Music at the Edge

[Getting forgetful in my dotage. Cannot quite recall why this one didn’t make The Abso!ute Sound cut. It’s entirely possible I never submitted it. Whatever, somebody’s loss is somebody else’s gain. But perhaps the piece ought to be called Music That Never Quite Made It to the Edge. Ed.]

Mike Silverton

[August 1998. Originally appeared in La Folia 1:3.]

Cage on Mode

Brian Brandt’s Mode Records features a gorgeous Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano as the 14th of its thusfar 17-volume John Cage series. It is Brian to whom I apply for the inside skinny when I’m short on facts for a Cage review. He is an authority, as is Mode 50’s annotator, James Pritchett, who includes in his remarks those of Peggy Glanville-Hicks in ’48 and Peter Yates in ’49, when the music was young. The German-born pianist, Philipp Vandré, tells us that for this recording he prepared and played a Steinway “O,” the baby grand Cage used, the significance being the sonorities arising from shorter strings. (The composer Lucia Dlugoszewski recalls at about that time a larger Steinway “B” in Cage’s apartment, an aside I toss in as a wrench for extraction elsewhere.) Ernstalbrecht Stiebler, this Mode-Hessian Radio co-production’s honcho, is himself an important composer whose essays in extended tones, Three in One, hatART Now Series CD 6169, and Im Klang, hat[now]ART 109, I heartily recommend, but only to adventurers. To return to our lush, intimately detailed, hugely accessible Mode, Hessian Radio’s Stephan Schmidt and Rüdiger Orth engineered these 1994 Frankfurt sessions. As with Stiebler’s austerities, the aleatory Cage remains perforce a taste for the few. The evidence on recording suggests that Cage’s ante-chance, predominantly percussive work (including that for conventional piano) will secure his longterm popularity, owing in good part to the music’s energizing transparency and, in the case of Sonatas and Interludes, ominous shadings, which our preparer-performer and production team reveal in the handsomest of terms. Koch International, 2 Tri-Harbor Court, Port Washington NY 11050-4617, distributes Mode. For label information, email Tony Scafide, tonys@kochint.com.

Earle Brown on Newport Classic

CDiscography again the measure, Cage and Morton Feldman lead the New York School parade. I hesitate to assign places in line to Christian Wolff, Earle Brown, or the late David Tudor (as composer rather than the world’s leading keyboard code-breaker of avant-garde scores). No matter; difference, as ever, trounces similarity. The good news is Centering — The Music of Earle Brown [Newport Classic npd 85631], the composer and Stephen “Lucky” Mosko conducting, in one piece simultaneously, members of the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players in four works spanning nearly 30 years. As one might expect, given the fellow’s pedigree, Brown’s meticulously crafted art appeals to the ear as self-referentially, abstractly pure rather than allusive to states of extra-musical being. This is a sound-world, playing on itself, that plays on nothing else. To do so successfully in one very own terms, a soupçon of genius cannot hurt. From music critic Alan Rich’s notes, in the disc’s first work, Centering (1973), we learn that Brown employs “open forms,” the thread that connected the New York School’s participants: in the event, a pair of cadenzas for the solo violin — no surprise there — and one for the conductor “working with three instrumental trios.” Not having read it, one would never know. Mind, as disconnected from familiarity as this music may sound to you, “open” has naught to do with aimlessness. Further, an uncomplicated beauty informs these in all ways marvelous moments. Tracking Pierrot (1992), for example, homages Schönberg’s modernist milestone not by gestures or borrowings but rather in an instrumentation’s abundant seductions, minus a vocalist’s Sprechgesang: “Every living composer must feel reverence for Pierrot. [My] title comes from the closeness of the instrumentation [flute, clarinets, violin, cello, and keyboards, plus Brown’s addition of vibes and marimba] and my admiration for [Schönberg’s] writing. I do not refer to the angst or moon-madness of [his masterwork].” Windsor Jambs (1980) does indeed incorporate voice, here the incomparable Joan LaBarbara’s, as an aspect of ensemble. Rather than report on Event: Synergy II (1967/8) for two ensembles — except to call it a delight — I’ll end by mentioning having listened to this disc, in whole and in part, ever more smitten, about a dozen times. Newport Classic, 11 Willow Street, Newport RI 02840, info@newport-cd.com.

Jacob Druckman on Koch

I opined above in foolishly sweeping terms that Thomas Adès’s music fits the Debussyan mold. The American Jacob Druckman (1928-1996) occupies the category even more conveniently. A modernist in every sense, Druckman succeeded nonetheless in crafting an oeuvre of an almost tactile volupté — indeed, the very thing for the listener who hears modernist art music as a slap upside the head. Druckman’s salient strength, that of an atmospherist of wizardly accomplishment, takes for its framework architectures and idioms of a likewise masterly stripe. KOCH International Classics CD 3-7409-2H1 features members of the Group for Contemporary Music (Curtis Macomber, Carol Zeavin, violins; Lois Martin, viola; Fred Sherry, cello; and Druckman’s son Daniel, marimba) in String Quartet No.3 (1981), Reflections on the Nature of Water, for marimba (1986), Dark Wind, for violin and cello (1994), and String Quartet No.2 (1966), listed in the disc’s order of play. This is another fine Judith Sherman production, which that most able lady also engineered.

Happy discoveries!