On Cold Mountain

Songs on Poems of Gary Snyder
Fred Frith
W.A. Mathieu
Robert Morris
Roy Whelden
Galax Quartet
Karen Clark
Catalog Number: 
new classical
solo voice

San Francisco, CA

Release Date: 
Mar 29, 2011
Liner Notes: 
1 CD
One Sheet: 

In 2008, the Galax Quartet and contralto Karen Clark set out to commission new songs on poetry of Gary Snyder for their unusual complement of forces: an early form of the classical string quartet—2 violins, cello, and viola da gamba — with a modern voice. By this time Roy Whelden, composer/gambist and director of Galax, had already been hailed by Early Music America as “a key figure in the world of new music.” Whelden says of this project: “We wanted to expand the repertory for this ensemble and, at the same time, create something akin to late renaissance consort song on poetry that speaks to us today.”

So, when asked to set their favorite Snyder poems to music, composers Fred Frith, Allaudin Mathieu, and Robert Morris were keen to join. Snyder, who had just been awarded the 2008 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, agreed to participate saying that he was “totally curious about how this will work.” The four song cycles that comprise “On Cold Mountain: New Songs on Poems of Gary Snyder” were premiered on June 4, 2008 at Old First Concerts in San Francisco.

A Pulitzer poet, Gary Snyder is revered — alongside Alan Watts, Philip Whalen, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac — for his literary contributions to Eastern thought. Snyder’s passionate respect for the environment often earns him the title of poet of deep ecology, wherein the non-human and the human worlds carry equal moral weight. Several of Snyder’s translations by the 8th century Chinese, Han Shan, have been set by Whelden, Frith, and Mathieu. On this recording, both Frith and Mathieu set one of the more “beat” poems representative of Han Shan: Once at Cold Mountain troubles cease No more tangled, hung-up mind. I idly scribble poems on the rock cliff. Taking whatever comes, like a drifting boat.

The composers’ backgrounds and musical languages encompass a range of styles that include rock & roll, jazz, Baroque counterpoint, Indian classical music, and postmodern atonalism. British guitarist and composer, Fred Frith (For Nothing) said: “Well I guess the essence of what I’m doing is trying to acknowledge the world Baroque instruments came from while composing music that reflects what we are now; on the other hand trying to find ways of organizing the material that seem to me to have to do with Gary Snyder’s way of ‘organizing’ words, and his deep passion for natural phenomena. What is actually emerging of course has an unruly life of its own, somewhat like natural phenomena!” Allaudin Mathieu’s song cycle, For All, is “as eclectic as Gary’s poetry. ...Gary and I are from the same generation of eclectics and generalists. His poetry has always seemed to me intricate and well made, but not until I set these few poems did I realize how beautifully woven they really are.” Composer Robert Morris, who teaches atonal music theory at Eastman, explains that his music is derived from a cycle of 29 notes: “I think of the cycle as a musical mandala that undergirds the musical world of this setting of Gary’s poetry.”


"This fascinating and beautiful new release … boasts an endless dialogue between tradition and innovation, past and present. It's mesmerizing." - Joshua Kosman, San Francisco Chronicle

"The flowing, poignant words, lyrical music and powerfully penetrating yet subtle voice are mutually enhancing and combine for an extraordinary experience of listening on many levels. I highly recommend this CD." - Russell Delman, Founder, The Embodied Life School

"The musical styles can range from faux Baroque to post-Minimalism, but they all properly and provocatively capture the luminosity of Snyder’s language, his sense of nature connected to the moment, his evocation of the spiritual essence of the West. "The performances by contralto Karen Clark (best known for her pure-voiced early music performances) and the Galax Quartet (a string quartet that specializes in new music) are sensitive to word, pitch, tone and sentiment." - Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times

On Cold Mountain ... is highly evocative. In the hands of contralto Karen Clark and the Galax string quartet, listening is a moving experience. Karen Clark has a very beautiful vocal instrument that she harnesses without undue pathos to the mystically concrete world of Snyder. The Galax Quartet evokes just the right combination of Americana-meets-Cosmicana these pieces bring to our ears and hearts. The results are magical. The music speaks to us, however, with directness and beauty. Fred Frith (usually known as an improvisational guitarist) turns in a mysterious yet homespun-sounding "For Nothing." Roy Whelden's "Cold Mountain Songs" are haunting. "The Bubble of a Heart" by Robert Morris has a little gossamer and a little modern grit. "For All" finds W. A. Mathieu with a six-song suite that is both declamatory and dramatically diverse, in a reflective and sometimes indignant mood-mode. The total effect is considerable, lyrical yet tied to earth, filled with exquisite beauty yet also with an over-riding search for meaning in the everyday details of experience. The composers reflect the poet; the performers reflect both. The meld between poet, composers and performers is as close to ideal as you are going to find today. I'd say it's a masterpiece, but people who read blogs might suspect I am overpraising, as bloggers sometimes do. I am not. - Greg Edwards, Classical-Modern Music Review

"'Spel Against Demons' ... engages the listener with both form and content in a nontraditional way. The hiss of the singer is supported by tight tremolos and minor-mode language. It ... adds dramatic and harmonic interest on ... a straightforward, accessible program."
Kraig Lamper