Among The Year’s So Far Best

Mike Silverton

[December 2001. Originally appeared in La Folia 3:5.]

SVEN-ÅKE JOHANSSON, AXEL DÖRNER, ANDREA NEUMANN: Barcelona Series. Johansson, drums; Dörner, trumpet; Neumann, pianoharp. Co-produced by Hessian Radio, Stuttgart, and Hat Hut Records. Christopher Classen, recording supervisor; Thomas Eschler, sound engineer. hatOLOGY CD 559.

Like everyone in New York, I reacted to the September 11th terror attacks with fear and loathing, destructive emotions slowly devolving to a burn-out expressing itself for our purpose as an inability to engage with discs I’d been sent for review. A world disintegrated. “Nothing’s ever going to be the same,” the TV images, the patriotic goop, the graveside sentimentality, one’s longing for revenge, a sense of futility. I needed help.

Barcelona Series to the rescue — literally. I can’t explain why, but this release helped. As a surprise: Sven-Åke Johansson’s previous hatART release, the edgy, high-energy Six Little Pieces for Quintet [hatOLOGY 538], all attributed as compositions to Johansson, ill prepared the way. Axel Dörner, a one-third-and-then-some partner of the present trio, appears in the earlier release as a very different persona, as does Johansson. Perhaps most significantly, the Barcelona Series three receive equal creative credit for the set’s eleven tracks.

I’d been hearing over the past few years a good deal of Free / Noise / Improvisational music on recording. Rarely do these itchy, Brownian-motion sessions illuminate from within. Barcelona Series’ annotator, Peter Nicklas Wilson, entitles his essay Noise music, chamber type. That’s brilliant. Noise music is, of course, a genre’s ID and, as poker-faced self-deprecation, clever: “Yes, of course it’s noise. Don’t we say so?” It’s Wilson’s coinage “chamber type” that seizes the imagination. One never loses touch with the feeling that, accidental as these going-on appear, something of an intimate and knowing character transpires, not to neglect lovely. The eleven numbers now and again impinge, particularly in Dörner’s corner, on a tune: a delightful, short-lived deception. These teasing feints wouldn’t be nearly so diverting were the soundscape that nurtures them other than strangely and gorgeously lit. Wolf Blazejczak’s detailed, resolution-rich recording (1999, Berlin) puts the listener in intimate touch with an array of sounds I find as comforting as I do intriguing, and the impression survives repeated plays. One would think that recording contains, indeed perverts, improvisational music, by its very nature never the same. For me, not so. Can’t explain that either. Perhaps it has something to do with memory’s frailty

Terry RILEY: In C. Bang on a Can: Maya Beiser, cello; David Cossin, glockenspiel, vibraphone; Steve Gilewski, bass; Scott Kuney, mandolin; Michael Lowenstern, soprano saxophone; Wu Man, pipa; Lisa Moore, piano; Todd Reynolds, violin; Mark Stewart, electric guitar; Danny Tunick, chimes, marimba; Evan Ziporyn, clarinet. WNYC broadcast producer, John Schaefer; Edward Haber, recording engineer. Cantaloupe CA21004.

Palliation continued, with a twist: a fragrant Cantaloupe appears by way of a 1998 Bang on a Can performance somewhere within the World Financial Center, a patch of downtown Manhattan in need of no further location by me. This well recorded performance of Terry Riley’s salutary-sprightly In C, quite the ear-popping event back in 1965, also did its restorative bit. I’ve never had an easy time with Minimalism’s Gang of Indeterminate Number. I can sit through little of it without wanting to get up and leave. Riley’s the exception. His best work, and In C is certainly in that grouping, consists, within Minimalism’s communal redundancies, of related morsels that actually resolve, one after the next, in a harmonically commodious setting.

It’s an old fashioned and fundamentally winning strategy, which I suppose sets Riley apart, among the suspicious characters. How dare he try to please! The man is without question one of the most sweet-tempered composers America has ever produced, which may sound like a left-handed compliment, since steadfast companionability can also be a midcult bore. Not a problem. In C stands above the bulk of “audience friendly” art music in that it’s actually innovative. Given a classical release’s brief shelf life, this tasty treat may be the only In C around. Riley permits the instrumentalists a significant degree of decision making in how the piece plays out. In this respect, therefore, no two recorded performances are likely to be identical. Other personal favorites on recording to look for, and good luck with that: The Harp of New Albion, Terry Riley, piano; Celestial Harmonies CEL 018/19, released in 1986. Salome Dances for Peace, Kronos Quartet, Elektra/Nonesuch, released in 1989.

Morton FELDMAN: String Quartet (II). Members of the Ives Ensemble: Josje Ter Haar, Janneke Van Prooijen, violins; Ruben Sanderse, viola; Job Ter Haar, cello. hat[now]ART 4-144 (four CDs).

The answer to a obsessive’s prayer: the first integral recording of Morton Feldman’s notorious String Quartet (II). As to notoriety: CD 1, 78:22; CD 2, 73:11; CD 3, 74:26; CD 4, 66:36; in sum, about five hours traversing, as annotator Art Lange puts it, “movement and stasis. Lines are drawn, thicken, thin out … disappear. Phrases stretch like taffy. Shapes congeal, morph … dissolve. Threads tangle and untangle. Sections are joined into blocks of fabric, then are cut into new blocks. Episodes appear … are abandoned, reappear. Notes breathe in and out….” It is this last, the breath analogy, that grabs.

As to actually doing String Quartet (II) live, the instrumentalists had better be in excellent mental and physical shape. I’d be curious to know how many days the Ives Ensemble’s four required. I recall a well known critic claiming to have sat through a concert performance transfixed. I call that heroic (or something), but never mind real-time, how on earth does one approach this monster on recording? For me, tentatively. Milady was away at a painting class one night, and I had the place to myself. (We’ll be moving the Editorial Aerie within the year from this small open loft to an old house on the Maine coast, where your reporter will operate as a liberated listener. Heady stuff.) I played the first disc, lights out, eyes shut, no slouching. Rather than doze off, I entered something like a trance state from which I emerged at the disc’s conclusion confused and in discomfort, not from the music’s essence but rather from one’s abrupt ejection from it. (A storage system capable of five seamless hours of play is, I believe, technically feasible but a marketplace non-starter.)

An assortment of daylit aperçus:

Feldman gets a string quartet to sound here like a harmonium, there an accordion, more often a hybrid, or rather their heavenly counterparts. The players take some of the music at what sounds, for Feldman, like a brisk pace, as a good thing. Periods of relative exhilaration (emphasis on relative) in a composition of this duration keep the ear alert. It’s a matter of contrast, as are harmonically irritating passages giving way to moments of serene beauty, likewise arrived at by adjustments in harmonies, textures, tempi. String Quartet (II)’s narrative has little to do with what we expect music to “say.” The discourse is unique, and there are no accidents, happy or otherwise. Feldman is among the most deliberate of composers, his New York School affiliations and the aleatory procedures they suggest notwithstanding. In matters of sonority, the man is a master, a consummate sophisticate whose eye is as important to his aesthetic as is his ear: music suggesting color in a near to literal sense.

As to breathing: String Quartet (II)’s connective tissue consists in substantial part of two-tier chords that remind one of respiration: inhale, exhale; inhale, exhale; inhale, exhale…. One needs to listen metaphorically in order to detect a benevolent dragon at rest, a charming creature really, subject, like us, to REM sleep. These inhale-exhale chords go their largely leisurely way until a variant of like or distant aspect takes over, and another, and another….

A superb recording: intimate, airy, transparent. The quartet sound as if to the manner born, and I doubt that opportunities for comparison will be popping up any time soon. Should one appear, I’d be astonished if it in any way betters this delectable hatART set.

Have I played String Quartet (II) through in one sitting? Does the pope celebrate Father’s Day?

Kaija SAARIAHO: Graal Théâtre. Château de l’Âme. Amers. Gidon Kremer, violin; BBC Symphony Orchestra (Graal Théâtre). Dawn Upshaw, soprano; members of the Finnish Radio Chamber Choir; Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra (Château de l’âme). Anssi Karttunen, cello; Avanti! Chamber Orchestra (Amers), Esa-Pekka Salonen, conducting. Ann McKay, producer; James Hamilton, engineer (Graal Théâre). David Mottley, producer; Heiki Höltä, Risto Räty (Chateau de l’âme), Matti Heinonen (Amers), engineers. Sony Classical SK60817.

Upon hearing new work — and this release’s three are certainly new to me — one’s opinion of Kaija Saariaho’s place among art music’s significant figures becomes all the more assured. Kremer, Upshaw, Karttunen, Salonen and the ensembles he conducts collaborate on what sounds like a good argument for the composer’s ascendancy. It’s great to see a significant major label such as Sony Classical involving itself in an important recording event. Too little of that’s been happening lately. But the notes should have been better. Château de l’âme, for soprano and instrumental ensemble, sung in French, sets ancient poems from several non-Western cultures; the tri-lingual insert, consisting of an interview with Saariaho, omits the poems and their translations, as a serious flub. The production provides the listener with all those exquisitely etched details essential to an appreciation of Saariaho’s art; however, the spectrum is, as I hear it, upwardly tilted, emphasizing information in the treble at the expense of midrange warmth. What sounds to me like a multi-miked production of Graal théâtre especially sacrifices a convincing soundfield to convenience. (Getting a minimally miked performance to sound just so is a time-devouring chore that doesn’t always work out well.)

Dat ole Finnish magic returns! One listens to a Sibelius symphony and hears Nordic vistas. Its religio-mystical title notwithstanding, Graal théâtre calls to mind ice crystals, snowflakes under magnification or those backlit patterns on windows of a bitter cold sunrise. Saariaho’s mastery of fine-etched, spidery lines within a large and commanding form joins here with those aspects of Romantic intensity characteristic of a good, old fashioned violin concerto. In Amers, in which Karttunen’s cello operates as a first among coloristic equals, ice crystals again prevail. As much as I enjoy them, the two instrumental works sandwich, for these ears, the music that puts Saariaho’s spell-spinning in its very best light: the rather more muted Chateau de l’âme. Saariaho’s aesthetic — one might even call it her program — has always seemed to me an invocation of dreamscapes, theatrical in quality, surrealist say, rather than the sort of thing you and I experience in sleep. Be that as it may, not to be missed.