Meredith Monk turns 74 today. An early birthday present came from ECM Records on November 4th: a recording of Monk’s On Behalf of Nature project. We do not have the benefit of language: the “text” consists of songs, chants, and syllabification in unknown tongues. And there is no narrative per se, but there are clues present in the piece’s sound world that readily suggest its environmental message: at times with clarion calls; at others, with poignant vulnerability.
Joined by a versatile troupe of vocalists (many of whom also play instruments on the recording), Monk sings with tremendous vigor and impressive range. The panoply of extended techniques on display, both vocal and instrumental, elicit a veritable catalog of sounds. Some are imitative of all manner of fauna: insects, birds, and mammals. Vocal play with “nonsense” syllables moves between jazz scat and primordial language. Likewise, the materials inhabited by the instrumental forces coexist between rustic primitivism, minimalist ostinatos, and sophisticated microtonality.
Monk is not afraid to make sounds that aren’t conventionally “pretty:” howls, chittering, and screaming among them. However, she often manages to evoke beauty even in the most raw and unconventional moments of On Behalf of Nature. It is as if we are being implored, by any means necessary, to attend more fully to the world around us. While we are deprived the visual and choreographic elements of its staging in this audio-only recording (one hopes ECM might consider producing a film of the work’s acclaimed stage incarnation), the music is amply impressive all by itself. It is Meredith Monk’s birthday, true, but her gifts are shared with us.
Steve Reich turns 80 today. I can’t think of a better way to fete the composer on record than DG’s recent reissue of the 1974 recording of Drumming. Performed by Reich and “Musicians,” it presents one of the seminal works in his catalog. Drumming rounded out the first “phase” of his career (sorry, couldn’t resist), and it was followed by pieces that explore intricate pitch relationships and, from the 1980s onward, an increased interest in historical context and dramatic narrative. The triple LP set also contains the vital works Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices, and Organ and Six Pianos.
A new piece by Reich will be unveiled at Carnegie Hall on November 1st. Thus, he remains an imposing presence in the field of contemporary classical music. Happy birthday Mr. Reich, and many more.
On September 15, Ensemble Signal, conducted by Brad Lubman, presented an all-Steve Reich program to open the season at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre. There was a sold out crowd, populated both by contemporary music devotees and over 200 Columbia students. Reich turns eighty later this year, and this is one of the many birthday concerts that will fete the composer.
Signal has recorded several albums of Reich’s music, including a 2016 release on Harmonia Mundi that features his Double Sextet and Radio Rewrite, recent works that demonstrate the undiminished energy and invention of their creator. The Miller Theatre concert focused on two sets of “variations,” composed in the prior decade: Daniel Variations (2006) and You Are Variations (2004). The amplified ensemble featured a superlative small complement of singers, a string quintet, a quartet of grand pianos, and a bevy of percussion and wind instruments. They were recording the concert, one hopes for subsequent release.
Daniel Variations is, in terms of instrumentation, the slightly smaller of the two. Alongside the aforementioned piano/percussion group, Reich employs a quartet of vocalists (two sopranos and two tenors, singing in a high tessitura for much of the piece), string quartet, and two clarinets. There are two textual sources for the piece. The first are the words of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who, while reporting on the conflict in Pakistan in 2002, was captured and killed by Islamic extremists. These are offset by quotations from the Book of Daniel, a text from the Old Testament of the Bible. The texts underscore Pearl’s Judaism and also his love of music (he was an amateur string player). Indeed, the last movement of the piece, “I sure hope Daniel likes my music, when the day is done,” is a trope on a Stuff Smith song, “I Sure Hope Gabriel Likes My Music,” found in Pearl’s record collection after his death.
You Are Variations finds Reich exploring texts from his spiritual roots, including Psalm 16, quotes from the Talmud, the Hasidic Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, and Wittgenstein (Reich’s undergraduate thesis subject). Musical quotes are diverse as well, ranging from L’Homme Arme to a song by James Brown. The harmony is prevailingly in D mixolydian but unorthodox bass progressions and layering often give it a polytonal feel. From where I was sitting, the vocals seemed a little recessed in favor of the winds, something that I am confident can be worked out in subsequent mixing of the projected recording. It still worked live, giving the impression that the singers were sometimes supported by the ensemble and sometimes vying in a struggle for discernment of the weighty texts.
Lubman conducts Reich’s work with the authority of someone who has both an intimate knowledge of the scores and of the formidable musicians at his disposal. Reich seemed to approve. Taking the stage with trademark baseball cap firmly planted on his head, he volubly demonstrated his pleasure to everyone from Lubman to the sound designer. The percussionists, in particular, beamed as they accepted his greetings: they had done right by Reich.
Tomorrow, famed microtonal/just intonation composer Ben Johnston turns ninety. To celebrate his 90th birth year, the Kepler Quartet releases the third and final volume of their series of Johnston’s string quartets in April on New World.
Composer William Mayer turned ninety this past November. On Friday December 11th, Ardea Arts has supplied him with a slightly belated birthday gift, and audiences with a treat, by presenting his one-act opera One Christmas Long Ago (1962).
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Happy birthday to composer Terry Riley, who turns 80 today.
There are CD releases out this week to celebrate the composer. My assessment of ZOFO Plays Terry Riley appears in the CD Reviews section of Sequenza 21 and on my blog.
But wait, there’s more.
Nonesuch Records has done right by Riley. They have released One Earth, One People, One Love, a 5-CD boxed set of the complete recordings of Riley’s music composed for Kronos Quartet.The set contains a disc of unreleased tracks, Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collector: Music of Terry Riley. For those of you yelling – “No fair! I already have the Kronos discs. I want to buy the unreleased recordings as a separate CD!” – Nonesuch is allowing you to do just that, separately releasing these recordings on a single disc.
Once again, happiest of birthdays Mr. Riley! May you continue to write the eloquently beautiful music we have come to know and love for many years to come.
Today would have been Lukas Foss’s ninetieth birthday, and I’m remembering him fondly. Linked here is a piece I wrote for NewMusicBox, commemorating him after his passing in 2009. Thanks to Frank J. Oteri for digging it out of their online archives.
I’ve been greatly enjoying Third Coast Percussion’s new CD/DVD release on Mode. John Cage: The Works for Percussion 2 captures some of Cage’s early music in which he assisted both in the development of the percussion ensemble but also formulated a musical aesthetic in which rhythm took primacy over pitch; “noise” became a welcome part of music’s sonic spectrum. Third Coast’s rendition of the Constructions (particularly the First Construction “in Metal”) and their beautifully filmed, lighthearted yet earnestly delivered version of Living Room Music are can’t miss contributions to the spate of Cage releases in his centennial year.
As luck would have it, we still haven’t worked out that “cloned reviewer” thing. On Thursday, August 9th, I’m heading up to the Berkshires to Tanglewood’s Festival of Contemporary Music. Down here in New York at MoMA, Third Coast are the featured performers for the museum’s “John Cage Day.” At 6:30, they will perform a set in the Sculpture Garden that features the New York premiere of Renga: Cage: 100, a group of short (5-7 seconds) pieces commissioned by Third Coast to celebrate the Cage centennial. Works by Augusta Read Thomas, David Smooke, Paul Lansky, and many others are fleetingly featured!