Although I've never heard of American electro-acoustic composer Barry Schrader before, he's been around for quite some time (since the 1970's) garnering much critical acclaim for his work. Schrader began composing electronic music in 1969 while a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh, where he was also organist for Sunday high mass at Heinz Chapel, thereafter going on to California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, California, where he received an MFA in composition in 1971. He was appointed to the School of Music faculty of CalArts in 1971, and has been on the composition faculty ever since. Schrader is the founder and the first president of SEAMUS (Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States) and has been involved with the inauguration and operation of several performance series such as SCREAM (Southern California Resource for Electro-Acoustic Music), among other things.
Obviously since I haven't heard of Barry Schrader before, I haven't heard any of his previous work either, but I was certainly intrigued by the title of the album. 'The Barnum Museum' to me conjures the world of the showman, huckster, and all manner of oddities. Barnum's American Museum was quite a place in its time (1841 ' 1865) where for a quarter you could experience a wide variety of strange and unusual people, things, and events, but this work by Schrader is not about the actual museum but rather the short story titled 'The Barnum Museum' by Steven Millhauser taken from his book by the same title. The short story 'Eisenheim the Illusionist' on which the movie 'The Illusionist' was based appears in the same book, for some frame of reference if like me, you haven't read Millhauser. From what I understand about Millhauser's Barnum Museum story is rather an extended fantasy, described as 'a fantasia of a vast and magical institution that adapts to the desires of its visitors.' In that description Schrader seems to be on target with his tone poems that delve into Millhauser's ideas.
Nine pieces comprise Schrader's 'Barnum Museum,' ranging from Grand Guignol to the sublime. The beginning, 'The Romanesque and Gothic Entranceways' features demonic then placid pipe organ, a medieval march, and culminates in a reprisal of the demonic pipe organ theme in a tumultuous ending. 'The Hall of Mermaids' is liquidy mystery, sometimes light and celestial, sometimes dense and heavy. 'The Caged Griffin' radiates a strong and regal presence, then shifts into rhythmic tension causing trepidation, finally calming at the end. 'The Subterranean Levels' begins with descending arpeggios followed by a steadily persistent muted clacking or chaking, possibly the sound of machinery in the chambered depths. Of course, the subterranean levels sound very'¦subterranean! Not that there is necessarily anything very evil down there, but all manner of oddities and unusual things seem to lurk within, including some absolutely haywire machinery. 'The Flying Carpet' certainly gives a sense of airy motion without the use of any percussive rhythm, simply by swirling oblique arpeggios mixed with drones. It's a rather interesting form that the composer employs here, using slight underlying minor themes to add an air of mystery. There is much more depths to these layers than you are likely to catch on the first listening. Where 'The Flying Carpet' had no definitive rhythmic element, 'The Homunculus in a Jar' begins with a rhythmic wooden xylophone-like synth sequence, but is quickly abandoned for a swirling, dense atmosphere that morphs into a machine-like drone, then back to a different, more intense wooden xylophone-like synth sequence. I'm reminded somewhat of Harry Partch here. 'Chinese Kaleidoscopes' has a clattering of glass-like sounds and similar sequenced synth timbres utilizing pentatonic scale which increases in swirling intensity, and eventually density until it is absorbed by pipe organ grandeur. A metamorphosis occurs and the spinning kaleidoscopes reflect a thousand butterflies, or, so I envisioned.
Schrader's piece de rÃ©sistance in this strange menagerie is the phantasmagorical 16+ minute piece de rÃ©sistance 'Chamber of False Things,' which is comprised of 'Porphyry Figurines from Atlantis,' 'Golden Cups from El Dorado,' and 'Water from the Fountain of Youth.' Whatever there was previously, there is even more of it in here. The minor three chord theme from the beginning is reprised; there is more descent and opening into vast space; toots of a calliope; dark and ominous drones; a march-like percussive section on hollow wood; glittering fairy dust falling from above; more swirling arpeggios, culminating in a crescendo of the great pipe organ again. Awesome!
Words fail in these descriptions as this is something that you just have to hear. I don't know whether Schrader succeeded in capturing the flavor of Millhauser's short story, but he did succeed in making a most enigmatic and intriguing soundscape. 'The Barnum Museum' should appeal to steampunk aficionados too. I'm giving this album five stars not only because I because I think that it's an amazing work, but also because it's intriguing to enough to warrant multiple plays, and I don't see how it could be any better.