By Frank Oteri
New Music Box
Initially putting on Let Others Name You, a new disc of compositions by Michael Tenzer, is somewhat disorienting and perhaps a great way to fool people at your next dinner party. Although born in New York City, this former Yale prof (now based at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver) writes music that is solidly grounded in Balinese gamelan traditions. If you don't listen carefully to that first track—Unstable Center (2003) which also sports a Balinese title Puser Belah—you might think that someone at a pressing plant mixed this disc up with one of those amazing volumes of Balinese field recordings from the Nonesuch Explorer Series. However, a deeper listen reveals weird twists that don't quite conform to the harmonic and structural details of a traditional gamelan piece. But, somehow like George Rochberg's later string quartets which revisit 19th-century chamber music on Rochberg's own late 20th-century terms, Tenzer creates a music that is steeped in the old in order to eke out something totally new. A musical response to the horrific terrorist attack that occurred in Bali on October 12, 2002, which claimed over 200 lives, Unstable Center uses an appropriately more chromatic and rhythmically erratic sonic palette. It reveals that the gamelan is as capable of contemporary expression as any other medium, and it's exciting to hear that it can be as adaptable as, say, a string quartet, without losing its spirit and essence.
In fact, Tenzer, like a whole host of North American composers—e.g. the Canadian Colin McPhee (who was the first), Lou Harrison, Barbara Benary, and Evan Ziporyn immediately come to mind—has found a way to make viable contemporary American music using a gamelan. Two earlier, even more traditional sounding gamelan works of Tenzer's—Banyuari and Situ Banda—have previously been issued by New World Records on their 1995 CD, American Works for Balinese Gamelan. When you think about it, it's not as much of a stretch as it might seem. After all, a gamelan is no less indigenous to our shores than a string quartet or a piano. Speaking of pianos, the subsequent track, Invention and Etude (2004) is a solo piano piece. While its sonority clearly returns us to the potential comfort zone of Western contemporary classical music, for lack of a better term, it is also something quite other, being inspired by the rhythmic structures of South Indian music. Resolution (Tabuh Gari) (2007) for small orchestra and Balinese drums is perhaps the most initially Western piece on the disc, but the presence of those drums, foregrounded as they are in gamelan music, adds a somewhat disorienting element to the proceedings.
But before that seeming possible rapprochement with Western hegemony in the early 21st century, there's the completely unmelted pot of Underleaf (Buk Katah) (2006)—a composition which, if you listen carefully, might totally blow your mind. It begins sounding like one of Philip Glass's manic early hardcore minimalist pieces, think Part Three of Music in Twelve Parts, but something is not quite right. Ah, it's a gamelan playing that stuff! But wait, there are all these other non-gamelan sounding instruments. Sounds somehow electronic and strangely out-of-tune, like one of the weirder tracks from Wendy Carlos's Beauty in the Beast or Easley Blackwood's Twelve Microtonal Etudes for Electronic Music Media. But it's actually all done live on acoustic instruments by musicians from Vancouver reading from a score playing brass, winds, and piano, alongside a Balinese gamelan which learned the parts the traditional way, by rote and ear. The two groups of instruments don't quite fit together and Tenzer continually creates tensions between the two which drive the point home. Call and responses with intervals that don't match up are just the tip of the iceberg. There's no doubt that this piece could belong to any other tradition than the tradition which simultaneously embraces and rejects all traditions—new music!
By Steve Smith
Time Out New York
White Bone Country
Stephen Gosling, piano; David Shively, percussion (New World)
When a musician invokes a desert, the results are often predictable: sunbaked torpor, whispering winds, a wooden flute’s drooping sigh. Andrew Byrne, an Australian composer based in New York, doesn’t literally depict any specific landscape in White Bone Country, the 2006 suite that fills half of his new CD. But with his skitterings, rumblings and surrealistic sensations, Byrne more accurately conjures alien terrain than do any number of Bowles-besotted dune sketchers.
Insistent rhythms and percussive timbres, expertly handled by Stephen Gosling and David Shively, position Byrne within a lineage of experimenters inspired by non-Western styles, including John Cage, Lou Harrison, Peter Garland and John Luther Adams. In four of the work’s nine parts, piano and percussion fuse into a single, twitchy nervous system. Elsewhere, Gosling is kept busy inside and outside of his instrument’s casing; a section for crotales (antique cymbals) is less a solo for Shively than a duo also featuring the resonating bones in your inner ear—no exaggeration.
Of the remaining pieces on Byrne’s disc, Tracks is a sonorous exercise in complex polyrhythms and shifting densities, confidently negotiated by Gosling. And the four-part Fata Morgana, constructed from prepared-piano sounds, could be a dance remix of Cage’s prepared-piano sonatas—dance being the key word, since these jangly, hypnotic pinwheels cry out to be choreographed.
Piano Works of Gordon Mumma, Alvin Curran, & Contemporary Belgian Composers
Thursday, October 15, 2009
8PM at Roulette
20 Greene Street (between Canal and Grand)
"Daan Vandewalle brings a keen awareness of architecture and an incisive touch that enables him to express episodes of delicacy, buoyancy, lyrical flow, hard-edged abstraction, dancelike movement, and spirituality." – Art Lange, Fanfare
The 21st Season of Thomas Buckner’s innovative series of new music continues on October 15, 2009, with dynamic Belgian pianist Daan Vandewalle performing selections from his recent recording of piano works by pioneering composer Gordon Mumma dating from 1960-2001 (New World Records 80686). Also featured are works by American composer Alvin Curran, and a handful of contemporary works by Belgian composers, including leading postwar Belgian composer Karel Goeyvaerts (1923-1993), emerging Flemish composer Thomas Smetryns, the extremely prolific and unusual composer Boudewijn Buckinx.
Daan Vandewalle enjoys an international reputation as new music specialist,with a strong focus on 20th and 21th century american piano music. He studied at the Conservatory of Ghent, Belgium, with Claude Coppens, and at Mills College, California, with Alvin Curran. His programs are often highly unusual both on a technical or intellectual level, often combining the classical repertoire such as Mussorgski and Chopin with premieres of new works written especially for him by composers including Fred Frith, Alvin Curran, and Fredrick Rzewski.
By Frank J. Oteri
New Music Box
It has often been said that the United States in the 20th (and now the 21st) century produced a greater number of composers than at any other time or place in human history. With so much material out there—not only from the standpoint of geography and media, but also style and pedigree—it is well-nigh impossible to hear it all. As a result, tons of neglected repertoire is still awaiting discovery. Although valiant efforts have been made by many independent record labels to shine light on (or rather amplify the sound of) music by otherwise overlooked American composers, few have done so as broadly and as consistently as New World Records, so the arrival of a new release from them is always something to stop and listen to. And while everything they release is notable, about once a year they issue something which is truly astounding, begging for the history of American music to be rewritten. A couple of years ago it was the three-CD set of music by African American minimalist/post-minimalist Julius Eastman (1940-1990) whose works for multiples of the same instrument throb with power and majesty. Last year it was the first-ever recording devoted exclusively to the music of Johanna M. Beyer (1888-1944), who seemed to be writing Elliott Carter's string quartets twenty years before he did. This year it's the first CD of music by James Mulcro Drew (b. 1929), who luckily is still alive to hear his music treated so devotedly by the Amsterdam-based Barton Workshop, led by expatriate American trombonist James Fulkerson.
Drew certainly has the pedigree—a one-time student of pioneering American serialist Wallingford Riegger, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in the '70s and his music was championed by Gunther Schuller at Tanglewood. And yet a cursory listen to the six works featured here on Animating Degree Zero, five of which were composed this decade, reveals a composer whose inclinations are more akin to the uncategorizable experiments of the American maverick strain. Equally inspired by modernism, conceptualism, and a wide range of vernacular traditions, Drew has forged a compositional language that is completely his own and which is difficult to make generalizations about.
The composition which gives the disc its title, Animating Degree Zero (2003), is a subdued jazz-tinged ten-piece ensemble work for an expanded Pierrot configuration featuring a pair of wah-wah trombones. But for Bonaroo Breaks (Street Funeral Music) from 2003, the sound world of New Orleans funeral processions is the starting point for a raucous modular composition for two trombones and percussion. On the other hand, 12 Centers Breathing (2001) for viola and percussion, and Solemn Acts in Rain (2002), the one work here scored for a standard instrumental combination (violin and piano), seem more akin to the spare and ambiguous sonic landscapes of Morton Feldman.
The one older Drew piece included in this collection, The Lute in the Attic (1963) presents yet another compositional persona. And considering the importance of theatre in Drew's output, it is also surprisingly the only texted work on this disc. A surreal setting of a poem by Kenneth Patchen which requires the vocalist to speak, sing, shout, and everything in between, Lute in the Attic, whose graphic score was featured by John Cage in his famous anthology Notations, is simultaneously surreal and folksy. While it was performed at its premiere by a soprano, it is presented here in a commanding performance by baritone Charles van Tassel. The most recent composition included here, In Memoriam J.C. Higginbottom (2005), is a tribute to the great Dixieland jazz trombonist whose signature gutbucket sonorities James Fulkerson hauntingly conjures here in performance through use of a 90 second digital reverberation.
All in all, New World offers a wonderful introduction to James Mulcro Drew, one that has been long overdue and continues their track record of annual mind-blower. In the personal wish list department, it would be amazing if their next rediscovery were either Hans Barth, a one-time piano duet partner of Charles Ives whose 1/4-tone piano concerto was championed by Stokowski, or Vera N. Preobrajenska, a forgotten Bay Area iconoclast who seems to have attempted a synthesis of Partch's corporeality and serial procedures independently of Ben Johnston. But whatever it may be, more opportunities to expand the canon of great American composers are sure to come from New World. Stay tuned.
James Mulcro Drew, Chamber Music at Extreme Temperatures
Chamber Music Today
In thermodynamics, an adiabatic process is any thermodynamic process in which no heat is transferred to or from the surrounding space. The term ‘adiabatic’ literally means impassable, coming from the Greek roots ἀ- (‘not’), διὰ- (‘through’), and βαῖνειν ("to pass"). It means a total absence of heat transfer.
At temperatures near 0°K, nearly all molecular motion ceases and the entropy change ΔS = 0 for any adiabatic process. Pure substances can (ideally) form perfect crystals as T→0.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
In this wonderful recording we have members of the Barton Workshop performing several works that James Drew composed between 2001 and 2005.
At very low temperatures in the vicinity of absolute zero, matter exhibits many unusual properties including superconductivity, superfluidity, and Bose-Einstein condensates.
At [musical] temperatures close to absolute zero, quantum [musical] particles begin taking on new ‘collective’ properties. Delinquent waves begin to act in concert. At low temperatures where everything occurs in slow-motion, the true nature of the most basic constituents of the ensemble are revealed. I wonder whether it could be measured... wonder whether quantum phenomena like the ‘observer effect’ occurs outside the subatomic world, in the world of macroscopic processes like human beings playing and listening to music. According to the second law of thermodynamics, all physical processes in the Universe can naturally flow only from a state of greater energy to lesser energy.
Throw a stone into a lake, and the ripples it makes eventually die out. My cup of hot coffee can [left by itself in a setting where the ambient temperature is lower than the coffee] only get cooler, not hotter.
But near absolute zero the particles comprising an object behave differently. Although the ensemble ‘atoms’ are still part of a ‘gas’, they behave more like atoms of a metal—like one smeared-out single entity, similar to experiments with rubidium gas by Eric Cornell and Carl Wieman at the University of Colorado Boulder in 1995, for which they won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2001. The James Drew expressions form what I think is a musical equivalent to a Bose-Einstein condensate—a peculiar property of atoms slowing down so much that they are zen-like, almost at rest.
The sonic attributes that I’m referring to can be heard in each of the compositions on this disc... the ‘direct sound duration’ of each note, as contrasted with indirect sounds and their durations and decay. Listen to the sympathetic resonance between notes and the quadratic effect, especially in the piano part [when applicable].
In the piano, a very high soundboard Q-factor shortens high frequencies’ durations. The piano’s soundboard mechanical impedance affects the global sound duration of the instrument, and, for the instrument performed and recorded on this disc, the high impedance yields longer-duration sounds, slower decays. The tones ‘blossom’ after the initial attack, and sympathetic resonances bring the ensemble of waves in-line. Electron-cloud-like, metallic.
On hard [piano key; viola; etc.] attacks, the nonlinear part of the string response increases, producing frequencies with twice the values of the normal ones. The quadratic effect influences the loudness of this nonlinear response, and, when the score has such low entropy [close to musical absolute zero], the nonlinearities are very prominent—and are probably related to the superfluid Bose-Einstein condensate-like quality of the collective, coalescing, long-range musical effects that are created here. Similarities to quantum software algorithms (see writings by Matt Hastings at LANL, and others), in terms of process and in terms of how you go about measuring statistical physics properties of music like this...
Drew was born in 1929 and studied with Wallingford Riegger and Edgard Varèse. He taught at Northwestern University, Yale University, UCLA, Cal State, and other institutions. He has performed with and co-founded several musical groups, including the Crossfire Mission Orchestra in the late 1960s in New Haven (radical performances, often behind barbed wire), the Mysterious Traveling Cabaret, the American Music Theater in California, the Blast Opera Theater. In his quasi-retirement he has undertaken concerts and arts education work with the Grey Wolf Project. Barton ‘Zero’ disk is simply excellent.
By Christian Carey
On io, Flutist Margaret Lancaster performs a program that spans nearly three quarters of a century. Despite this, most take the 1930s Ultramodernist tradition in American music as a point of referral.
Written in 1936, Johanna Beyer’s “Have Faith” is a brief, angular piece that presents the nightingale’s song in a fetching, somewhat spiky, costume; it is sung with pure tone and detailed care by Beth Griffith. This segues directly into the title piece, by Lois V. Vierk. Lancaster is joined here by Larry Polansky (playing electric guitar) and Matthew Gold (playing marimba). The material encompasses many of the slides and inflections of Gagaku, a subject of extensive research by the composer. Lancaster thrives with Eastern flair in the subtleties and characterizations demanded by the score. Meanwhile, Polansky and Gold articulate vibrant ostinati and pulsating drones. Thus, the piece supplies an East-meets-West, traditional music plus Downtown amalgam that is simultaneously distinctive and appealing.
Premiered in 2008, the most recent work on the CD is Joan La Barbara’s Atmos. Although written for multiple instruments and “sonic atmosphere” as a theatre piece, it still shows off Lancaster’s considerable dramatic flair as an audio-only presentation. La Barbara revels in the sounds of breath, manipulating both live performer and recordings to create a wide range of “wind shadings.” Other effects include percussive attacks, key clicks, and all manner of vocal utterances. La Barbara’s piece may be more directly influenced by Cage than Cowell or Seeger, but it is welcome for its inclusion as a stunning showcase for Lancaster regardless.
Another echo of the Ultramodernist school is James Tenney’s Seegersong #2 (1999). Tenney (1934-2006) used Ruth Crawford Seeger’s Piano Study in Mixed Accents as a basis for the piece, extending Seeger’s ideas about tempo flexibility (perpetuo mobile) to encompass some of the investigations into large-scale rhythmic design that engaged him during his late career. While all of this precompositional conceptualizing may be fascinating to insiders, the aural result is widely appealing: a skillfully written, artfully shaped solo flute piece. Lancaster affords it the precision its tricky rhythmic shifts require, all the while maintaining a sumptuous tone.
The CD closes with Larry Polansky’s five-movement work for solo piccolo entitled Piker. Taken from a reference in a 1935 letter by Marion Bauer to Ruth Crawford Seeger (“You’re no piker! But please drop me a card from somewhere!”). Generally, one might think that five movements of solo piccolo is four too many, but Polansky varies the part enough to keep things quite interesting, including microtones, devilishly difficult polymetric twists and turns, distressed Shaker tunes, and percussive foot stomps. Truth be told, Lancaster is joined by Polansky and Gold on the final movement of the piece, so it’s not strictly a solo work. But for many, it takes an artist of Lancaster’s caliber to make piccolo diverting for twenty minutes; a task she accomplishes handily here.
By Jack Rummel
Ragtime Music Reviews by Jack Rummel
This is the third “concept” recording that Rick Benjamin has tackled along with his Paragon Ragtime Orchestra, the first two being “Black Manhattan” (music of early Black musicals) and “From Barrelhouse to Broadway” (music of Joe Jordan), and each one has been not only a musical treat but also a wonderful slice of history. This tribute to the music of George M. Cohan contains 33 pages of carefully researched material, which could pose an interesting question: Is this a CD of great music accompanied by extensive liner notes, or is this a mini historical treatise complete with musical examples? Both aspects are so well done, one would be hard pressed to choose.
Benjamin stresses that, while there have been numerous tributes to Cohan’s music over the decades, this is the first-ever to utilize the period arrangements of an “Eleven & Piano” orchestra, the standard theater orchestra of the day. For ragtime fans who have been used to hearing ragtime orchestras ranging in size from 5-15 players, this will be a very familiar sound; for those encountering Cohan played by Eleven & Piano for the first time, it will be an educational but rewarding experience.
The PRO is a highly disciplined unit, thoroughly skilled at performing with verve and sparkle. Benjamin listened carefully to early recordings by Cohan, conducted extensive auditions and settled on baritone Colin Pritchard as having the voice and delivery that most emulated Cohan. He also recruited soprano Bernadette Boerckel, with whom he had previously collaborated. The result is as close as Benjamin believes possible to a re-creation of what the song and dance man must have presented in his musicals to audiences during the early twentieth century.
The PRO’s mastery of tempos and dynamics has become a well-established tradition and it’s all captured in pristine recorded sound. Much of Cohan’s music is still known and loved today (who among us cannot hum parts of Give My Regards to Broadway, You’re a Grand Old Flag or Over There), but much needs rediscovery and this deserving tribute by Rick Benjamin and The Paragon Ragtime Orchestra is deserving of a place in your library.
By Jay Batzner
Here is what I think: I think that every teenager who walks into a music store and wants to buy their first electric guitar should instead be given a copy of this disc. They are to listen to the disc every day for two weeks. When the time is up, if that youngster doesn’t want to play any/all of the pieces on it, they should not be allowed to buy a guitar.
Seth Josel has programmed tremendous music and played it with conviction, power, and subtlety. Until It Blazes is slow paced and hypnotic. I never knew I could be so enthralled by “sol-me-re-do” but the gentle delay and growing distortion kept me captivated. The three Strum City pieces are just that: continuous strumming over changing amounts of harmony and distortion. My only complaint is that the most energetic work comes first, making the other two less satisfying from a dramatic trajectory perspective. A minor quibble, if you even consider it valid.
Slapback, my favorite work on the disc, is raw and muscular. The improvisatory style walks you through the structure of the piece. It sounds like a King Crimson lick at first but the motive builds, grows, and evolves in extremely satisfying ways. David Dramm’s The Stroke That Kills is an electric adaptation of a guitar trio (all played by Josel) and channels the propulsive nature of Flamenco rhythms.
Gustavo Matamoros wins the prize for the weirdest piece. Stoned Guitar/TIG Welder lives up to the “stoned” moniker (the work requires the guitarist to “With a stone, trace the strings of the guitar slowly from bridge to nut”). Spacey and ambient, the work doesn’t sound much like an electric guitar (which is the point). If Segovia says that the guitar is like an entire orchestra, then Matamoros and Josel show that the electric guitar contains the entire electronic sonic experience. You could hear Genesis P-Orridge singing “Hamburger Lady” over this piece.
Tom Johnson’s Canon is quirky, chunky, and highly segmented. The form of the piece feels the same way as Fiday’s work: the careful working out of material. Johnson’s music, here and elsewhere, is incredibly conscious of craft and fortspinnung. This work is rigorous and stimulating without being pedantic or professorial.
This disc does make me want to instill that “Josel Bill” waiting period on electric guitar purchases. We need more music like this and more performers like Seth Josel.
By Dan Warburton
Those of you who know Gordon Mumma only for his pioneering 1960s work with electronics – from the earwax-melting Dresden Interleaf 13 February 1945 and Megaton For Wm. Burroughs to the raw cybersonics of Hornpipe – ought to know that, prior to his groundbreaking work with the Sonic Arts Union he did in fact study "traditional" composition and performance in the 1950s with Ross Lee Finney in Ann Arbor and George Exon at Interlochen. A talented pianist, he's well versed not only in the contemporary repertoire – performing much of it in a duo with Robert Ashley back in the 60s – but also in Bach, Scarlatti, Haydn, Schoenberg, Webern and Bartók. This fine twofer from New World, beautifully produced and complete as ever with informative liner notes, may be entitled Music For Solo Piano 1960 – 2001, but only two of the works it contains date from the early 60s – the Suite for Piano (1960) and Large Size Mograph (1962) – even if seeds of the later piano music, notably 1997's Jardin, were planted back in the composer's formative years. The music is intimate, introspective and condensed – which could, once more, come as something as a surprise to those who only know of Mumma's work from the period of the ONCE Festival and the Sonic Arts Union – and reveals a remarkable ear for pitch and fondness for time-honoured contrapuntal techniques. But this is no exercise in neoclassical nostalgia: Mumma's take on serialism is as fresh in the Eleven Note Pieces & Decimal Passacaglia (1978) as it is in the thorny Suite, and when he chooses an extant work as a model – the Minuet from Haydn's Symphony No. 47 in the second piece of 1996's Threesome – there's not an inkling of postmodern irony. There's enough set theory in the Sushihorizontals (1986 – 96) to keep a graduate class busy for several months, and, best of all, you can really hear how it works. Dean Vandewalle's performances are terrific, at one and the same time meticulous in their exploration of dynamics and timbre and touchingly lyrical. Now there are two words I bet you never thought of using to describe the music of Gordon Mumma… get yourself a copy of this posthaste and think again.
By Dan Warburton
Dreamers of Pearl is a 53-minute work for solo piano in three movements, individually entitled "Enchanting the Stars", "A Bird Revealing the Unknown to the Sky" and "It is the Night and Dawn of Constellations Irradiated". If those titles tempt you to load up the convertible with plastic pyramids and gaudy crystals and drive out to Pahrump Nevada to await the arrival of the Martians (don't take any doves along), think again. Michael Byron might be associated with the second wave of California minimalism – moving away from strict process-based music towards what I once described elsewhere as "solid state" – and much of his earlier work was luminously tonal, but Dreamers of Pearl is about as close to New Age ear candy as those "funny looking little critters" in Mars Attacks were to being ambassadors of interplanetary peace and love. The work's roots in minimalism are evident enough though, especially in the second movement, which moves through its clearly defined harmonic fields as patiently as Reich's Music for 18 Musicians, but the actual surface of the music is constantly changing, rhythmically irregular, and often tough and angular. Byron's music is fully notated, and the handsome 20-page booklet contains numerous extracts from the score which reveal its considerable metrical and harmonic intricacies (particularly in the first movement, in which the pianist has to negotiate a different key signature for each hand!), but sounds fresh enough to have been created in real time – one wonders at times whether he's hit upon a way of getting his music software to transcribe and print out a recording of an improvisation, so naturally do the notes lie under the fingers. As such, Scelsi's solo piano music comes to mind, as does La Monte Young's Well Tuned Piano, a transcribed score of which wouldn't look all that different from Dreamers of Pearl in places. One wonders also whether Joseph Kubera, whose performance of the work is absolutely stunning, has learnt the piece by heart – which would be quite a feat – as it seems well nigh impossible to commit any of its myriad local details to long-term memory. But you could probably say that of the Ligeti Etudes too, come to think of it – and Byron's music, like Ligeti's, is instantly recognisable, perceptually challenging, beautifully proportioned and deeply satisfying. Check it out.
By Dan Warburton
As John Peel once memorably said after playing a track (I can't remember which one it was, sorry) in one of his Radio 1 shows early one January, "is it too early to name this Album of the Year?" The Malcolm Goldstein discography is far from enormous, but everything he's released, especially since the turn of the century, has been absolutely outstanding. If you only buy one CD this year, make sure it's this one. The word "organic" is bandied about much too glibly nowadays, and stuck on everything from washing powder to baked beans, but it's still the best adjective to describe Goldstein's work. When he uses a map of the rivers and streams of rural Vermont as a score for his The Seasons: Vermont, Malcolm Goldstein knows just what he's doing – you will recall he bought a plot of land in the woods there in the mid-60s and built his own log cabin from scratch.
"At night in the darkness of his cabin, and the silence of the woods, when Malcolm brings out his violin and starts to play for you, you gain a deeper understanding of where his music comes from," writes Peter Garland, in a splendid essay accompanying the disc – detailed and informative liner notes are a New World speciality, and this is one of the best booklets I've seen in a long time, also including an essay by WDR studio director Klaus Schöning, Goldstein's notes on the works, extensive artist biographies, a bibliography, selected discography and reproductions of the composer's immaculately hand-written scores.
Garland writes with precision and passion on how Goldstein's music effortlessly blends composition and improvisation, but the music does it even better. Configurations in Darkness (1995), derived from Bela Bartók's transcriptions of folksongs from Bosnia-Herzogovina, appears here in two beautifully recorded versions, one for Goldstein's solo violin from a concert in Boulder, Colorado, in 2002, the other for five-piece ensemble – in which the composer is joined by flautist Philippe Racine, clarinettist Philippe Micol, cellist Beat Schneider and trombonist Radu Malfatti – recorded in Berne, Switzerland, six years earlier. Both performances are exemplary, and it's especially wonderful to hear Malfatti actually playing the hell out of his trombone too, something we don't get to do much these days.
If composition and improvisation fuse perfectly in Goldstein's work, so do past and future; this isn't just great music, it's acoustic anthropology. In Ishi / timechangingspaces, a tape work originally broadcast by WDR Cologne in 1988, he plays along with scratchy loops of 1914 wax cylinder recordings of Ishi, the last surviving Yahi Indian who emerged from the woods of Northern California, in a truly moving "imaginary encounter" between two men separated in space and time. "Ishi has taught me something deeply about things in our human way and illuminated for me sensitivities within myself as well as in other people," Goldstein writes. "I am thankful to the sound of Ishi's voice. It taught me actually to hear qualities in his voice to affect the tuning of my violin, so that the violin began to sound in new ways I'd never heard before."
In Ishi / "man waxati" Soundings (1988), Goldstein explores some of those "new ways", particularly a retuning of the violin's A string up a quarter of a tone and its D string down just over a major third to sound an octave below the A string. This striking scordatura not only changes the timbre of the instrument considerably, but also allows him to play his characteristic inimitable figurations high on the second string with the open third string as an underpinning drone. From a purely technical point of view (take my word for it, I've spent more than half my life trying to learn how to play the violin) it's fuckin' mindblowing. Nobody else in the world sounds remotely like Malcolm Goldstein. What's more, this version of Ishi / "man waxati" Soundings was recorded in the naturally resonant acoustic of Europe's largest cave system, the Grotte de Lombrives in Ussat-les-Bains in the Pyrenees, and Goldstein's understanding and incorporation of the natural reverb of the space is simply stunning. It's as if the cave itself has become part and parcel of the work itself, and the composer, like the Zen monk in the famous tale, has painted a landscape so perfect that he's walked into it and disappeared. Get hold a copy of A Sounding of Sources at the earliest available opportunity, and disappear into it yourself.
By Art Lange
Point of Departure
Over the years New World Records has done yeoman’s service in rescuing classic recordings of 20th century American music from defunct or disinterested labels and newly documenting neglected historic (and contemporary) scores – this release being a remarkable example of the latter. The German-born Johanna Beyer came to the U.S. in 1924 at age 36, and quickly gravitated towards a group of unconventional Modernist composers including Henry Cowell, Charles and Ruth Crawford Seeger, and Dane Rudhyar. According to the extensive explanatory and revealingly analytical program notes by advocates John McCaughey (who also conducted the Australian-based Astra Chamber Music Society in these performances) and Larry Polansky, Beyer’s most provocative music was constructed between 1930 and ’37 – the period from which all but one of these pieces was taken – although she continued to compose, albeit in a simplified and accessible style, until her death in 1944. After that, her music was forgotten until the 1960s, when Charles Amirkhanian initiated some interest in her unusual scores, leading to isolated recordings of the exotic percussion piece “Music of the Spheres” and a few of her piano studies. Polansky introduced the Astra ensemble to Beyer’s music, resulting in concerts in Melbourne and eventually this commission from New World. Tellingly, all of the music on these two discs are world premiere recordings.
I used the word “constructed” above because, as Polansky details, Beyer adopted an intricate mathematical process of composition, influenced by the “dissonant counterpoint” theories devised by Cowell and the Seegers, which determined many of the specific proportions of the musical material. Beyer’s personal choices in combining and contrasting these components, however, were often stunningly imaginative, and gave the music its original character – from the layered offbeat rhythms and extended, wandering, mysterious allure of the “String Quartet No. 1” to the winding chromatic pull and sprightly dance episodes of the two “Suites for Clarinet.” Despite its methodology, Beyer’s music never sounds clinical or predictable. Although her writing for chorus is idiomatic and relatively conservative, the songs for soprano and clarinet offer pure melodies with lyrically abstracted counterpoint. Her most radical approach comes in the way she blends different degrees of activity – including intense glissandi, surprising melodic contours, and “tussling” (the apt description is McCaughey’s) rhythmic shapes – between instruments in the two string quartets; the second is half the length of the first, and alternates between contemplative, playfully Ivesian (featuring a quote from Mozart), and ethereal moods. These quartets present sound-forms as unusual and striking in their way as Brancusi sculptures. The program ends with an atypical solo piano “Sonatina” from 1943, Haydnesque in its classical poise and moderate sturm-und-drang dissonance.
This valuable release raises Beyer from the status of an historical footnote to a position of significance in the early 20th century Modernist exploration that ultimately affected composers like Elliott Carter and James Tenney – and makes one wonder what other equally fascinating music has fallen into the cracks of history, awaiting discovery. Carry on, New World.
By David "Uncle Dave" Lewis
Macrovision-All Music Guide
By rights, one should not traverse any reputable history of electronic music, particularly in respect to computers, without encountering mention of Lejaren Hiller; his ILLIAC Suite (1956) was the first original musical work created with the aid of one. Hiller was also instrumental in developing the first computerized systems used to create musical notation, back in the days of punched paper tape. Collaborations were common in early electronic music as there was so much work to do even to get one note onto a tape; working in teams was more efficient. One such collaboration, HPSCHD with composer John Cage, ultimately became the project Hiller was most readily associated with in many minds. That did more harm than good for Hiller, as HPSCHD, with its dense din of clattering harpsichords and electronic bleeps and bloops, represented to many the avant-garde of the 1960s at its most excessive and over-indulgent. As composer and critic, Cornelius Cardew wrote when a performance of HPSCHD was mounted in London, "It will be a wild, psychedelic, freaked-out experience, and I don't recommend that you go." While Cage more or less abandoned computer-aided composition afterward, Hiller continued in his line of research even though the popularity of synthesizers temporarily marginalized it, but became ill and died long before MIDI and easy-to-use computer notation software reached the desktops of composers worldwide.
New World's A Total Matrix of Possibilities is a labor of love for annotator James Bohn, who has written a book on Hiller and serves as his representative to posterity; the choice of title is a clever one, as the word "matrix" is now widely associated with all things edgy and technological; the phrase comes from Hiller's own writings. These recordings are culled from releases that originally appeared on CRI, though "Computer Cantata" (1963) originally appeared on Wergo's LP-era imprint Heliodor. This mélange of percussion, vocalists and computer-generated sound cannot help but sound a little dated, though the antique – one hesitates to use the word "quaint" – electronic sounds have a property of charm in their own right that will appeal strongly to many connoisseurs of vintage electronic music. "A Portfolio for Diverse Performers and Tape" (1974) essentially explores the same format and concept that drives the "Computer Cantata," but is far more assured and timeless in feeling. The multiplicity of speaking and singing voices in the Gregg Smith Singers meshing seamlessly with ominous, menacing electronic sounds Hiller generated at the studio at Polish National Radio results in a fabric that still packs a lot of punch.
"The Quartet No. 6 for Strings" (1973), which incidentally uses no electronics, is certainly the most arresting, immediate and forward looking music on this disc. Big and ugly enough to scare the bejeezus out of Helmut Lachenmann, this quartet is both the grandson of "Arguments" from Charles Ives' Second String Quartet and the grandfather of post-modern European works like Above by Michel van der Aa, lending weight to Bohn's rhetorical question "Does [Hiller's music] provide a link from the music of Ives to today's eclecticism?" Moreover, revisiting this quartet – which employs unrepentant slapstick and is drenched in irreverence and irony – reminds us that in the 1960s and 70s it was commonplace to listen to such music with serious ears, even if the intent wasn't necessarily serious. This was a considerable disadvantage to some composers; under such strictures, one could not help but think that Witold Lutoslawski's String Quartet (1964) was more serious – and therefore more weighty – than works like Hiller's, causing many of us to miss out on its merits; Hiller's "punk" attitude and his pioneering stance in respect to so-called "Totalism." New World's A Total Matrix of Possibilities succeeds in providing a new perspective on Lejaren Hiller, revealing that this nerdy guy in thick-rimmed glasses, seemingly married to a suit and tie in old photographs, was something of nut, like Harry Partch or Spike Jones. That makes Hiller even more endearing to us, and opens the door to a just reconsideration of both his contributions in a technological sense and his gifts as a composer.
By Alex Ross
The New Yorker (full article - May 12, 2008 issue)
By the nineteen-nineties, Adams had begun to carve out a singular body of work, which can be sampled on recordings on the New World, New Albion, Cold Blue, Mode, and Cantaloupe labels. First came a conceptual Alaskan opera entitled "Earth and the Great Weather,” much of which is given over to the chanting of place-names and descriptive phrases from the native Inupiaq and Gwich’in languages, both in the original and in translation. One mesmerizing section describes various stages of the seasons: “The time of new sunshine,” “The time when polar bears bring out their young,” “ The time of the small wind,” “The time of eagles.” The music runs from pure, ethereal sonorities for strings—tuned in a scheme similar to that of the Aurora Bells in “The Place”—to viscerally pummelling movements for quartets of drums.
In the next decade, Adams further explored the sonic extremes that he had mapped out in his opera. “In the White Silence,” a seventy-five-minute piece for harp, celesta, vibraphones, and strings, is derived from the seven notes of the C-major scale; in a striking feat of metaphor, the composer equates the consuming whiteness of midwinter Alaska with the white keys of the piano. “Strange and Sacred Noise,” another seventy-five-minute cycle, evokes the violence of changing seasons: four percussionists deploy drums, gongs, bells, sirens, and mallet percussion to summon up an alternately bewitching and frightening tableau of musical noises, most of which were inspired by a trip that Adams took up the Yukon River in spring, when the ice was collapsing. Whether unabashedly sweet or unremittingly harsh—"Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing,” a memorial to the composer’s father, manages to be both at once—Adams’s major works have the appearance of being beyond style; they transcend the squabbles of contemporary classical music, the unending arguments over the relative value of Romantic and modernist languages.
By Anthony Tommasini
The New York Times (December 27, 2007)
In his later years the flinty American composer Ralph Shapey, who died in 2002 at 81, would rail against the conservatism of the mainstream classical music scene in America. In fist-shaking defiance he wrote formidable, complex and ingenious works. And if people resisted, that was their problem.
Yet for all his kvetching Shapey has had a roster of champions — major musicians like the violinist Robert Mann, the cellist Joel Krosnick, the pianist Gilbert Kalish and the Juilliard String Quartet — who are challenged and exhilarated by his uncompromising works.
As an admirer of Shapey’s audacious music, I feared that performances and recordings of his works would diminish after his death, when he was no longer around to agitate. Alas, with scant exceptions, his pieces have not noticeably figured on concert programs in recent years in New York.
But two recordings released this year suggest that Shapey is winning support among the new generation of performers, and that some committed foundations and recording companies continue to support important American music....
The other recording is a two-disc release titled “Ralph Shapey: Radical Traditionalist,” from New World Records, an essential nonprofit label devoted to American music. This recording is evidence of a promise fulfilled. In 2003 CRI (Composers Recordings Inc.), a scrappy nonprofit label that maintained the widest-ranging catalog of contemporary music, went out of business after 48 years. This was a particular blow to the discography of American composers because CRI kept all releases in its catalog available, no matter the sales.
New World Records came to the rescue, pledging to digitize the master tapes of the complete CRI catalog and to make every recording available as a burned-to-order CD, complete with the original liner notes and cover art. New World also promised to reissue selected recordings and compilations. The Shapey album is one. The program includes performances of five major works originally recorded and released by CRI, mostly in the 1970s and ’80s. There are two daunting piano pieces: 21 Variations (1978), performed by Wanda Maximilien; and “Fromm Variations”(1966; 1972-73), a sprawling 52-minute work consisting of 31 variations on a chorale theme, performed by Robert Black.
Also included are the compact, intense 12-minute String Quartet No. 6 and the 35-minute, traditionally structured String Quartet No. 7, performed by quartets drawn from the contemporary chamber ensemble of the University of Chicago that Shapey established when he joined the faculty in 1964. His work with this adventurous ensemble gave him a secure home base. Having conducted student ensembles since he was 17, he was a skilled conductor and an inspiring teacher.
What comes through in this recent trove of recordings is that for all the gritty complexity of Shapey’s works, this authentic music has arresting qualities, including pugnacious rhythmic vitality and vibrant humor. Yes, like many curmudgeons, Shapey had a self-deprecating sense of humor, which came through in a 1996 interview with The New York Times when he turned 75. “Now it’s official: I’m an old fish, as they say in Yiddish,” he said, laughing heartily.
Shapey described himself as structurally a classicist, emotionally a romanticist and harmonically a modernist. His musical language came from a free adaptation of the 12-tone technique that he called “the mother lode,” in which aggregates of pitches around each note in his rows allowed him to shift from chord to chord through common tones, lending his harmony a grounded quality. In any case, during a good performance of a Shapey work, few listeners will fret about tone rows. The music is too ecstatic, thorny and elemental for that.
The “Fromm Variations,” for example, abound in steely harmonies, jagged lines and leaping chords. The sheer size of the 52-minute work is overwhelming and impractical, which makes Mr. Black’s commanding performance the more impressive. But for all the unremittingly intensity and outbursts of aggressively dissonant cluster chords, there are stretches where the pace slackens and the music turns quizzical and tender.
The 21 Variations for Piano, at nearly 30 minutes, is more approachable. The initial theme is like some wild and jerky dance. Many of the variations hover on the divide between impishness and intimidation. Again there are those passages of ruminative, elegiac writing, all qualities compellingly conveyed in Ms. Maximilien’s performance. Here is a work that could be a knockout among the right companion pieces on a recital program... Full Article
By Vivien Schweitzer
The New York Times (September 16, 2007)
Joshua Gordon, cellist; Randall Hodgkinson, pianist.
MOST composers yearn to have their music performed regularly, but for much of his life Leo Ornstein was blithely unconcerned with the limelight. “If my music has any value, it will be picked up and played,” he told The New York Times in 1976.
On a fine new disc from New World Records the value of his powerful works for cello and piano is revealed by the pianist Randall Hodgkinson and the cellist Joshua Gordon, admirable chamber musicians who play with passion and sensitivity.
In the early 20th century crowds flocked to hear Ornstein, also a piano virtuoso, play his avant-garde pieces. But Ornstein, a Jewish immigrant from Ukraine (who died in 2002 at 108), abandoned glittering concert halls of London and New York for the anonymity of a trailer park in Texas.
His rhapsodic, chromatically lyrical cello works are a world apart from his futurist works like the dissonant “Danse Sauvage.” The gripping Six Preludes for Cello and Piano (1930) are mostly dark and moody, veering between violent outbursts and rhapsodic introspection. They include a jaunty Presto (a scherzo of Bartokian propulsion and frenzied rhythms), a contemplative Andante and an explosively colorful Allegro Agitato.
The tumultuous Sonata No. 1 for Cello and Piano encompasses chromatic harmonies, alluring cello melodies and dramatic Brahmsian piano writing.
The disc also includes premiere recordings of several works, including “Composition 1 for Cello and Piano,” a Jewish-sounding lament with a sobbing cello melody, and the more astringent Two Pieces for Cello and Piano (Op. 33).
These exemplary performances should ensure that Ornstein’s cello works will enjoy some of the limelight the composer shunned for so long.
From Barrelhouse to Broadway: The Music Odyssey of Joe Jordan
By Jack Rummel
This is an amazing CD, for it expands our knowledge and appreciation of the music of Joe Jordan exponentially! Jasen and Tichenor’s book Rags and Ragtime, an indispensable source of ragtime information, devotes only ten lines to Jordan ’s biography, while the booklet in this seminal recording by the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra contains thirty pages of carefully researched information including many pictures.
The PRO’s director, Rick Benjamin, has done yeoman work, for not only did he write all the liner notes but he also arranged the scores and even contributed three piano solos. The results are truly outstanding. More
Leo Ornstein: Complete Works for Cello and Piano
By David Lewis
Composer and pianist Leo Ornstein is known best for two things; (a) being the first "futurist" pianist in the early modern period and (b) being about the longest lived composer in history of music, dying at 108 in 2002. Neither of these attributes have much to say about Ornstein's music, which has been recorded heretofore in a spotty fashion with the emphasis being on the "futurist" piano music that made his name, a style that he abandoned around 1920. Anyone familiar with his extraordinary Piano Quintet of 1927, however, will already know that Ornstein was an expert and deeply serious composer of chamber music, and will be predisposed to welcome the advent of New World's Leo Ornstein: Complete Works for Cello and Piano. Performed by cellist Joshua Gordon of the Lydian String Quartet and pianist Randall Hodgkinson, this is the first "complete" recorded survey of any aspect of Ornstein's output, and the five compositions represented span a period of roughly 1914 to about 1931...It sounds like major music, and these are major performers—Gordon has studied this music closely and he and Hodgkinson have worked out the knotty problems relating to Ornstein's impatience in writing his music down. In some cases they have had to rely on their own reading of the pieces to get the fine details down in terms of dynamics, tempo and expression, as Ornstein's scores are silent on this point. All of New World's Leo Ornstein: Complete Works for Cello and Piano is absorbing and revelatory, and the recording, from Mechanics Hall in Worcester, Massachusetts, is just right. More
Christian Wolff: Ten Exercises
By David Lewis
New World Records's Christian Wolff: Ten Exercises takes an all-star cast through 12 performances derived from his open scores published as Exercises 1–14 (1973–74) and Exercises 15–18 (1974–75) works that, played end to end, might last a little over two hours...The group here is especially well suited to interpreting Wolff, and Rzewski is a particularly a strong participant, given his gorgeous solo reading of the Satie-esque Exercise 15 and his excellent liner notes for the disc, reprinted from the preface for Wolff's book Cues: Writings and Conversations...As Rzewski states it: "These scores do not de/prescribe the final resulting sound picture, but provide a map along which the players may travel." The result is vaguely jazzy, loose, unpretentious music that celebrates the little things in life, and the acoustic of the old barn suits Wolff's music to a "T." More
Zummo with an X
By David Lewis
Composer and trombonist Peter Zummo is one of the original residents of the New York "Downtown" loft scene and a contributor to many works mounted by his colleagues, which include Peter Gordon, The Downtown Ensemble, Rhys Chatham, David Behrman, Yasunao Tone, The Lounge Lizards, David First and a long list of others. Recordings under his own name are far more obscure and harder to come by; the main title on CD to date being Experimenting with Household Chemicals on the Experimental Intermedia imprint; a low profile outing indeed. In re-releasing Zummo with an X, New World Records returns a key Zummo effort to the catalogue that was only available before on an LP on Zummo's own Loris label. The New World re-release adds an attractive, previously unreleased alternate recording of "Song IV" from the dance score Lateral Pass, which features cellist Arthur Russell and arch avant-garde accordionist Guy Klucevsek. More
From Barrelhouse to Broadway: The Music Odyssey of Joe Jordan
By David Lewis
Chances are, if you know anything at all about Ragtime, you have heard of Scott Joplin. Joplin was originally from Sedalia, Missouri and spent several years in St. Louis, the city where, at the turn of the century, Ragtime was king. Among a number of younger composers who, like Joplin, frequented St. Louis' Silver Dollar Saloon and admired it's resident "perfesser" Tom Turpin was pianist and composer Joe Jordan, who would go on to an international career that would take him from Chicago to Broadway, to England and, in his sixties, into the U.S. Military as a decorated officer. That we know the name of Joplin, and not that of Jordan, who lived right up until a couple of years before the Academy Award winning film The Sting was released, is just one of those vagaries of the way time sometimes affects the reputation of deserving people. Rick Benjamin and the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra have decided to redress this omission through an excellent career survey on Joe Jordan, From Barrelhouse to Broadway: The Music Odyssey of Joe Jordan on New World Records...The performances here are lively and spontaneous here when needed, yet restrained and demure when the music calls for it. The singing, mainly by tenor Trevor B. Smith and soprano Bernadette Boercke, happily avoids the kind of over-arch vocalizing one often hears in these kinds of re-creations. The dance numbers are delightfully toe-tapping as well, and the Paragon plays them with pep—one would be hard pressed to find a reason to discourage anyone, particularly those inclined towards the pre-jazz popular music of the early twentieth-century, from checking out New World's generally excellent From Barrelhouse to Broadway: The Music Odyssey of Joe Jordan. More
Earle Brown: Selected Works 1952-1965
By David Lewis
The re-release of Earle Brown: Selected Works 1952-1965 on New World Records will seem like the return of an old friend to many listeners. Compiled out of CRI's tapes of Earle Brown's music, which were recorded between 1952 and 1994, for release as part of CRI's American Masters series in 1996, this disc represents almost a third of Brown's tiny, highly concentrated output...These kinds of historic performances are so rare and seldom seen on domestic CD issues that we will take them in any way they come to us...It's heartening to know that New World was willing to take the time to do it right, and Earle Brown: Selected Works 1952-1965 is certainly worth the wait. More
Julius Eastman: Unjust Malaise
By David Lewis
Julius Eastman (1940-1990) was a composer in good company around 1970. The booklet to New World Records's survey of Eastman's never before issued compositions contains a number of group shots showing Eastman in the presence of such luminaries as Lukas Foss, Lejaren Hiller, Pauline Oliveros, Jan Williams, Eberhard Blum, David Del Tredici, Morton Feldman and other first tier proponents of contemporary music of that time. The fact that Eastman's face is the only black one in these photos seems not to have impacted the attitude of his colleagues, any more than Oliveros or Renée Levine, then director of the University at Buffalo's Center of the Creative and Performing Arts, presence as the only women in these images might suggest. Eastman's blackness, combined with his uncompromising, difficult career choices, politically incorrect subject material and vulnerability in the age of Jesse Helms are all reasons why New World Records's Julius Eastman: Unjust Malaise marks the very first inkling we've had on disc of what an unbelievable talent Eastman was, and the nature of his singular contribution to American classical music... Kyle Gann's impassioned notes are well worth reading also, and set the stage for more installments of Eastman's recordings. More
By David Hurwitz
This disc is lots of fun. George Antheil's serious music (as opposed to his "shock" pieces such as the Ballet Méchanique) owes a lot to Stravinsky, a bit more to Les Six, with perhaps a touch of Prokofiev's early twentieth-century modernism and an American feeling for Jazz and popular music idioms. The ballet Dreams consists of a suite of catchy dances, including a terrific Can-Can, a nifty Polka, a Waltz, and a splendid little piece called "Acrobats". The Second Piano Concerto begins somewhat thickly and heavily but soon settles down to more familiar stuff. Its slow movement is very attractive, the finale aptly zippy. If anything, Serenade No. 2 is even more successful, a vivacious and winning piece with no dead spots at all.
The performances (and performers) on this extremely well recorded disc sound very comfortable with music that hardly could have been familiar. Pianist Guy Livingston, a fine artist who deserves to be better known, has a field day with the concerto, and the playing in general is characterful and (above all) rhythmically sharp. More
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