[This is work I did for The Abso!ute Sound, much of it unpublished. Fond parent that I am, I see it as a crime to ignore. Well, a misdemeanor at least. We began this grand tradition way back in issue 1:2 and will continue to do till the tank runs dry. Who knows, perhaps you can actually find some of these in thrift shops specializing in vinyl and pre-owned CDs, as they say in the daintier precincts of the used-car dodge. Happy hunting! Ed.]
[August 1998. Originally appeared in La Folia 1:3.]
NEW MUSIC INDONESIA, Volumes 1-3 Jody Diamond and Larry Polansky (producers) Basuki Leksobowo, vol. 1; Larry Polansky, vol. 2; Unknown, vol. 3 (engineers) Lyrichord CD LYRCD 7415 (vol. 1), 7420 (vol. 2), 7421 (vol. 3)
AMERICAN WORKS FOR BALINESE GAMELAN ORCHESTRA Evan Ziporyn / Nyoman Windha: Kekembangan Michael Tenzer: Banyari. Situ Banda Evan Ziporyn: Aneh Tapi Nyata Wayne Vitale: Khayalan Tiga Sekar Jaya Ensemble Evan Ziporyn (producer) Wayne Vitale (engineer) New World Records CD 80430-2
KECAK FROM BALI Kecak Ganda Sari Gusti Putu Putra (director) David Lewiston (producer, engineer) Bridge BCD 9019
TEMBANG SUNDA: Sundanese Classical Songs Imas Permas and Asep Kosasih (vocalists) Robin Broadbank (engineer) Nimbus CD NI 5378
BALI: Homage à Wayan Lotring Pierre Toureille (producer) Jacques Brunet (ethnomusicologist-engineer) Ocora CD C559076/77 (two discs) JAVA: Langen Mandra Wanara/Opéra de Danuredjo VII Pierre Toureille (producer) Jacques Brunet (ethnomusicologist-engineer) Ocora CD C559014/15 (two discs)
[As with all New World CDs, American Works , remains in print. Ed.] The sonorities and rhythms of Indonesian music, especially those of the gamelan, with its gongs, drums, chimes, marimbas, sometime-woodwinds and strings, have intrigued Western composers from Francis Poulenc to Lou Harrison, the latter having made the Southeast-Asian idiom a significant part of his art. Poulenc’s rather more cosmopolitan hand sprinkled the magical dust of an enchanting gamelan impression toward the end of the first movement of his Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra. (I favor a performance that’s been around for some while [Erato ECD 88140], with pianists François-René Duchable and Jean Philippe Collard, James Conlon directing the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra. The fine disc offers besides the elegant Concerto for Piano and Aubade, for 18 instruments.)
Back to grass roots: We tend to think of Indonesian music — village music of Java and Bali primarily, along with the tail-end of courtly traditions — as developmentally fixed, much as Indian classical music appears (incorrectly) to be. Lyrichord’s three-volume set, New Music Indonesia — the discs are available separately — proves entertainingly otherwise in, alas, several states of technical backwardness. The survey features locals, none of whose names will be familiar, lest the reader’s an ethnomusicologist or deeply immersed amateur. Volume 1 features six pieces by four composers of the West Java province of Sunda; volume 2, Central Java, five pieces by four composers; volume 3, seven by one Balinese, I Wayan Sadra. This last, of some lovely, atmospheric stuff, suffers at the hands of an appallingly crude production. One comes a cropper of Third-World standards as a squandered opportunity. The headnote identifies the malefactors as “Unknown,” and may they so remain. The sonically superior volume 2 (in absolute terms, however, no prize) opens with Pande Made Sukerta’s Mana 689, a piece to take seriously in any context. The composer’s sophisticated cross-breeding of avant-garde Western, Tibetan and local bloodlines yields a little marvel of chanting, singing, shouting, percussion and winds. Immediately following, Wayan Sadra’s meltingly lovely Stay a Maverick, for flute, metallophones, and voice, carries the listener, enchanted, to more familiarly regional grounds. And so on in mostly delightful, occasionally bemusing, contrast. We might well define the creative artist he who attempts to save us from ourselves. Now and again successfully. As indigenous cultures collapse under the obliterating weight what used to be called Westernization, artists scavenge the debris of the old and aspects of the new into, in this context, astonishing sound-objects. Dody Satya Ekagustdiman’s Diya (volume 1), like the piece I cite from volume 2, straddles the line in a manner that cannot help delight the open-eared listener. Nor can he hear one of Nano S.’s three contributions, Jemplang Polansky, with its prominent jew’s-harp part (here identified by its local name), without smiling. Nano S., the story goes, heard a bit of producer Larry Polansky’s very Western, very avant-garde computer music and retaliated thus.
The New World CD, American Works for Balinese Gamelan Orchestra, far from being an example of cultural imperialism, sounds to this listener a commendably even-handed collaboration between Sekar Jaya, the California-based gamelan symbolizing the flower of Balinese aural art and stellar Downtown sensibilities. We occupy incontestably unique turf in the Evan Ziporyn-Nyoman Windha collaboration, Kekembangan, where clarinetist-composer Ziporyn’s four saxes stomp motorically within Windha’s rather more traditionally Balinese framework. How quickly ostensible irreconcilables resemble old friends! Ziporyn’s Aneh Tapi Nyata (“Strange But True”), the program’s most novel, and for me touching, conception, puts a female vocalist, Kate Beddall (“What does it mean, this world that I see? / Find a tonic for a foreigner that can cure my anxiety,” a translation of Ziporyn’s opening lines), against eleven Western wind instruments tuned to equal temperament and ten Balinese tuned to three native systems, in a wistfully pungent expression of uprootedness and anomie. A Balinese Balinese gamelan, Seka Gong Abdi Budaya, performs Wayne Vitale’s Khayalan Tiga, and you can tell the difference, I’m obliged to report. The music’s flow is rather more supple, idiomatic, and sure. The tapings took place one American and four Indonesian locales, if not sparklingly, well enough.
Does Bridge’s “first recording” of the complete Ramayana Monkey Chant belong in a note about recent, largely synthetic music connecting to the Maylaysian archipelago? Pretty much yes. Despite the a cappella Balinese music drama’s ostensible authenticity, Kecak is in fact the creation of a European artist, Walter Spies, who lived in Bali from just after WW1 till the Japanese occupation of WW2. He conceived the Ramayana Monkey Chant as a tourist attraction, a money-making enterprise to restore the local economy — of, however, a piquancy and quality that crowd-pleasing theme parks miss by an ersatz country mile. Working with village trance rituals, Spies expanded them to epic proportions: literally: The Monkey Chant relates dramatic events from the Ramayana, an ancient Indian verse-history of its youthful hero, Rama. David Lewiston’s field taping of the Kecak Ganda Sari of Bona Village, Bali, a group of male vocalists formed in 1987, nicely captures these ritualistically manic-alternating-languid, rhythmically compelling chant-recitations. The recording’s sense of place is unusually good and immediate. This one is not to be missed.
Nimbus’s Tembang Sunda: Sundanese Classical Songs gains admission though a narrow gate: A few of the program’s texts are 20th-century. The disc’s fifteen tracks in the main celebrate an Indonesian kingdom of the 14th to 16th centuries in a velvety, sensual manner at the very heart of volupté. Two zithers and a flute accompany the male and female vocalists, who will knock you, pillowed, on your ear. A hint of sibilant zippiness reveals them 1) too close to their mikes or 2) mildly peaky gear; sonics otherwise lovely and warm.
These two Ocora two-disc sets — it’s a French label — share a common feature: the performers, many of whom were in their seventies when these tapings took place some twenty-odd years ago, trace directly to traditions that have either perished or mutated with time. Wayan Lotring (1898-1983) in his heyday was a star — master dancer, composer, drummer-leader of an elegant, meticulously assembled gamelan pelegongan, a near-extinct gamelan type, its purpose to accompany dance. (The bronze-gold alloys comprising a gamelan pelegongan’s various voices, and the manner in which smiths shaped their symmetries, were matters of great and proper concern.) The Canadian-born American Colin McPhee — it was he, I believe, who first translated Balinese music to Western notation for, inter alia, his orchestral tone-poem Tabuh-Tabuhan — studied Lotring’s craft in the Thirties. The present recording’s principal emerged from a sickbed in 1972 to rehearse with contemporaries specifically for these sessions. Lotring’s entirely percussive gamelan is fast-paced and repetitive, its sonorities astonishingly pure — a credit in the event to Brunet’s fine recording and the instruments’ high-end ingredients. Given the detriments of age and failing health, with Lotring directing from his drum, the ensemble sounds convincing and good. One gazes, through sound, into a past. (The past, of course, is a self-canceling convenience. Pasts are as plenteous as those who tell them.)
While I can admire Wayan Lotring’s art (not to mention grit) in a formal kind of way, one’s love for Langen Mandra Wanara emerges from the marrow of one’s bones. This serene and elegant dance-opera is of another altitude and time entirely. As to it its foundations, the Dutch divided Java, for convenience, into two largely ceremonial kingdoms that competed in the main esthetically, each cultivating an art consisting of dance, music, and drama, as often as not admixed. Briefly, Langen Mandra Wanara is the work of a prince who, in the 1890’s, created a spectacle based (again) on the Ramayana. The tiny chorus excepted, the vocalists of are also the dancers, posing a technical challenge for this one-night session’s gifted annotator-engineer, since the old but passionately willing participants were incapable of doing their parts without moving about as they’d always done.
Because of the form’s high standards — dancing singers of consummate quality — it fell into disuse by the 1920’s. Our recording is in fact an act of purest love: The cast, who’d performed at the royal court, came, like Wayan Lotring, out of retirement to make it. The 25-member accompanying gamelan consists of a melodic percussion section, flute, two-string fiddle, zither, and additional drums, gongs, woodblocks, etc., operating within a pentatonic scale called slendro. As Jacques Brunet observes, Langen Mandra Wanara’s conception parallels that of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, in what sounds, as does Debussy’s great masterpiece, like music from another, dreamier world. The female voices particularly affect a nasality akin a mimic’s take on singing kittens (a not uncharming effect, incidentally). The music, as outlandish as it may appear, cannot but impress with its stately pace and undulant loveliness. The French-English notes — the libretto is translated only to French — are exemplary, as are those for Hommage à Wayan Lotring. Given the conditions — ambulatory singers in a makeshift venue — the sonics are almost too good to be true: a wide, coherent, lifelike stage for the discovery, a miracle really, of vanished grace.
BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 9 Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus Phyllis Curtin (soprano); Florence Kopleff (contralto); John McCollum (tenor); Donald Gramm (bass) Fritz Reiner (conductor) Richard Mohr (producer) Lewis Layton (engineer) John Pfeiffer (reissue producer); Jon M. Samuels (remastering supervisor); Marian Conaty (remastering engineer)
Overpopulation: political instability, tribal-cult-sectarian bloodlust, famine, corruption, pollution, gloom. Lighten up! Relax! I’m talking about the discophilic version, as in too many goddam Beethoven Ninths! Given your reporter’s taste for novelty, such at least is for me the view. So that when I tell you that this Reiner-Chicago reissue had me bolted to my seat, all gooseflesh, jawbone adroop, one does rather more than whistle Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Variations on Dixie, for ring modulators and armored personnel [Schalplatten Unbeschnitten CD 000.00.0].
These Chicago instrumentalists, solo vocalists, and chorus carry out Reiner’s noble (and by present-day standards, overblown) conception in what sounds the letter and spirit of his will. Mirabile dictu, the music is fresh! Far from a dry and withered chestnut, one hears that still-radical, daunting work, the single symphony that gave the genre’s successors the fantods. How old, for example, was Brahms when he tackled his first symphony? And Brahms was far from alone in fearing to carry on where Beethoven left off. I’ve little doubt that the reader has his own preferred performance. I’ll exit this leg of my remarks with an impression of a towering success, of old-school heroics having carried an old-school heroic exemplar to heights. As, however, we all well know, the cult of the conductor is not without pitfalls. Karajan’s viscosities so bloated so much of the music in his care to a fat-to-bursting mess as to play on recording as a cautionary tale: “Here, young conductors, is what to avoid. Besides, you haven’t the profiles.” And speaking of recordings, mein Gott! — those hateful DGs!
Which brings us to this RCA Gold Seal. Begging the reader’s indulgence, I ask that he accept the above paragraphs as an overture to what I’m really busting to talk about: What manner of magic did Mohr and Layton apply that today’s producers and engineers, most of them anyway, with their comparatively cleaner, wider-range gear, seem incapable of accomplishing? Or unwilling to try, perhaps? It appears to me, for starters, that the problem cannot reside in digital technology — not at the playback end, at least. Were the compact disc the life-denying medium its detractors would have it, we’d simply not be in the position to perceive this 1961 analogue recording’s extraordinary virtues. The Chicago strings sound like strings. In the main, I’ve not heard many symphony orchestras better captured to tape than this. The soundstage plays as a real-life space. Bass Donald Gramm’s fourth-movement entrance, O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!, bodes beautifully well for the vocal parts. If the recording is at all flawed — and it’s a big if, since I’ve heard this phenomenon in live performance — shortcomings appear in instances of intense choral activity, where the sound congeals and grinds somewhat. Teckies call it slap-echo, an excitation during fortissimi of odd-order harmonics, a not terribly lovely hall effect. Be this as it may, I can live with a blemish in happily miniscule proportion to a beauty. (I’ve made the point elsewhere. It bears repeating. Audiophile labels, so-called, must have an appallingly difficult time promoting themselves as such when BMG, say, reissues a sonic gem at a mid-line price.)
CANTELOUBE-BAILLY: Chants d’Auvergne.Mavis Martin (soprano) Jean-Jacques Kantorow (conductor) Orchestre d’Auvergne Daniel Zalay (producer-engineer) Denon CD CO 75862
Denon usually produces its own stuff. Sonomaître, a French label presumably, recorded these charming goings-on. Indeed, charming is the operative term, explaining in large part one’s having strayed from his inhospitable, mountainous terrain into a mellow chestnut grove. This is, first of all, not the suite of songs audiophiles have come to revere, tho one will in fact recognize a few from the better-known group. The personage to the right of the hyphen is a Lyonnais composer, Jean-Guy Bailly, who, from 1986-7, transcribed sixteen of Marie-Joseph Canteloube’s five-volume collection of Auvergne folk songs, published between 1923-55, for a chamber orchestra of strings, oboe, and cor anglais, to which he added in the second group flute, piccolo, and Irish harp in masterly, understated support of the singer’s stage-front part. Soprano Mavis Martin is a charmer, tender and gaminesque.
I think it was Peter Walker who remarked that every recording has its own proper volume setting. I find it to be true. There are certain discs I can play quite remarkably loud without imposing an air of unnaturalness, and others I cannot. This Denon falls in the second category. My first reaction was a wince. Martin invaded one’s space as a great, bellowing, hissing counterfeit. However, cutting well back on gain soon brought matters to rights. If you don’t mind a seat in the twentieth row, you’ll likely find this disc as captivating as I do. While I’ve never credited myself with a significant gift for analysis, it seems pretty clear that recordings made with an eye toward ambient riches hew to Walker’s dictum rather more closely than those in which ambiance plays a bit, rather than leading, rôle . Perceived at a modest setting, this Denon scores high in verisimilitude; loud, it’s a horror. See if you don’t agree.
THE VERDERH TRIO: The Making of a Medium, Volume 3.Walter Verdehr (violin); Elsa Ludewig-Verdehr (clarinet); Gary Kirkpatrick (piano). Schuller: A Trio Setting. Averitt: Tripartita.Currier: Adagio and Variations. John Eargle (engineer) Crystal Records CD 743
Our story begins with a typo. The credits (the first thing I look at) list John Eargil as engineer. Do they mean Eargle? I played the disc. Ravishing! Mouth-watering! Drop-dead wonderful! It has to be Eargle! Shot off a fax. Peter Christ, the West-Coast little’s proprietor, replied within hours: “Right, it’s Eargle. I didn’t produce this one, and that’s how it slipped by me. Sorry.” No problem, I had a good laugh. Anecdote told, one now moves on to a recommendation of an artistic-technical gem preceded by a harangue. Gunther Schuller, William Averitt, Nathan Currier; Michael Jackson, Madonna, Ice-T: a provocative, if opportunistically poised, contrast. My point: Pop culture abounds in provisioners of vulgarity, degradation, violence, and that’s just a start. The moveable freak show may indeed have shifted into overdrive with Liberace, whose kitsch-camp exhibitionism achieved full flower when I was but a lad, as did Elvis’s pelvic semaphore some few years on. (The military required my and Presley’s participation in 1958, he to keep the Old World free, I to Puerto Rico to teach hibaro inductees — that’s a localism for montagnard — some English: one’s connection to the King). And, as Progress means More, today, for one’s amusement and edification, we’ve knuckle-walking felons, androgynes in SS drag, and flesh-pierced freaks as exemplars of uncensored self-expression. (An eight-inch bar through the willy to impede reproduction? Now that’s a body ornament I’d applaud. And gladly install.) But I wander.
I call Crystal a little, and so it is. Apart from Gunther Schuller, with his long-term involvement with jazz, in terms of recognition, the composers fall somewhere between substellar and sub rosa. My large CD collection of moderns contains nothing of Averitt or Currier. Indeed, I wonder how many readers ever heard of the Verdehr Trio. So let’s begin with them. They’ve entitled their Crystal CDs The Making of a Medium since very little in the standard repertoire exists for a clarinet-violin-piano combo, the great twentieth-century exception Béla Bartók’s Contrasts, which Benny Goodman (a fine classical clarinetist) commissioned and performed in Carnegie Hall with Bartók’s countryman, Joseph Szigeti, and the German pianist, Egon Petri (whom the insert identifies in discouraging consistency as Endre Petri). Bartók later added to the work’s length and played and recorded it thus with Goodman and Szigeti. The Verdehr’s splendid performance occupies volume one [CD742], along with works by Mozart and Frescobaldi, and moderns Alan Hovhaness and Thomas Pasatieri. Volume two is given over, three out of five, to moderns: Ned Rorem, Thomas Christian David, Thea Musgrave; Jan Vanhal and Franz Liszt, by way of Michael Zearott’s transcription of his 16th Hungarian Rhapsody. And volume three, of course, is entirely contemporary.
Soundwise, all three discs score high. There’s high, however, and high. Eargle surpasses his colleague, Michael Clausen (volumes 1 and 2), in idealizing the distance between performers and listener. The piano’s low end is quite simply ravishing — a bottom, were it a female’s, I’d follow over a cliff. The soundfield’s size is correspondingly, convincingly right. With Clausen, we listen to good recordings; with Eargle, we hear what could pass, with the imagination’s help, for life. The trio is splendid — consummate professionals who perform equally from head and heart. I offer their efforts, the entire, criminally obscure program, as an essay in civilization. Here is music of wit, charm, grace, and warmth crafted in an idiom only a pop-weaned zombie could fail to comprehend.
CAGE: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1957-58). Atlas Eclipticalis (1961-62) The Orchestra of the S.E.M. Ensemble. Petr Kotik (conductor) Joseph Kubera (piano) Heiner Stadler (producer) Tom Lazarus (engineer) WERGO CD WER 6216-2 (286 216-2)
I’d not have chosen to comment just now on this 1993 Wergo — that’s the German label specializing in mid-to-late 20th-century art music — had I not been negatively motivated by a recent Deutsche Grammophon CD [431 698-2] of James Levine and the Chicago Symphony in a program of supra-mainstream American music from the Fifties (Elliot Carter’s Variations for Orchestra and Gunther Schuller’s Spectra) and Sixties (Milton Babbitt’s Correspondences — this for string orchestra and synthesized tape — and, the subject of one’s disappointment, John Cage’s essay in aleatory for large orchestra). To witness Levine’s incomprehension of, at 14:19, a happily abbreviated Atlas Eclipticalis is to understand an executant’s power for good or ill. In this celebrity’s all-shaping hands, the music plays downright Viennese-libidinous — some darkly serpentine Schoenberg morceau discovered in an attic perhaps. Had Cage lived to hear it, I’ve little doubt he’d have wet himself laughing.
A Cage associate, Petr Kotik, with his Brooklyn Heights-based S.E.M. Ensemble expanded for the occasion to full-orchestral proportions, gives us what sounds the genuine article, which is to say, a far more difficult thing to love or indeed, as Levine shows us, to carry out as Cage had intended. The music, its title alluding to the star charts serving as its chance-derived framework, exemplifies the late guru-gadfly’s beau ideal: an ego-&-emotion-absent, randomly cosmic Cool. Kotik’s Atlas Eclipticalis consists in its 41:18 length of seemingly unrelated, profoundly unentertaining sounds. Voyeuristic kicks isn’t what this piece is about. The S.E.M. performance speaks to courage of convictions, Cage’s and those of an informed caretaker, for which Levine substitutes, having less than a mote of a clue, taffy-elastic, Technicolor effects. Kotik’s engineer, Tom Lazarus, provides commensurately unspectacular, lifelike sound.
Lazarus’s recording of Lou Harrison’s cantata in Esperanto to a mock-Balinese instrumental accompaniment, La Koro Sutro [New Albion NA 015 CD] remains a favorite demo-grade disc. Wergo’s ambitious survey includes an eight-disc boxed set [WER 6231-2 (286 231-2)] of Cage reading Diary: How to improve the World (You will only make Matters worse), the existence of which I mention more by way of mischief than recommendation to audiophiles.
DUMITRESCU: Medium III. Cogito/Tromp l’Oeil. Aulodie Mioritica. Perspectives au Movemur. Apogeum Fernando Grillo (double-bass) Various instrumentalists National Orchestra of Romania Iosif Conta (conductor) ?,? (producer & engineer) Edition Modern CD Ed. Mn. 1001
SCELSI: Works for Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Orchestra and Chorus of Polish Radio-Television, Cracow Jürg Wyttenbach (conductor) Lech Dudzik and Krzysztof Drab (producer-engineers) Accord 40193-1692-2 (three CDs)
SCELSI: String Quartets 1-5. String Trio. Khoom, for Soprano and Six Instruments Arditti String Quartet with Michiko Hirayama (soprano), Frank Lloyd (horn), Maurizio Ben Omar (percussion) François Eckert (producer) Holger Schlegel, Herbert Kuhlmann, Franz-Peter Esser (engineers) Salabert/Actuels SCD8904-5 (two CDs)
SCELSI: Bot-Ba and other piano works. Marianne Schroeder (piano) Gruner & Partner AG; Radio Bremen; Hat Hut Records (producers) Frauke Schulz (engineer) hatART Now Series CD 6092
SCELSI: Suites Nos. 9 & 10, for piano Marianne Schroeder (piano) Pia & Werner X. Uehlinger (producers) Peter Pfister (engineer) hatART Now Series CD 6006
SCELSI: Okanagon and other works Joëlle Léandre (double-bass) and other instrumentalists Hessian Radio, Hat Hut Records (producers) Detlef Kittler, Holger Mees, Rudiger Orth (engineers) hatART Now Series CD 6124
The topmost headnote’s question marks bespeak the skimpy documentation of this and other Edition Modern discs. The notes, occupying half of a slip of paper whose obverse is the cover, are in egregious artspeak, a once-intelligible form of discourse academics co-opted and raised to logolatrous heights rendered more opaque still by a wacko translation. Iancu Dumitrescu, born Romania, 1944, founded Hyperion, a chamber ensemble, to which has flocked the crème of that nation’s “new aesthetical programme.” Fine. Here begins the space-launch: Dumitrescu “found his reason in phenomenology” — their italics, not mine — thus allowing him to make music via an “acusmatic aesthetics by virtue of which the sound is subjected to analyses and dissociations (harmonical multisons — diagonal sounds) which confer it a genuine force of suggestion and penetration.” It’s okay to laugh; let’s not, however, scorn penetration, which, as we boys know, can be great fun. The New Shorter Oxford lists some lollapaloozas (including fistmele, from archery’s argot, one’s personal test of a dictionary’s goodness), but plays dumb re acusmatics. I discuss this outrageously ill-presented CD with two other likewise wanting Editions Modern devoted to Dumitrescu singly and in company because the music’s remarkable. Whether or not you know who Giacinto Scelsi is.
We begin, then, with as unique an aural sculptor as the latter part of the century has to offer. Scelsi — mystic, recluse, aristocrat — died in 1988, having fashioned a body of music from the late Fifties on — orchestral, chamber, and vocal — that plays as revolutionary. The background in brief: Count Scelsi suffered a nervous collapse requiring a lengthy institutionalization from which he emerged having fashioned an esthetic best described (for our purposes) as a flight from serialism, whose prescriptive rigidities may have helped drive the man crazy. Scelsi’s substitution, a uniquely dramatic exercise of microtonality, looked, in the composer’s stated view, to the artist’s demotion from creator to that of medium — a passive translator of the cosmic to terrestrial terms. Nor was he speaking metaphorically. As much as Scelsi’s method and art differ from John Cage’s, these two radicals shared in a desire to divert art music’s celebration of self — the Romantic ideal of artist as demi-deity — to its very denial. In the American’s case, the goal is demonstrably sincere: aleatory. To the Italian there must cling the possibility of pose, since Scelsi was, above all, a hands-on composer rather than initiator of chance-derived operations. In the event, it doesn’t matter — the music’s the thing. And what a thing!
I put this Accord triptych of Scelsi’s orchestral-orchestral/choral works among the decade’s most important releases. It’s therefore rather puzzling that (so far as I know) no others exist on recording to compare. One therefore rejoices in a conductor, his forces, and technical crew in felicitous collaboration in an appropriately cavernous venue — St Catherine’s Cathedral in Cracow — on performances that capture the music’s dark and tactile power. A close reading of Tibetan ritual is certainly among Scelsi’s resources. (He is, I think, the first to adapt Tibet’s outlandish-otherworldly sonorities to Western art usage.) The unifying heft of the large-scale works — and, for all their differences, in this they are familial — is that of a lava-flow unpredictably punctuated by bursts and eruptions. As with Ives, Varèse, Messiaen, and a quite small number of others, Scelsi’s art is without obvious precedent. Anahit employs a violin soloist; Konx-Om-Pax, an organ; Uaxuctum calls for an ondes Martenot, among the first electronic instruments (1928) to appear with an orchestra. Hurqualia, Hymnos, Chukrum, Aion, and Pfhat complete the astonishing Polish project. Recommended without caveat or stint.
The curious have access to finer-boned aspects of Scelsi’s art in the inestimable Arditti Quartet’s Salabert/Actuels two-disc set of the String Trio, the five string quartets, and Khoom, for soprano and six instrumentalists, this last performed by Michiko Hirayama, the Japanese vocalist for whom Scelsi wrote the nineteen Canti del Capricorno [Wergo CD WER 60127-50]. (The manic, shamanic Canti I commend to the hard-core only.) String Quartet No.1 of 1944 exemplifies the conventions Scelsi abandoned. From the relatively tentative String Trio of 1958 on do Scelsi’s irregular horizontalities evoke a sense of writhing continuum. Like all of the vocal music of which I’m aware, the piquant, exotic Khoom exploits the voice as device for chant. In the music for piano, beautifully recorded (as is just about everything hatART issues) and played, we perceive the viscous microtonalities of the chamber and orchestral work deferring to that instrument’s less malleable mechanics. Okanagon, with its abundance of solos for double-bass, double-bass with ad-lib vocals, bass voice, and bass tuba, I recommend chiefly for the title work, a delicious morsel for harp, double-bass, and tam-tam. (You must listen hard to discern the harp, which is employed as far from traditionally as it’s possible to get.) As ample demonstration of Okanagon’s bassist, Joëlle Léandre’s, creative gifts, I direct the reader to the original and witty L’Histoire de Mme. Tasco [hatART Jazz Series CD 6122], in which she of course performs on bass and vocalizes no less impressively with her Canvas Trio (Rüdiger Carl, accordion and clarinet; Carlos Zingaro, violin). Should you like this disc as well as I, you’re advised to go to Adda CD 590038, entitled Ecritures, featuring Léandre and Zingaro in their own compositions.
And so to Dumitrescu, whose sound-world reveals an admiration and sometime-emulation of Scelsi’s, or so one gleans from the disc abovenoted, along with another, Ed. Mn. 1003. A third, 1002, features three works by Dumitrescu and three by Ana-Maria Avram, whose acquaintance, like Dumitrescu’s, one makes only now. CD 1003 included two pieces entitled Harryphonies (alpha) and Harryphonies (epsilon), a goodly stretch of this second so close to Scelsi’s manner as to play as an homage. 1002, the split-program disc, offers Monades (gamma & epsilon), for “6 monocordes et harryphone.” As title and device, the harryphone remains with me a mystery. The 20-volume New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, like the two-volume Shorter Oxford earlier, offers no assistance. What I gather in spades from these performances, however, is Dumitrescu’s fascination with laminates of acoustic-electronic sonorities, or splendid counterfeits thereof. Indeed, in what appear to be listed as purely acoustic works, the Romanian produces some quite exciting synthetic effects, assisted in instances (I’m guessing) by overdubbing. CD 1003’s first track, Pierres Sacrées, for “piano préparé, plaques, et objets métaliques,” plays, for example, as largely synthesized. If it is in fact an entirely acoustic, real-time event, it would seem my time to donate these ears to a manufacturer of novelties, where, after modification — bronzed, perhaps, like baby’s first shoes — they’ll provide someone a moment’s amusement. Sacred Stones, and much else of Iancu Dumitrescu’s art, strikes one as having arisen, Phoenix-like and grimly lustrous, from the hell the Stalinist dictator, Nicholas Ceausesku’s, Romania must have been. Whether the composer himself acknowledges this ought not direct one’s impressions from where they want to go. Best tread lightly, lest one appear too much the deconstructionist. As I’ve confessed to puzzlement over Dumitrescu’s tools, I do indeed imply that these Edition Modern CDs are something less than audiophile grade. I can, however, recommend the Accords and hatARTs as first-class sound, the latter, as I’ve said, consistently so. (One World distributes Accord; NorthCountry, hatART. For info on Edition Modern, write Chris Cutler, ReR, 74 Tulse Hill, London SW2 2PT, U.K.)