Paranormal Phenomena: Life Signs in the Executive Suite

[Among the great pleasures of editing one's own webzine is the publication of material one had otherwise mourned as lost to posterity. If I appear to be turning La Folia into a repository for my Abso!ute Sound never-rans, this assemblage at least has the virtue of timeliness. Imagine, some of these discs may still be available!]

Mike Silverton

[November 1998. Originally appeared in La Folia 1:4.]

Reader’s Advisory: Music-loving audiophiles only need proceed. (One soul in 20? Or am I a cockeyed optimist?) Greetings, dear friend! Ah, there are two of you. A bumper crop! Now that the vulgarians have knuckle-walked off in pursuit of cheap thrills, what better time for a cozy tete-a-tete. Milk? Lemon? No? Well then, to business. If you’re given to browsing CD bins, I needn’t tell you that the majors are — how does one say this nicely? — confused. It’s especially true of their “classical” divisions, water-wings deep in safe repertoire, as often as not in its umteenth reissue, balanced off with crossover compost.

Reason enough to celebrate a moxie outbreak at EMI. That venerable label fields a series it calls Debut, consisting in the main of fresh performance faces. The list is not without its curiosities, viz., Duos for Classical Accordions [CDZ 7243 5 69705 2 6]: the tango from Petrushka (I didn’t know there was one) raising the curtain on a joists-to-rafters Pictures at an Exhibition. (Did you imagine, sweet naifs, another means would not be found? Methinks I hear the mariachi tootling “The Great Gate at Kiev” off in the green room.) The series as a whole is purposeful enough — French music for organ, Bach for harpsichord, Dowland lute songs, Palestrina motets, Mozart, a mixed percussion program… And amidst all this, out of left field two discs (so far?) of the music of a gifted young Brit, Thomas Ades (b 1971). Before we turn to the work, a word about EMI’s track record in contemporaneity. In the event, the wrong expression: the record is not so much a track as a spatter of dots and dashes, the strangest of these a CD released some years back of a pair of violin concertos by Earl Kim and Robert Starer, neither of whom, then or later, marched with the avant-garde or brought up the derriere, nor is either a stellar figure. Had EMI shown at the time collateral interests in American art music, the release would have had a context within which to drop from sight. More in line with comprehensibility is Nicholas Maw’s Odyssey [EMI Classics CDS 7 54277-2], a two-disc set issued in 1991 under the label’s British Composers rubric: British label and series, living English composer: linkage. The current Schwann Opus lists ten Maw CDs, including this, which remains EMI’s solo. In light of these curiously random stabs, an Ades pair issued in ’97 and ’98 sparks a rush of anticipation. I wonder, has this corporate pluck a greater life expectancy than the storied snowball in hell? What is life bereft of hope?

The annotator, the eminent critic Andrew Porter, describes the splash Ades has made in the UK’s art-music scene. The first disc, Life Story [5 696992], features several of the composer’s early works, including his opus 1, Five Eliot Landscapes, for soprano and pianist (Ades performs), which he wrote as a lad of 17! An arresting number of yet greater interest when one takes into account the music’s sophistication. The disc’s title work, Life Story, also for soprano and piano, sets a poem by Tennessee Williams about a one-night stand’s tentative-to-pathetic post-coital chitchat, which the vocalist declaims in torch-song style.

Life Story features music for solo piano and organ as well. EMI’s second Ades release, Living Toys [5 72271 2], opens with the title work, an “almost too exuberantly brilliant” orchestral tour de force, to quote Porter quoting a teacher. The news could not be better: the London Sinfonietta, Markus Stenz conducting, is among the world’s best new-music ensembles; Tryggvi Tryggvason, an engineer whose work I’ve long admired, recorded these proceedings in sparkling detail (which may perhaps sound edgy if toward brightness your system tends). Recorded in a church by Simon Woods, Arcadiana, the Op.12 string quartet, sounds in my room like a piece for string orchestra, as an example of a peculiarly Albion fondness for great washes of (generally ecclesiastical) ambience. All the same, it’s a beautifully wrought work of considerable emotional depth. Sonata da Caccia, op.11, for Baroque oboe, horn, and harpsichord (the composer again at the keyboard) reveals Ades’ affection for the French Baroque, to which he alludes in a brilliantly stylized manner. In this regard, the youngster sounds to me the neo-Classical Stravinsky’s peer.

In absurdly broad terms, we’ve two ways to hear late-century European art music. Certain composers, East Europeans especially, aspire to a Mahlerian-Shostakovian expansiveness, largely as weltschmerz, expressed, again largely, in personal terms. We have as examples Alfred Schnittke’s symphonies, Gorecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, and just about everything Galina Ustvolskaya has written. For socio-political weltschmerz, we take for our paradigm Krzystof Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima. And then there are the mystics, as best exemplified by a composer of genius, Sofia Gubaidulina, and of course the unremittingly saintly Arvo Part, who, from his publicity shots, has the look of a man who sleeps on gravel and seems not to notice. In music as all else, Europe’s West is a very different place. One hears Ades operating within in a Debussyan, l’art pour l’art sound-world. However, I find myself on tentative ground in attempting to fit in, as a matter of convenience, the ethereal moodiness of the extraordinarily affecting The Origin of the Harp of 1994, for a trio each of clarinets, violas, and celli, with percussion, Ades conducting. If these discs sell well, maybe, A, we’ll hear more on recording of this remarkable talent, and B, who knows — that the suits might get the point. So long as itÍs packaged for shipment in cash.

Unless my treacherous memory lies, I learned of Steve Joerg’s AUM Fidelity label by way of the Knitting Factory, a jazz club-event space on the fringe of Manhattan’s Tribeca. (The Knitting Factory has its own fine jazz label as subject for another time.) To my delight and surprise, Joerg announced a live jazz event a few steps from my Brooklyn digs. To my even greater surprise, Joerg’s Ninth Street brownstone looked familiar. When I saw the ornate pool table in the middle floor’s back room, I knew where I was. This was my cousin, the dentist’s, place. My wife, Lee, and I tried w/o success hitting it off with cuz-&-cuzette-in-law, and so we’d not seen them or the house, which they’d long since vacated, for years. The pool table dates from the building’s rôle as South Brooklyn’s Republican Club. In introducing a Sunday afternoon’s event, Joerg announced (amusingly for the Democrats, greens, socialists, and anarcho-syndicalists in the audience) that an exorcism had attended to whatever evil spirits held back.

I expected Lee to be gazing longingly toward the stairs by reason of what I thought she’d perceive as a sonic food-fight. Once the music began, though, milady sat transfixed. I wondered at the time whether the intensity of what we were hearing could possibly translate to disc. Indeed it does. Now! [AUM006] features Roy Campbell, Jr., trumpet, flugelhorn, pocket trumpet; Daniel Carter, alto and tenor sax, flute, trumpet; William Parker, bass; and Rashid Bakr, drums. They call themselves (I’m sorry to say) Other Dimensions in Music. Other dimensions in anything smacks, for me, of edubabble. It’s September again, I’m in a musty bookroom, a volunteer gofer. Anything to get out of class. Other Dimensions in Math: Solid Geometry I & II lies stacked, under dust, to the dimly lit rear, but never you mind. Titular infelicities notwithstanding, these worthies make delicious, big-boned music. Now!

But to couch its essence to prose. First off, anything involving the bassist William Parker is going to sound unusual. Parker’s an original. Happily, his partners are in all respects peers. As an ensemble (rather, say, than upstaging egoists), they make music immersed in jazz’s easy phraseology, but in terms of enormous originality, with deft, virtuosic interaction as chief among delights. The annotator, K. Leander Williams, calls ODIM a collective. The term is apt. These are mature, imaginative, top-shelf players who’ve worked together for a great many years. As intense as the music sounds, its gist is lovingly lyrical, as a point to be made for contrast’s sake with the next AUM Fidelity disc I’ll tell you about. If your system does a good job with the low end, you may at first wonder why the engineer, Jim Anderson, goosed up the bass. Few recordings exercise my woofers as visibly as this. The poor things looked ready to pop from their moorings. Hearing this group in the flesh tells me that all Anderson did was make a true-to-life recording. These studio sessions capture an afternoon’s essence. Between Rashid Bakr’s low drums and Parker’s pungent bass, earthquake becomes the order of the day. Further, the louder you play the disc, the better. It won’t sound unlifelike. One negative note: ODIM likes to develop its statements at length. On Ninth Street, the day’s opening work lasted, as I recall, an hour. Track one of Now!, “For the Glass Tear,” runs 33 minutes. Perhaps by reason of the CD medium’s time constraint, a couple of these pieces end in fades, a usage generally applied to pop, where the proceedings lack the craft to depart otherwise. ODIM calls its second number “Tears for the Boy Wonder (for Wynton),” misnamed Winston on the traycard. I’m not alone in my disdain.

Wisdom of Uncertainty [AUM Fidelity AUM001] features the David S. Ware Quartet: Ware, tenor saxophone; Matthew Shipp, piano; Susie Ibarra, percussion; William Parker, bass. Prepare the decks for a long, albeit necessary digression. In keeping with the laterally slippery lives these “downtown” figures lead, here a member of Ware’s quartet, Shipp is elsewhere a leader and soloist. To illustrate: my collection begins with a disc I reviewed for Fanfare, By the Law of Music [hatART Jazz Series 6200], with the Matthew Shipp “String” Trio (the rabbit ears are Shipp’s idea): Shipp, piano; Mat Manieri, violin; William Parker, bass. A delicious release, highly recommended. As, actually, are all of these, each in its sometime abrasive way. The lad does not make indifferent music. We move now to the Matthew Shipp Quartet (Shipp, piano; Mat Maneri, violin; William Parker, bass; Whit Dickey, drums) on two 2 13 61 Records discs, The Flow of X [thi 21326.2] and Critical Mass [213CD003]. And then we’ve duos with different partners: Zo, Matthew Shipp Duo with William Parker [2 13 61 Records thi 21315.2]; an untitled Matthew Shipp Duo with Roscoe Mitchell, alto and soprano saxophones [2 13 61 Records thi 21312.2]; Thesis, Matthew Shipp Duo with Joe Morris, guitar [hatOLOGY 506]. No More Records offers Symbol Systems, a Shipp solo piano disc [NoMore No.1] and Blink of an Eye, Rob Brown Duo (Brown, alto saxophone and flute) with Matthew Shipp [NoMore No.3]. If you found this a bumpy go as a reader, pity the poor typist. But it does do to display an exotic activity’s vitality.

To return to David S. Ware, about whom beware: While I love this disc, it’s not for everyone. As suggested, ODIM’s intensity radiates a toothsome warmth; Ware’s leadership takes free jazz along a more aggressively brittle route. In apparent contradiction, the disc’s second number, “Antidromic,” begins rather sweetly, one first supposes, as dramatic relief from the program’s raucous opener, the aptly titled “Acclimation.” Before very long, however, “Antidromic,” too, veers to the wild side. The fifth of six numbers, “Sunbows Rainsets Blue,” begins with Shipp’s “oriental splendor” paraphrases, which Ware then bends, Shipp never far to the side, to his assaultive will. Again, interaction provides the music’s great rewards.

Addresses: AUM Fidelity, Box 170147, Brooklyn NY 11217, stevenj@aumfidelity.com; 2 13 61 Records, c/o Thirsty Ear Recordings, 274 Madison Avenue, NY NY 10016, thirstyear@aol.com; NoMore Records, Box 334, Woodmere NY 11598, nomore@bway.net; Hat Hut Records (hatART Jazz Series, hatOLOGY, hat[now]ART), North Country Distribution, Cadence Building, Redwood NY 13679, northcountry@cadencebuilding.com.

Nonesuch offers a two-disc compilation of Alfred Schnittke’s four string quartets [79500-2], performed by the Kronos Quartet (David Harrington, John Sherba, violins; Hank Dutt, viola; Joan Jeanrenaud, cello). The excellent Judith Sherman produced as follows: Quartet No.3 in ’87 [previously released on Winter Was Hard, Nonesuch 79181]; Nos.1, 2 and 4, and Canon in Memory of I. Stravinsky between ’94 and ’96; and as lagniappe, the Kronos’s arrangement of Collected Songs Where Every Verse Is Filled with Grief, from Concerto for Mixed Choir [previously released on Early Music, Nonesuch 79457]. Schnittke occupies an odd position among living composers. His CDiscography is huge, but he also happens to be very, very good, a genius of the age, perhaps. (I hear a lot of turgid self-indulgence in Schnittke’s music, at the core of which, however, runs a vein of gold. I hear a Schnittke contemporary, the Georgian Giya Kancheli, for negative example, as a fashioner of kitsch, or to carry the metaphor forward, fool’s gold.)

Excepting the fourth quartet, I’ve other performances in my collection, most notably quartets 1-3, performed by the Tale Quartet as part of the Swedish BIS label’s 20-volume Schnittke survey [BIS CD 467]. It’s a fine, good-sounding disc, as befits the care Robert von Bahr takes with his releases. However, the grandly tragic No.4 and Solomon Volkov’s notes throw one’s recommendation to Nonesuch. Volkov is the author of Testimony, The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovitch, a withering look at creativity under a tyranny that touched Schnittke as well. As with Shostakovitch, it’s there for the hearing, expressed in music’s wordless universality.