Three of This Year’s Best
[July 2000. Originally appeared in La Folia 2:5.]
Guillermo GREGORIO: Degrees of Iconicity. Guillermo Gregorio, clarinet, alto saxophone, conductor. Carrie Biolo, vibraphone, marimba, and in Counter-Composition, tape-component realization. Fred Lonberg-Holm, cello, cornet. Michael Cameron and Kent Kessler, acoustic bass. hat[now]ART 134.
Evan ZIPORYN: Gamelan Galak Tika. Gamelan Galak Tika. Robert Black, acoustic bass. Eric Byars, Mark Stewart, electric guitars. Yukiko Ueno, electric keyboard. New World Records 80565-2.
Robert ASHLEY: Dust. Robert Ashley, Sam Ashley, Joan La Barbara, Thomas Buckner, Jacqueline Humbert, voices. “Blue” Gene Tyranny, synthesizer. Tom Hamilton, live mixing and processing. Lovely Music LCD 1006 (two CDs).
Robert Ashley’s opera Dust may or may not be among his greatest. Given the quantity and complexity of his oeuvre, never mind my not having heard a good deal of it, it’s a topic common sense recommends avoiding. For my incomplete part, Dust plays on recording as Ashley’s most accessible stage work. With Ashley, accessibility is not necessarily a virtue: the text’s syntax is usually transparent; how it connects, part to part, is usually less so. In the great tradition of convoluted libretti? Perhaps. Suffice to say that I follow Dust’s narratives with a greater sense of connectivity than is usually the case with this composer. Whether operating in transparency or opacity, Ashley is at bottom a rather extraordinary prose poet who prefers to array his texts to tonally friendly, suggestively louche musical accompaniments, which happen as a rule as Ashley-first collaborations. For Dust, we have “Electronic orchestration by Robert Ashley, ’Blue’ Gene Tyranny and Tom Hamilton.” The opera in full feather includes Yukihiro Yoshihara’s video design and staging, absent here, of course. Not to worry. Dust works splendidly as sound-only musical theater.
The opera’s eleven parts connect to a quintet of street people (to use the politically correct term) telling their stories, which, in Ashley’s hands, wear marvelously strange mantles. And that, for me, is Dust’s great attraction: that these characteristically disjunct recitals all thread back to their point of origin, a scattering of benches in a vest-pocket part whereon the characters reside in a condition of eccentric camaraderie. We’ve the master of ceremonies, so to speak (Ashley takes this part); The Man in Green Pants; Lucille; The Rug; and Shirley Temple (whose name reflects her having been the child star’s stand-in). The story lines range from pratfall-goofy to sublime. For the former, we’ve a hoodlum Theosophist trying to annihilate a carload of young men (“Theosophy”); for the latter, “Just One More Time,” a heartbreaking number in which the hapless vocalist longs to fall in love just one more time, sung by Thomas Buckner in what sounds to me like a highlight of his rich recording career.
The cast are old Ashley hands and thus perfect fits. The attractive-dreamy-spooky score rises in the final number (“The Angel of Loneliness”) by way of a simpering Tin Pan Alley-like tune to high irony. When I reviewed Ashley in my Fanfare days, I said he seemed to me a genius. If by that one means that nothing out there resembles his work, I stand by my hyperbole. To put that in a way likelier to stimulate sales, despite a subject — homelessness — easily deflected toward protest and/or social consciousness art, Dust maintains its apolitical course and thus reads for me (I bite my sybaritic tongue!) as great entertainment. Ashley’s opening bit about portraiture and a visit to a museum is a priceless drollery. Not for the kiddies, however. Definitely an R rating, for an example of which go to “If there’s anything …, ” about three loud, callow jerks who happen upon a pair of truculent gays in flagrante delicto.
Evan Ziporyn moved from the West Coast to MIT and there formed a gamelan. Ziporyn’s involvement in Balinese music has a history, well covered in the good notes. To judge from what one hears going on in the present recording, Ziporyn’s Galak Tika ensemble got some rock-solid coaching from two masters, I Nyomen Catra and Desak Madé Suarti Laksmi. A well trained gamelan is on its own buoyant merits a pleasure and a treat. What, for me, puts this release in a best-of category is Ziporyn’s having integrated two high-energy musical styles — cultures, if you like: Downtown and Balinese — in such a way as to arrive at an entirely valid third. One remembers from around the time of WW2 a substance called synthetic rubber, widely regarded by drivers as inferior. Yet something synthetic, particularly in this period we agree to call postmodern, might very well look to a brighter multicultural future (even tho the word continues to give me the willies). To be sure, the two multi-part numbers on this disc, Amok! and Tire Fire, are indeed synthetics in both senses of that term: syntheses in the literal sense as well as concoctions, and what tasty concoctions they are! I judge the titles ill conceived in that they suggest raucous, anarchic events when, in this listener’s opinion, sprightly subtlety obtains. Demure, however, not. Subtlety need not imply quietude. A gamelan is a gamelan, after all, as are electric guitars.
I called this CD to Harry Pearson’s attention. The editor of The Absolute Sound finds the disc not at all well recorded. This interests me enormously. I hear the acoustic as quite ideal for this kind of ensemble. I love, as a listener, to be close-up to events. Harry takes the opposite view. When it’s a question of determining of a recording’s sonic worth, never has De gustibus non est disputandum carried greater weight. Questions of taste, questions of faith ….
I recommend against taking on Guillermo Gregorio’s Degrees of Iconicity alone. For a sense of this CD’s significance in a delightful universe parallel with nobody’s, four predecessors belong on the collector’s shelves. Gregorio’s first hatART release, Approximately, hat Jazz Series 6184, released in 1996 (Gregorio, alto sax, clarinet; Eric Pakula, tenor and alto sax; Mat Maneri, violin; Pendelis Karayorgis, piano; John Lockwood, bass) illustrates what I can only characterize as early steps toward a language at once abstract and unmistakably individual. No one would dispute that Approximately’s idiom is in the main jazz. Classification aside (and we’ll soon see the need for its dismissal), relative to Gergorio’s later releases, we detect the beginnings of a benchmark poise, a sense of emotional calm (not to be confused with torpor), suggestive of sparkling, pellucid waters rather than the fiercely choppy seas so much free and improvisational jazz choose to navigate. There is definitely a cool, informal posture to Approximately (read; jazzy jazz), which has made it for me a most interesting, albeit less than cherished, release. On its own, that is. For the listener determined to track a career as brilliant, distinctive and important as Gregorio’s, this is a most necessary shelf item. (Happy hunting! Try www.cadencebuilding.com, NorthCountry’s Web address.)
A Gregorio CD out of alignment, as it were, is entitled Background Music [hatOLOGY 526, issued in 1998], and features Gregorio, alto and tenor sax, clarinet; Mats Gustafsson, tenor sax, fluteophone (a sax mouthpiece affixed to a flute); Kjell Nordeson, drums, percussion. One’s “out of alignment” observation owes to the “guest star” status of the two visiting Europeans. The annotator, John Corbett, puts it nicely: “…[I]t’s an unlikely pairing — Gustafsson is one of the most powerful young set of energy jazz lungs to blow the house down, while Gregorio has been exploring a highly personal new take on the post-Tristano/post-Webern chamber improvisation lineage.” And yet it’s Gregorio’s aesthetic that governs these proceedings, despite the Swede’s obviously energetic contributions. In the event, Kjell Nordeson’s sensibility falls closer than not to Gregorio’s.
With Background Music we’ve already entered an ill-defined terrain in which categorization — free or improvisational jazz? new-music classical? — become problematic. A delightful confusion continues with Gregorio on clarinet and tenor sax with Pandelis Karayorgis, piano, and Mat Maneri (a busy player, he!), electric violin. The disc is called in Red Cube(d) [hatOLOGY 531, issued in 1999] and the ensemble is identified as the Guillermo Gregorio Trio, even tho Gregorio appears in clubs with a trio consisting of percussionist Carrie Biolo and cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm. Who cares? The music’s the thing!
Ellipsis [hatOLOGY 511, issued in 1997], one of the jewels of my collection, has Gregorio conducting as well as playing alto and tenor sax, clarinet; Gene Coleman, bass clarinet; Jim O’Rourke, acoustic guitar, accordion; Carrie Biolo, vibes; and Michael Cameron, acoustic bass.
Biolo, Lonberg-Holm and Cameron, along with Kent Kessler’s second acoustic bass, participate in the disc here celebrated, Degrees of Iconicity, in which Gregorio plays alto sax and clarinet and again conducts. Innocent of misgivings and to return the point, one could have filed Background Music, Red Cube(d) and Ellipsis under hatART’s hat[now]ART category, consisting of new, recent and historically relevant art music of an avant-garde persuasion. Recent hat[now]ART examples including an invaluable addition to the label’s huge Morton Feldman list, Atlantis, hat[now]ART 116; Counterpoise, hat[now]ART 136, featuring Stefan Wolpe’s jazzy Quartet for Trumpet, Tenor Saxophone, Percussion and Piano, along with related works by others; Schoenberg’s works for piano, hat[now]ART 125, along with CDs devoted to Cornelius Cardew, hat[now]ART 2-122, Clarence Barlow hat[nowART 126, and a mixed program performed by accordionist Teodoro Anzellotti, hat[now]ART 131. I’ll be covering several of these probably in the next issue, as well as a far larger stack of hat[OLOGY] CDs.
If anything at all distinguishes Degrees of Iconicity from its category-defying predecessors — if anything nudges this release farther along toward the art music side — it would be in my opinion a most handsomely developed distancing on Gregorio’s part from jazz gestures, however fragmentary and attenuated these have been, beginning with Approximately, where one hears them in greater profusion. It’s a matter of … well, degree. To play with Corbett’s words, Degrees of Iconicity tread lighter on the post-Tristanian and heavier on the post-Webernian, if we are content to accept a term like heavier in an essentially weightless sense: at its best, Gregorio’s art hovers, rather like a Frank Stella wall-mounted celebration of scattershot color and form. The art is unmistakably Stella’s; likewise with Gregorio. This CD’s title (also the title of the tenth and final number) resonates for me as quite the perfect choice. In listening to the title piece, one thinks, Yes, it’s there, but what is it? Besides being beautiful, I mean. Rarely does music operate on so secure a footing beyond perceptible, not to say coherent, argument or architecture. Stockhausen’s phrase “moment form” certainly embraces Gregorio’s direction but it comes nowhere close to capturing Gregorio’s flavor. It is this that allows us to perceive differences in open arenas such as these. Steve Mezger’s you-are-there recording is spectacularly successful. Kudos to Producer Art Lange for his long Gregorio association and to hatART too.
The graphics of hatART’s hatOLOGY releases are always engaging. (Both hat[now]ART and hatOLOGY CDs are packaged in environmentally friendly, tri-fold paper sleeves.) The cover illustration to Background Music consists of a halfway indecipherable photograph. It appears to be of an old-fashioned alarm clock on the hood of a car perhaps. The credited photographer is Hal Rammel, who came to my attention first as someone who’d collected a great deal of material on the late Sophia Dlugoszewski, whose yet to be released CRI CD I’d written the notes for, only to withdraw from the project because I found the then-director Jody Dalton’s objections and suggestions meddlesome.
More to the point, Rammel is also the man behind an improvisational-music indy, Penumbra, for more about which see Signor Scardanelli’s Medley, A Delightful Question of Kind.
My having omitted Cornelius Cardew’s Treatise from this top-three list is perhaps criminal. Yes, yes, but there’s something so compelling about the number three. See my colleague Scardanelli’s art-music motley for a proper discussion of a drop-dead terrific release. It’s another hatART, by the way.