Scardanelli’s Motley, Part 1
[La Folia’s regulars know Scardanelli as the unfortunate whose extra-musical deportment requires close, professional supervision. Ne’ertheless, as an Equal Opportunity Employer, we in the editorial aerie recommend our colleague’s musical judgments without hesitation.]
[April 1999. Originally appeared in La Folia 1:5.]
Thomas ADÈS / Philip HENSHER Powder Her Face, an Opera in Two Acts Jill Gomez, Valdine Anderson, Niall Morris, Roger Bryson (vocalists); Almeida Ensemble, Thomas Adès (conducting) EMI 5 56649 2 (two discs: 64:38; 51:07)
The notes decline to identify the singers by range and, in keeping what looks like a vogue, neither shall we. Jill Gomez takes the part of the Duchess, once a knockout, now an old ditz. Her character, I mean. Valdine Anderson plays a maid, confidante, waitress, mistress, rubbernecker, society journalist; Nail Morris, an electrician, lounge lizard, waiter, rubbernecker, delivery boy; Roger Bryston, a hotel manager, duke, laundryman, other guest, judge. Philip Hensher, “one of the most admired novelists and critics of his generation [b. 1965],” wrote the libretto.
Propriety to the winds! Moments into Act One, Scene One, the time 1990: the Electrician, mimicking the Duchess, sings for the maid’s amusement a naughty hit of yesteryear, its subject the Duchess: “Why don’t you suck me off till you can’t take more / I’ll really ram it in your jaw. / Because you practice every night fellatio / It’s the most delightful art you know,” to which the lady in question, having entered quietly, sings, “I see. This is what it has come to.” Seems so. I specify the moment in time because our story bounces about in same. The reader familiar with precedents — the writings, for example, of Ronald Firbank or perhaps the novel A Nest of Ninnies by the poets John Ashbery and James Schuyler — will recognize Powder Her Face’s bitchy-camp tone as an expression of a tradition now entirely extra-closet. Yet one is tempted to observe that a stage work such as this stands very much as a handsomely wrought — I almost wrote overwrought — attribute of our postmodern, separatist culture. In terms of art for art’s sake, there’s no denying Adès his place in the Hall of Living Treasures. I am less accepting of the opera’s high-camp tone, but that of course is a question of taste, about which the old, well educated sage remarked, non est disputandum. Critic Andrew Porter’s insert essay posits Adès among the hottest young talents to hit British music in an age.
Adès’s writing for voice and the Almeida Opera’s chamber ensemble is tidy, punchy and thoroughly apt (three players doubling clarinets and saxophones, horn, trumpet, trombone, percussion, harp, accordion, piano, two violins, viola, cello, double bass). A pair of EMI Debut CDs prepares us the Powder Her Face’s strengths. One has only to listen to the orchestral tour de force, Living Toys [EMI Classics 5 72271 2]. Recommended as well is Life Story [EMI Classics 5 69699 2]. This well-recorded theater piece plays on my system a tad treble-tilted, owing perhaps to the curiously effective instrumentation.
BACH / GALBRAITH Sonatas and Partitas for Unaccompanied Violin Arranged by Paul Galbraith for 8-String Guitar Paul Galbraith (eight-string guitar) Delos DE 3232 (two CDs: 55:39; 62:15)
One certainly doesn’t want to get involved in classical music’s world’s-greatest-this-&-that parlor spats. Suffice that the editorial aerie’s experts have heard a few top-shelf guitarists in their day and consider that Paul Galbraith belongs among them. However, the British instrumentalist occupies a category unique to himself in that he plays an eight-string instrument of his own design, and an odd-looking bird it is! The resemblance to a cello is twofold: luthier David Rubio fashioned an instrument from the bottom of which emits an angled endpin terminating atop a wood resonance-chamber at the sides of which Galbraith positions his feet. The guitar’s neck rests on the player’s left shoulder. The sound in a live setting would be, one imagines, larger and bass-richer than is normally the case. This amplification is somewhat “blinded” by recording’s very nature, where microphone placement vis-à-vis the venue’s acoustic have quite a lot to say about the listener’s sense of presence and size. Still, Galbraith’s innovation, even on recording, sounds a special thing.
Whether you’re familiar with these solo-violin suites and partitas or a newcomer interested in expanding horizons, you’re well advised to go for this set. Galbraith’s transpositions to steroidal guitar cannot possibly offend the purest of purists. Musicians of Bach’s time were forever taking like liberties. Never mind the now moot piano-versus-harpsichord, recorder-versus-flute flaps: had Bach a premonition of recording, he might have been a touch more reluctant to borrow from himself for this or that week’s church or secular cantata. In 1958, the legendary Julian Bream submitted a magazine article in which he said that these Six Sonatas and Partitas are quite ideal for guitar transcription. An enchanted dilettante heartily concurs. A lovely, close-up, bass-rich recording, this. Taped in a church in Los Angeles by the likewise legendary John Eargle, with an assist by Jeff Mee. Remiro Belgardt produced. Way to go, Delos!
Luciano BERIO Sequenzas I-XIII Sophie Cherrier, violin (I); Frédérique Cambrelin, harp (II); Luisa Castellani, soprano (III); Florent Boffard, piano (IV); Benny Sluchin, trombone (V); Christophe Desjardins, viola (VI); Laszlo Hadady, oboe (VII); Jeanne-Marie Conquer, violin (VIII); Alan Damiens, clarinet (IX); Gabriele Cassone, trumpet (X); Eliot Fisk, guitar (XI); Pascal Gallons, bassoon (XII); Teodoro Anzellotti, accordion (XIII); Christian Wirth, alto saxophone (IX b) Deutsche Grammophon 457 038-2 (three discs: 53:22; 47:44; 56:46)
DG calls its new new-music series 20/21 and in so doing demonstrates a set of cojones in excellent working order: at a time of flaccid enterprise among classical music’s major labels, these thirteen-plus solo-instrument Sequenzas impress your reporter, an unapologetic new-music partisan, as an omen of hope. Another release in this series, Pierre Boulez’s Repons (which I’ve yet to hear), suggests that the present three-disc set may perhaps typify rather than stand beyond 20/21’s plans for the future.
Excepting three splendid Italians — soprano Luisa Castellani, trumpeter Gabriele Cassone, accordionist Teodoro Anzellotti — and the likewise splendid American guitarist, Eliot Fisk, the soloists are members of IRCAM’s stellar Ensemble InterContemporain in Paris. Everything about this production is exceptional: the handsome, slip-cased, fold-out packaging, the lucid notes, much of the writing the composer’s, the virtuoso solo performances, their handsomely detailed recordings dating from October, 1994 through July, 1997.
As for cojones: surface allure noted with praise, I cannot see this release as a best-seller, even in classical’s diminutive terms. Berio’s (so far) thirteen solo Sequenzas, plus a saxophone alternative for Sequenza IX, have little to recommend them to the timid &/or tune-addicted listener. As to virtuosity, so often put to the service of frivolous display, Berio acknowledges almost definsively: “Of the various elements that the Sequenzas have in common, virtuosity is the most obvious and external. I’ve every respect for virtuosity, even if that word can give rise to scornful sniggers, and may even conjure up the image of an elegant and rather diaphanous creature with agile fingers and an empty head. Virtuosity often springs from a conflict, a tension between the musical idea and the instrument … when technical preoccupations and performance stereotypes prevail over the idea, as is the case with Paganini, whose works, much as I love them, did little to disturb the history of music but did contribute to the development of violin technique.” Earlier in his essay, Berio explains that his Sequenzas take as their “point of departure a sequence of harmonic fields, from which spring, in all their individuality, the other musical functions. [The Sequenzas] have in common the intention of defining and developing through melody an essentially harmonic discourse and, above all when dealing with monodic instruments … of suggesting a polyphonic type of listening, based in part on the rapid transition between different characteristics, and their simultaneous iteration.” I find the mention of melody and harmonic discourse in this context startlingly specialized or perhaps even ironic and am puzzled by the notion of polyphonic listening. As something akin to circular breathing, but rather through the ears?
As our motley also includes comments on several Harry Partch CDs (which I urge you to read), I find this by Berio especially provocative in view of Partch’s inventions: “Another element that unifies the Sequenzas is my own sense that musical instruments cannot really be changed, nor can they be destroyed, nor indeed invented. A musical instrument is in itself a piece of the musical language. Trying to invent a new one is a futile and pathetic as might be any attempt to invent a new grammatical rule in our language. The composer can contribute to the evolution of musical instruments only by using them, and by trying to understand, often post factum, the complex nature of that evolution, reflecting as it does social, technological and economic conditions, and not merely musical and acoustical ones.” It would seem, then, that Berio’s Sequenzas, so challenging, so engaging alone and apart, bear a great load of extra-musical freight. One is no less rewarded ignoring their composer-essayist’s extravagant aperçus.
On a second, more attentive listening, Sequenza VII for oboe proved a mystery. These pieces are for solo instrumentalists, yet behind the oboe’s rather charming monologue there hovers a drone. How is this possible? In the large, well designed booklet, Berio speaks of the individual works: “In this Sequenza, the solo part is placed in perspective, is, as it were, analyzed by the constant presence of a ’tonic,’ a B natural that may be played, painissimo, by any other instrument off stage.” In the event, the able oboist, Laszlo Hadady, provides the “offstage” tonic thanks, as they say, to the “miracle” of recording. As Berio’s note does nothing toward explaining the term, one is similarly puzzled by Sequenza X’s subtitle, for trumpet in C and piano resonance. One hears a trumpet in what at first seems either an especially resonant or electronically enhanced space. No. The trumpet excites piano strings which resonate in close cooperation. A marvelous conception and no less marvelous coincidence. I played for guests yesterday (as I write) a near-jazz CD entitled Behind the Night in which one of my favorite instrumentalists, the saxophonist Urs Leimgruber, excites piano strings with an especially lusty blast. Berio: “The trumpet is used in a direct and natural way, and perhaps it is precisely this nudity which makes Sequenza X the most laborious of all my Sequenzas.” Hearing it rather as a brilliant showpiece, I respectfully demur.
A cursory check of my shelves and index cards confirms my suspicion that Berio’s Sequenzas are among his most popular works. Or perhaps I should make that, among those technically dazzling things instrumentalists most want to record. In any event, I have better than a dozen scattered in no systematic way thoughout my collection. Yet these present performances, so handsomely gathered, played and recorded, I heartily recommend. I also recommend their purchase ASAP. Majors in particular have this unsettling habit of abandoning certain releases in their toddlerhood. Not a prediction, rather a caution.
John CAGE Works for Prepared Piano: Mysterious Adventure. A Room. Tossed as It Is Untroubled. Primitive. Music for Marcel Duchamp. Totem Ancestor. A Valentine Out of Season. Sponteneous Earth. Root of an Unfocus. The Perilous Night. Daughters of the Lonesome Isle. The Unavailable Memory of. And the Earth Shall Bear Again. Triple Paced. Bacchanale. Prelude for a Meditation. In the Name of the Holocuast. Our Spring Will Come. Two Pastorales Markus Hinterhäuser (piano) col legno WWE 2CD 20027 (two discs: 50:50; 52:37)
To begin with the obvious: as a skewed memento of his significance, John Cage’s CDiscography boasts far more of his early composed music than his later, chance-motivated work. The reason for this is easy to grasp: for other than acolytes and those in pursuit of degrees in musicology, Cage’s conventionally and close-to conventionally composed music offers greater rewards, especially true of that for prepared piano, with its exotic, consistently transparent, often fast-paced and emotionally charged textures. (As Monika Fürst-Heidtmann’s good, tri-lingual notes to this col legno set remind us, Cage originally subverted the piano’s strings to mimic a percussion ensemble. I find turgidity and flights of incomprehensible prose-poetry close to epidemic among European note writers. Here, happily, lucidity prevails. The annotator dips a little deeper into technicalities than the casual reader requires, but always clearly, as far as she goes. She neglects to explain, as a significant omission, that In the Name of the Holocaust of 1942 is not a reference to the Nazi genocide. The music’s date and grim cast notwithstanding, Cage himself explained the title as a word-play on Holy Ghost, and what that’s about one can only guess at.)
The set’s title says Works rather than Complete Works, so there’s no deception afoot. Cage’s oft-recorded Sonatas and Interludes, surely from the evidence his best known composition for prepared piano, is among the missing. Another recent release, review below, fills the need.
By way of one comparison only, I’ve Margeret Leng Tan’s superb performance on New Albion [NA 037 CD] of The Perilous Night of 1944, one of Cage’s most emotionally charged works in this medium. Tan’s is by far the more Romantic reading in its relatively extravagant, Lisztian shadings, which is to say, the more richly nuanced in phrase and tempo; Hinterhäuser’s, the more relentlessly motoric. The interpretations stand worlds apart, and yet I find much to admire in either. I prefer the sonics of this excellent col legno production to that of New Albion, and the German pianist’s instrument is the more attactively sonorous. In that it provides a good deal of music probably difficult to find at this late date (I’m thinking of an old Wergo set), a most appealing release. Qualiton distributes col legno, for more about which, see my label report in La Folia 1:3.
John CAGE Sonatas and Interludes Aleck Karis (prepared piano) Bridge 9081 A/B (two discs: 64:43; 23:10)
I remark in the review above no dearth of recorded Sonatas and Interludes. It’s been called Cage’s masterpiece. I’ll play the contrarian for a moment by declaring the judgment, while certainly understandable, nonetheless odd, since Cage’s strong reputation among the European avant-garde especially rests on his sojourns in aleatory procedure. You can’t have it both ways, but never mind, we’re not here to argue. (I will, however, repeat the claim that Cage’s rather more listener-unfriendly aleatoric music as having had the greater influence among younger composers in Europe.) On an invaluable Wergo three-CD set [WER 6247-2], The 25-Year Retrospective Concert of the Music of John Cage, a recording of the a Town Hall (NYC) event in ’58, Maro Ajemian plays eight sonatas and two interludes. CRI’s American Masters CD 700 features Ajemian’s complete performance (sixteen sonatas separated into groups of four by four interludes) recorded and released as a two-LP set on Dial in ’51. Karis’s later competition is daunting: Yuji Takahashi on a probably o/p Denon [33C37-7673], recorded in digital in ’75 (yes, it’s true) and released ten years later; next, a performance by Julie Steinberg remarkable for its delicacy, released in ’96 on Music & Arts CD 937; and, as volume two of The Piano Works in Mode’s already huge and ongoing Cage survey, a performance by a German pianist, Philipp Vandré [Mode 50], in co-production with Hessian Radio. There may be others of which I’m unaware. The Steinberg and Vandré readings (to name two readily available) are, again, excellent. Bridge’s Becky and David Starobin (he of guitar fame) are canny businessfolk and one is therefore unsurprised to see Karis’s performance accompanied by a bonus CD of Cage reading Composition in Retrospect, recorded in Betty Freeman’s Music Room in Beverly Hills in 1981. I find Cage’s music more interesting that his words, which do tend to go on in a relatively prosaic, self-absorbed manner. But for the maven, Karis’s impeccable musicianship, along with a novel slice of lagniappe makes this Bridge highly recommendable. Jonathan Schultz’s nicely detailed recording and mastering does nothing to detract. William Daghlian produced. (Bridge included a similarly relevant bonus of a 56-minute CD ROM of photo montage and remarks by the composer in a 1997 performance by members of the California EAR Unit of Morton Feldman’s For Philip Guston [9078A/D], a four-plus-hour long masterpiece for piccolo / flute / alto flute, piano / celeste and percussion.
From James Pritchett’s notes to the Mode release (he’s an important Cage scholar): The composer “quietly and patiently built his large piece out of short structures. By constructing the work on a timeless foundation of Hindu aesthetics, he could make each piece perfect and unhurried; the focus could be on the subtle modulations of his voice. At its premiere some criticized the work for its monotony, but the lack of contrast is its strength. His earlier dramatic works speak loudly to grab out attention; this one instead speaks quiet to draw us in. It is as if we are sitting in Cage’s loft, straw mats on the floor, listening to him explore this softly-colored world.”
Marco DI BARI / A Portrait (Un)heavenly Lullaby. Six New-Classic Studies on the Physiology of Perception, for piano. First Fragment, for soprano, piano and live electronics. Prelude No. 1, for piano. First Sonata, for piano, with celeste, tubular bells, tam tam and gong Nicholas Hodges (piano, Prelude No. 1). Luisa Castellani (soprano). Massimiliano Damerini (piano) Ricordi Oggi CRMCD 1052 (66:24)
The first time I listened to Marco Di Bari / A Portrait, I got the feeling I’d been here before. Of course, Salvatore Sciarrino! The disc that jogged my memory is a solo-piano program on another Italian label [Dynamic CDS 82], something I reviewed for Fanfare about six years ago. The extraordinary difficulty of Sciarrino’s writing and the ease with which the pianist, Massimiliano Damerini, negociated this terrain isn’t something one easily forgets. Yes, there are resemblances connecting Di Bari (b. 1958) to Sciarrino, eleven years his senior, though less clearcut after having given the Sciarrino disc a replay. On a near pitch of hyperkinesis is the First Sonata of 1994 for piano with celesta, tubular bells, tam tam and gong, with its repetitions of the introductory motto to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The Beethoven motto appears as well in the first of Six Studies, which sound to have absorbed, much to the good, a hearty dose of Messiaen. The only work with an English title, (Un)heavenly Lullaby, employs a prepared piano to the soprano’s eerie recitation of Rock-a-By Baby and the Irish Too-Ra-Lura-Lura. Given what one know of the music of other Italians — Franco Donatoni (b. 1927) springs to mind — one might even remark the existence of something akin to a New York School, an unstructured gathering of consonant spirits, their shared ideal, lucid amplifications of summer-lightning abstraction.
The annotator speaks of Di Bari’s “lenticular vision.” The term suggests an esthetic position achieved through a lens, which further suggests a reduction on the composer’s part of the sweep of Western art music to a minute examination of parts or, in keeping with what I hear, of bright, crystalline fragments. In playing this program a number of times through, I think I’ve achieved an intiutive grasp of the annotator’s, but far more important, Di Bari’s meaning. Like Sciarrino, Di Bari composes challenging stuff, and Damerini continues to impress with his ease of execution and grasp. Not to neglect pianist Nicholas Hodges’ excellent way with Prelude No.1 of 1987, like First Fragment of 1997 for soprano, piano and live electronics, a brief, epigrammatic and of course mysterious. Robert Dow is credited for providing the electronic sounds; the good percussionist in First Sonata, however, goes uncredited. The recording sessions took place in Edinburgh as part of the MusicaItalia Festival in 1997. David McGuinness produced, Paul Sumerling recorded. Good sound a touch treble-tilted, but then, so’s the music.
Michael FINNISSY Folklore Michael Finissy, piano Metier MSV CD92010 (66:09)
Michael FINNISSY Works for String Quartet Kreutzer Quartet [Gordon MacKay, Neil Heyde, violins; Brigit Carey, viola; Peter Sheppard-Skæved, cello] Metier MSV CD92011 (65:54)
That the English composer Michael Finissy is a brilliant pianist I know from an earlier release. I’m also aware that Finissy’s music isn’t always about what titles suggest. Jonathan Cross, the annotator to the piano disc, English Country-Tunes [Etcetera KTC 1091], tells us that the “word ’country’ in the title [at first suggesting] something pastoral [is], in fact, a crude sexual pun on the first syllable … .” Yet one intuits from the music neither salacious nor sylvan connections. (You casual browsers who thought classical music a starched, lace-curtain affair, ha!)
That Finnissy stands among art music’s uncompromising modernists is similarly obvious from another Etcetera release, KTC 1096, featuring Câtana, for nine instruments, String Trio, and Contretänze, for six instruments. When I received from NMC’s American distributor, Qualiton Imports, a 19-minute “single” of Red Earth [NMC D040S], a work for large orchestra, I played the disc with an anticipation well and fully rewarded. More conventionally the tone poem, perhaps, than anything else of Finissy’s I know (which is really a small part of his oeuvre), the orchestral piece unfolds as a brilliantly crafted tour de force. I heartily recommend these three discs.
As I do this pair from Metier, with more to follow promised. Like so many independent labels, Metier too is a one-man operation in, however, all respects. David Lefeber serves as CEO, CFO, chairman of a board of one, producer, engineer and editor. However, before we get into David’s two good Finnissy releases, allow me to quote Richard Toop, annotator of the second Etcetera disc I mentioned. He speaks of the themes of Finissy’s recent work: ” … a search for possible melodic ’archetypes’ underlying all music, and for a kind of ’new music’ that will also seem like an imaginary folk music; an obsession with microtonal writing, and with the rich relationships that can be created within a very narrow musical space. And finally, an endless questioning of the living composer’s relation to ’tradition,’ both as a pseudo-evolutionary history and as an ever-increasing accumulation of intriguing artefacts … .”
I find some of this too high-flown to grasp, the business about archetypes, for example, which I certainly don’t sense in the listening (perhaps as a consequence of incomprehension). However, the composer’s fascination with microtonality is right out there and fascinating to an engaged bystander who wonders as he enjoys music at a gut level how the game — the big game — will play out. (One struggles with these millennial thoughts as an inescapable consequence of the calendar date.) Although the jailbreak’s scarcely hot news, one again observes that a great many composers have fled the rigidities of the Schoenbergian tone-row in a variety of ways including, for this listener among the most engaging and intellectually valid, microtonality. (For an egregious invalidity, you’ve only to consider the dumbed-down, neo-Romantic pabulum that collapses into exhaustion before a note is sounded.) Toop’s remark about an “imaginary folk music” also resonates, superficially in several of Finnissy’s titles, and rather more profoundly in what one hears as a kind of ecstatic spin on what might have been. If I had to characterize Finnissy’s music in a short sentence, I’d say that a sense of delerium informs almost everything I’ve heard. He does not so much establish a solid musical argument as lay out a giddy course along twisting, craggy, often mist-enshrouded paths. I’m reminded of something I read about night flying, how disorienting it is even to experienced pilots who cannot intuit where they are in relation to the horizon and, ingoring their instrument panel, sometimes arc straight into the ground. Which returns us to Finnissy, the experience of whose music, I assure the reader, poses no threat to survival. Reckless fellow that I am, I’ll go the extra step and suggest that you might even like it. For all of is avant-gardiste ferocity, Finnissy’s music intrigues the ear and as often as not caresses. And the craftsmanship’s impeccable, which counts for a lot.
The notes to the string-quartet disc are excellent. I somewhat understand why the sporadically Ivesian Plain Harmony I-III of ’93, ’95, and ’93 (in that order) contradict my too-glib sketch of Finnissy’s art. What we read in the notes but cannot sense in a two-channel disc even as well recorded as this addresses the players’ unconventional onstage relationships. Nor is it clear merely in the listening that Finnissy’s intentions are often disorganizational. Only two of the program’s seven works are fully, coherently scored. Consequently, a masterpiece such as Nobody’s Jig will differ reading from reading. (Novel, aspecific notational systems and the awarding to players freedoms earlier unknown is a not uncommon usage among modernist composers.) Formalities aside — one comments as a listener only — the disc reveals several masterworks: Nobody’s Jig of 1981 plays jigwise as anything but; like String Quartet of 1984, events flow through periods of quietude and exercised emotion, their demeanor less a matter of formal structure than glimpses of strange terrain revealing hint of familiar surroundings via the composer’s attraction to quaint modalities. As with the three Plain Harmonies, the program’s most recent work, Multiple Forms of Constraint, further reveals Finnissy’s interest in hymn and folk elements: ” … [T]he four instrumentalists are split into an unequal two. One one side … a tightly scored string trio dutifully ignore their pendant, a solo violin. … [T]he two camps seem to be exploring different materials, the soloist playing rhapsodic Bulgarian folk melodies, the trio weaving a shimmering web of quarter tones … ”
The piano disc, Folklore, “Works based on folk music,” Finnissy performing, reveals no disappointments with regard to the composer’s keyboard mastery. Fine pianists we have by the boatload, composers of Finnissy’s caliber, rather fewer. So here’s to a wise career move! The disc opens with a work 29:38 in length, Folklore II (1993-94). Consistent with earlier impressions, one struggles to detect blunt, unimbellished quotations, yet glancing suggestions abound, upholstered in remarkably supple atmospherics. In this Finnissy sounds to me unique. The “voice” is unmistakable, and we hear it as well in the notes, quite literally this time, when Finnissy observes that the personnel of his Three dukes went a-riding are Berg, Schoenberg and Webern. “In general, these pieces are composite and dialectical rather than singular, drawing on different (not necessarily harmonious) cultures and aesthetic values. ’We are all bearers of some sort of folklore’ writes [A.L. Lloyd, author of Folk Songs in England], and Folklore is intended as an investigation of my own cultural — primarily musical — assimilating.” Top-tier music and recording. Congratulations, David Lefebre.
FIRST AVENUE Shreds of Evidence William Kannar (double bass, guitar, electronics, computer); C. Bryan Rulon (piano, synthesizers, electronics, voice); Matt Sullivan (oboe, English horn, electronics, digital horn) oodiscs oo50 (63:02)
Although the three-man ensemble Shreds of Evidence its their first solo CD, First Avenue, which describes itself as The Electroacoustic Trio (no modest An but rather The), has been making music together for 17 years, and it shows. This is one of the most inventive, remarkably integrated self-music trios I’ve heard, with self to be taken in the jazz sense, where a group performs pieces by one, several, or all of its members. In First Avenue’s atypical case, turns on pop standards do not occur, not here at least, nor can one anywhere near accurately call this stuff jazz. One is tempted to, however, owing to an affinity to jazz by way of the trio’s improvisatory demeanor, whether or not they do in fact improvise en route. Not in the least important. In matters esthetic, it is after all the observer’s intuition, his sense of what’s going on, that counts: the old business about the eye of the beholder, in these events, the ear. A work of art first has to penetrate one’s sensorium. While I cannot call what First Avenue does genteel — it would in fact point on my part to a judgment so impaired as to suggest hallucination or worse — the trio remains, even at moments over the top, of which there are no few, amazingly coherent.
Early in the morning of the day after I wrote these thoughts, for no particular reason I dropped in on track eight, Squeeze Gently, only to discover a serendipitous reassurance that the enthusiasms above expressed are not the effluvia of a euphoric rush. A delicious, puckish humor informs remarkably complex interactions, none of which pander to anything approaching an obvious gesture. Heartily recommended except perhaps to the congenitally meek.
Annie GOSFIELD Burnt Ivory and Loose Wires Annie Gosfield (sampling keyboards). Roger Kleier (electric guitar). Christine Bard (drums, percussion). Jim Pugliese (percussion). Ted Mook (cello). ROVA: Bruce Ackley (soprano saxophone); Steve Adams (alto saxophone); Larry Ochs (tenor saxophone); Jon Raskin (baritone saxophone) TZADIK TZ 7040 (41:05)
Most unladylike music. Brutalist, cacophonous, assaultive — in a word, a treat. In truth, I overdo the encomia to aggression. The second of seven numbers, Freud, is nasty-sounding certainly, but in a pervesely dreamy way. This is downtown goods; one recognizes affinities to colleagues quick and gone, but Gosfield’s an original, there’s no mistaking that. She also writes good notes, thank God.
On the one hand there’s music, on the other, recording. A disc’s (in many instances artificial) sense of space can work, as it does here, in positing a mood: enclosed, musty, imprisoned. We sense little daylight. A hellish glow rather, dull red, or perhaps gradations of dusty grey. Bad for asthmatics. In this regard, the disc’s rather ruinous-sounding title cannot be bettered. To the innocent ear, the loose wires are those of a much-in-need-of-attention upright. If the credits didn’t say sampling keyboards, I’d have bet the dungeon that Gosfield sat at something salvaged from an old-timey saloon. A purely acoustic work, Brawl, has the Rova Saxophone Quartet at some rather impressive contrapuntal subversions. In proper downtown fashion, Gosfield plays about with microtones and timbres I hesitate to guess at, even though the notes are careful to explain the various sounding components that go into these intriguing pieces. Strong, apocalyptic stuff, not pretty, no no, but audiophiles may be interested to hear that, played loud, molars will tremble and eardrums implode.
Susan GRAHAM La Belle Époque / The Songs of Reynaldo Hahn Susan Graham (mezzo-soprano). Roger Vignoles (piano) Sony Classical CD SK 60168 (62:15)
Recognition arrives in curious, disjunct ways. Time was when cognoscenti viewed Reynaldo Hahn (1875-1947) as a breezy dandy who wrote bantamweight salon music. Several excellent recordings of Hahn’s quite remarkable mélodies have seen to a course correction with regard to a composer’s worth. I have in an incomplete CD collection two all-Hahn discs of song, and three of mixed programs that include Hahn. Yet, as high as his stock of late has risen, I can think of no vocalist who does a better job of making the composer’s case that the American mezzo Susan Graham, whose accompanist, Roger Vignoles, paints the lily with luminous tact, as befits a fine musician in support of another.
A student of Massenet and musical conservative, Hahn was himself an accomplished singer and so entertained at Paris salons, raffish cigaret hanging from his lips. Of extramural interest is a youthful intimacy with Marcel Proust, who translated the composer into a poetic genius in his novel Jean Santeuil. Hahn’s genius is poetic right enough, in that he sets verse of the highest quality — Banville, Gautier, Verlaine, Hugo, Lahor and others — with a sensitivity equaled on occasion but rarely bettered. The best-known of this 24-song program, Si mes vers avaient des ailes, to words by Hugo, Hahn wrote at age 13! When audiophile pay a call, this usually appears among my demo discs. High marks to Producer Grace Row and Engineer Jeremy Caulton for achieving the ideal balance of intimacy and space.
Piers HELLAWELL Truth or Consequences. Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You. Michael ALCORN Making a Song and Dance. Perichoresis. Kevin VOLANS Into Darkness Sequenza (Ensemble) Neuma 450-97 (66:31)
As a convenience, both headnotes lead off with Piers Hellawell, which makes excellent sense with regard to the Metronome release, since it consists in its entirely of Hellawell’s music. The Neuma disc is entitled Making a Song and Dance, and that’s probably how you’d find it shelved in your neighborhood record shop (with “neighborhood” expanded in these global times to include cyberspace). The Massachusetts-based Neuma is a label I’ve long been familiar with; many years ago, I interviewed its Once and Future Mover, Shirish Korde (himself a composer), for Fanfare. Metronome is new to me.
Hellawell’s an English composer born in ’56. I will not presume to summarize Stephen Johnson’s superb notes to the Metronome release but rather remark with envy his smooth summary of present-day art music’s dilemma, as in (to paraphrase only fragmentarily) the disintegration of Schoenbergian orthodoxy and its aftermath. It’s a concise, fascinating read.
Which is all by way of saying that Hellawell, struggling (as do all good, conscientious composers) to find his way, succeeds. A blurb on the Metronome’s traycard bears repeating: “The music … conjures a landscape of frozen forms.” It’s quite true. These five pieces are cool in demeanor and emotionally quiescent, a delicate transparency their salient characteristic. Mood, however, abounds, almost all of it subdued. Hellawell’s instrumental textures and statements are those of magnified snowflakes. As to the Cringe Factor: the art music of our time ranges in terms of its target audience from “Cognoscenti Only Need Apply” to “Airheads Welcome” — from Luigi Nono, if you will, on down the slope. Hellawell falls at neither extreme. In terms of place, he’s not all that far from the Arctic Circle. Remarkably, it’s an inviting milieu owing by and large to his music’s polish and poise, nor does the composer challenge the casual listener with in-your-face rhetoric. Further, there’s just enough of a vestigial minimalist clarity to suggest an air of familiarity. Very attractive indeed, most ably performed. Handsomely recorded too.
The Neuma disc repeats Truth or Consequences, its title inspired by a town in New Mexico so named, which Hellawell took in an entirely laudatory spirit as an enigma inviting expansion, not realizing that the curious handle came about by way of a contest sponsored by the eponymous, then popular game show. A present-day equivalent might be a place called Oprah in Utah. The surprise here is Oh Whistle and I’ll Come for You, for cello and flutes, as an atypically Romantic, subtropical utterance. Were the Neuma’s insert not missing a page, I’d tell you more. Suffice to remark that Michael Alcorn and the widely recorded South African Kevin Volans make for worthy traveling companions. A well-done Anglo-Irish production sounds to me well played.
Qualiton Imports distributes the British Metronome label; Jem distributes Neuma.
Eleanor HOVDA Ariadne Music: Onyx. Song in High Grass. Snapdragon. Leaning into and Away. Ariadne Music Charlotte Regni (soprano). Prism Players, Jeanine Water (conducting) oodiscs oo46 (62:17)
Reviews of the music of James Tenney and Eleanor Hovda in the same Motley takes the word for a long, long walk. I cannot think of two living composers farther separated in purpose and technique. In my Tenney review, I apply the term conceptual to (if I may say so) useful effect. Tenney seems to this listener primarily concerned with matters aural by definition and cerebral by studious choice. Eleanor Hovda’s purpose, and again I take no daring leap, is evocation of mood and place, and she succeeds at this remarkably well.
Song in High Grasses is a 12-minute piece for soprano, flute, cello and piano. In the composer’s words, it is built “around a yodel call which [Charlotte Regni] learned as a child living in Zaire … The piece is a sonic visualization of an imaginary outdoor space with tall grasses, large plants, warm winds and somnolent insects, birds and beasts. The call-song floats and dances in the ambience of wind, rustling grasses and creature sounds.” Indeed, this air of enchanted though not always quiescent trance wafts throughout the disc entire. Song in High Grasses’ instrumentation falls to the scant side. Onyx, by contrast, calls for flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, trumpet, two violins, viola, cello and double bass. The title work, Ariadne Music, evokes not the myth of a woman abandoned, viz., Strauss’s opera Ariadne auf Naxos, but rather the story of Theseus’s escape from the Minotaur’s Labyrinth by means of Ariadne’s ball of thread. Hovda: “The trail is unbroken, as the sound-skein, loosened and tightened, changing texture and resonance, threads its multi-directional path.” Absolutely yes, magical stuff. The excellent Prism is a “subset” of the Prism Chamber Orchestra of NYC founded in 1983 by the late Robert Black. Producer-Engineer-Editor Adam Abeshouse’s recording is appropriately atmospheric. Should this prove your cup of scented tea, try Borealis, performed in a mixed-program by Relache oodiscs oo17 and Coastal Traces, oo29, the first of these two all-Hovda releases.
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