Fanfare - January/February 1999 - by Peter Burwasser

Curt Cacioppo is an American composer and pianist with a solid post-Schoenbergian background. His expressive, firmly focused voice, delivered in densely chromatic, but clearly shaped phrases, owes much to the powerful music of his teacher at Harvard, Leon Kirchner. At the same time, Cacioppo has developed an intense commitment to issues related to the American Indian communities. He even teaches, at Haverford College, where he is a professor of music, a social-justice course on the immense injustices visited upon Native Americans.

All of the music on this disc is inspired by stories and issues related to Native Americans. What is remarkable about the music of Cacioppo is that although he uses Navajo, Apache, Zuni, Kwakiutl, and Pawnee melodies, they are always in the context of his distinctive, overtly European viewpoint. Rather than condescend to Native music, Cacioppo meets it head on, and unabashedly ensconces it in his own culture, resulting in works of direct honesty and, at times, blistering passion.

I found all of the piano music effective and moving, as Cacioppo expresses his sorrow and outrage at the holocaust that has been visited upon the American Indian, with music that echoes not only Kirchner and other polytonalists, but also Lisztian bravura, and delicate, Debussy-like impressionism. The Native musical sources rise closest to the surface in the three Pawnee Preludes, which incorporate authentic Pawnee melodies as the spine of the music, serving as a cantus firmus, both in the traditional rhythmic and harmonic sense, but also in a palpably spiritual sense. At the risk of conjuring cliches, the insistent beating of war drums seems to remind us of the vitality and vision that remain in the hearts of these people.

The ambitious string quartet Nayézgani (Monsterslayer) is a five-movement depiction of a Navajo creation story. Although the composer purports to utilize a "system of scales, intervals, chords and rhythms derived from elements of Navajo cosmology," the language of the quartet is, like much of the piano music, distinctly European. And again, the strength of the music derives from this honesty of expression; the absence of any overt Native music (at least to these admittedly unschooled ears) is striking. The closing Dance of Celebration even incorporates some jazzy syncopation, making for an ironic meeting of two native cultures. The work is a semiprogrammatic description of the destruction of a child-eating monster (cello) at the hands of two brothers (the two violins), who are counseled in the task by the supreme deity, Changing Woman (viola).

The composer performs his own music with impressive virtuosity and infectious passion, and the Emerson String Quartet, for whom Nayézgani was written, plays with the same focus and energy as it might for Shostakovich, Bartók, or Beethoven, all of whom are evoked in this vibrant music.