Thursday, June 12, 2014

First the killing, then the music

John Allemeier has just released a compact disc titled "Deep Water: The Murder Ballads" on the Albany Records label, which is devoted mainly to work by living classical composers. Allemeier, associate professor of composition at UNC Charlotte, wrote this hour-long set of three pieces for a performance last year, in which dancer/choreographer E.E. Balcos created three works based on famous folk tunes about violent death. Here's a sample:

The album's a Charlotte-centric project. It's performed by local musicians, notably flutist Erinn Frechette and violinist Jenny Topilow; it was recorded at Acoustic Barn Studios and mastered by Rick Dior. (Allemeier produced it himself.)

And all three of the ballads used ("Poor Ellen," "Pieces of Silver" and "Omie Wise") come from North Carolina slayings. In the first, a lover shoots the woman he wants to quit. In the second, an abused wife turns her husband's gun on him, allegedly as he's planning to plug her in a drunken rage. (Both perpetrators were hanged.) In the third and most famous ballad, retitled "Deep Water" here, a man indicted for drowning a woman near Asheboro served 47 days in jail -- not for killing her, but for breaking out of prison while awaiting trial.

James Grymes' comprehensive liner notes provide guides to both the history of these songs and Allemeier's compositions. Though the music springs from murder, it's seldom violent: He uses a string quartet in "Ellen," a mixed ensemble in "Silver" and an assortment of winds with piano in "Water." The sounds are frequently melancholy and reflective; Allemeier isn't so much depicting the acts of the characters as their states of mind before, during and after their misdeeds. (Murder ballads often depict the perpetrators' remorse.)

I didn't see the live performance, so I can't tell you how effectively it reworked its source material. But the music suggests deep emotional waters indeed.