Sometimes we can discern a person’s thoughts, emotions, mood or intentions, or all of these, from a subtle clue. The great classical actor Ian McKellen illustrated this in a one-man performance on Broadway in the 1980s. While explaining how an audience can pick up on the slightest onstage movement, he produced a slight twitch just below his left eye. The movement was obvious to everyone in the house, which immediately responded with laughter. The twitch of a single muscle had given everything away. We in the audience may not have been transcendent but McKellen was, and is, in his craft.
Subtlety is akin to precision and incisiveness. It is the delicate art of being certain, and correct, on the basis of a tiny clue.
- Jean Dubuffet, Texturologie XXXV (Prune et Lilas) (1958)
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
- Of Handel’s oratorio Jephtha, one reviewer writes: “The music's drive comes, instead, from Handel's arrangement of arias, subtle instrumentation and evocative colors. Simple melodies are given penetrating power; in Jephtha Handel can take us without contradiction to simultaneous heights of horror and rapture with a restrained harpsichord continuo or gentle flute.” Here are links to performances conducted by Christie, Gardiner, and a recording on the Brilliant label.
- Easley Blackwood, Twelve Microtonal Etudes for Electronic Music Media, Op. 28: in this work, small (microtonal) changes drive the music forward. (1) 16 notes: Andantino; (2) 18 notes: Allegro volando; (3) 21 notes: Suite in four mvts.; (4) 23 notes: Allegro moderato; (5) 13 notes: Sostenuto; (6) 15 notes: Lento; (7) 17 notes: Con moto; (8) 22 notes: Andante ma non troppo; (9) 24 notes: Moderato; (10) 14 notes: Allegramente; (11) 20 notes: Comodo; (12) 19 notes: Allegro moderato.
- Isang Yun, Kontraste (Contrasts) (1987), consists of two pieces for solo violin, which emphasize a wide variety of atmosphere and color.
Elan Mehler is a jazz pianist who is often compared to Bill Evans. Like Evans’, his playing is subtle and understated; it also conveys a greater sense of intimacy than Evans’. His albums include:
- “There Is a Dance” (2022)
- “Pallet on Your Floor”, with singer Becca Stevens (2021)
- “Early Sunday Morning” (2014)
- “Being There, Here” (2013)
- “The After Suite” (2009)
David Chesky and Jazz in the New Harmonic:
- Oregon, “1974”, live in Bremen: “Other bands have tried variations on the fusion of avant-garde jazz with Indian, European classical and folk, none have done it with the same ingenuity or creative energy.” [Michael J. West, Downbeat magazine, November 2021, p. 56.] Each distinct voice has a purpose, and they unite so seamlessly that it all seems natural.
- “The Maryla Jonas Story: Her Complete Piano Recordings” (193’): Born in 1912, Jonas made these recordings in the late 1940s. She escaped from the Nazis but her husband, parents and two brothers were killed. Her Chopin Mazurkas may be the finest ever recorded, featuring a deft and subtle touch, and nuance in every phrase. “Her Chopin Mazurkas in particular have been praised to the skies and yet such accolades still pale in comparison to the actual playing. Jonas herself said that it was the suffering in her life that brought her playing to life . . .”
- Ralph Towner and Paolo Fresu, “Chiaroscuro” album; title track live
- Buddy Guy & Junior Wells, “Alone & Acoustic”
- Kenny Barron Quartet, “Concentric Circles”
- Ivo Perelman & Matthew Shipp, “Invisible Touch Art Taktlos Zürich”
- Antonio Adolfo, “Finas Misturas” (2013): Adolfo writes: “I use a blues phrasing blended with a Brazilian Northeastern scale.” The title means “fine mixtures”.
- Wadada Leo Smith’s Golden Quartet, “The Year of the Elephant” (2002) (61’): “. . . for all the outstanding individual contributions, the strongest impression is made by passages of collective interaction that are as varied, unpredictable and satisfying as classic New Orleans jazz or Chicago blues.”
- Kris Allen, “June” (2022) (43’). Allen says: “The vibe is simple and elemental. The titles and concepts are really concise, often a single word, like ‘Trees’, ‘Sunlight’ or ‘Ember’. I wanted it to be meditative, and to reach for melodies that could be singable.”
- Ayanda Sikade, “Umakhulu” (2021) (68’): “Sikade isn’t a flashy drummer given to crescendi and ten-minute ooh-ya solos. He’s a quiet, precise musician with a light touch on the sticks and an even lighter one with the brushes. He rides his kit easy, not hard. When you hear a cymbal or drum-roll, it’s deliberate punctuation, not listen-to-me volume. But the filigree fretwork of his strokes is intricate and compelling.”