Incredible Risks: New and Improvised Music
[November 2000. Originally appeared in La Folia 3:1.]
So many new releases, reissues, and back catalog items that shouldn’t be neglected. Dig in. Enjoy.
Beefcake. Coincidentia oppositorium.
Intelligent electronica. “No track list. not at all” declares the promo sheet accompanying this second release by German “sound architects” Gabor Schabitzki and Volker Kahl. It asks, “Would you ask an architect for the name of the building?” My immediate instinct is to shout, “Yes, I would,” but realizing that most edifices get corporate names, it made me want to give names to all buildings and houses I encounter on my strolls and travels. Hell, my own apartment building is called The Pasadena, and I live in Brooklyn. To the music: electronica is far from my favorite genre. As with most dance music, I find individual tracks which work, and then only in specific, usually impossible-to-obtain mixes. This has a promising opening: a Spanish pop tune from the 40’s fading into tinkly synths and and very rich and resonant soundstage. Some is a little on the grandiose side, but it is doubtedless well-constructed and has a vision. There is spoken text in German and English, broken glass, surprisingly atypical hit-and-run rhythm fragments (they did not just buy a sequencer and put it on “go”).
Boston Underbelly: Music From The City of Revolution.
The first four tracks are Andrew Neumann’s computer pieces, simple bouncy jangles with a sense of humor. Then five by Saturnalia, the improvising collective of violinist and Sublingual founder Jonathan Lamaster. Each is different, raging from sound-text to rock-pulse, but all have interesting streaks from trumpet, violin, thermin or analog synths. Keiko Higuchi is a stand-out, veering from cello-like vocal arcs to Yoko Ono trills (wipe that look off your face; I love Yoko’s work). Guests include Elliott Sharp and Roger Miller (not “Hit The Road,” Jack.) The band Neptune’s five minutes use instruments of welded scrap metal, but forgettable nonetheless, except for stupid faux-punk lyrics. The other groups show interesting varieties of merged styles: folk, progrock, punk and free improv, with the frequent use of sampling. A mixed bag, but I expect folks on the Avant-Progressive list will really enjoy this. The final track is a two-minute Thurston Moore splooge.
Nels Cline. The Inkling.
Mostly beautiful improvised string work, with the leader on electric and acoustic guitars, the amazing Zeena Parkins on electric and acoustic harp, Mark Dresser never less than fine on bass, and Billy Mintz an equal partner on drums. If ECM wanted music that was beautiful without a reputation for vapidity, they’d record more of this kind of stuff and less new age. These are explorations in texture and interaction, ranging from one to fifteen minutes. I still warmy remember a concert at the Knit Old Office of Zeena with William Parker, drawing Parker to sounds I’ve never heard him make before. These four are a natural together, and not one cut is weak. Music for close-listening. It won’t scare the horses, except maybe the exciting fifteen-minute “Queen of Angels,” but either way it’ll make them think and come back for more. I like this even better than Ground and Chest by his regular trio, both fine discs but in more of a drone/blues/jazz idiom.
Collective Identity. The Mass.
I thought I’d never want to hear another saxophone quartet as long as I live; I was wrong. Sam Newsome, Alex Harding, Aaron Stewart and Jorge Sylvester don’t sound like the WSQ or ROVA or Your Neighborhood SQ. I was first snagged to that quadra-sax sound by the World’s brilliant “P.O. In Cairo” on a Moers disc, and a Nonesuch LP featuring French saxophone quartet music by the likes of composer Jean Françaix. I got tired of the sameness of sounds by the WSQ’s Ellington disc, but Alvin Curran’s “Electric Rag II” for sax quartet, live electronics and tape revitalized me, both in concert and on a New Albion disc with ROVA, whose volumes of Works on Black Saint are requisite. Naturally, all sax quartets will have commonalities because of the instrumentation, and because some tracks will have bass lines, and the bluesy/gospel tracks have become their own tradition, yet these guys make their own sound and compositions (save Wayne Shorter’s “Nefertiti”). Two of the six tracks are over thirteen minutes and the entire disc never flags. I believe Stewart is the only one I’ve heard before, and live, at that. A pal working on Jorge Sylvester’s own upcoming disc insists it’s gonna be right up my alley.
Jazz For When You’re In Love.
Romance In Rio.
A great deal of the 32 catalog could be considered anthologies, but of single artists in usually well-filled discs. I like compilations in general, providing the material has no or few weak spots, I don’t already own most of the tracks, and it must have a worthy concept or flow of music. All three here are recommendable, for home or car (I “drive” the NYC subway, but sometimes rely on the kindness of strangers). Drivin’ Blues is a fine nineteen-tracker featuring truly excellent performances by singers ranging from Homesick james to Elmore James, with Big Maybelle, Mose A,, Ike & Tina among others, the theme is obvious, but varied: being on the road, leavin’, or comin’ on home. Jazz For When You’re In Love has a smarmy cover (is her belly-button pierced?) and title, but the music is a quality intro to “real” jazz, addressed to the Kenny G set. It features master singers such as Freddy Cole, Charles Brown and Etta Jones, as well as instrumentals by Bud Shank, Shirley Scott, and a Kenny Barron piano solo. To its credit they didn’t pick deliberately short tracks, and the music flows. All the tracks are taken from the 32Jazz and their Muse Records catalogs. The disc I didn’t expect to like is Romance In Rio, likewise the above in 32’s standard raspy-to-the-touch proprietary jewelbox, with no booklet, just the titles printed inside in circles, so there’s no way to store it otherwise. Sadly, most “Latin jazz” is just the jazz equivalent of rock’s “world-music,” using Latin dance rhythms merely to be trendy, but from the first sweet notes of Al Cohn and Zoot Sims doing a Jobim medley I was hooked on this disc. Grant Green, Kenny Burrell, Bobby Hutcherson, all mainstream masters, nice long tracks, all taken from their later Muse and Landmark discs. Good stuff, truly. Maybe I’ll go out and buy a changer.
Ken Field, Yuji Katsui, Natsuki Kido, Kazuto Shimizu. Tokyo In F.
I didn’t know what to make of this at first. Ultimately it wound up on of my top twenty of the year list because it sounds like nothing else I’ve heard recently. I have to tread delicately on this one, not because the music is fragile, but because giving it a label might make the potential audiences for this pass quickly on. I first listened to it with my closed-ear headphones on the subway, riveted, but wondering: Is this composed? Is this improvised? The cover art also gave no clue, a blurred pagoda in the shape of a wave. Looking back, that might be the clue. After a few more plays, I read on the cover this is an improvised set for (in order of appearance above) alto sax, flute and percussion; violin, guitar, piano. The combination of instruments seemed somehow original. It opens with percussion, the sounds of the plucked strings with flute clearly give a pastoral Asian feeling, but then the fluttering piano underneath made me think, is it Appalachian? Is it “Greensleeves”? Halfway through the first track, the alto sax seems to play a Nordic tune. A recurring draw of the violin, though, and a repetition of a guitar phrase (the sonics airy, like an early Ralph Towner ECM disc) made me feel (not think) Morton Feldman, until these proto-minimal cells were punctuated by unexpected notes which would never be in a minimal(ist) composition. The violin and (bowed?) guitar hit a duet strikingly passionate, as if a violin and cello were having a slow dance. The underlying piano ripples created waves of hypnotic tension. These two thirty-seven minute live sets keep drawing me back. Another uncategorizable disc from Sublingual, another disc with both intellectual and emotional substance. I’ve listed these previously unknown-to-me musicians family-name last.
Lenora Zenzalai Helm. Spirit Child.
Zenzalai is a singer who has great instincts; all her phrasing is interesting, and her interaction with her musicians is great. They include Antonio Hart, Dave Liebman, Khalil Kwame Bell, Brandford M., Ron Carter and Abraham Burton. I wish I liked the sound of her voice as much as what she does with it, and sometimes her voice doesn;t do what you know she’s reaching for. Those who enjoy Angie Bofill and the like would do well to step up from pop to jazz and check out what really musical singers like Zenzalai can do, despite my reservations about her voice. Sample the opener, “Keep Takin’ Me Higher,” for an extremely out yet accessible example of of what a singer can do with great jazz musicians. The standards “Twisted,” “’Round Midnight,” and “Summertime” work least, the latter winning some kind of vibrato whirligig contest. I hate all versions of “My Favorite Things,” but the arrangement is wonderfully unusual and varied, though I wish someone had taught her how to pronounce schnitzel.
Dick Hyman. Century of Jazz Piano, Pro Version.
Look forward to an in-depth report, but I’ve already had so much fun with this ROM that I have to tell you it exists. Hyman, first known from my childhood as the Moog guy, then as a jazz pianist, now as a human jazz encyclopedia. This includes 103 songs played by Hyman, in styles of over sixty painists ranging from Waller to Wynton (Kelley) to Tristano to Taylor. You can see a piano whose keys light up as each note is being played, or play “Guess The Tune” or “Jazz Quiz.” It’s all navigable without instruction, but the fun is getting lost and one screen leading you to another. Photos, films, bios, discographies, all here. Then the second disc: lessons and discussion about various jazz piano styles with videos of Hyman’s fingers on the keyboards as he explains stylistic and technical aspects of famous pianists. I’m learning and just having fun at the same time. This release will never become boring; there’s too much to absorb in a hundred sittings. Machines with at least Win95 or MacOS7 will play this without a hitch, this being the first time I ever did not have trouble with a CD-ROM. Space-saving double-slim jewelcase. Major recommendation as a holiday gift for someone you love. Yourself?
Greg Kelley, Tatsuya Nakatani, Curt Newton. The Field Recordings, Vol. 1: The Birthday.
At least two of these boys of Boston origin have previously appeared on my yearly Top ten lists, often with the group strangely named npereign. These are indeed field recordings; grainy, auidence apparent, and although I’d love these pointillistic noisemongers in the studio, so I can give them my full attention, this is a kind of public celebration. Kelley’s trumpet blasts start it out like a field recording in Tibet, indeed, this whole disc sounds more ethnic and celebratory than the previous releases. The other two are percussionsists, Nakatani happily often found live with cellist Jane Wong and guitarist Kenta Nagai. Limited edition of 500 in Intransitive’s now-standard thin folio (earlier releases used the same graphic design, but in digipaks).
Franz Koglmann. An Affair With Strauss.
A long-time favorite of mine, known to me mostly through his Hat Hut Records, trumpeter Koglmann now has his own label with a high batting average. This disc is exquisite, employing his Monoblue Quartet in a program which could be mistaken for a Jimmy Giuffre session, suave and internally exciting. Burkhard Stangl’s guitar soon leaves west-coast smooth, though, to add some dissonance, texture and change of pace. Tony Coe, well known from his Melody Four, the Bonzo Bog Band of British jazz, closes the set singing a lazy “Good Night Vienna.” This is perhaps the most subtly enjoyable disc I’ve encountered this year. No Strauss works, just so you know. Plaudits for the packaging, as think as hatHut’s current style, but sturdy, and the disc doesnt fall out. Also recommended isKoglmann’s previous quintet on Make Believe, btl 001, featuring excellent guitarist Brad Shepik, as well as Tom Varner on French horn, recently and rightly praised by our Editor.
Roel Meelkop. 6 (Mailcop Rules).
9 (Holes In The Head).
Meelkop is one of the best artists in the ambient-noise-click genre. His Intransitive disc has six tracks, one a half-hour long, generally are constructed of low-level ambient noise of wide color range, which suddenly change in volume with unexpected addition sound elements brought in. One has a bird-like sound fluttering briefly in, then smears and “roings” and pulsing visitations. the trente oiseaux disc, perhaps the major label in this genre, and with distinctive minimal design, features pieces which have low-bass repetitive rumble with bursts of static or seeming stylus-scratch. 2, in some ways, is more like “traditional” computer music, with tones entering and leaving in more predictable ways, and it sounds as if it were composed with analog equipment. It wouldn’t be too out of place on one of those Turnabout electronic music LPs. Caveat auditor: Do not listen to any of these with headphones; the dynamic range is dangerous for such close listening. Even on loudspeakers, beware of shifts from the barely-audible to torrents of volcanic bass.
Nifty disc, this, for fans of folks like Sonic Youth when they’re spacing out as on the long streams of Daydream Nation, or the simplicity of Young Marble Giants except these guys don’t use metronomic beatboxes for rhythm. Lots of extremely intelligent use of quiet and noise and computer-music. No dreary drones, just varied pulsing rhythms, and slurred tape and bent notes which get under your skin. Thirty relatively short jumpcuts for a long, varied and throughly enjoyable CD. Much better than J&Y’s Two Virgins. Fans of the VHF, Shimmydisc, and Ralph labels take notice. Great package: thick cardboard gatefold with glued shards of glass on both sides. Bandages not included. There’s a chance I have the title and artist reversed. It’s like that sometimes.
The Mooney Suzuki. People Get Ready.
Three-chord rock group which refreshingly doesn’t reach beyond simple fun songs like earliest The Who and Kinks, with choruses of “All right, okay,” “Hey, hey, hey” and neat harmonica and guitar breaks. Brings the fun back to rock and roll. Haven’t a clue about the name. No lyric sheet, none needed. Good fun, totally devoid of anything arch, and I didn’t realize how much I needed this ’til I got it. Hmm. Definitely gonna catch ’em live.
Lee Morgan. Here’s Lee Morgan.
One disc is a reissue of Veejay SR 3007 LP, the second is chock full of alternate takes, often better than the masters. Recorded in 1960 after Morgan’s exciting Blue Notes, the tapes here are slightly grainy, but it’s good stuff to have. Double-horn heads and fine postbop interplay. Too often the tracks fade, teasingly, making you wonder if originally they were cut for time, the musicians went off playing “out,” or werejust off-track. Partners are Art Blakey, Paul Chambers, Cliff Jordan and Wynton Kelly, so there’s no weak links. Morgan plays trumpet and flugelhorn. Nifty artwork on the traycard and label utilising the 60s graphics of the originakl cover.
Nachtluft. Belle View I-V.
This is another in the astoundingly high-quality Unheard Music Series of long out-of-print or never-issued discs resurrected by Atavistic, curated by Chicago-based journalist John Corbett. Originally an 1987 LP on the Swiss Unit label, this reissue features now well-known Günther Müller on percussion, electronics and zither, Andres Brosshard on tapes, and Jacques Widmer on things he can bang. This is major, high-quality free improv. The noise-music crowd will like this too, as will connoisseurs of computer music, for the types of often-metallic sounds instantly-composed. If you like AMM, you’ll love this too. As with the rest of the series, we are treated to copies of the original labels on the CD and the inner traycard, and the original jackets. Top recommendation.
Noumena. Regression Now For the Future.
These two lengthy duo guitar improvisations are strong both in their own right, and that Mike Shiflet and Aaron Hibbs don’t sound like O’Rourke, Mazzacane, Hendrix or any other frequently-imitated gitbox hero. Both the title cut (a fine titular nod to Devo, ’though musically unrelated) and “Pseudo Reflective Properties” use interweaving melodies, with guitars that sound different from each other. Sometimes folky, sometimes blue; at other times they’re off in the electric ether with one guitar (it’s a mono recording) sounding like a theremin or harmonica. The variety and thought makes this a close-listen recording, not for background listening. “Pseudo” rambles, but it doesn’t bore; the thirty-minute opener is riveting.
Null, a/k/a KK Null, is the perpetrator of one of my totally favorite discs in my bizarre collection, Erg/Sec, a disc so limited in edition I can’t believe I actualled snagged one from Manifold in time. No joke the snag, as it is a clear-vinyl 7″ glued to a circular sawblade. The sound ion that one is almost if not totally pure sine-wave. It doesn’t overstay its welcome, and the swirls are better than even the old Capital rainbow label. But that’s gone, so instead get this. First, I’m always amazed by the computer-board-like artwork, brightly colored in minute detail that accompany this and Inorganic Orgasm. I’d love to see the originals, although they night actually be computer-generated. Vince Harrigan of Manifold told me this of the cover artist for both his disc and GeV, Seldon Hunt: “He did the art, designed it, printed it himself on old machines. Neither KK nor I knew what it would be like until we got them from Seldon in Australia. We loved them.”
Null’s music, GeV in seventeen tracks, uses sequencers and smears. He’s often filed in the noise, ambient or computer-clicks section with the likes of Ryoji Ikeda, but the work is so different. These are static or evolving electronic sounds with always-unexpected turns, variations, and evolutions. Sometimes hypnotic, but not a drone in sight. If you are a computer music fan, try some. His CD on Vinyl Communications is highly recommended. An exciting forty-minute live guitar solo on Black Hole gives insight into his computer music: soft sounds evolving into broadly-painted loud streams of whoosh, which then drop out and mutate. Unusual in this genre, Null is a master at pace and change, so one always listens actively, never passively.
Jennifer O’Connor. Truth Love Work. (Courage CR02CD, 16:24, firstname.lastname@example.org)
Take Phoebe from the tv show “Friends,” give her some talent, an unironic sense of detachment and, I guess, courage. It starts and ends with almost mazzaCane-like instrumentals. I like this low-key EP, and I don’t like the majority of girl/women singers currently in vogue. Your call.
Reid Paley. Revival. (emusic EMUS-002, 29:32, emusic.com)
I saw this wacko opening for my revered story-teller singer Kevin Coyne trying to antagonize the Knitting Factory audience. Was he stupid, or was he just used to playing to heckling, drunk audiences in bars, so I asked him. Yes. A nifty guitar-bass-traprock trio. Exciting stuff. Short songs. Voice whiskey-rough like Tom Waits but without the smarm. “Smack me like you mean it/ two times a day/ Take me to your leader/ Give me one chance/ I’ll fuck it up.” He’s a Brooklyn kid like me. I play this often, and the ten tracks go quickly. He told me he got the gig because he’s a big Kevin Coyne fan and wanted to hear him perform. Misfits of all genres unite!
Abby Rabinovitz. We Used To Dance. (Yamuna YR7425-CD, 67:44, flutestory.com)
I usually hate flute, especially in trendoid world-music, but a lot of the stuff here charms. “Conor Rides the Trains” made me dance, “Runaway Freylekhs” does frolic and in this Yiddish style (I grew up listening to Mickey Katz), you can dance to this traditional rhythm or just enjoy Rabinovitz’s flutework. Evan Harlan stands out on piano. The more mixed-ethnic (Indian, Moroccan, modal jazz, samba, etc.) pieces do work, but they’re generally more meditative than the Jewish tracks in this long disc. If you like Gypsophilia or Pharoah’s Daughter, you might like this too.
Robert Wyatt. Schleep. (Thirtsy Ear thi 57020.2, 49:03, thirstyear.com)
I’ve come late to Robert Wyatt. Never a great fan of progrock, his work with Soft Machine escaped my ear, and another of his discs I found painful to listen to this. I heard this one playing in my fave jazz and weirdness shop, and my ears got thirsty. Musicians include Hugh Hopper, Brian Eno, Paul Weller, Evan Parker, and Phil ZManzanera, whose studio this was recorded in. They back him up in various combinations, the singer and the songs come through, and though the songs are on the short side, here they often recall the hypnotic intonation of Roy Harper. Wyatt is an oft-featured singer with the likes of Mike Mantler and Carla Bley, most famously on Escalator Over The Hill, which recording session was recently released on film and videotape, soon to be reviewed in this space. I like Schleep a lot and play it often, and want to relisten to his extensive back catalog.
Ken Vandermark 5. Burn The Incline. (Atavistic ALP121CD, 59:59, atavistic.com)
In a way it’s sad Vandermark, and excellent player from Chicago with many fine collaborations under his belt, won the MacArthur Genius Award. He has a lot to live up to now, and his recent discs aren’t those of genius but of a fine craftsman. Burn The Incline is a rhythmic disc of original compositions dedicated to jazz masters of our time such as Joe Morris and Ab Baars. A special limited editon not sent to the press, which I purchased, contains a bonus disc called Free Jazz Classics (ALP121-CD-X, 63:08) recorded live at the Empty Bottle, which covers Coleman, Taylor, Braxton, McPhee, Sun Ra, and Bowie. It’s even better than Burn. Luckily, I don’t ask my musicians to be geniuses; enjoy this for what it is; fine modern jazz.
Franz Koglmann. An Affair With Strauss. (between the lines btl 006, 46:03, btl@DSF-FRA.de)
A long-time favorite of mine, known to me mostly through his hatHut records, trumpeter Koglmann now has his own label with a high batting average. This disc is exquisite, employing his Monoblue Quartet in a program which could be mistaken for a Jimmy Giuffre session, suave and internally exciting. Burkhard Stangl’s guitar soon leaves west-coast smooth, though, to add some dissonance, texture and change of pace. Tony Coe, well known from his Melody Four, the Bonzo Bog Band of British jazz, closes the set singing a lazy “Good Night Vienna.” This is perhaps the most subtly enjoyable disc I’ve encountered this year. No Strauss works, just so you know. Plaudits for the packaging, as thin as hatHut’s current style, but sturdy, and the disc doesn’t fall out. Also recommended is Koglmann’s previous quintet Make Believe, btl 001, featuring excellent guitarist Brad Shepik, as well as Tom Varner on French horn, who was recently and rightly praised by our editor. [Thank you, Steve. Ed.]
Composed and deComposed: Music of Our Centuries
[November 2000. Originally appeared in La Folia 3:1.]
It’s another new music season in New York. If Carnegie Hall is any indication, 20th century music is finally part of the general repertoire, where at least half of the works on the schedule seem to be Stravinsky and beyond. If you don’t believe me, check www.carnegiehall.org. Christoph von Dohnányi conducted the Cleveland Orchestra at Carnegie on October 4th in an interesting program of Pärt, Beethoven and Henze. Arvo Pärt’s works are usually tiresome to me, although some of his miniatures, when played right, move me. So it was with the version of Fratres for violin solo, string orchestra and percussion. At first the violin part, well played by William Preucil, was too reminiscent of Glass’s Einstein, but the orchestra was beautiful, delicate, with Asian-sounding percussive touches. the violin strings sounded like kotos in pizzicato, a subtle pause, and the piece was beautiful without a trace of mawkishness. The Weingartner orchestration of Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue made sense in this program, as the pieces surrounding it were about textures. The hall itself was quite apt at revealing its spatial relationships, tags and rounds, but I just don’t like the piece this way; it turns crispy sfogliatelli into bread pudding.
Hans Werner Henze’s Requiem (Nine Sacred Concertos for Piano Solo, Trumpet Concertante and Large Chamber Orchestra) was the main course and highlight, despite the steady stream of departees throughout the work. Their loss. This work is no more difficult than, say, the Shostakovich 7th, Ives symphonies, or parts of Messiaen’s Turangalîla, which, come to think of it, also had streams of people leaving during Messiaen’s final Lincoln Center performance some years ago. This New York premiere comes some seven years after the performance by Metzmacher and Ensemble Modern released by Sony. This non-vocal requiem opens with a shimmering orchestra, quietly scintillating with rich dissonances. Even the harsh parts (one naturally resents loss) are magical. The piano is well-integrated with the orchestra, applying a constantly shifting dynamic range. The sonic signatures, to be simplistic, recall Shostakovian brass, Messiaenic piano, and Bernstein’s vibes and some resonance from his Mass. Although these nine mini-concerti have brief pauses, there is a unity in this passionate piece, and it is strong, intelligent and emotional, but not heart-on-sleeve. Dohnányi’s performance was slightly more transparent and deep than the recorded version, which was rougher and perhaps more urgent. I ascribe these differences to time; now we are more familiar with the piece, and I hope Dohnányi too records it.
The following day, Dohnányi and the Cleveland presented the New York Premiere of Magnus Lindberg’s Cantigas. Not as strong as the works I know from disc, nonetheless the work contains a gigantic swaying rhythm, reminiscent of the massive sections of Carla Bley’s 3/4. The winds draw you into the pulse. You begin to visualize Hollywood vistas opening up, but then you’re in the New World of Lindberg’s colors. The piece doesn’t go anywhere, although I doubt it’s intended to. It is a study in texture and orchestral color. The typical New York dilemma: two excellent programs the same night, both featuring Berio’s Folksongs. Mezzo Dagmar Pecková has a deep, glottal sound, without broad coloring, but she’s a real singer who understands and conveys the subtlety and ethnicity of the texts. Dohnányi gave me a new appreciation for the delicacy and craft of Berio’s orchestration. Although they gave it their best shot, the closer, Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony is just plain silly. The opening brass fanfare, the pacing, the phrasing were all top-notch, although I prefer the first movement white-hot and slashing, with the Russian melodies deployed to the forefront.
In Carnegie’s series Making Music 2001, the October 7th chat-plus-concert features a brief talk with Henze, talking about his encounters with Cuban composer and guitarist Leo Brouwer and percussionist Stomu Yamash’ta. To my surprise and delight, the program was an astounding English-language performance of his opera El Cimarrón, originally a song cycle, the text taken from a setting of the autobiography of the runaway Cuban slave Esteban Montejo. Never one to eschew politics in much of his music, Henze here has nothing to scare away our editor; this is not a polemic work. [Sez who? Ed.] Although I’ve enjoyed the two versions on CD, hearing it English and seeing it performed reminded me this is a performance piece. The guitarist (David Tanenbaum, with at least one fine disc on New Albion, Acoustic Counterpoint), percussionist (James Baker, with discs on Mode), and flutist (Camilla Hoitnega) are called upon to act as well as perform. The percussionist has an array of nearly seventy instruments. Baritone Gregory Rahming was a spellbinding singer and actor, bringing to life this simple everyman’s story. When I told him he must record this, he responded, smiling, “Tell them.” I never found out who “they” were, but DG, are you listening?
The October 12th Carnegie Hall performance was an interesting mix. The first half the Emerson String Quartet performed Kurtág’s Officium Breve and Bartók’s String Quartet No. 4. The Kurtág, recorded by the Arditti on disques Montaigne, is a series of fifteen brief and often aching sighs; as if Luigi Nono’s quartet had been microscopically sharded. Two movements are variations on, and one uses outright, Webern’s Canon a 4, and the whole sequence of thirteen minutes or so is as striking as most of the earlier master’s works. After a false start due to a string break, the Bartók was fine but too perhaps too fine; homogenous, with little sense of the rasp or sprung ethnic dances I get from recordings of the Fourth by the Endellion (Virgin), Bartók (Canyon), or Fine Arts (Concert-disc LPs) quartets.
The second “act” was Maurizio Pollini, dapper as ever, entering with an affable smile, facing the audience, and then getting down to work at the piano. First were a Chopin prelude and polonaise. I was thinking, while listening, that Pollini is less a colorist than a dramatist. Liszt’s miniatures Nuages grise and La Lugrubre gondola were quite different from the Chopin, quite modern moody and dark rumblings. The Liszt Sonata in B minor seemed to fly by, interesting in itself but merely a good performance. Generous with encores, we had three more Chopin pieces that were stunning, the Ballade absolutely breathtaking. I thank the folks at the Carnegie press office for finding out the titles for me; I’m as frustrated at encores when I don’t know the pieces as I am when I’m dancing at a club and can’t find out what song I was just enveloped in. After the concert, I asked, rather, pleaded with Mr Pollini if, remembering last year’s amazing Stockhausen Klavierstück, he would record the cycle. He smiled and said yes, although not all of them. He led me to believe DG would be amenable to this.
Columbia University’s Miller Theater is a regular meeting ground for new music lovers, and although I passed on the season-opening retrospectives of the works of the Steve Reich, I was delighted to find Ensemble Sospeso had a Louis Andriessen program, as he is a composer I have a love/hate relationship with. Having heard one of his works broadcast on WNYC about twenty years ago, I had to find out who this composer was. Way before Nonesuch discovered him, we had to get the Dutch LPs through Records International for a pretty penny; remember, ten dollars was a lot for a disc in those pre-CD days. I collected five of them on Donemus/Composer’s Voice, and looking back, half are irritating in their minimalism, though so different from the Reich-Glass-Adams motoric mode. The other half still charm and surprise, so I was curious to see what he’d been up to in the last decade or so. Sadly, his health prevented the composer from appearing for the scheduled pre-concert talk.
Hout, for sax, marimba, guitar and piano from 1991, was clever and cute, though not deep, with its jazz-like sax riffs and honks. If it were a boy, it would be called a twink. The 1996 Tao, for solo piano, koto, women’s voice and chamber orchestra, used woodblocks and pregnant pauses, the brittle piano with and without sustain. It is no slur to say this is Andriessen does Takemitsu. Then it sounded, rhythmically, more like Cantonese opera, with harsh dissonances, chunky Messiaen piano chords and even more so when the chamber orchestra came in. Then, solo voice and amplified koto; a strange but poignant end.
I dreaded hearing 1982’s Disco, but it turned out to be a wonderful violin and piano piece, with piano’s overtones ringing like a harmonium. The teasing between Stephen Gosling’s piano and Mark Menzie’s violin great larger and grander, with dissonant violin slashes. La Voile du Bonheur is a romantic Fauré-meets-Amy Beach piece for piano and violin, which cut into a pop song a la the Melody Four. It was camp but it wasn’t kitsch. The prize of the evening was the world premiere of a very funny Andriessen collaboration with filmmaker Hal Hartley, and electronics by Michel van der Aa. I enjoyed it so much my notes are totally illegible. I came away with a new appreciation of the composer, and the same mixed feelings about his works.
Briefly, Speculum Musicae’s October 10th concert at Miller was titles “Contemporary Landmarks.” Tristan Murail resurrected his Désintegrations for ensemble and tape, but it was a diappointment, the first piece of his I ever found stale. Stephen Gosling was power itself in Xenakis’ Eonta, for piano and ensemble. Varèse’ Equatorial was given a performance so beautiful I had to go back to my discs to listen again, but they weren’t as good as this. (An aside: Why does Erato misspell the composer’s first name as Edgar on both of Nagano’s discs?) [Because when he settled in the US, Edgard became Edgar. Ed.] The surprise of the evening for me was the Mediterranean lightness and beauty of the world premiere of Elliott Carter’s Tempe e Tempo, a brand-new song cycle about time passing, with texts from Italian poets. I love Carter’s thornier works too, but this was exquisite, as was soprano Susan Narucki. Carter himself was present, and gracious as usual.
Upcoming performances at Miller include full nights each of Jean Barraqué, Kagel, Stockhausen, Boulez, Messiaen, and more Reich, plus Nono, Lachenmann and Scelsi, Daniel Schnyder and Ornette Coleman. You can check their schedule at www.millertheater.com.
Here are some of the recent discs which have come my way. Next issue I’ll be covering some wonderful col legno releases, including another worthy and different performance of Morton Feldman’s Crippled Symmetries, as well as a Schubert-with-Ligeti program, and some more of their live Donaueschingen boxes. I will also report on new works by John Eaton, Jonathan Harvey, Libby Larsen, Music from China, and Julio Estrada’s new radio or theater piece based on the Mexican classic surreal novela, Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo.
Zez Confrey. Piano Music. (Naxos American Classics 8.559016, 62:29.)
From the Georgian Republic, and living in New York since 1992, Eteri Andjaparadze has a good feel for these twenty-four ragtime-influenced works of Confrey’s. I wouldn’t give up my Eubie Blake’s, but these are full of charm and played with panache. I look forward to hearing the meatier offerings in Naxos’ new American series, which so far includes complete discs of works by Antheil, Piston, Hanson, Ives and Sessions.
Norman Dello Joio. Piano Works. (Elan CD 82420, 74:54.)
Recently, a foreign pianist friend who excels in conservative twentieth century piano music asked me for suggestions of American composers to consider for his recitals. I believe Dello Joio might be perfect for him. These three sonatas, and nocturnes and other shorter pieces have a scent of Debussy, but without a program. Jaemi Kim has the breadth of these subtle but not fragile 1940s compositions.
Eaken Piano Trio. I’ll Be Home For The Holidays. (Naxos 8.554714, 76:03).
When it comes to Christmas music, call me Grinch. This is mostly because I hate treacle, and I am a devout atheist. My neighborhood has loudspeakers playing “non-denominational” on the main shopping drag; I walk home a few extra blocks out of my way to avoid Sinatra singing “White Christmas.” I only play Phil Spector’s Christmas record in August. (Don’t tell anyone I cherish a Grandma Moses Christmas LP from RCA.) This disc came to me because I am an admirer of the music of Pennsylvanian composer Scott Robinson, who has a fine ensemble Gypsophilia, and who I first met via a private tape of a moving work of his for string trio and chorus “the Stolen Child,” based on folk ballads. Any chorus looking for accessible and rich work should seek the score. Here is is represented by the fifteen-minute “Great Is the Miracle,” based on European Jewish melodies. It is another excellent piece in a conservative but far-from-vapid style. The rest of the disc consists of better-than-salon arrangements of composers ranging from Les Brown to Gounod and José Feliciano. It is a stocking stuffer for even curmudgeons like me, and at Naxos price, it would be silly not to buy a bunch.
Richard Fawkes. The History Of Opera. (Naxos Audiobooks NA 41612, 4 CDs, 5:17:53.)
This is a tour-de-force. Covering literally the whole history of opera from Vecchi and Peri in the late 1500s all the way through the usual bel canto and romantic suspects, plus Schreker, Szymanowski, Janacek, Britten and (!) Birtwhistle. Operetta is likewise given its due in all its forms from G&S to zarzuela. The musical excerpts are often but not exclusively taken from the Naxos/Marco Polo catalog, and each one is well-chosen and illuminating. Fawke’s book is interesting for even those knowledgeable about opera, and mostly on-track, despite a few oversimplifications, such as that Lulu was never completed after Berg’s death because “no one dared” to, without giving the juicy background of why. Robert Powell’s narration is easy on the ear and engineered without that unnerving male-chest resonance often found in spoken-word discs. Each opera mentioned is tracked separately for easy reference. The dozen of other Naxos Audio collections of poetry and literature I’ve heard so far are likewise high-quality both in sonics and choice of narrator, and available for the usual low Naxos price. As they have instituted a historical recordings series, I dream of Naxos being able to cheaply license the invaluable theater and spoken-word catalogs of the 1950s and 1960s left to die in the vaults of Columbia and RCA.
Gustav Mahler. Symphony 6. (Titanic ti-257, 76:22.)
Although he has his detractors, I’ve never heard a performance by Glen Cortese and the Manhattan School of Music Orchestra which hasn’t revealed a new aspect of works I thought I knew inside out, ranging from a Symphonie Fantastique to Mahler’s Second performed in a church. I was alerted to this release through John Marks’ newsletter. The kind folks at Titanic, which I knew of mostly as a Bach-and-little beyond label, with a little Sephardic stuff thrown in via the group Voice Of The Turtle, obliged me with this, as well as a lot of back catalog material I’ll report on later this year. Although I haven’t had time to assess it compared to the billion others Sixths, this is gripping throughout and beautifully-recorded, both spacious and detailed. The scherzo is especially taut and driven. More anon.