The line break in free verse often has important implications for the way the poem’s meanings can be read. In the absence of a fixed meter or rhyme scheme, the division of words gives semantic force to some, subordinates others to their immediate neighbors, and generally adds or diminishes weight of meaning through isolation or amalgamation. By the same token, the musical pacing and breaking of phrases and the binding and separation of instrumental voices can affect the way musical meaning is conveyed. The line break plays a central role in the musical rhetoric of many of the compositions on Dystemporal, a collection of recent work by composer/pianist Anthony Cheung.
Windswept Cypresses (2005), scored for flute, viola, harp and percussion, is a single-movement work that alludes in its orchestration and its atmosphere to pieces by Debussy and Takemitsu. Its rhetoric seems analogous to an Objectivist poem, with short, lucid phrases defined by well-placed line breaks. It’s a pensive piece; the pacing is deliberate and each gesture and note is allowed its full weight in shaping the overall mood. Instrumental groupings cluster and disperse, often exposing individual voices to determine any given moment’s force of conveyance. Cheung’s uses of passing silences—the line breaks themselves—are exquisitely effective in carving out and throwing into high relief units of musical meaning.
As it happens, Enjamb, Infuse, Implode (2006), a work for flute, clarinet, piano, violin, cello and percussion, makes direct reference to poetic method. Enjambment breaks a poem’s line within a thought or sense rather than at the end; Cheung saw the composition’s building of tension as working in a comparable manner. The piece is largely carried along through dynamic blends of instrumental color, with percussion and piano seeming to supply the enjambment.
Other works on the CD bring to mind a kind of updated Impressionism where color carries as much meaning as melody, harmony or dynamics. The three-movement Centripedalocity (2008) for seven instruments, for example, combines the timbres of chamber ensemble with jazz alto saxophone all while casting sideways glances at Debussy and Thelonious Monk; SynchroniCities (2012) uses the astringent colors of electronics and microtones to construct a paradoxically consonant clash of media and pitches. Here and elsewhere Cheung’s timbres and dynamics are often exhilarating and at many points seem to take the fractured surfaces of High Modernism and charge them with a direct, emotional urgency.