Dmitri Tymoczko – Crackpot Hymnal (CD Review)

crackpot hymnal

Dmitri Tymoczko

Crackpot Hymnal

Bridge Records CD

In recent decades, there’s been a move in some American academic circles to put more separation between the disciplines of music composition and music theory. It seems especially curious to those of us who have, to greater or lesser degrees, modeled our careers and aesthetics on our forebears, adopting the “composer-theorist” approach (some of us even adopt the “composer-performer-theorist” tag, but that’s another story for another day). Happily, academics like Dmitri Tymoczko thrive, pointing out that a hyphenated or, more properly, interdisciplinary existence is still amply possible without compromising one’s standing in either or both disciplines.

Tymoczko is one of the best known scholars discussing geometric modeling in music theory; his “The Geometry of Musical Chords” was the first music theory article published in Science Magazine; his first book, A Geometry of Music (Oxford University Press, 2011) is thought-provoking and, given its subject matter, surprisingly accessible: It has engendered a great deal of discussion in music theory circles. However, Tymoczko teaches at Princeton University in the Composition Area; while many important theorists have studied at Princeton, there is no Theory Department in the Graduate Music program, only Composition and Musicology.

On his first CD, Beat Therapy (Bridge, also 2011), Tymoczko flexed his third stream muscles, presenting a program of concert works influenced by jazz including improvised solos. Crackpot Hymnal, his second recording for the Bridge imprint, features fully notated chamber pieces played by estimable ensembles: the Amernet and Corigliano Quartets and the Illinois Modern Ensemble with pianist Daniel Schlossberg. The pieces address crossover, or polystylism, though, for the most part, instead of jazz, popular and rock styles interact with folk and modern classical music. Given Tymoczko’s early background playing popular music, and his subsequent theoretical writings that point out the ways that geometrical modeling of scales and chords is applicable to the analysis of both classical and popular music, his exploration of similar issues in his compositions makes perfect sense.

He has a bit of fun as well with this idea of similarity of collections between disparate styles. In the album opener, The Eggman Variations (2005), a quintet for pianist John Blacklow and the Corigliano Quartet, the first movement, titled “Pentatonia,” overwhelmingly employs pentatonic collections. But is the listener guided to hear them as aspects of Asian folk music, Impressionist chamber music, or box riffs by a guitarist in a garage band? Depending on where you are in the piece, it could seem to be any one, or several, of these archetypal references to a five-note scale. Alongside the glissandos one might expect, permutations of chordal extensions (7th chords, 9th chords, et cetera), populate the piece’s second movement, “Bent.” “A Roiling Worm of Sound” (what a fantastic title) mixes multiple layers of ostinato repetitions into an ebulliently undulating whole.

Another aspect of polystylism that Tymoczko embraces in these pieces is the ever-expanding condition of our varied digital music libraries, with the concomitant use (abuse?) of the shuffle button on our iPod, iTunes, or other digital delivery system. With a few clicks of a mouse or remote, listeners can leapfrog throughout music history and a plethora of musical geographies. Typecase Treasury (2010), another piano quintet for Kevin Weng-Yew Mayner and the Amernet Quartet, is a seven-movement suite of miniatures that revels in stylistic juxtaposition. It is neoclassicism versus post-minimalism in “Where We Begin.” “Hurdy Gurdy” channels Nancarrow in its not-so-well oiled musical motor and bluesy cast. Sheared off blocks of angular rhythms and deliberately schmaltzy chords inhabit “Crackpot Hymnal” in a quirky coexistence. You can imagine what happens in “This One was Supposed to be Atonal.” The composer describes “Russian Metal” as “Shostakovich orchestrating Black Sabbath,” which is a nice summation for this simmering aural snapshot.  “Intermezzo” explores polytonality and harmonics in an appealingly piquant scoring that seems to take Bartók as its starting point. “Anthem” brings the piece to a close in rollicking fashion, bringing back some of the material from the opening, but transformed into a kinetic finale.

This Picture Seems to Move (1998), is also played by the Amernet Quartet. Even though it is a relatively early Tymoczko work, one can already hear a penchant for juxtaposition. Its first movement’s title, “Twittering Machine,” is a Paul Klee reference; obviously, it significantly predates our default assumptions about “twittering” today. It pits a modernist rhythmic language against a neoromantic harmonic palette.  The work’s other movement, titled (after Boccioni) “Those Who Go,” features a beautifully brooding quasi-tonal melody alongside five-against-three pizzicatos.

The recording’s final piece, Another Fantastic Voyage (2012), is a chamber piano concerto. Schlossberg and the Illinois Modern Ensemble supply a rousing performance of the piece, which is filled with abundant virtuosity for the soloist and hairpin turns and tricky rhythms aplenty for the sinfonietta. Its title references Asimov, and one can image the subtitles being the names of short stories by Ray Bradbury. As the three movements’ monikers – “The Mad King,” “Changeling,” and “An Evil Carnival” – suggest, this is a piece in which Tymoczko is willing to explore darker thematic terrain. It is also where he best demonstrates a flair for the dramatic.

Once again, we hear the composer unwilling to take received norms – the formality of the concerto form, for instance – at face value. Instead he seeks to subvert our expectations of what a piano concerto does by placing it inside the inspirational context of genre fiction. Of course, the piano concerto is one of the classical forms that is longest in the tooth, and there are a significant number of 20th and 21st century works that seek to deconstruct it. That Tymoczko is able to find still another way to reframe the concerto design is no mean feat. If you are one of those who distrust the “hyphenated” contingent of composer-theorists, assuming their music is overly cerebral and lacking immediacy, take a listen to this piece. When one hears its vividly orchestrated and vibrantly paced carnival ride closer, all bets are off.  You’ll likely think twice before making extravagant claims about “interdisciplinary types” again.

- Christian Carey

Dan Deacon: “Guilford Avenue Bridge” (Video)

dandeacon1728

You don’t get … carsick … do you?

DAN DEACON – Tour Dates

02-08 Bristol, UK – The Fleece
02-09 Dublin, IE – Whelans
02-10 Belfast, IE – The Black Box
02-11 Glasgow, UK – Stereo
02-12 Leeds, UK – Brudenell Social Club
02-13 London, UK – Village Underground
02-15 Paris, FR – La Maroquinerie
02-16 Nantes, FR – Stereolux
02-18 Metz, FR – Les Trinitaires
02-19 Rotterdam, Netherlands – Rotown
02-20 Kortrijk, Belgium – De Kreun
02-21 Utrecht, Netherlands – Ekko
02-22 Hamburg, Germany – Molotow
02-23 Malmo, Sweden – Debaser
02-24 Aarhus, Denmark – Voxhall Atlas
02-26 Oslo, Norway – Revolver
02-27 Stockholm, Sweden – Debaser Slussen
02-28 Cophenhagen, Denmark – Copenhagen Jazzhouse
03-07 Boston, MA – House of Blues*
03-08 Montreal, QC – Metropolis*
03-09 Toronto, ON – Danforth Music Hall*
03-11 Cleveland, OH – House of Blues*
03-12 Covington, KY – The Madison Theater*
03-13 Nashville, TN – Marathon Music Works*
03-15 Royal Oak, MI – Royal Oak Music Hall*
03-16 Chicago, IL – Riviera Theatre*
03-17 Madison, WI – Orpheum Theatre*
03-18 Minneapolis, MN – First Avenue*
03-20 St. Louis, MO – The Pageant*
03-21 Kansas City, MO – Midland Theater*
03-22 Denver, CO – Ogden Theatre*
03-23 Salt Lake City, UT – Depot*
03-24 Boise, ID – Treefort Music Fest
04-20 North Adams, MA – Mass MoCA
04-27 New York, NY – The Metropolitan Museum of Art

* = w/ Animal Collective

Anna Gourari: Canto oscuro

2255_Gourari_PF3.jpg

If you have not yet heard Canto oscuro pianist Anna Gourari’s recent debut for ECM Records, you are missing out.The CD’s program combines affecting performances of transcriptions by Ferrucio Busoni of chorales and the Chaconne in d-minor by J.S. Bach with modern repertoire by Paul Hindemith and Sofia Gubaidulina (another Chaconne). The recording shows Gourari capable of performing repertoire in a wide range of moods: from the brash Ragtime movement found in the Hindemith suite to the gravitas and grandeur required in the Bach/Busoni transcriptions. One through line: she makes technically demanding repertoire sound far too achievable by mere mortals.

I’d hoped to get a chance to hear her live tonight in a performance at the German Consulate in New York, but it was not to be. I’ll have to content myself with the luminous performances on Canto oscuro and hope she visits New York again soon.

Naxos’ Vol. 2 of Guerra Manuscript Transcriptions

Guerra Manuscript Volume 2

Juan Sancho, tenor;

Ars Atlantica, Manuel Vilas, Director

Naxos CD 8.572876

On this, Ars Atlantica’s second volume of songs from the Guerra Manuscript, one hears a cornucopia of early baroque signatures refracted through the prism of Iberian culture and legendary tales. The document, named after the scribe José Miguel Guerra, who is credited with transcribing it, contains a number of songs composed during the second half of the Seventeenth century; some anonymous, others attributed to Juan Hidalgo (1614-1685), harpist for the Spanish Royal Chapel and theatre composer.

The particular song genre preserved in the Guerra Manuscript is known as tonos humanos, a Spanish response to Italian solo madrigals and English consort songs that prizes syllabic text setting and propulsive rhythmic articulations. Juan Sancho’s warm robust tenor is ably countered by the nimble delivery of Ars Atlantica under the direction of Manuel Vilas. Once those who think there’s little buried treasure left to discover amid early music manuscripts hear this, they will likely change their tune.


Best of 2012: BMOP

Boston Modern Orchestra Project, continues to be persuasive advocates for American composers: both live and on CD. Under the direction of Gil Rose, BMOP is one of the few orchestras devoted to American music that regularly – and prolifically – records. Their imprint, BMOP sound, released several noteworthy recordings in 2012. Among my favorites was a double CD of John Harbison’s opera Winter’s Tale, a relatively early work that boasts a wonderfully pungent and engaging score.

Stream: Winter’s Tale, opening (via File Under ?’s Tumblr page).

Best of 2012: Ty Segall

Prolific yet unpredictable, Ty Segall is a standard bearer for the most recent group of artists who have managed to resuscitate garage rock and punk, genres that some thought had already been mined of all their freshness by several previous such returns. The Ty Segall Band’s In the Red release Slaughterhouse is one of three recordings on which Segall appears in 2012: he also recorded Twins under his own name via Drag City and Hair with White Fences.

 

There’s little doubt that Iggy Pop and the Stooges are patron saints of Segall and company. The singer’s throaty cries also channel Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Eric Burdon in places. Yes, he has collected the right records; but Segall’s isn’t living the garage punk experience secondhand. The seemingly restless creativity that fuels his prolific streak also inhabits the nervous energy and chaotic spirit of Slaughterhouse, Twins, and Hair. All three recordings exude a swaggering ebullience that can’t be faked or finessed by hype proliferators.

 




File Under ?’s Best of 2012: Rangell and Schiff’s Bach CDs

Bach: The Art of Fugue
Andrew Rangell, piano
Steinway & Sons CD

 

Bach: Das Wohltemperiete Clavier
András Schiff, piano
ECM Records CD

Those who read this site likely already know that I have a soft spot for well performed renditions of J.S. Bach’s music. That said, I’ve seldom felt as strongly about a recording of The Art of Fugue that employs piano instead of harpsichord or ensemble as I do about Andrew Rangell’s recent disc for Steinway & Sons’ label. Let’s face it, even with all of the contrapuntal intricacies and rhythmic variety that Bach employs in constructing this late masterwork, it is still a whole lot of unabated d-minor to which to listen. In their interpretations, too many pianists go too far one way or the other: pretending that they are playing a harpsichord and supplying their recording with attendant quirks or instead ignoring period practices altogether and allowing their pacing to become inert, their tone stodgy, and the work as a consequence to seem bloated. Rangell’s got the “Goldilocks solution” for Art of Fugue; with lively pacing and  rhythmic vitality but without ignoring the capabilities of the glorious Steinway grand at his disposal, the pianist’s recording seems “just right” yet still capable of affording surprises.

Another excellent recording released this year that seems “just right” in its approach to Bach is pianist András Schiff’s latest rendition of both books of the Well-Tempered Clavier for ECM Records. Schiff is a pianist I’ve long regarded as a musical touchstone: one of the finest interpreters of Bach at the piano and a necessarily solid  counterweight to some of Glenn Gould’s extravagances and extroversion. His WTC for ECM demonstrates detailed preparation as well as intimate familiarity with all of the preludes and fugues; no doubt this is abetted by a rigorous performance scheduled incorporating these pieces. Schiff is also willing to take risks and try some different interpretations this time out. He never treats the Bach oeuvre as an ossified canon, but as an evolving document in which composer and interpreter can engage in a kind of dialogue, separated by centuries but united in this stirring music.

 

File Under ?’s Best of 2012: Godspeed You! Black Emperor

Godspeed You! Black Emperor

Alleluia! Don’t Bend! Ascend!

Constellation Records

 

Alleluia! Don’t Bend! Ascend!, Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s first studio recording in a decade, is a powerful wallop of gale force proportions. It seemed only appropriate, then, that we kept it in frequent rotation during our recent weathering of “Frankenstorm” Sandy. Doubtless, some reached for musical “comfort food” of a different sort.

 

A couple of the tracks on Alleluia! Don’t Bend! Ascend! are familiar to fans as mainstays of the band’s live shows; the rest of the material is new. The old tag for the type of music that GY!BE make is “post-rock.” The old saw about the shape of pieces written in this genre: “They start out quiet and get progressively louder – one long crescendo.” While there are a number of pieces in their catalog that could be described as having rough contours that resemble this description, it was reductive a decade ago and is even more inapt today.  Godspeed still prefers long form pieces, but there are plenty of details that depart from the script of “inexorability” and instead provide contrasts and detours. In short, they are as musically engaging as ever. But why are they back now?

 

With an affinity for leftist political positions, GY!BE seems to have returned to the field at a curious, yet opportune time. Departing in the midst of Bush the younger’s “reign” and absenting themselves during Obama’s tepid first term, one might guess that the band refrained from recording and, until 2011, touring, as a gesture akin to throwing up one’s hands at the absurdity of it all. Again, that’s a reductive oversimplification; the group’s members have been busy with various other projects and one needn’t make a one to one correlation between their music and political activism.

 

That said, their return this fall, at the height of election season, is a reminder that many constituencies are not being well represented, either in Godspeed’s home country Canada or in the US, by the current political parties in power. While certainly no fans of conservatism, one imagines that this time out the band might be venting their spleen at those too divided or timid to push for real change. The yawps of fury and fortissimo bursts of sonic sheets evident on Alleluia! could be reckoned as a musical call to action for those disaffected on the left.

 

Never ones to make overtures in explicit terms in their lyrics, there is still something cathartic about hearing Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s abstract yet crystal clear musical essays in the wake of storms, the continued neglect of climate change’s impact, persistent wars, debt negotiations, and big money’s unfettered ascendance in the political arena. By demonstrating musical integrity in the face of a changing industry landscape, GY!BE reminds those who dared last time around to set their sights on “hope” that hope without hard work, follow through, and even a measure of stubbornness won’t get them closer to achieving their goals. Is it any wonder why Alleluia’s grim-faced stoicism and musical intensity seems particularly apt in late 2012, even after the specter of a Romney presidency has been banished? Welcome back.

 

 

Best of 2012: Aaron Cassidy on NMC (Recording Review)

Aaron Cassidy
A painter of figures in rooms
NMC Recordings (digital EP)

American-born and UK-based composer Aaron Cassidy created the vocal ensemble work A painter of figures in rooms for Ex Audi as part of the New Music 20×12 Cultural Olympiad.  It continues his research into extended tablature notation. Using this approach, details of the physicality of performance are specifically addressed, perhaps even more so than more traditional musical features. In a vocal ensemble work, this means that issues such as vowel space, approach to breathing, mouth and lip position, and gesture feature prominently.

While this notational approach would, at first glance, seem to leave room for significant variances between performances, Cassidy’s body of work occupies a distinctive and recognizable sound world that suggests a clarity of utterance conveyed by the tablature. When comparing his vocal music alongside Crutch of Memory, a recent disc of instrumental works recorded by the Elision Ensemble for Neos, certain qualities of sound surface as stylistic touchstones. Cassidy’s notation allows for an exploration of sliding between pitches, timbral adjustments, and fine gradations of microtones that would likely be cumbersome to notate in traditional Western fashion. Thus, while extremely complex and requiring a great deal from the performers, the resulting music takes on elemental concerns in organic fashion. The visceral vocalisms and muscularly effusive gestural profile of A painter of figures in rooms belie the notion that music in the “new complexity” or “second modern” vein is primarily an intellectual exercise. Instead, it often suggests uninhibited sensuality.

“Joseph, lieber, Joseph mein” (Video)

What a choral tag team! New York Polyphony joins forces with Anonymous 4 in a perfect performance of Praetorius (video below).

One of the best choral CDs of 2012: EndBeginning, a release by New York Polyphony. With a program preponderantly built from sixteenth century polyphonic treasures – alongside a work from the 14th century by Machaut and one by living composer Jackson Hill – the CD charts a moving trajectory from grief to hope to transcendence. All of the works are sumptuously sung. It is particularly fortunate the ensemble has turned their attentions to Crecquillon and Brumel, who deserve wider currency. One is glad also for the inclusion of the mid-Renaissance gem “Absalon Fili Mi,” which again is performed movingly. A little musicological caveat: many scholars now attribute the piece to Pierre de la Rue, not Josquin, as the CD’s booklet avers.