(80 North 6th Street), composer and toy pianist David Smookewill celebrate the release of his New FocusCD Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death. Joined by album personnelloadbang, Karl Larson and Michael Parker Harley, Smooke will also perform and improvise on the toy piano. I recently caught up with him and discussed the new recording, compositional approaches, and some future plans.
Artwork: Alejandro Acierto.
What attracts you to composing for and performing on the toy piano?
The sound of the toy piano evokes an idealized childhood, the sort that no one I know actually enjoyed and yet many of us possess as a shared mental experience. I love having that association underlying my explorations of disturbing and unusual sounds. In addition, it’s relatively easy to travel with one—certainly compared to a cello—and I like that there’s a basic keyboard interface alongside all sorts of other ways to interact with the instrument. When I first started playing live, it was also a huge selling point to me that there isn’t a standard performance practice with the toy piano, so I could do what felt comfortable to me without feeling like there was going to be someone in the audience shaking their head at the way that I hold my hands or where I place my feet. I keep thinking that I’ll move on to other instruments, and have plans to build some original ones, but then I keep finding other things that I can make this little box do.
Did the macabre image of the title provide a jumping off point for the winds piece or was it incorporated latter on?
When I first discovered that the Nutshell Studies existed, before I even saw them in person, I knew that I would have to eventually use them as the title for a major toy piano piece. They are a remarkably close analogy to what I do with the toy piano in that they take something associated with childhood (dollhouses in this case) and treat them in a very adult manner. And even though they portray an extreme fascination with death, they are actual tools that are used to assist people studying forensic science, and so are not sensationalist or exploitative. So the title sets up the exact expectations that I want for the piece.
Photo: Britt Olsen-Ecker.
What microtonal tunings do you use in the wind ensemble piece? How did you manage to detune the banjo? What other tunings appear in your music?
Like you, I do enjoy lots of different temperaments! Since every toy piano is tuned differently from each other, and none of them are in anything close to equal temperament, I tried to place the toy piano within an environment where its unique scale wouldn’t sound too wrong. From the very first conceptualizations of the piece, I knew that I needed an instrument to link the toy piano to the ensemble, in this case, the banjo. Two strings of the five-string banjo are one quarter-tone sharp of their regular tuning, and in writing the part I was very specific as to which notes were played on which strings. And so we I created a continuum from the aleatoric tuning of the toy instrument, through the professional instrument with folk associations tuned in order to make it sound somewhat distorted, into the more standard concert instruments. In that piece, concert instruments use quarter tones as well. Some Details of Hell also uses a lot of quarter tones, in that case in order to explore resonance off of a single low pitch. In A Baby Bigger Than Up Was, I compose out the vowel formants from the repeated text, which required a more systematic approach to mictrotones, using naturally-tuned thirds and sevenths in addition to quarter tones.
Your text-setting often takes a deconstructionist or fragmentary approach. Tell us a little about how you view writing for the voice and texted scores in general.
I love words and writing! I love them so much that sometimes I can feel hamstrung when I try to set a text. And I think that the human voice remains the absolutely most beautiful and expressive instrument that we have yet created. So, for several years I avoided text entirely while writing for voice. Some Details of Hell is the last piece in which I took a published poem that I love and tried to set it as clearly as possible. In that case, I spent months analyzing the poem, including its line breaks, and figuring out exactly how I could do justice to Brock-Broido’s incredible sensitivity to language. A Baby Bigger Grows Than Up Was is my most recent work for voice, and marks my return to the idea of text setting. But the text for that piece is unique in that it’s a story with all of the hallmarks of a narrative but published in alphabetical order, beginning with 19 iterations of the word “a” and ending with nearly an entire page of punctuation. So, every word is set exactly as it was published, but the text itself is organized in a non-narrative manner. The excerpt on the CD brings us from “a” to “breathing” in five minutes, but the entire piece is nearly an hour long—it all gets pretty intense when we reach the ms and the 72 statements of the word “mom” and 442 of the word “my”!
The idea of looping appears in two different guises on the album: down.stream where you use a loop pedal on your toy piano and the overdubbed bassoons on 21 Miles to Coolville (bonus points for that title, by the way). Obviously, your music eschews a conventional approach to minimalism. But irregular sorts of repetitions prove to be a throughline, from your vocal settings to the aforementioned looping structures. How do you deal with repetition in your compositional language?
We never experience true repetition. Each time an event is encountered, we perceive it within a context, and any previous contact with that idea or similar ones colors the new experience. I’m fascinated by that idea and also by nature, where near repetition is quite common, but true repetition is almost unimaginable. I think a great deal about listening to the interaction between various bird calls, or predicting ocean waves, or watching rivers where the water is forever changing and forever the same. In my music, I try to play with these concepts by having ideas or words or motives recur but generally subtly changed. 21 Miles to Coolville (and thanks!) is completely written out, and has been played by four bassoons and also by Michael Parker Harley as a solo with prerecorded Harleys. The only difference in how I created to that piece from any previous compositions is that the quarter note pulse remains constant throughout. And my approach to looping pedal in my solo performances is a bit different from most people in that I generally am using it to create drones and sustained sounds, which are otherwise incredibly difficult to produce on the toy piano, and to allow for the buildup of more orchestral textures. When I was in high school, the music of the minimalist composers was one of my first entries into the classical music world, and I still adore minimalist and post-minimalist music and art. So, I feel the influence of that aesthetic very strongly, and try to be patient in my own music, allowing ideas to remain in place for as long as necessary, and I do sometimes enjoy unadulterated recurrence.
Tell us about the gig! How did you come together with National Sawdust to present a portrait concert? Who is playing and what will be on the bill?
With the new CD, I wanted to launch in New York, where so many of the performers live, as well as in my home of Baltimore. I’ve been hearing so many amazing things about National Sawdust, and I was fortunate enough to have them agree to host this concert. We’ll be presenting four of the six tracks from the CD, all performed by the players on the album: loadbang, the pianist Karl Larson, the bassoonist Michael Parker Harley, and myself. In addition, loadbang and I will improvise together to close out the show. I’m very excited to have this opportunity to share the stage with such amazing people and players!
What’s next for David Smooke? What projects are in the pipeline?
I’m going to be playing live quite a bit more than usual over the coming months, with shows in Boston on the Opensound Series on February 11 and in San Francisco at the Center for New Music on February 24, among others. And I’m working on a piece for the Baltimore-based Sonar Ensemble right now that uses a recording of a run on a nature trail near my home as the ground layer over which the ensemble will perform.
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After some one-off studio LPs for a variety of imprints, composer Steve Reich found his first label “home” with ECM Recordings (his second, Nonesuch, came after this triptych of recordings). Initially known primarily as a jazz label, ECM had decided to diversify its offerings to include classical artists such as Reich and Meredith Monk. The first of Reich’s ECM recordings, Music for Eighteen Musicians, sold more than 100,000 copies, which certainly encouraged producer Manfred Eicher to continue to take on ambitious classical projects, ultimately starting the New Series in 1984 to present Tabula Rasa, the first recording in a long term collaboration with Arvo Pärt.
The Reich reissues contain an informative set of liner notes by Paul Griffiths, who helps to provide valuable context for these works as part of Reich’s output. Music for Eighteen Musicians is a totemic Reich work, and the performance here is authoritative, lively, and dramatically paced. Its successor, Music for Large Ensemble, luxuriates in an expanded sonic palette with a greater number of winds and strings. Violin Phase is a holdover from Reich’s early style of patterned “phase music,” while Octet hews close to Music for Eighteen, providing a taut sound world filled with contrapuntal excursions set against Reich’s ubiquitous ostinatos. Whereas Violin Phase is a backward glance, Tehillim looks forward to Reich’s many texted works of the 1980s and beyond. That said, its use of canonic drums and clapping also bring it full circle to the composer’s early experiments. Another connection: the titular psalm texts are rendered by four sopranos, put in a similar register to that of the singers in Music for Eighteen Musicians. While also sustaining substantial growth and departures, Reich’s repertoire is filled with connections such as these. The ECM box may not tell the full story of his music, but it sketches the outlines of its trajectory in admirable fashion.
The trio I Am Three, consisting of alto saxophonist Silke Eberhard, trumpeter Nikolaus Neuser, and drummer Christian Marien, interpret compositions by the late Charles Mingus on their debut release for Leo Records (Eberhard has previously recorded for the label with different configurations). Mingus is, of course, a totemic figure in jazz. But he was a musician whose work can be seen from many angles, ranging from the neo-traditional – blues and early jazz signatures abound in his work – to modern jazz and the “Third Stream” experiments of the 1950s and 60s. All of this coexists in a mélange of stylistic plurality that still retains an individual stamp.
Thus, one might rightly think that Mingus would be a difficult composer with whom to grapple. While at first the muscularity of some of his best pieces would seem to indicate a durability that would allow for an open approach, artists who distort or exaggerate one aspect of his compositions’ multifaceted nature do so at the peril of unbalancing his nearly inimitable sound world. That is, in part, what makes I Am Three’s interpretations of Mingus so remarkable. The group manages to capture the spirit of piece after piece from his output with detailed touches that show careful study of the originals. At the same time, they bring original flourishes to the table, mostly by pushing Mingus’s music a bit further “out” than its original conception might have been. All of this is accomplished without a bassist.
For example, if one places I Am Three’s rendition of “Orange was the Color of her Dress, then Blue Silk” alongside Mingus’ various recordings of it, in solo piano and full band settings, the sense of homage is clear. The syncopated chordal refrain is kept intact, as is the chirping treble register interjection – here by Neuser instead of Mingus’s piano – juxtaposed against a loping swing saxophone solo by Eberhard. All the while Marien alternates between accentuating the refrains in unison with the horns and pushing the beat slightly ahead of them to better underscore the laconic character of the solos. This all eventually devolves into a tutti passage of free jazz howling, ironically capped off by a return of the refrain in slow swing time.
“Better Get Hit in Your Soul” loses the inimitable bass and piano parts. I Am Three dispenses the tune without imitating them, focusing instead on the enwrapped horn lines and revelling in the tune’s lively groove. Neuser’s growling muted trumpet intro is a memorable feature of “Fables of Faubus,” as his succeeding polyrhythmic duet with Eberhard.
On “Self Portrait in Three Colors,” Marien’s drumming takes on an almost rock-like heaviness. After a blistering upper register tutti, once again the horns play independently minded yet intertwining solo lines. “Canon” provides a natural album closer, demonstrating Mingus’ ability to employ rigorous compositional procedures while simultaneously placing them firmly in a traditional jazz vocabulary. Mingus, Mingus, Mingus was my favorite jazz release of 2016, one to which I continued to return with great pleasure for fresh insights. Recommended.
Choir of Clare College, Cambridge; Michael Papadopoulos, organ; Graham Ross, director
Harmonia Mundi CD HUM907653
On the Christian calendar, tomorrow (January 6th) is the Feast of the Epiphany. There are several aspects to Epiphany. First, it is the “Twelfth Day” after Christmas, and so ends the celebrations of that merry season. Second, it is the commemoration of Jesus the Christ’s baptism by John the Baptist. Finally, in the spirit of ending a party with a magnificent and mysterious flourish, it is also commemorates the Visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus.
It is this third aspect of Epiphany that has most often drawn composers to create music commemorating the festival. On the Harmonia Mundi CD Mater ora filium: Music for Epiphany,Graham Ross presents a program of primarily sixteenth and twentieth century selections. It is Ross’s seventh such recording for HM that is based around one of the events or seasons on the liturgical calendar. Here the interested believer may find much music that, in addition to being entertaining, informs them about the history of the liturgy. However, Christian and secularist alike can enjoy the high level of musicality and sheer beauty of the voices of the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge.
The hymn singing alone, accompanied with rousing verve by organist Michael Papadopoulos, is remarkable. It includes favorites like “As With Gladness, Men of Old” and “Hail to the Lord’s Anointed,” as well as a lovely rendition of “O worship the Lord in the beauty of Holiness!” Renaissance era motets are well represented. Omnes de Saba by Orlande de Lassus is a particularly jubilant album opener. Purity of tone from sopranos and sepulchral notes from basses are on display, and carefully balanced, in Jean Mouton’s Nesciens Mater. Clarity of contrapuntal lines feature in Clemens non Papa’s Magi veniunt ab oriente and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina’s Tribus miraculis ornatum.The varied tone colors brought to bear in William Byrd’s Ecce advenit dominator Dominus provide a sense of mysterious grandeur appropriate to the festival. Careful tuning of cross relations, as well as seamless alternation between the rhythms of chant and polyphony, supplies listeners to John Sheppard’s Regis Tharsis with a particularly evocative glimpse into another era’s harmonic and rhythmic sensibilities.
Balancing the early music selections are a number of fine pieces from the twentieth century. A standout is Long, Long Ago by Herbert Howells; an initially tender melody gradually rises to an exciting climax, juxtaposed with a steady buildup of added note chords. Another is Benedicamus Domino by Peter Warlock, in which an intricate swath of modal melodies is set against strongly articulated tutti chords. Despite the considerable challenges it poses, Illuminare, Jerusalem, by Judith Weir, is taken at a spirited gallop. Judith Bingham’s alluring Epiphany pits a colorful organ part against sinuous vocal chromaticism. Lennox Berkeley’s I sing of a maiden is delivered with haunting delicacy. All of this is capped off by the large-scale title work, a tour de force of choral writing by Arnold Bax.
Impressive performances throughout, combined with thoughtful programming, makes Mater ora filiumthe ideal recording for Twelfth Night!
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Mary Bevan and Joanne Lunn, sopranos; Clare Wilkinson and Ciara Hendrick, mezzo-sopranos; Nicholas Mulroy and Thomas Hobbs, tenors; Matthew Brook and Konstantin Wolff, bass-baritones. Dunedin Consort, conducted by John Butt.
Linn CKD 499 (2xCD)
First, I’ll admit that at Christmas Messiahhas most often been my jam; I have several recordings, have performed it as soloist, accompanist, and conductor, and find it to be one of the most uplifting pieces out there. This year the Dunedin Consort, led by John Butt, has changed my tune. I’ve listened over and over again to their new recording of J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio.
The oratorio is actually a collection of six cantatas that were performed during a particularly festive Christmas in 1735. They cover Sundays from the beginning of the Christmas season to the Feast of the Epiphany. Butt has chosen to perform them with eight soloists, four each alternating between the successive cantatas, and four ripieno singers. The use of a relatively small complement of vocalists lines up with current Bach scholarship. Butt primarily employs soloists with two to a part in passages like the chorales. This emphasizes the contrapuntal character of the vocal parts, treating the cantatas as chamber music rather than the large choral works that they are sometimes presented as in less period-informed settings. (Butt’s notes on the history of the Christmas Oratorio and his particular performance choices for the recording make for fascinating and enlightening reading).
Chamber music yes, but the instrumentation is both varied and vivid. Part One features virtuoso trumpet parts and timpani, the second extensive writing for woodwinds, the fourth buoyant horn duos and an “echo aria” with an extra soprano, and the last cantata returns to the use of brass and timpani in its climactic passages (it also features an oboe solo during the standout soprano aria “Nur ein Wink von seinen Händen,” beautifully sung and played by Mary Bevan and Alex Belamy, respectively).
Butt elicits a performance from the soloists and Dunedin Consort that is fleet-footed yet flexible, cleanly rendered yet never overly cool. Indeed, some of the recitatives and solos are quite emotively delivered. The conductor has also wisely chosen soloists who complement both the textual and textural aspects of each of the cantatas. For instance, Nicholas Mulroy is the more forceful of the two tenors. He balances well with the defiant music and ebullient orchestration of Part Six, while the more sweet-voiced Thomas Hobbs is sure-footed in the fluid recitatives and arias of Part Four. While each singer brings a different timbre and demeanor to the table, they blend seamlessly in the ensemble passages and to a person share exquisite tone and abundant musicality.
This is a recording that made me completely rethink my impressions of the Christmas Oratorio. Now, instead of writing it off as the lightweight cousin of the Bach Passions, I am ready to consider alongside the composer’s best known choral music, going toe to toe with them both in terms of ambition and quality. Recommended holiday or anytime listening.
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Out today on Nonesuchis John Adams’s Scheherazade.2, a concerto for violin and orchestra of symphonic proportions. Composed for soloist Leila Josefowicz and the St. Louis Symphony, conducted by David Robertson, it also features Chester Englander as a “shadow soloist” playing cimbalom.
The program is, deliberately one suspects, somewhat veiled, but uncannily timed. It deals with the disempowered status of women, a given in the original Arabian Nights, and how they regain their voice and, ultimately, a sense of sanctuary from persecution. This is a theme that remains sadly relevant to current events, both abroad in far too many countries (and for far too many exiles and refugees) and in the United States’ disarrayed electoral politics.
Josefowicz plays marvelously, with a bravura demeanor that displays the courage of the title “character” and abundant virtuosity to boot. Robertson conducts St. Louis in a compelling and multifaceted performance, etching the details of the piece’s vivid orchestration and, while never overbalancing the soloists, bringing tremendous power to bear. When Adams’s Violin Concerto (1993) premiered, it was a watershed work for his compositional language, signaling a shift to a broader palette of harmonic and historic reference points. It appears quite possible that this is another pivotal piece in the composer’s catalogue.
In a sea of pianists sailing toward contemporary shores, the vessel of Alessandro Stella stands out for its hydrodynamic contours. Stella has performed widely across Europe—more recently, in South America—and was central, among other projects, in reviving Giacinto Scelsi’s early chamber works under auspices of the Isabella Scelsi Foundation.
On Midwinter Spring, his first recital disc for Italy’s KHA Records, he presents works by Giya Kancheli, Arvo Pärt, and Pēteris Vasks. Even without the program in hand, one can already feel the possibilities for continuity and artful contrast between these composers. All three have gained worldwide notoriety for larger-scale symphonies, concertos, and choral masterpieces. Yet their piano repertoires, given due attention here, have yielded some of the more vital statements of classical expression in recent decades.
To begin, Stella offers 16 selections from Kancheli’s Simple Music for Piano, a collection of melodies written for stage and screen. First published in 2009 and divorced from its visual contexts, Simple Music has taken on a life of its own, not least of all in 2010’s Themes from the Songbook, released on ECM New Series. Yet where that album had a distinctively Piazzolla-esque veneer (due not least of all to the participation of bandoneón virtuoso Dino Saluzzi), here the themes breathe nakedly. Stella plays with an expressivity so holistic that one can practically hear him singing through the keyboard. A dancing quality that recalls the soundtracks of Eleni Karaindrou pervades these vignettes, each born of a nostalgia that, while distant at first, over the course of a listen morphs into something uniquely one’s own. Contrary to what the title would have us believe, there is nothing simple about this music, as evidenced in the way Stella approaches particular pieces. Whether in his evocation of moonlight in No. 23 (“Bear’s Kiss”) or the chromatic inflections of No. 25 (“Hamlet”), Stella’s attention to detail reveals incarnate patience.
Following these, Arvo Pärt’s Für Alina (1976) comes across even more cinematically. Images of stardust and other cosmic beauties may be easy go-tos for the reviewer’s metaphorical toolkit, but in this case any such descriptions would be apt. In the expanse of Pärt’s seminal tintinnabulations, the human heart begins to feel like a small satellite indeed. Stella’s treasure-seeking becomes more obvious in his choice of Variationen zur Gesundung von Arinuschka. Pärt’s 1977 composition describes a far more intimate universe. Its transitions from legato to pointillist notecraft indicate a robust inner child in composer and performer alike.
Baltā ainava (White Scenery) by Vasks brings about a logical conclusion. Composed 1981 and played exclusively on the white keys, it is, like the preceding works, as potentially infinite in resonance as it is fundamental in construction. Stella lays down its block chords with extra-musical awareness, giving each cluster room to breathe. Arpeggios in the left hand are contrasted by two-note motifs in the right, like footprints pressed into the album’s cover scenery toward unknown destinations. The uncertainty of it all makes it that much more inviting, and combines elements of Kancheli and Pärt with an indefinable third.
In the interest of gaining insider perspective, I conducted an e-mail interview with Mr. Stella, who was kind enough to elucidate some of the finer points of this project.
What inspired you to put these three composers together on one album?
What is common to these three great composers is a deep spirituality and an extraordinary ability to shape time and its perception.
The program is very cohesive, but I imagine that as the performer you have insights into how each piece is different from the others. Can you talk about compositional, emotional, or structural differences between them?
Kancheli, Pärt, and Vasks have many things in common, being from the same generation and geographical area. Nevertheless, each has his own history and, of course, a recognizable style. Kancheli’s miniatures are based on his music for cinema and theater, which he wrote over a period of decades. Many are actual songs, like the first track of the album—the famous “Herio Bichebo” (see video above)—and are written in a tonal style. Some fragments and themes are recurrent in other compositions of Kancheli. The composer himself has said that he can’t always remember where a particular theme first appeared. The two Pärt compositions are the cornerstones of his tintinnabuli style, the result of seven long years of research and creative silence. This is a style in which the rigor of the tintinnabuli voice contrasts with the exceptional freedom of the principal voice. Lastly, the Vasks piece is built upon two fundamental ideas that alternate, vary, and repeat themselves in a hypnotic continuum. However, I must emphasize that what attracted me the most about these three composers, in addition to their distinctive features, is the role silence plays in their music. Each pause and resonance is of crucial importance and represents the music’s very essence.
How much preparation did you require to make this recording sound the way you wanted it to sound?
For some time I would play this music almost every day for my own pleasure and enrichment, until it was clear to me that I wanted to record it. I played, sang, recorded, and listened to this music for months. It was similar to the work of a sculptor who achieves the ultimate result by removing material until only that which is essential remains.
You once told me how pleased Kancheli was with your performances of his work. Can you expand on your communications with him throughout the recording process, and after?
About two years ago, I wrote to Maestro Kancheli explaining that I wanted to record some of his miniatures. He was enthusiastic about it and gave me his authorization, giving me as much freedom as possible in matters of selection and interpretive choices. About a year later, I sent him the CD as soon as it was finished. I was deeply moved by the words he expressed about my work. Last February (2016), I finally had the opportunity to meet him. The Italian Embassy in Georgia organized a concert in Tbilisi in his honor, so I had the great privilege to give the premiere in Georgia and to play his miniatures for piano in his presence. It was one of the most intense experiences of my entire life.
Alessandro Stella (left) and Giya Kancheli (right) in Tbilisi, 2016
What is the overall message of the album for you, and what do you hope listeners will get from it?
Every new album is the result of deep reflections. The finished album is often different from how I thought it would be and this work of progressive “polishing” is essential to me. The idea, the initial intuition, however, usually does not change. If anything, it guides me in the right direction. It has always been clear to me that Midwinter Spring was supposed to be a journey out of time, insofar as we are used to perceiving it in our everyday life. Through this apparent simplicity, the music of Kancheli, Pärt, and Vasks makes us connect with our deepest life experiences. Everything in this album was conceived to serve this purpose: the drama of the track order, the cover, the pauses, even the title. I hope this album will be an intense emotional experience to those who listen to it; an experience they will be willing to repeat.
Have you performed this exact program in a live setting? If so, what were the audience reactions?
I presented the program for the first time live last December (2015) in Liverpool. After playing this music at home and in the studio for so long, sharing it with an audience was a truly special experience. I was afraid that the ritual of the concert would contrast with the extremely intimate nature of this music. But in the end, its extraordinary evocative power created an atmosphere of “magical suspension” during the concert. And this was confirmed to me by the beautiful words of the people I talked to afterward.
This music might easily be interpreted as melancholy, but there is also something hopeful about it. Do you agree with this, and if so, how do you make sure that balance is preserved when you are playing it?
I totally agree with this and this idea is at the center of the entire album, starting from the title, Midwinter Spring. Taken from a verse by T. S. Eliot, this expression evokes the hope for a new life, as expressed by the branches coming out of the snow on the album’s cover, symbolizing hope for rebirth. All of this is inherent to the music. Melancholy is the dominant feeling of the program, but there is much more in this music: in an instant you get carried from a sense of deep desolation to nostalgia for something that no longer exists; from the unreality of a dream to a sense of hope. The music itself evokes all these possibilities. And the artist has to grasp them and follow them, just letting the music talk to him.
On Friday, violinist Miranda Cuckson and pianist Blair McMillen release their ECM debut CD. It contains the Hungarian Béla Bartók’s Violin Sonata No. 2 (1922), the Russian Alfred Schnittke’s Violin Sonata No. 2 “Quasi una Sonata” (1968) and Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski’s Partita for Violin and Piano (1984). One can hear sound excerpts via ECM’s website. All three are interpretations of searing intensity, rhythmic vitality, and impressive ensemble cooperation.
One can hear works from the CD live at Le Poisson Rouge on May 10, where ECM will be hosting a release party for the two artists. Each will also take a solo turn with short pieces by Americans: Cuckson playing Carter and McMillen playing Stucky. Doors open at 6 PM; concert starts at 7 PM. More info can be found at LPR’s website.
Those who discount Charles Bradley as a retro act imitating James Brown are missing out on something very special. The sixty-eight year old singer’s latest full length recording, Changes, reveals a mature artist whose vocal powers are undiminished but whose interpretive skills are ever more sharply refined. His accompanists, the Menahan Street Band and Budos Band, create spot-on charts to support Bradley’s singing, at turns muscular and lyrically soulful.
Most of the tracks are originals, and strong ones at that. “Ain’t it a Sin” rollicks rebukingly. “Nobody But You” is a smoothly delivered ballad that explores Bradley’s sweet mid-register before swooping higher to impassioned cries.
What would seem like an improbable source for a cover for Bradley, Black Sabbath’s “Changes,” is instead an album highlight, re-envisioned with supple rhythm guitar, Hammond organ swells, and long, legato horn lines. Bradley delivers the song passionately and expressively, capturing the emotional content of one of Ozzy Osbourne’s signature songs, but placing an entirely individual stamp on it.
Bradley’s Changes is a memorable and energetic outing; recommended.
Anthony Braxton: composer, sopranino, soprano, and alto saxophones, iPod;
Taylor Ho Bynum: cornet, flugelhorn, trumpbone, iPod;
Mary Halvorson: guitar, iPod;
Jessica Pavone: violin, viola, iPod;
Jay Rozen: tuba, iPod;
Aaron Siegel: percussion, vibraphone, iPod;
Carl Testa: bass, bass clarinet, iPod
“As a culture, we are slowly moving away from target linear experiences that are framed as stationary constructs that don’t change on repeated listening, to a new world that constantly serves up fresh opportunities and interactive discourse. American people have made it clear that the new times will call for dynamic inter-action experiences.”
Compositions 372, 373, and 377 are the next phase in Braxton’s use of recorded sounds as part of the musical fabric of his work. Each of the musicians playing on the recording is not only responsible for their respective instruments; they are each also equipped with an iPod on which they can call up past Braxton recordings to add to the proceedings. While one might expect a fair bit of chaos from this approach, the results are surprisingly focused. Recorded when Braxton was sixty-five, his skills as a player remain undiminished in their vitality and improvisational acumen. Correspondingly, his collaborators possess, to a person, both strong vantage points and enviable chops.
The compositions on display here are filled with swaths of variegated textures. One of the cool things about the addition of the iPods is that different instruments than those possessed by the live cohort get to take solo turns. Thus, we hear voices and piano interject asides amid the vigorous exertions of the players. As a trope on listening in the digital age, with the dangers of information overload and the distractions of an increasingly saturated environment rife with visual and sonic information competing for attention, this current Braxton project is certainly a successful experiment. But the ability of the players to pace their exchanges, exquisitely varying the saturation level of the discourse, also allows listeners a way to recalibrate that is most musically compelling. Recommended.