Born in Chicago and based in Palo Alto, California, William Susman is an American composer and pianist whose work encompasses orchestral, chamber, vocal and soundtrack music informed by western classical, jazz, African and Latin American traditions as well as contemporary minimalism. Constantly toying with instrumental permutations – from solo performance to his scaled-down big-band formation Octet – the music of William Susman is a continuous exploration of harmonic and rhythmic patterns. Released in October 2019 and January 2021 respectively on his own Belarca label, Collision Point and A Quiet Madness introduce works spanning over 25 years.
William Susman is a classically-trained pianist, but playing in various jazz bands, big bands or Afro-Cuban ensembles in parallel has informed and nurtured his approach to composition throughout his career. It has also prompted the composer to explore a wide range of instrumental permutations when arranging for the performance of his music.
All the “Quiet Rhythms” pieces were written for solo piano, but “Aria” (2013) explores the interaction between piano and violin (Karen Bentley Pollick), “Seven Scenes for Four Flutes” (2011) was multi-tracked by as single flutist (Patricia Zuber), “Zydeco Madness” (2006) was composed specifically for the bayan chromatic accordion (Stas Venglevski), “Clouds and Flames” (2010) features violin, cello and piano and “Camille” (2010) was commissioned by Piccola Accademia degli Specchi. Based in Rome, the latter sextet is configured as a Pierrot ensemble formation – typically five musicians with an additional singer or one performer doubling on one instrument. On “Camille” for instance, the ensemble features Alessandra Amorino on flute, Claudia Di Pietro on alto saxophone, Giuliano Cavaliere on violin, Rina You on cello, Assunta Cavallari and Fabio Silvestro, both on piano four hands. The unique formation allows for mesmerising dynamics within the piece as all instruments fluidly take turns to lead and support.
While such a versatile instrumentation allows for an infinite range of colours, dynamics and textures, the entire William Susman canon is ultimately rhythmic, down to a mathematical precision. His music always moves forward following a cyclical pattern (“Motions of Return” for flute and piano – 1996) and involves a meticulous deconstruction of complex and syncopated rhythms. “Camille” or “Quiet Rhythms no 1” (2010) for instance are based on the Afro-Cuban 2-3 and 3-2 clave rhythmic pattern while “The Starry Dynamo” (1994), a whirling and hypnotic composition inspired by the opening lines of Allen Ginsberg’s 1956 Howl, explores the repeated rhythmic ostinato pattern of the Cuban piano montuno. “Zydeco Madness” is another precise dissection of a traditional music style. Underlying most compositions too is the hocket technique first heard in early 13th and 14th century choral music in Europe whereby two voices or two instruments share the same melody line.
The three Quiet Rhythms pieces are all interpreted here by Italian pianist Francesco di Fiore, a minimalist composer himself. As the numbering suggests, the three “Quiet Rhythms” heard in A Quiet Madness are part of a large collection of pieces for solo piano which somewhat represent the foundation building blocks of William Susman’s body of work. There are 44 in total published as four books of 11 between 2010 and 2013, all constructed following a similar pattern of “prologue” and “action”.
The quasi-trance-inducing interweaving of melodic lines within solo and ensemble pieces and the relentless multi-layering of rhythmic cells all build up to generate a fragile yet pulsating equilibrium, but also an invisible tension, a never-ending “episodic, jump-cutting from one event to the next like a news report” as noted by the composer about his “Zydeco Madness” composition.
This is “music for moving pictures” – to paraphrase the title of his documentary soundtrack released in 2009 – 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.