Laura Sullivan,
Pianoscapes for the
Trails of North America

(Delvian, 2004)

The press release claims that "you'll immediately realize that trails have found their sonic wings for the first time." This is not, strictly speaking, factual: Mychael Danna and Tim Clement collaborated on the excellent North of Niagara, a musical journey on Canada's Bruce Trail, released in 1995, and, to stretch the issue a bit, Real Music in the 1990s released a series of recordings by contemporary composers programmed around U.S. National Parks.

Pianoscapes fits squarely within what has become the prototypical new age canon; it is pleasant music, offering a limited range of emotional values and not a great deal of substance. The disc opens with "Mountain Magic," dedicated to the Appalachian National Scenic Trail (there is no telling exactly what "dedicated" means in this context). The piece does capture some of the poetry of the eastern mountains and offers a chance for some adolescent dreaminess, as does the next cut, "Sunrise on the Cloud Palace," dedicated (again) to the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail. The remainder of the album follows suit, offering pieces that ostensibly have some relationship to national scenic trails throughout the U.S.

Regrettably, there is an overarching sameness to this album, meaning simply that no particular piece really conveys a real sense of the country it claims to reflect, and no particular piece really stands out. It is all sweetly melancholy.

As an example of "program" music, it suffers from a scatter-shot approach; if Sullivan had investigated one trail fully, as Danna and Clement did with the Bruce Trail, we might have been the beneficiaries of a richer, more varied experience. As an example of her approach, the note for "Mountain Magic" cites the Scots-Irish settlers of the Appalachians (with a somewhat nonsensical reference to "druids") and the area's rural character, but Sullivan makes no use of indigenous musical forms or references to bring that home to us. It is just another variation on a somewhat rambling piano solo.

There are lovely passages -- "Voice from Sacred Wilderness" contains a haunting dialogue between piano and violin, as does "Hope for the Trees" between piano and cello (although in both cases the balance between the two could have been better; the piano is strongly dominant) -- and Sullivan is a fluent performer. Unfortunately, the music is so uniform that one literally cannot tell sometimes where one song ends and the next begins. The final feeling is that this is music to play while you do something else.

- Rambles
written by Robert M. Tilendis
published 17 April 2004

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