"Something unexpected happened when I started listening to the title piece on John Howell Morrison's new CD "Hard Weather Makes Good Wood" -- I started bobbing my head as if I was about to be treated to some backwoods acoustic porch jam. Not what you expect with string quartet music. But then, Morrison does that a lot on this CD: he takes you where you don't expect to go. This quartet piece, whose title reminds me of the gangster axiom "what doesn't kill me makes me stronger," is filled with confrontation, first from the intrusion of the tape part with mutated string sounds which tries to gang up on the live quartet, but then like the tide, the real strings keep their own internal existence in front of you. It's probably even more effecting to see the piece performed live -- as it will on March 8th in Minneapolis by the Intergalactic Contemporary Ensemble -- because there are lot of points in the 18 minute piece when you can't tell what's a string and what's a tape sound. So, while I'm bobbing my head, about six minutes into the piece, a new section starts with the haunting triads of a Beethoven sounding quartet and suddenly you realize the piece has taken you from a porch jam to an 18th century court musicale, and it's all done with a mature composer's knowing hand -- Morrison wins here by employing poetic inference, rather than the worst of 20th century composition devices: self-conscious technical complexity. The next place Morrison takes you that you don't expect is an extremely dramatic setting of seven poems written by his mother-in-law on the subject of her open heart surgery -- they both answer the question about the validity of "art songs" in the modern rep and prove that when words and music can stand up to each other, almost anything is possible -- and these are not all well behaved little art songs either -- Poem IV has only six words but has as much emotional life as a good 19th century "musical drama" -- I say that only because I would like to see Maria Jette of the ICE ensemble, with her deadly accurate musical and dramatic chops, perform this one song while standing correctly next to an appropriately large Steinway. Also the only word that comes to mind when trying to describe the piano accompaniment is "creamy" -- you'll know what I mean by that when you hear the selection we've posted on this page. The remainder of the CD is rounded out with two pieces from earlier in the 1990's and while they are completely competent, they seem to be precursors to work that Morrison is heading toward. It's rare that living modern composers get a chance to have their work from a span of time presented on one CD and judging from this case, Morrison has one hell of a decade in front of him."

-- Edward Sackett
Senior Music Editor, The College 500