In the first sentence of his book Last Night in Twisted River, novelist John Irving has already killed someone.
“The young Canadian, who could not have been more than fifteen, had hesitated too long,” Irving writes. His last two words linger ominously in the mind like a low, sustained piano key as he goes on to paint the tragic scene: a young boy, walking frantically atop the moving logs on Twisted River. One moment of uncertainty, and he slips underwater, unreachable despite the desperate rescue efforts of the far more seasoned loggers.
- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
And it’s on this very sinister note that composer Craig Russell begins his sprawling, ambitious piano piece Twisted River. The work—often elegant and moving, in places jarring, even cacophonous—is Russell’s homage to Irving’s novel, and the composer’s opening scene, like that of the book, is one filled with panic and dread. The high, uneven, nervous “Plink! Plink!” of the boy’s steps is purposefully ill matched with the low, growling thunder of the rolling logs, and we know which one won’t survive the first movement.
Twisted River, performed by Barbara Hoff, is just one of several original Russell pieces showcased at the upcoming concert “Transatlantic Landscapes,” which sees its world premiere on Saturday, Jan. 7, at Cal Poly’s Spanos Theatre. The show opens with two selections from Car Songs, a collection of lyrical works, sung by Inga Swearingen, all of which feature the automobile in some way. (Look closer, however, and you’ll see the vehicle is hardly the star. It’s more a handy, multi-purpose metaphor, the physical and emotional conveyance of our protagonists, who live in the heart of every song.
Let’s fall in love, we wouldn’t even have to try, Russell implores in “In my M.G.” From our car, we can rock-et/ Fast and far, like a comet whose spray/ Glistens bright, through glimm’ring nights.
Of course, no image quite matches the unchecked glee of We can fly past stop signs. Oh what ecstasy!)
- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
A movement from Russell’s Cuarteto de Cuerda, a Spanish-influenced string quartet he composed while living in Madrid, transports us far away from those American dreams—before returning us home to mom and dad with Four American Scenes, a work comprised of four movements evocative of the composer’s memories of his childhood in New Mexico. Here, Russell has set out to capture both his reverence for his parents and his awe at the expansive American landscape called home. The third movement, which Russell has infused with memories of his mother roller-skating, is delivered in a joyous reggae style (well, as much as viola, cello, bass, and piano can muster) that is nonetheless, the maestro emphasizes, “Simultaneously rigorously canonic—as if Bach were playing in a band with Bob Marley.”
But Twisted River, which tells, in each of its eight movements, the story of one of the book’s main characters, may be the most intriguing work on the concert’s program. And since a lot of people die in Irving’s novel, Russell’s composition is imbued with a certain uncharacteristic heaviness, a sharp twist away from the buoyant mood his work most often invokes.
After we bid farewell to Angel Pope, the boy whose sad end is the novel’s beginning, we meet Cookie, “a cook—with a noble spirit—who suffers with a very severe limp from a horrible accident when he was in his early teens,” Russell’s detailed notes read. His uneven gait can be felt, he goes on, in the movement’s initial “limping pauses, the lumbering movement of the melody, the momentary delays, and the low register.”
- PHOTO COURTESY OF INGA SWEARINGEN
But soon, we hear him rapidly chopping in the kitchen (repeated sixteenth notes) before, with the effortlessness of dreaming, the music whisks us to the restaurant Vicino di Napoli, where Cookie has been hired as a chef—a change in environment demonstrated by the introduction of a romantic, Italian-inspired melody.
The third movement opens with Ketchum, a log driver, “dancing” on the logs. But instead of the novice footwork of Angel Pope, we hear confidence and agility as he deftly navigates.
When we meet Yi Ying, a Chinese woman who works as an emergency room nurse in Iowa, Russell truly challenges the possibilities of the piano. He recreates the sounds of the gu’qin—a stringed, zither-like instrument—by plucking and striking the actual piano strings, and the yang’qin—a hammered dulcimer—by hitting the strings with a small wooden hammer. An excerpt from the ancient Chinese melody “Flowing Water,” a standard of the gu’chin repertoire, is one of the movement’s main themes.
As Twisted River flows on, more characters introduce themselves. There is Injun Jane, a vast Native American woman with a long dark braid, whose presence is represented by a rhythmic, drumming sound and a melody that quotes traditional Native American songs. We meet Cowboy, a dull-witted, vengeful cop, whose pursuit of Cookie and his son Danny drives the novel forward. We hear him sink into heavy drinking, and the piano gets all loose and sloppy.
We make the acquaintance Lady Sky, a naked skydiver whom readers first perceive as a mere speck in the heavens. There is a single “tink!” as she first comes into view. Then her parachute opens and she gathers speed toward Earth, crash-landing into a pigsty.
Lady Sky is kind, big-boned and tattooed, and her musical theme, bold and loud, is at once very beautiful. But her presence is not welcome by all, and Danny’s jealous wife Katie, desperate for a share of the attention, begins to take off her clothes as well—to music of the Rolling Stones. We catch passing echoes of “Let’s Spend the Night Together.”
It is not until the climactic final movement that we encounter Danny, the character Russell describes as Wthe thread that goes through the whole book. Danny’s the only character that exists from the beginning to the end, and it’s his thoughts that you see at the last page.”
While honoring its many muses, “Transatlantic Landscapes” is poetic, thoughtful, and inspired in its own right. And much like Irving’s novel, it reads as a thoughtfully crafted love letter to the imperfect beauty of a human life.
“Whenever I end a John Irving book,” says Russell, “I’m reminded about how much I love people and life and literature, and the flaws in characters, and the messiness of things, because actually, that makes life worth living.”
Arts Editor Anna Weltner can be reached at email@example.com.