Scardanelli’s Motley, Part 2
[April 1999. Originally appeared in La Folia 1:5.]
Leos JANACEK String Quartet No. 1, after Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata. String Quartet No. 2, Intimate Letters Guarneri Quartet ( Arnold Steinhardt, John Dalley, violins; Michael Tree, viola; David Soyer, cello) Philips 456 574-2 (41:29)
It’s sometimes necessary to belabor the obvious in order to remind ourselves of a critically important point. A compact disc flourishes or perishes as the embodiment of a collaboration among the artists who interpret (or sometimes improvise) the music, their producer, and his technical people. Leos Janácek’s two string quartets are among the century’s most enduringly astonishing. A purist would perhaps disdain the story as sensational, yet we cannot but respond as sensitive listeners to the amazing, quite likely unconsummated May-December love affair between an elderly composer and a lovely young (and married) woman 38 years his junior. One has only to listen to the music: the liason for Janácek served as a wellspring of purest inspiration. As a beacon for geezers everywhere, an old fellow’s love for Kamila Stösslová yielded in a genius’s case astnoishments, here represented by the second quartet, its revealing subtitle Intimate Letters.
Janácek, primarily a composer of operas, brings to instrumental music as no one else those impassioned, speech-like inflections that impart his two string quartets their extraordinary, dramatic poignancy. The great Guarneri infuses the music with an on-the-edge intensity I’ve seldom heard in any recent recording, including that of the Tokyo Quartet, till now a favorite among recent releases, in a multiple set that includes Bartók’s six [RCA Victor Red Seal 09026-68286-2]. Hein Dekker, producer, and John Newton, engineer, raise the corporeal warmth of these amazingly fine readings to a pitch one would have to be dead or deaf not to notice. Or to couch that in dry-eyed terms, superior string sound.
KRONOS QUARTET: 25 YEARS Kronos Quartet (David Harrington, John Sherba, violins; Hank Dutt, viola; Joan Jeanrenaud, cello) Produced by Judith Sherman Nonesuch 79504-2 (10 CDs)
Disc One: John ADAMS John’s Book of Alleged Dances. Arvo PÄRT Fratres. Psalmon. Summa. Missa Syllabica.
Disc Two: Ken BENSHOOF Traveling Music. Song of Twenty Shadows. Astor PIAZZOLLA Five Tango Sensations.
Disc Three: Morton FELDMAN Piano and String Quartet (with Aki Takahashi).
Disc Four: Philip GLASS Quartet No. 4. Quartet No. 3 (Mishima Quartet). Quartet No. 2 (Company). Quartet No. 5.
Disc Five: Osvaldo GOLIJOV The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind (David Krakauer, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassett horn). Sofia GUBAIDULINA Quartet No. 4. Franghiz ALI-ZADEH Mugam Sayagi.
Disc Six: Henryk GÓRECKI Quartet No. 2, Op. 64 (Quasi una Fantasia). Quartet No. 1 (Already It Is Dusk).
Disc Seven: Steve REICH Different Trains. George CRUMB Black Angels.
Disc Eight: Terry RILEY Cadenza on the Night Plain. G Song. Salome Dances for Peace (selections).
Disc Nine: Alfred SCHNITTKE Quartet No. 2. Quartet No. 4. Collected Songs Where Every Verse Is Filled with Grief (from Concerto for Mixed Choir, arr. Kronos Quartet).
Disc Ten: Peter SCULTHORPE Quartet No. 11 (Jabiru Dreaming). Quartet No. 8. From Ubirr (Michael Brosnan, Mark Nolan, digeridoos). P.Q. PHAN Tragedy at the Opera (from Memories of a Lost Soul). Kevin VOLANS Quartet No. 1 (White Man Sleeps).
Good news: Against the industry’s greedy grain, Nonesuch has had the good and gracious sense to issue this boxed, 10-disc set at a suggested midline ticket of about $100. Normally, we don’t expect to see a quality booklet accompanying off-price goods. Indeed, notes to some bargain re-releases amount to felonies. The present set’s 96-page (!) booklet of good quality paper is well documented, well designed, richly illustrated, nicely bound.
And yet I wonder how well the box will sell. Conversations with collectors lead me to suspect a reluctance to acquire redundant performances, and these of course are all re-issues. Merely an outsider’s observation. If in the unlikely event you’ve none, or perhaps a few only, I suggest the plunge worth taking. (The performances appeared originally on discs featuring a substantial number of works here omitted. A discography details all.)
The Kronos — pretty much since its inception, I think — has been a creature of marketing strategies. The pose remains persistently cool, sometimes coyly sinister (I refer to the group’s publicity portraits, not its deportment, about which I have no gossip to offer). Given classical music’s screwy, fin-de-siècle zeitgeist, as exemplified in extremis by a uninymic Brit violinist operating under a vulpine rocker’s coif, we of the curmudgeonly persuasion find it in our hearts on rare occasion to forgive à la mode camouflage. Music’s a difficult dodge at best, and the test of accomplishment remains, as always, in the pudding. The good that the Kronos has done present-day art music lies beyond cavil. They are not alone in this endeavor, of course. I consider the Arditti Quartet’s technical prowess up there on a cloud-swept plateau quite by itself. But the Arditti stakes out a different terrain. In the argot of the Culture Wars, Irvine Arditti’s splendid ensemble strikes a Eurocentric, avant-gardiste posture (and that, believe me, is no gripe!) as against the Kronos’s post-modernist, multicultural, minimalist stance. Or something close to in either case.
As we’ve brought up the Arditti with its laser-sharp articulations generally recorded in etched detail, the Kronos’s sound lies by contrast in a warm pool of gemutlich liquidity. Producer Judith Sherman knows her business. One need only examine the headnote to see that the Kronos has occupied itself with some important new music. I don’t much care for Philip Glass. Actually, I loathe his stuff, yet his importance to other composers, no few of them first rate, cannot be denied. Nor can Steve Reich’s oeuvre, to which I attend with a great deal more interest. However, as a simple matter of seating one’s guest at table, I find the Kronos’s excellent performance of Sofia Gubaidulina’s magical Quartet No. 4 on Disc Five chock-a-block with the Argentinian Osvaldo Golijov’s The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind, which I can only describe (charitably) as ethnic kitsch, an unhappy pairing. But I’ve already confessed to curmudgeonly views.
Harry PARTCH Enclosures 1-5 Enclosure 1: Videotape of Four Films by Madeline Tourtelot with Music by Harry Partch. Enclosure 2: Four CD-Set of Speech Music from the Harry Partch Archive (I Am Harry Partch; By the Rivers of Babylon; Ten Li Po Lyrics; Barstow, Eight Hitch-Hikers’ Inscriptions from a Highway Railing at Barstow, CA; San Francisco, Newsboy Cries; U.S. Highball, A Musical Account of Slim’s Transcontinental Hobo Trip; While My Heart Keeps Beating Time; San Francisco; Two Settings from Joyce’s Finnegans Wake; Dark Brothers; A Quarter-Saw Section of Motivations and Intonations; Extracts from Bitter Music, A Hobo Journal, etc.). Enclusore 3: Harry Partch, Edited by Paul Blackburn, 524 pp, American Composers Forum, Minnesota, 1997. Enclosure 4: Videotape of Delusion of the Fury and The Music of Harry Partch, San Diego TV Special, 1968. Enclosure 5: Three-CD Set (Ulysses Departs from the Edge of the World, Orion Records, 1971; Revelation in the Courthouse Park, Gate 5 version, 1961; Introduction to King Oedipus, Partch speaking, 1954; King Oedipus, Mills College, 1952; Introduction to The Bewitched, Partch speaking; The Bewitched, Kenneth Gaburo conducting the Partch Ensemble, West-German Radio, Cologne, 1980, etc.) Innova Recordings of the American Composers Forum, 332 Minnesota Street, E-145, St Paul MN 55101-1300, www.composersforum.org, email@example.com
Even taking into account evasive etceteras, that’s one unwieldy headnote! Similarly, this is one weighty project. Let’s start with the book, Enclosure Three. It’s a beautiful, lovingly assembled object. The first 457 pages consist of photos, all b&w, some of them snapshots, others more formal, hundreds of typed pages of letters, synopses, performance instructions, and so on, arranged where practicable several to a page, hundreds more in longhand, newpaper clippings, and so on and on, all of it photocopies of original material. As Partch was a fellow with a wicked sense of humor, some of this will tickle the eye. The index, too, is a fun read. We see there Maya Angelou, of all people. We turn to page 229 to discover in a 1955 letter to Peter Yates that Partch found Angelou a “bright prospect” but thought she lacked the experience for the dance part she audtioned for in Bewitched. (Enclosure 5 includes an important and reasonably well recorded first release of a West-German Radio production of Bewitched, A Ballet Satire, with the Partch Ensemble under composer Kenneth Gaburo’s direction.) In this same letter, Partch complains, “I am no Charles Ives. I’ve got to hear [my music performed] in order to go on …, ” which is why, to change direction, Conlon Nancarrow made music, most of it in Mexico, by perforating rolls for a modified player piano largely as an expedient. The leftist, self-exiled Nancarrow has said that were the technology then available, he’s have gone the computer-synthesizer route as have so many younger composers, all of whom like to hear what they’ve accomplished sooner than later, or indeed, ever.) The book concludes with composer Philip Blackburn’s careful, page by page elucidation of all that precedes. There’s probably enough here for eight doctoral theses. The perfect, rather more convenient to read companion piece to Enclosure 3 is Harry Partch / Bitter Music / Collected Journals, Essays, Introductions, and Librettos, edited with an introduction by Thomas McGeary, University of Illinois Press, 1991.
If the name’s unfamiliar to you, Harry Partch (b. Oakland, CA, 1901, d. San Diego, CA, 1974) is without question one of American music’s great originals, quite likely its greatest. He lived an unconventional, bohemian life to be sure, but for the music lover’s narrower purposes, Partch created a 43-tone scale and a motley battery of visually striking instruments from mammoth to diminutive, on which to perform his microtonal, inevitably Asian-sounding compositions. It’s been observed more than once that West Coast culture looks at least as much to the East as westward. One only has to think back to the Arts & Crafts movement’s architect brothers, Greene and Greene, and their work in California. Nancarrow explains in remarkably scholarly, self-assured terms his system of scales with musical examples, a good bit of it Eastern in feeling, in A Quarter-Saw Section of Motivations and Intonations, disc B, Enclosure 2. Not, however, to take beholdenness beyond its proper stretch. Partch was an inimitable original.
Let’s mention as emblematic of this collection’s historic and recreated fascinations two items in Enclosure 2. Disc C consists of a reading from Bitter Music, Partch’s account of his hobo days in the Thirties punctuated by brief vocalizings with piano. The reader, Warren Burt, in an apt West Coast intonation, recorded this in Melbourne in 1992 for broadcast in Australia. The excellent note explains why Partch may have wanted to disown Bitter Music entirely. Disc A offers among other things Partch in 1947 reciting “in tones” Ten Li Po Lyrics, William Wendlant accompanying on “Adapted Viola,” a Partch innovation. Another performance of the full set of seventeen lyrics on a Tzadik CD [TZ 7012], with Stephen Kalm, “intoning” vocalist, and Ted Mook’s “tenor violin,” prove, were proof required, that this is one of Partch’s little masterworks. On the same disc, Partch performs with “Adapted Guitar” in 1945 another gem, Barstow, the wryly tragi-comic recitation of roadside hobo graffiti, with Chromelodeon and Kithara, two more Partch innovations, played by Christine Charmstrom and the composer Lee Hoiby. The original version for voice and adapted guitar receives a fine if somewhat chesty-sounding production on a Bridge CD entitled Just West Coast [BCD 9041], as in just intonation, an atypical tuning system, John Schneider performing. Partch’s way with this more truly rings of a desperate authenticity, and the instrumental background is as curiously engaging as a noisy old recording medium permits us to hear.
Recommended with enthusiasm though perhaps exclusively to completists and collectors of new-music memorabilia, who will also want to see the Partch collection on CRI. As an event of keen interest, sonical and musical, do not miss a Partch performance on a Music & Arts disc [CD931], Newband / Dance of the Seven Veils. Castor and Pollux of 1952, “A Dance for the Twin Rhythms of Gemini,” features a Partchian battery of which Newband is the caring conservator: kithara, surrogate kithara, harmonic canon, diamond marimba, cloud chamber bowls, and two players on one bass marimba.
Astor PIAZZOLLA / Horacio FERRER María de Buenos Aires, Tango Operita (arranged by Leonid Desyatnikov) Horacio Ferrer (narration). Julia Zenko (female vocals: Maria, Maria’s ghost). Jairo (male vocals: El Payador, etc.). KremerATAmusica: Gidon Kremer (violin); Per Arne Glorvigen (bandoneon); Vadim Sakarov (piano); Alois Posch (bass); Maria Fedotova (flute); Ula Zebriunaite (viola); Marta Sudraba (cello); Peter Sadio (percussion). Coral Lirico Buenos Aires (chorus). Gidon Kremer (direction) Teldec 3984-20632-2 (two CDs: 48:42; 45:45)
Highest marks to Teldec for a genuinely elegant production. The attractive, swing-out packaging is environmentally correct paper board, the 155-page, four-language booklet especially well done. We’ve interesting remarks by the poet-librettist, Horacio Ferrer, who here takes the speaking part of El Duende (the Goblin), along with violinist-impresario Gidon Kremer, and the music’s arranger, composer Leonid Desyatnikov, followed by a good synopsis, followed by the libretto itself.
If you like the music of the Argentinian Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992), acquiring María de Buenos Aires amounts to a no-brainer. If, like me, you’ve grown a trifle weary of the composer-performer’s plummy atmospherics, I’d still call the purchase a no brainer in that the music, performances and production are gorgeous in their laid-back, unassuming ways. Piazzolla is, of course, the man who elevated the tango to where serious music lovers began to look at it as something more than an occasion for campy footwork. (Back in my Fanfare days, when I served as the Piazzolla expert, i.e., before I cried ¡Basta!, I recall reading in one especially enjoyable set of notes how tango purists regarded Piazzolla as a traitor they’d probably enjoy killing. No pain, no gain.)
As the music fairly radiates local color of a nostalgic-popular rather than high-culture character, the term operita seems to me a touch of nomenclatorial grace. The story is coherent and easily followed, but if you’re of no mind for that, the two discs play as delightfully detached from their narrative.
Arnold SCHOENBERG Pierrot Lunaire. Herzegewächse. Ode to Napoleon Christine Schäfer (soprano Sprechstimme). David Pitman-Jennings (baritone Sprechstimme). Ensemble InterContemporain, Pierre Boulez (conducting) Deutsche Grammophon 457 630-2 (52:35)
Put Pierre Boulez in charge of anything to the vanguard side of music and it’s bound to be an illuminating experience. For this listener, the composer-essayist-impresario-conductor’s great strength in the lattermost category lies in an uncanny ability to lay bare a score’s innards, down to the very corpuscles. The downside to this gift are readings bathed, generally speaking, in more light than heat. Specifically, I cannot think of an example of our century’s art music under Boulez’s stewardship I’ve found wanting. As the perfect illustration relative to the present release, compare Boulez’s very well recorded performance of Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron [Deutsche Grammophon 449 174-2] to Georg Solti’s [London 414 265-2].
My collection includes performances of Pierrot Lunaire that better accentuate the poetry’s neurotic character. Yet nothing I’ve not heard on recording stands the Belgian Symbolist poet Albert Giraud’s verses in so clear a relief against its exquisite instrumental tapestry. It does to recall that the poet’s unsettling imagery. As an example of untoward eeriness, we’ve number 17, Parody: “Knitting needles, bright and polished … / set in her greying hair, / sits the Duenna, mumbling, / in crimson costume clad. // She lingers in the arbor, / she loves Pierrot with passion, / knitting needles, bright and polished, / set in her greying hair. // But, listen, what a whisper, / a zephyr titters softly, / the moon, the wicked mocker, / now mimics with light rays, / bright needles, spick and span” (translation, Cecil Gray). Those glinting needles!
The headnote lists baritone David Pittman-Jennings’ part in Ode to Napoleon as sprechstimme, a word for which no easy translation exists. Chant-speech will have to do, though this neglects the part’s sung aspect. Curiously, soprano Christine Schäfer’s rather more unambiguously sung part is also called Sprechstimme. Against the rule, the excellent insert’s tri-lingual notes are by different writers rather than a twice-translated soloist. We are fortunate in having the excellent Paul Griffiths’ participation in this troika. For Pierrot, about which Griffiths has some fascinating things to say, the annotator uses the less difficult term Sprechgesang, speak-singing. Griffiths reminds us that the op. 20 Pierrot is a pre-serial work, as is the three-minute song of 1911, Herzgewächse (Heart’s Foliage), op. 21, to a diaphanous accompaniment of celeste, harmonium and harp. Foliage indeed, but in Schoenberg’s case, not perhaps as protective cover. As late as 1936, he has not shed his Expressionist’s anatural coloration. The Ode to Napoleon, “for string quartet, piano, and reciter,” plays as a characteristically angular and turbulent piece, but it is not, as Griffiths is at pains to make clear, an allusion to Hitler. The composer sets Byron’s words as a broader attack on hubris.
Christine Schäfer is superb: faultless diction, a gorgeous voice, a great musician’s head — I think I’m in love. Though not with David Pittman-Jennings, strictly on biological grounds. He too does his part handsomely. It’s quite unnecessary to praise the soloists of Boulez’s Ensemble InterContemporain; they are what they are, and thank the Muses for that! A word about sonics: not without reason, audiophiles are suspicious of Deutsche Grammophon’s production values. I find various DG releases fine, good, and bad. Decca-London, by contrast, hews more closely to a characteristic house-sound, never bad though rarely superb. Against the label’s usual practice, the DG here examined is the work of a French production team: Producer-Balance Engineer François Eckert, Recording Engineer Gérard d’Elia, Editor Anne Decoville, all of whom one congratulates for an impeccable job of work. Nihil obstat.
SHEER PLUCK / Contemporary Solo Guitar Works / Performed by Todd Seelye
Todd Seelye (guitar) Music & Arts CD-1032 (78:06)
Todd Seelye’s program: Ursula Mamlok’s Five Intermezzi (in five discrete tracks), James Dillon’s Shrouded Mirrors, Milton Babbitt’s Sheer Pluck, Charles Wuorinen’s Guitar Variations, Elliott Carter’s Changes, Luciano Berio’s Sequenza XI, and Robert Morris’s To the Nine, for Guitar and Tape.
Fred Maroth’s Music & Arts label is one of those independents that, for this listener, make it all worthwhile. I offer in evidence Sheer Pluck, atypical elsewhere, typical here, and perhaps as a caveat, uncompromising. When an instrumentalist assembles a program, he or she tries, in the normal course of commerce, to pad the tough stuff, much as Shakespeare leavened his tragedies with moments of broad, sometimes off-color comedy. Not so Seelye. The music our guitarist has chosen is unremittingly pure: abstract in character, innocent of pathos, bathos, or indeed any hint of Romantic sentimentality. Seelye’s own style contributes no little to the impression. Not one to caress the odd phrase, his crisp interpretations are more than a match for his composers’ various austerities. Do you read this as a complaint? You mustn’t. I’m simply recommending that the exclusively sybaritic move on to the next review. Sheer Pluck ends on a coloristic pleasure, Robert Morris’s To the Nine, for guitar and tape. “The interaction of the guitar with the tape is multivalent; sometimes the guitar opposes, other times confirms or embellishes the tape sounds; at still other times, it embeds unto camouflage in the piece’s weave of lines, gestures, and textures.” It’s been my experience that a composer who says things like “embeds unto camouflage” generally sounds as good as he writes well. But to repeat, not for the Lawrence Welk set. Rod Henze’s engineering nicely captures the guitarist’s special way with nuance and detail.
Matthew SHIPP Strata Matthew Shipp (piano). Roy Campbell (trumpet, pocket trumpet). Daniel Carter (alto and tenor saxophones, flute, trumpet). William Parker (bass) hatOLOGY 522 (58:48)
Matthew SHIPP Matthew Shipp Duo with William Parker / DNA Matthew Shipp (piano); William Parker (bass) Thirsty Ear thi 57067.2 (48:00)
Strata appears as Hat Hut Records’ fourth in its Matthew Shipp series. I understand from a publicity broadside I received in the mail that Shipp is taking a sabbatical from recording. If I have that right, this is among the last of Shipp on CD for who knows how long a while. In order of Hat Hut appearance, we’ve the curiously punctuated Matthew Shipp “String” Trio, Shipp (piano), Mat Maneri (violin), William Parker (bass), hat Jazz Series CD 6200, 1997; Matthew Shipp Duo with Joe Morris / Thesis, Shipp (piano), Morris (guitar), hatOLOGY 506, 1997; and Matthew Shipp Trio / The Multiplication Table, Shipp (piano), William Parker (bass), Susie Ibarra (drums), hatOLOGY 516, 1998. (The label changed its headings some while ago. Thus the shift from Hat Jazz Series to hatOLOGY; hat[now]ART identifies new-music, classical line.) In addition to these Swiss Hat Huts, my incomplete collection includes five American issues, four of them on the 2 13 61label (Box 391, Prince St Station, NY, NY 10012 / firstname.lastname@example.org) and a single No More Records (PO Box 334, Woodmere, NY 11598 / email@example.com). As you can see, the man’s a hot property and, in my opinion, justifiably so.
Hat Hut’s Werner Uehlinger had been pressing his CDs in editions ranging from 1250 to 4000, the high number attaching, for example, to The Multiplication Table of 1998 as an earnest, doubtless, of high hopes. Recent editions, no longer labeled “limited,” have been a consistent 3000. In jazz at these rarified heights, which might as well be lumped with classical in terms of audience draw, sales of 5000 are greeted with yelps of astonished joy. I’m suggesting that, one, Shipp’s a star, and two, highly collectible in the canned state. One never ceases from marveling at the unavailability of things once they’ve disappeared into various collections.
Whomever Shipp performs with — when, that is, it’s his show (he appears on yet other releases in support of a principal) — events follow a peculiarly intense, emotionally humid, upward course. Seek elsewhere for cool. Among the jazz pianists I’ve heard, Shipp comes closest to a Scriabinesque sensibility under the spell of a panic attack. And therein, for this listener, lies a charmed duality: I hear Shipp alone and in ensemble as a gifted heir of an African-American jazz idiom upon which he grafts the grand and sweeping gestures of European art music and, wonder of wonders, it’s a stew that actually tastes like food for though and, of course, consumption. This would not work so well as it does were Shipp’s supremely gifted collaborators of another mind.
Mike Cyr recorded these sessions in New York City. I doubt I’ll ever hear a poorly produced Hat Hut release. Two gripes: Strata is tracked as 14 events entitled Strata 1, Strata 2, etc. In keeping with its Latin provenance, the singular of strata, a plural, is stratum. Sean Sullivan’s notes are neither informative nor engaging prose-poetry. What are we to make of this, for example: “M. Shipp, facing the shady forms, plays curves as though the light defines the shadow, but the shadow regenerates the light’s absence.” The pleasure’s in the music.
DNA, as the Shipp-Parker disc is subtitled, stands for this listener as an exemplar of what’s both hugely right and slightly wrong with Shipp’s recordings. Proceedings begin with one of the most wildly rewarding paraphrases of a standard I think I’ve ever heard. Shipp and Parker plunge as if possessed into When Johnny Comes Marching Home, a patriotic hit of the Civil War period. Parker’s bowing, nicely captured by Carl Seltzer’s excellent recording, has got to be heard. My only regret is the opener’s four-minute brevity. Excepting the closing morsel, a two-minute take on Amazing Grace, subsequent numbers, Cell Sequence, Genetic Alphabet, DNA, Orbit, Mister Chromosome, participate in Shipp’s now typical ascent to mind-bending intensities, which, if attented to less than sympathetically, begin to resemble a one-way-only modus operandi. As a further descent from bliss, here as elsewhere, Parker’s bass is miked in such a way as to overwhelm the occasion with bric-à-brac-rattling tectonics. Couple this intrusiveness with the music’s unrelenting passions and you’ve a string of experiences I continue to return to, criticisms notwithstanding. Not, however, as balm for a troubled soul.
Howard SKEMPTON Surface Tension Howard Skempton (accordion). Sarah Leonard (soprano). Dietmar Wiesner (flute). Cathy Milliken (oboe). John Corbett (clarinet). Stefanie Kopetschke (horn). Werner Cickel (violin, viola). Eva Böcker (cello). Rainer Römer (percussion). Herman Kretzschmar (piano) Mode 61 (67:04)
This Mode CD’s 27 short pieces by the English composer Howard Skempton (b 1947) puts him at a remove opposite colleagues best exemplified, I suppose, by a senior figure in British art music, Brian Ferneyhough. The balance seems to be one of Complexity (Ferneyhough, et al.) versus Simplicity in extremis (Skempton), but not to be confused or conflated with, on simplicity’s part, the British arm of the Minimalist movement (Michael Nyman, et al.). To paraphrase a quip, in terms of ink spots on a page, there’s something definitely maximal about minimalist music.
In fine or on a symbolically instructive level, Skempton’s is an interesting case. Our ears tell us that Beethoven, innovative genius that he was, owes much to Haydn, say. It would not have occurred to Beethoven to model his oeuvre on the music, say, of Hungarian Gypsies. Not that composers of this period were inured against the exotic, witness “Turkish music,” largely of a martial character, most notably employed in the final movement of Beethoven’s last symphony. With regard to forebears, a composer of Skempton’s generation is faced with the need to make a rather more self-conscious choice: whom do I model myself on, or more to to the point, what vast tracts of history-connected, evolutionary activity do I choose to ignore? Similarities in scale notwithstanding, Skempton bears no resemblance to Webern. I think we can agree that we live in a musical period wherein art-music composers seek for broader acceptance via retrogradations of neo-this-and-that, and it comes out kitsch, ever and always, as if by decree. Except perhaps for irony’s sake, one cannot go home again in music, particularly to grandmother’s house. In light of these failures (their midcult acceptance more than proof enough), Skempton pulls off a bit of a coup. The man is not in the least wary of tenderness, wistfulness, dream-like states; he trades in these qualities, seems to love them sincerely. Moreover, he expresses his soft-hearted turns with uniquely open, transparent lines and textures. In terms of execution and with some exceptions, the writing is as if for beginners: generally slow, never more than moderately paced, made up of astonishingly innocent harmonies and simple rhythmic footings, again largely slow. The first time I played Surface Tension, I thought to myself, He’s got to be kidding. No, he’s not, I’m happy to say. A very well recorded co-production by Hessian Radio, Frankfurt, and Brian Brandt’s Mode Records of NYC. For information or purchase, see www.mode.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’ve also in my incomplete collection an NMC “single” of Skempton’s Lento performed by the BBC Orchestra under Mark Wigglesworth’s direction. In that the 12-minute threnody trades in moist-eyed sentimentality in a down-at-the-heels idiom, I find it less interesting, but you may disagree. Qualiton Imports distributes NMC in the US. Or try email@example.com.
Igor STRAVINSKY Symphony in Three Movements. The Soldier’s Tale. Symphony of Psalms Lorin Maazel (violin); Heinrich Braun (double bass); Karl-Heinz Steffans (clarinet); Eberhard Marschall (bassoon); Wolfgang Bauer (trumpet); Hansjörg Profanter (trombone); Markus Steckeler (percussion). Symphony Orchestra and Chorus of the Bavarian Radio, Lorin Maazel (conducting) RCA Red Seal 09026 68470-2 (69:52)
A familiar program recorded ad nauseum. Ergo, no tutorial. You either know all about this music or, since I insist you acquire the disc, you’ll learn from the notes. By way of what passes for scholarly comment, only to observe that L’Histoire du Soldat lacks the narration with which it’s occasionally recorded, usually in French, sometimes in English. (Is there an ancient reading this who recalls a two-LP version in both languages? Name the label, narrators, ensemble, conductor. First and only prize, a flight in first class to Inner Space.)
This Red Seal delights on two counts. Maazel sounds to me in tip-top form, as does his orchestra and chorus, the latter especially effective in the dense and brooding Symphony of Psalms. You’ll have remarked in the headnote that the conductor takes the important violin part in L’Histoire. It’s obvious that he could easily have made a career as soloist. Speaking of which, best to mention RCA Victor Red Seal 09026-689789-2, featuring — ta rah! — three concertos by Maazel, the recentmost, Music for Violin and Orchestra, Maazel taking the solo part. He’s in decent company: Rostropovitch in Music for Violoncello and Orchestra, and James Galway in Music for Flute and Orchestra. The fine orchestra is that of the Bavarian Radio.)
As to this warmly recommended Stravinsky, soundwise the production’s especially attractive. If you like your instrumental ensembles up close and personal, this is your lucky day. I generally measure these things by how loud I can play something before ambiance intrudes as an irritant. But at bottom it’s a question of taste. Some folks prefer tons of hall effect. High marks to producer Wilhelm Meister and his engineers, Peter Jütte (Three Movements), Peter Urban (L’Histoire), and Hans Schmid (Psalms). BMG has issued several co-productions with Germany’s cultural-media apparats, of which this is a particularly fine instance.
James TENNEY Bridge & Flocking Thomas Bächli, Erika Radermacher, Gertrude Schneider, Manfred Werder (pianos) hat NOW Series CD 6193 (59:16)
James TENNEY The Solo Works for Percussion: Maximusic. Ergodos II. Koan: Having Never Written a Note for Percussion. For Percussion Perhaps, or … . Deus Ex Machina Mathias Kaul (percussion). Rüdiger Orth (tape-delay system) hat[now]ART 111 (77:00)
James TENNEY Music for Violin and Piano: Ergodos II with Instrumental Responses. 3 Pages in the Shape of a Pear. Diaphonic Toccata. Chorale. Koan. Diaphonic Trio Mark Sabat (violin). Stephen Clarke (piano) hat[now]ART 120 (66:16)
I include in these remarks a 1996 Hat Hut release, Bridge & Flocking, for the sake of continuity. It’s interesting that the annotators to these two recent and remarkable James Tenney CDs characterize the composer in entirely different yet captivating terms. But first to remarkability: we look to Switzerland, where one of my heroes in this enigmatic business of who puts what on disc and why, Werner Uehlinger, serves the world of art music as much as mentor as impresario. Were it not for his enterprise, Hat Hut Records, I’d understand a good deal less about new music’s raison d’être, not to mention vanguard jazz. For example, before I encountered Hat Hut’s extensive and probably unfinished Morton Feldman survey, I’d no idea in the world of the composer’s importance and worth. John Cage’s CDiscography is vast, yet Mode and Wergo excepted, how many of these discs feature those aleatory realizations on which Cage’s reputation as an innovator properly rests? As a typical instance, a 1991 two-disc hatART release [2-6071 / 2], “First Complete Recordings of the Time-Length Pieces,” offers the redolently titled 45’, 34’46.776″, 31’57.9865″, 27’10.554″, 26’1.1499″, 4’33″ [No.2] [0’00″], Music for Five, and Two. I have it on reliable authority that several of the performances stray from Cage’s assigned lengths. The most egregious of these missteps, 27’10.554″, is off by an eighth of a second! Interpretive blunders notwithstanding, the point of one’s apostrophe addresses a label’s courage, or another way put, sense of mission, which appears with unabated vigor in these Tenney discs.
In the disc entited The Solo Works for Percussion, the European critic Peter Niklas Wilson tells us that “Tenney’s percussion pieces could be regarded as a veritable collection of topoi [I make that out as rhetorical formulas applied to music] of the American experimental tradition. Central ideas of the U.S. avant-garde — the reduction of complexity, the use of space and room resonance as musical parameters, re-definition of the use of technology, re-integration of the roles of composer and performer, indeterminacy and non-subjectivity, liberation of silence from its traditional subordinate rôle in music — are adapted and transformed in concise and creative ways.” Without naming them, Wilson properly positions Tenney with Alvin Lucier (“reduction of complexity, the use of space and room resonance”), Robert Ashley, or perhaps even the uptowner Mario Davidovsky (“re-definition of the use of technology”), David Tudor (“re-integration of the roles of composer and performer”), John Cage (“indeterminacy and non-subjectivity”), and Cage again (“liberation of silence”).
In Music for Violin & Piano, the American annotator Art Lange takes another, equally informative route. He quotes Tenney’s disconnect from emotion: ” ’I don’t have any interest in drama — in fact, I do everything I can to avoid it. I’m seeking a more basic level of perception … I’ve [even] done some things with ugly sounds. Ugly sounds can be useful too.’ ” Not the words of a Johnny-come-lately. Tenney’s curriculum vitae reads like a map of new music. I abbreviate a long and various career: engineer by training, worked at Bell Labs, Yale and Brooklyn’s Polytechnic Institute; a member of Harry Partch’s Gate 5 Ensemble (see Partch in this Motley); studied with, among others, Eduard Steuermann (piano), Carl Ruggles, Edgar Varèse, Kenneth Gaburo, Lejaren Hiller (composition); worked with the film-maker Stan Brakhage; performed in the late ’60s with the Philip Glass and Steve Reich ensembles; directed the Tone Road concert series, and this skirts altogether teaching, grants, and travel.
In the visual-artist’s sense of the word, Tenney can play the conceptualist. He will take an idea and lay it out like a string stretched across a gallery space from the ceiling in one corner to the floor opposite. I’ve seen such, and it can be quite effective. It calls our attention to the room, which we’re obliged to observe as sectioned. Or we are invited to contemplate an optical illusion of a string arcing where in fact it does not. In the piano and violin disc, Koan of 1971, we attend a 20-minute stretch in which the violinist plays two notes in rapid succession, much like the warble of a French ambulance. The two-note motive travels through subtle shadings of variation, here a tad sharp, there something else, and therein dwell the work’s fascinations. If we listen to it carefully we have no choice but to note these little changes. How they affect us is, I suppose, a matter of individual response. The listen who hits the next-track button is not necessarily a philistine. A little impatient perhaps, or at the wrong game. In stark contrast (but maybe not so stark as all that), Diaphonic Toccata of 1997 sounds downright painterly (to keep to the analogy), and yet the tunings are sufficiently off-center to keep the listener similarly disposed.
In the percussion disc, another Koan, this one further titled Having Never Written a Note for Percussion, for Tam-Tam, a wash of sound builds on toward its middle to an intensity which, played loud, will damage your ears and/or your sound system. But the disc begins (rather deceptively) with Maximusic of 1965, a percussionist’s tour de force. The older reader may recall maxi and mini as popular prefixes to just about anything in sight. I leave off with a warning wrapped in a recommendation. If you arrange your CDs alphabetically by composer, Telemann and Tenney will soon apply for divorce, the grounds, irreconciliable differences. Even as a ménage à trois, Telemann, Tenney, Tippett, I doubt it would fly. This is for the specialized collector. As always with hatART, first rate sound. David Jaeger produced and David Quinney recorded Music for Violin & Piano at the Glenn Gould Studio in Toronto. The Solo Works for Percussion is a Hat Hut / Hessian Radio, Frankfurt, co-production, Christoph Classen and Rüdiger Orth the technical team.