climate change.’ The composer explains that the word ‘liminal’ comes from the Latin word ‘threshold’. It is used when describing rituals and processes and specifically refers to the ‘quality of ambiguity that occurs in the middle of the ritual when participants are not the same as they were before the ritual began, but have not yet reached the conclusion.’ Cooman does not seem to be making an overt political argument, but suggests that the ‘earth is (and perhaps has always been) in a liminal state’. The symphony is charged with presenting ‘varied soundscapes’. The sound-world is deliberately blurred and ‘confused’. The orchestration is wide-ranging: one signature feature is the use made of quarter tones: the harp is deliberately tuned a quarter tone lower than the rest of the orchestra. The work is scored for an orchestra of brass, two harps, and strings.
Cooman writes that ‘the whole symphony could be seen as a journey from above: viewing contrasting places and observing’. It is a work that is impressive, even when divorced from its inspiration.
The Symphony No.4 was commissioned by the AR Trust and is dedicated to the composer Augusta Read Thomas.
The final work is Prism for the organ. This was written in 2003 and was merely op.522. The work is clearly meditative, although the composer has added the suggestion that it is also ‘cosmic’. The long-held notes and gently unfolding melodies are truly gorgeous. Cooman has created an almost ‘Messiaen-ic’ sense of timelessness. The piece was commissioned by Robert Jan August, Organist at the First Presbyterian Church of Fort Worth.
This CD is well-presented with an attractive inset. The programme notes are informative and well-written. The sound quality of the recording is notable, the playing superb.
I enjoyed this disc. Carson Cooman’s music is beautiful, inspiring and seductive in equal measure. The three works on this CD are charged with wonder, mystery and a deep sense of engagement with the world of nature and society.