Some young composers have had enough of the future; it’s finally time for the past. Impatient with avant-gardes, clean slates, or radical reinventions, they sift lovingly through their influences, trying them on rather than laboring to shed them. The phenomenal teenaged pianist-composer Conrad Tao has titled his first full CD Voyages, but it’s really about building a habitat out of scraps he’s picked up here and there. He programs his own delicate aphorisms alongside those of Rachmaninoff and Ravel, and even though a century separates them, they sound plucked from the same basket. Timothy Andres’s gurus are Brian Eno and Mozart, and he is not content simply to evoke their styles; on his latest album, Home Stretch, he rewrites their music just enough to make it his own.
The mixture of humble tribute and hubristic theft has a fine pedigree in music. Most composers start out by imitating their elders, and some make a fetish of recycling. Stravinsky, whose spirit animates Home Stretch, took apart and recomposed 18th century Italian dances, ragtime pieces, Russian folk songs, and the dazzling orchestration of his teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov. Andres disassembles Stravinsky. The album’s title track, a 20-minute concerto written for the pianist David Kaplan and the Metropolis Ensemble, opens with a Rite-like haze of high winds and moves towards an orgy of broken ostinatos. Rhythmic motives get blasted into crystalline shards, rearranged around irregular rests. A steady tic-tock hiccups and picks up a different pulse. The dancing piano suddenly changes course. Andres is a fine pianist, and the part has the fluid agility of a composer who writes with all 10 fingers.
The album’s keystone is an even more Stravinskian project: an idiosyncratic rewrite of Mozart’s “Coronation” Concerto. Mozart barely sketched in the piano’s left hand, figuring he could fill it in on the spot; Andres has used the blank areas as an opening for his imagination. The original is always recognizable, but the piano leads it through a series of fun-house distortions, so that at times it sounds as if it were gurgling underwater, at others it goes rampaging wildly through keys and zones of dissonance, reappearing a few minutes later in deadpan sync with the original. Andres has one talent that eludes most high-minded composers: a sense of humor. There are passages in the concerto that remind me of the mirror scene in the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup, where Chico plays the role of Groucho’s not-always-obedient reflection. But Andres is offering more than a gag. During the cadenzas, especially in the final movement, his music drifts into new terrain, a contemplative essay in big, gonging chords. At that moment, I wish that Andres had kicked away the scaffolding of Mozart and just kept pulling at the thread of his own invention.
Conrad Tao constructs his self-portrait of the artist as a young man by making the once-obvious point that the relationship between playing and composing is indissoluble. The emerging virtuoso makes his entrance with an anti-virtuosic piece, Meredith Monk’s serenely minimalistic “Railroad (Travel Song),” which pistons along unhurriedly like a local train through countryside. Then comes a pensive selection of Rachmaninoff preludes, each a magical daub of color. The playing induces shivers. The C minor prelude (Op. 23, No. 7) gushes out in quiet cataracts, lyrical and shimmering, a tour de force of delicacy and power. The fast and fiendish “Scarbo” movement from Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit is a more obvious way for a prodigy to plant his banner, but Tao spins it into gossamer, all nocturnal flutterings and murmurs.
What Tao the composer inherits from his musical forebears is both a stylistic toolkit and the desire to translate dreams into vivid miniatures. Each of his four Vestiges expands some fleeting impression into momentary musical obsession. “Upon ripping perforated pages” translates the controlled tearing sound into a spasm of elegant violence, which in turn evolves into a high-speed etude. The more ambitious “Iridescence,” for piano and iPad, combines Monk-ish repeated patterns with aquatic electronic burbles. The piece deliberately treads water, hovering amid beautiful sonorities with nowhere special to go.