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September 23, 2008

New World Records Featured by eMusic

We are pleased to announce the availability of the entire New World Records catalog on eMusic. Critic and radio host John Schaefer has contributed a great feature on our recordings:

eMusic Dozens Contemporary Classical from New World Records

September 02, 2008

Malcolm Goldstein: A Sounding of Sources

By Dan Warburton
Paris Transatlantic

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.

RIP Composer and Musical Visionary Donald Erb

Johanna Beyer: Sticky Melodies

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.

Lejaren Hiller: A Total Matrix of Possibilities

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.