Composed and deComposed: Music of Our Centuries

Steve Koenig

[August 2001. Originally appeared in La Folia 3:4.]

So many releases, so little space, even here in cyberspace.

John Marks Records has an exciting release titled Music For a Glass Bead Game (John Marks JMR15, 62:34, jmrcds.com) by label stalwarts Arturo Delmoni, violin, and Nathaniel Rosen, cello. I greatly enjoy Rosen’s Bach solo cello on this label. Label head Marks has a monthly newsletter which is very homey, discussing music, philosophy, science and recipes. It’s no surprise that he’s created this thematic disc which loosely ties in with Herman Hesse’s novel of the same name, upon which many composers, especially Scandinavian ones, have based compositions. In his notes, Marks says the pieces were chosen to illuminate each other, and they do. The unsuspecting might look askance at a violin and cello duo doing Bach Inventions, interspersed with the Kodály and Martinú duos, not to mention a passacaglia of Handel and duets by Tomasso Giordani. We start with Bach’s brief Invention No. 1, and jump, resin flying, into the Kodály, a piece that I’ve always felt obliged to like, rather than like. Rosen and Delmoni make this piece one: romantic, folkloric. lyric and virtuosic, no one aspect overshadowing the other. My only other version, by Jean-Luc Pouchet and Bertrand Braillard on the Canadian Atma label, is much spikier and some the folklore is highlighted, reminding me how Bernstein brought out the “Indian” themes in his DG New World. Four Bach Inventions follow and I think, knowing for some this will be heresy, how easy on the ears this music is via cello and violin. Nothing tinkly or tinny here. I’m not as fond of the Martinú, although I have no other version at hand for comparison. It’s done for virtuosic flight, and I’m left at the launch pad, happy when Bach again visits. As that’s only seven minutes of the disc, I’m delighted to have to decide to file this under Kodály or Delmoni. The spine states merely “Music for A Glass Bead Game.”

David Lang has a new release on Bang On A Can’s Cantaloupe label, (CA21003, bangonacan.org). His 1992 disc Are You Experienced? on CRI CD625 shows sparkle and wit; alas, this disc is a drone. A long one. The Passing Measures, for bass clarinet, amplified orchestra and women’s voices might appeal to the new-age classical crowd, as each moment passes measuredly, but don’t think that Marty Ehrlich’s function here is any more than session work.

Folks who think of Pauline Oliveros only as a new-agey mother of us all due to her environmental pieces and theater scores will be delighted to hear some of her much earlier electronic compositions which have, as they say in my milieu, ovaries (Pogus 21023-2, 63:06, pogus.com). Whooshes and mad electronic buzz saws, white noise; these have some of the sound elements used in George Harrison’s little-known masterpiece Electronic Sound, originally on the Beatles’ experimental Zapple imprint, and reissued but I believe only as a very costly import (bootlegs abound). If you collect any electronic music series from Centaur. Wergo, Metamkine or Cultures Eléctroniques, you must buy this right now. No Mo is a wonderful stretch of noise. Something Else has a drone and a sonar-pulse type repetition. These two works were recorded in 1966 at the Electronic Music Studio at the University of Toronto utilizing Lafayette tone generators, a noise source and tape delay. T he thirty-three minute Bog Road combines the aforementioned, with an eerie-in-retrospect harmonium, whistle sounds later common to video arcades and late ‘70s disco songs, and the bog, nature referents, combining all the things which make Oliveros Oliveros. It was created at the Mills College Tape Music Center in a studio which overlooked a pond of croaking frogs.

I recently praised Jocy de Oliveira’s electronics works and her opera/theater piece Inori, the Sacred Prostitute. The second piece of the trilogy, Illud Tempus (OO Disc OO65, 45:54, oodiscs.com) isn’t as strong. It speaks in many (verbal) languages, as well as in phonemes, which is fine, but to be the piece seems more a collage than a well-blended guisada. The premise is electroacoustics meets soprano and speaker in a feminist take on Joseph Campbell. I think it’s the voice of the Actress which irks me. More than Inori, this opera seems a radio play, and can be appreciated that way. I think a multimedia (DVD) release would be more revealing of this work’s strengths. I hope OO or another equally enterprising label might re/issue deOliveira’s new and out-of-print electronic pieces, which are truly special.

Some folks think Morton Feldman’s tread-time pieces all sound alike. To me, that would apply more so to certain works of the baroque. That all depends, of course, on how you listen. I now find myself in the luxurious position of owning three versions of Triadic Memories, the most recent by Louis Goldstein (Offseasan Productions 226, 65:15 + 68:59, louieg@wfu.edu; anomalousrecords.com). The pianist also offers John Cage’s one5 in this sturdy gatefold sleeve, complete with liner notes, but kindly offers more detailed information and links to us on his Website, http://www.wfu.edu/users/louieg/tmnote.htm, accessible even before you, which I do recommend, purchase. Goldstein makes the work abstractly hypnotic, keeping you rapt over a hundred-thirteen minute span, except, of course, to change discs. (Did someone out there say they had a changer?) It starts off darkly, with a rhythm which is fluid yet deliberate; the control over phrasing is astounding. In effect, he holds you in anticipation of each next note; don’t take that to mean he is slow, for the work is not spacey-dreamy in Goldstein’s hands. For comparison, Roger Woodward (Etcetera KTC2015, 73:26 + 72:00) takes eighty-three minutes, and is more lyrical; the piece becomes an extended, delicate waltz. Woodward’s package also include three other Feldman works. On a single disc, Aki Takahashi (Alm ALCD-33, 61:18, oodiscs.com) plays with more forward momentum and percussiveness, taking only an hour, the recording emphasizing the rich lower notes. I wouldn’t want to be without these, but Goldstein’s is something special. one5, as a composition, doesn’t work well for me; it seems too random. The anticipation of notes so strong in the Feldman, is totally different in the Cage; the piece is pointillistic. It’s the notes themselves which count, less so how they’re interrelated. Goldstein wisely choose to place the Cage first, and separated them with sixty seconds of silence. (For perspective, the Philips Red book standard is to CDs place two second between each track.) Next issue I’ll tackle Goldstein’s Sonatas and Interludes.

Naxos brings us a wonderful midprice collection of Penderecki chamber works for strings and clarinet (cpo 999 730-2, 48:16, naxos.com), featuring the Deutsches Streichtrio, clarinetist Eduard Brunner, well known for contemporary music, and pianist Patrick O’Byrne. The playing is fine, but what strikes me upon repeated listening is how intelligently the music is programmed. They flow and contrast as if Penderecki had designed an amazing suite. Starting with the String Trio, from 1991 and dedicated to these players, through the Prélude for Solo Clarinet, to Per Slava, the work for solo cello dedicated to Rostropovich, of course, the flow and change of signatures makes this is an aural suite rather than a collection selected just because they fit the category. The Sonata for Violin and Piano is more folky, and the Cadenza for Viola Solo slashes away like raw Bartók, It concludes with the Quartet for Clarinet and Strings.

Last volume I promised to go into depth with cpo’s second five CD box of Hindemith complete orchestral works, but I’m still deeply into the box, learning and enjoying these piece, which are new to me, especially Der Dämon, subtitled “a dance-pantomime.” I’d say spring for the box at midprice, rather than the singles which come full price. Also of special note and interest are the ballet Hérodiade, Konzertmusik for piano, brass and harps, and five little-known works. The Kammermusik pieces 1, 2 and 3 are intelligently programmed not together but with pieces of similar instrumentation. You also get two cello and one piano concerto, and The Four Temperaments.

M. William Karlins is a complete unknown to me, but a colleague recommended this and I’m glad he did. His “Works from 1959-1998″ (Hungaroton HCD 32037, 71:47, qualiton.com) reveal a composer with his own sound, neither of the vanguard nor backward-looking (I tag those hacks the “neo-nothings”). His Quartet for strings, with soprano in the last movement is not a tribute to the similarly constructed Schoenberg quartet, but infuses late romantic sonorities with the yearning of Bartók’s violin concerto (Need you ask, “Which one?) Concerto Grosso No. 1 for nine instruments is rhythmic and acerbic, with sharp rhythms and pungent flute and brass touches. Four Inventions and a Fugue are for bassoon, piano, and female voice; Song For Soprano sets a James Joyce poem about music to alto flute and cello. The Viennese soprano Katharina Rössner sings this more for sound than text, which works well. She sings English clearly and idiomatically, which, as with American singers, doesn’t mean you will necessarily understand the words just by listening. The Joyce and Blake poems are printed in the booklet, admirably, face-to-face in Hungarian and English. Reflux is a concerto for amplified bass, with winds, piano and percussion, and a major piece. Here the great Bertram Turetzky does the honors in this alternately dramatic and moody piece. When the winds and cello work ensemble, and then play as if improvising, it is quite beautiful. (If you only know the bassist’s classical work, he is equally adept in jazz improvisation. Try his duets with multi-reed and winds player Vinny Golia, 11 Reasons to Begin on Music & Arts CD966 and Intersections, Nine Winds NWCD 0129.) Kindred Spirits, for mandolin, harp and guitar avoids the folky trap most use when they score for mandolin. The Marinos Triop makes this closing piece most riveting. How this American composer wound up on Hungaroton I’ll never know, unless it’s because of the spirited Somogyi String Quartet. Interestingly, this winds up being filed between Karajan and Udo Kasemetz on my shelf.

Fans of Maurice Sendak, as well as Oliver Knussen fans, will be delighted with the release of Higglety Pigglety Pop!, a fantasy-opera which serves well as a companion piece to the earlier Where The Wild Things Are. (Deutsche Grammophon/BBC Radio3 469 666-3, 61:50 + 39:47; Both are in a die-cut slipcase in a delightfully designed package with a (I just spoiled the) surprise pop-up. You’ll have to buy this for the Sendak collectors you know, as well as “just” for the operas. Note that Knussen collaborated with Sendak on both libretti, and conducted the earlier recording as well. I hope others tackle these pieces so we’ll have varied takes on them. The earlier disc of Where The Wild Things Are, on Arabesque LP licensed from Unicorn, was rougher around the edges, and I slightly prefer that aspect of it. nonetheless I need both. The performers are the same: Knussen conducting the London Sinfonietta, Rosemary hardy as Max, and Mary King as Mama. The one at hand is smoothly and beautifully sung, lyrical and yet that too is appropriate; note the beautiful French horn as, in the Sea-Interlude, Max sails off to the fantasy land. Knussen invokes scrims of imaginary voyage, and if the flute-birds are held in check, it also hold the listener in rapt anticipation. After Max silences the Wild Things, their “Wild Rumpus” has a Bernsteinian lilt to it; I’d never noticed that phrasing before. The “Dance At The Gym” meets Daphnis et Chloe. Higglety Pigglety Pop! is presented for the first time on disc, and in a 1999 revision of the 1985 score. I’ve seen it in performance at least once, and it’s way overdue on disc. In fact, both cry for full visual treatment. This adventure of Jennie the terrier, who has everything, but still wants to see if the grass is more interesting outside, would make an interesting double bill with either of the Ravel’s fantasy operas, or with Cunning Little Vixen. Higglety is line-by-line a funnier work than the fantasia of Wild Things, and it makes for different listening. The performers work the lines, sung and semi-sung, with the fine art of puppeteers, neither too arch nor matter-of-fact. It’s good to hear the male voices in the texture of the piece. Christopher Gillette, David Wilson-Johnson, and Stephen Richardson, and Cynthia Buchon as Jennie, play their roles with panache. Knussen conducts with panache. This is a treat through-and-through. We hail DG’s commitment to the 20/21 series, especially now that Sony has bailed out of its Ligeti edition, which slack will be taken up by Teldec.

I love theater, so naturally I love music theater. Favorite memories range from a medieval work without title at the Mannes School for Music to a radio play by Julio Estrada at the Festival de La Música y Teatro in at the Centro Helénico in Mexico City. I’ve always avoided the operas of Handel and his contemporaries, as their music bores me. Watching the same on stage seemed an unlikely chance for fun, but when the Brooklyn Academy of Music (bam.org) hosted the Opera Theatre Company of Ireland presenting Mr Handel’s Rodelinda, I decided to brave it. A good thing I did, too, because although I’d never buy a recording of it, I’d easily see performance like this, repeatedly. It’s fun the way a Greek tragedy is fun; you suspend disbelief and enjoy the tale and, if you choose, its mythic truths, if any. This is your basic test of faith, your husband-returns-in-disguise story. I wonder what it would be like in folksong-type voices.

The libretto is simple and laughable, and the audience did indeed laugh, affectionately; we just enjoyed the whole shebang, while checking the supertitles to be sure were heard what we heard. The set was minimal, strangely recalling Glyndebourne’s Makropulos Case at BAM the previous month (see last issue). Conductor and harpsichordist Laurence Cummings kept things light and moving so it was the action, the story we paid attention to, even though the texture was perfect. Each instrumental voice was clear, the chords truly dramatic when appropriate. the overture itself held much more interest than that of the typical bel canto opera’s. A long shot and a winner. BAM really needs to do something about the bathrooms at the Harvey Theater, however. Even the men’s room is only a two-seater. At a typical show there, people are still on line after the end of an intermission.

The Works & Process at the Guggenheim series (guggenheim.org) presented Pierre Boulez at Alice Tully Hall on March 3. (I love how New York halls have recently been cooperating, allowing appropriate spaces to performances. The concert below this was afforded the same cross-town courtesy.) Boulez told how in his youth he listened to ethnic music, field recordings. With the humor he typically shows nowadays, he explained he does not use these influences obviously in his work: “Like the colonies, I didn’t want to bring back teas and spices.” He became a conductor, for Domaines Musicale “late in life, before thirty,” because “they had a small budget and I was the cheapest conductor.” Their first performance was in 1955, and the following year he was deep in it, “and believe me,” he said, “I was sweating heavily. I had to find in myself a way to conduct to find a way to perform without disaster.”

Discussing improvisation, Boulez noted “an absence of gravity. We are so sure of ourselves. Sometimes one falls down, but you forget these things.” Regarding jazz, “Sometimes it’s brilliant and sometimes it’s trivial.” In most improvisation, he feels “I can tell you exactly what will happen; after two or five minutes of excitement it was enough. For one hour, totally predictable: up and down, up and down.” I wonder what it is he’s heard.

Explaining his 1965 work Éclat, Boulez said that after composing Structures for two pianos, “which is probably, quote unquote, my most austere work, and I am being kind to myself, I wanted to write a piece that’s melodic. Imagine Bach writing only canons.” He said, “Conducting this [Éclat] is like playing a keyboard. there are seven cues, like a game piece. You have to have in your head all the data.” I wonder if he’s tried to discuss this with Mr Zorn. He likened composing to “ping pong, but played by the same person.” Why does he keep changing and extending his works? “If I feel the need to transform a piece, I transform.”

Ensemble Sospeso, previously lauded in this column, performed Le Marteau Sans Maître. Boulez said that René Char’s poem “is the center and the absence. You have, still, the form of the poem, but disseminated in the other pieces [sections of the work].” I’d forgotten how percussive the opening movement is, and thought it perfect for Tambuco Percussion ensemble to tackle.

Maurizio Pollini continued his Carnegie series “Perspectives” at the 92nd Street Y, playing harpsichord, in a wonderfully bizarre Mediterranean program. Beginning with the Vox Vocal Ensemble (see last issue for Vox performing British Renaissance works) doing fragments of Greek chant. It was richly resonant, and so good that I dream of hearing Greek-timbred voices doing the same material. This was much more melodic than so many reconstructed, choppy sounding Greek tragedies, likewise not the folksy-lyrey take on pre-notated musics from those early Harmonia Mundi discs like “Music of the Bible Revealed.” Michele Marasco’s flute was alive and timeless, nothing but beauty in the Debussy Syrinx which followed.

Oboeist Jacqueline Leclair made the vocal line of Berio’s Sequenza VII sing as the piece doubles and duets with itself. Mezzo Luisa Castellani navigated Sequenza II with ease, technically and beautifully handling all its changes of dynamics. The U.S. premiere of the 1999 Altra Voce for mezzo, alto flute and electronics was a bit droney for a Berio piece. Monica Bacelli holds a solitary note, and subtly the same voice opens into two, seconding the first. Some of it brought to mind Ravel’s beautiful “Asie,” from Shéhérezade. There seemed to be a vocal duet. Was it as boy soprano on tape, a flute, or her voice? The audience went wild; although there were some lovely effects, this was hardly groundbreaking or a major addition to Berio’s oeuvre. I remain unimpressed.

After intermission were sets of Monteverdi madrigals, with singers from Italy. The tenors were a little hooty but passionate. They often strained, but when they hit, oh my, it was wonderful. The famed Lamento della ninfa was also hooty, with a touch of overacting. Pollini, it must be said, acquitted himself wonderfully on the harpsichord within the instrumental ensemble.

The March 19 program was typically eclectic. The Brahms op. 116 Fantasies were given wide shifts of dynamic range, as if they were physically moving the world. A pair of ladies behind me exclaimed that he reminded them of Solomon. I found the playing interesting, but returned home to try some discs and agreed with my first impression that the pieces are ultimately dreary. Since then, thanks to my purchase of the 200 disc Philips Great Pianist of the Century suitcases, I’ve enjoyed Kempff doing them, but they’re still low priority. Webern’ s op. 27 Piano Variations were given a fluid but not blatantly romanticized take, the pointillistic dots were still intelligently present. It was playful and joyful. Stockhausen’s Klavierstück V was beautiful; filled with beautiful sounds, I detected some Messiaenic birds hidden in here. Klavierstück IX was magical. He even worked his way around a quadruple cough. The piano glowed with burnished overtones during the opening chord repetition, as Pollini varied his dynamics for maximum differentiation of sound: this was not just pounding the same keys repeatedly. The closer was Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, which I find incredible boring in any hands. I must applaud Pollini for his brave programs throughout this series, as well as the audience, of all stripes, all of whom who stayed and appreciated the ancient (Monteverdi) to the modern without a soul walking out.

On May 6, James Levine conducted The Met Orchestra and Chorus is Arnold Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder. There was a feeling of occasion in the hall, both from the audience and the orchestra as it warmed up, creating a more colorful improvisation than is usual. The four harps looked as if they were standing guard over the castle. In the prelude, bells were heard from overhead, part of the orchestral texture but not unnaturally spotlight. As Tove, soprano Deborah Voigt gave special meaning when she sang “Grab” (grave) and “Kuss” (kiss), It sounds silly, even as I type this, to point out such minutiae, but the singing was on the level of fine Lieder and each word counted. I was also delighted to hear Levine conduct this orchestra so well, as my last few experienced with them outside of the opera house had not been pleasant. I cringe recalling one of their first concerts, where they gave a stultifying Pictures at an Exhibition. This Gurre-Lieder had all the style, flow and beauty of Levine’s work in the opera pulpit. Levine’s solo piano work, little recorded, is fantastic. See if you can find an RCA LP of his doing Joplin; it puts Morath and Rifkin to shame.

Of course, he is well respected as a song accompanist, which was driven home when he did same with Jessye Norman. I’m a great fan of Norman’s although often I find her voice too enormous for Lieder. Theoretically meant for larger things, often that fails too; although I’m in the minority in my distaste for her recording of Strauss’ Four Last Songs. When she reins it in, however, as in her DG recital of Brahms Lieder, beautiful things happen. I chanced upon the last of the Jessye Norman and James Levine Carnegie Hall Songbook Series. Lest you fear something along the lines of Ella’s songbooks (hey, now, that’s an idea!), this covered Beethoven through Satie, with stops for Berg, Wolf and others. The Ravel Chansons Madecasses, seemingly written for her (one dreams of the perfect native “Aoua!”), was fine, but the most touching were the Brahms. The encore selections were marvelous, and she gave them special attention. They were chosen, I discovered later, by internet vote. I’m iffy about concert style spirituals, but her “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” was enough to make a believer out of me, until the final note where, showman that she is, she made an acontextual leap typical of pop singers who think that a loud, high pierce means you sing “good.” Plaudits to the actual songbook, a high quality printed book with photos, bilingual texts of the entire series.

It was interesting seeing excerpts from Robert Wilson’s latest production, Prometheus, which uses the music of the late lamented Iannis Xenakis. This was part of the invaluable Works & Process at the Guggenheim series. Wilson had discussions with Xenakis and, later, his widow, who gave him carte blanche. “I’m too ill to do the work,” Wilson said the composer told him, “but I’ll give you a lot of music.” I asked Wilson about the music, and it was all taken from previously composed works. He wasn’t sure which ones, and asked his staff to get back to La Folia. It begins with the summon of bells. A lot of the music sounded like Scelsi. The text was too much like a smarmy Star Trek episode, and I refer to the original series. Cartoon characters, marionettes, scarily Weimar-meets-Three Stooges: “Nya Nya Nya. Tell ya what I’m gonna do…” After a break, Wilson explained that by “knee plays” he means links that connect scenes. Duh. The plot combines various takes on Prometheus with Aristophanes’ and other’s story of The Birds, the stories charmingly mutated, though the presentation pretentious.