Cross-posted from my home site, The Big City, here are my lists for top new music recordings of the year, in a few different categories:
Best 2014 Albums of New Classical Music:
Dan Becker, Fade. Not just a set of excellent compositions, but a rarity in classical music, a set that is thought-out and made to work as an album. Becker’s music shares some of the hints of pop sensibility with that of Michael Torke, but has a tougher, more abstract edge. Terrific chamber pieces, played b y the Common Sense and New Millenium Ensembles, are interspersed with Diskclavier realizations of Becker’s “Reinventions,” harmonic structures from Bach on which he’s placed his own, improvisatory lines. Listening to the album is an affirmation of the past, of the incredible accumulation of music and ideas, and the possibilities of the future. Deeply enjoyable.
Martin Bresnick: Prayers Remain Forever. Bresnick has been indispensable as a teacher to the current generation of new composers, and his own music is sublime, with exquisite craft, an ear and heart for the beautiful, and a transparent, graceful and unselfconscious connection to the common musical materials all around us. This is a superb collection of recent chamber works, beautifully played.
Ralph van Raat: Fred Rzewski: Four Pieces.Rzewski’s political themes, as strong as they are, have overshadowed his achievements as a pure composer. The People United Will Never Be Defeated is a statement, and also one of the great works of variations in the classical literature. If that is his Goldberg, then Four Pieces is his “Hammerklavier,” a tremendous piano sonata in classical form.
Ludovic Morlot, Seattle Symphony, John Luther Adams: Become Ocean. A welcome Pulitzer Prize winning composition that actually deserves the award, a concentrated culmination of JLA’s strengths as a composer. The recording is also superior to the live performance at Carnegie Hall in May, where the piano part was buried under the orchestral textures.
Arditti Quartet, Bernhard Lang: The Anatomy of Disaster. Another installment in composer Bernhard Lang’s Monodologies series, and one of several excellent Arditti Quartet albums released this year. This made the list due to my personal affinity for Lang as a composer and a man. Based on Haydn’s The Seven Last Words of Christ, Lang’s writing is bitingly expressive, destabilizing, and a real ethical and moral antidote to the problem of endless, quantized, manufactured loops and repetitions.
Camerata Pacifica, John Harbison: String Trio, Four Songs of Solitude, Songs America Loves to Sing. I have mostly grudgingly admired Harbison’s composing, appreciating how his music was made without enjoying it, so this set of chamber music and songs was a surprise. The musical language has both greater expression than I’ve heard from him before, and also greater, coherent rigor. He’s pared down his materials and now says more. The Camerata Pacifica plays with natural ease and assurance.
Jeroen van Veen, Van Veen: Piano Music. Give the pianist some. Van Veen has produced two great, comprehensive sets of minimalist piano music, as well as the ultimate collection of Simeon ten Holt’s Canto Ostinato, so why not gives us this multi-disc box of his own compositions? Not all of the 50 tracks are great, but so much of this music is, especially his Minimal Etudes
yMusic, Balance Problems. Terrific chamber pieces from composers in and around the orbit of New Amsterdam records; clear, tough-minded post-minimal music, just skip the series of chords at the end, from Sufjan Stevens, that masquerade as a composition.
George Crumb: Voices from the Heartland, Sun and Shadow. Not fade away. Critical interest seems, oddly, to have turned away from Crumb, as if he is neither productive or relevant. This album proves otherwise, especially in the premiere recording of Voices from the Heartland, which concludes his American Songbook cycle. Crumb is misapprehended as belonging to a particular, dated, intellectual fashion for mysticism, when it is his critics who are lost in the vagaries of the zeitgeist. The beauty and craft of Crumb’s music are timeless.
Steve Reich: Radio Rewrite. Indispensable as every other new set of pieces from Reich, this is sure to please his pop followers with Jonny Greenwood’s solid playing of Electric Counterpoint and the premiere of his Radio Rewrite, a subtly strong piece that is part of an on-going transitional period. But most impressive is Vicky Chow’s fantastic solo performance of Piano Counterpoint.
Tyshawn Sorey Trio, Alloy. My personal favorite and overall best record of the year. One reason for that is the musical ideas inside it are so deep and powerful that they’re a little bit frightening, it’s a large universe in which to lose oneself. Alloy is on a lot of jazz lists, but I can’t put it on mine: Sorey is most closely and accurately defined as a jazz musician, but this is an album, like his others, of his compositions, and there is so little jazz concept and aesthetic in them that they are pretty much sui generis. One of the fascinating features of his music is that, while he can be heard at the drum kit, the sense of rhythm as time is almost nonexistent (except in “Template”). The music is full of space, a sense that notes and events are placed intuitively (which I deeply admire, it’s extremely difficult to develop the ear and confidence to write such sparse yet finely structured music), the feeling of an internal journey without beginning or end. Feldman is the heuristic commonly applied to Sorey’s composing, but that’s misleading. Feldman, especially his mature music, wrote scores that are dense with activity. Sorey shares a taste for low dynamics, but the sparseness of his music sounds closer to Cage, only with an entirely different idea of expression. Imagine a Miles Davis trumpet solo removed from a tune, with the space inside expanded by magnitudes, and you get some idea of both the manner of this album, and how great the music is.
Bora Yoon, Sunken Cathedral. Tremendously beautiful and involving. This is the audio portion of Yoon’s ambitious multimedia project that will appear at the Prototype Festival next month. The sound combines the purity of her voice. chant, electronic textures, folk instruments, spoke word, and more. Another concept that is fiendishly difficult to hold together, and the firmness of her form makes this exceptional.
Tristan Perich, Surface Image. Perich’s work combines imagination and process: as his pieces go along, or as you see them in an installation, the path connecting conception, process and execution is always clear. That alone is both important and satisfying, but the results, like this mesmerizing, new post-minimal piece for piano and electronics, are great music in their own right.
a.pe.ri.od.ic, Jürg Frey: More or Less. It’s a good year when I have to choose between this and Andy Lee’s album of Frey piano music, the difference being that I found myself listening to this set of amazing chamber pieces, in excellent performances, a little more often.
Harry Partch, Harry Partch: Plectra and Percussion Dances. Self-recommending. This is the first complete recording of the title work, and the CD includes a spoken introduction by Partch that he delivered in 1953.
Peter Söderberg, On the Carpet of Leaves Illuminated by the Moon. Söderberg plays the lute, and on this record he performs music by Alvin Lucier, James Tenney, John Cage and Steve Reich. That’s really all you need to know.
Flux Quartet, Morton Feldman: String Quartet No. 1. Utter masters of this music. Flux followed up what is now an almost routinely great concert of Feldman’s String Quartet No. 2 with this release. The finest recoding of the String Quartet No. 1, and the finest traversal of the complete string quartet music by Feldman.
Ursula Oppens, Bruce Brubaker, Meredith Monk: Piano Songs. Not songs, but piano music, with occasional shouts and yelps. Echt-Monk, the physical vitality of her music, the way the pianos sound like they are hopping and dancing, is a tribute to her compositional ideals. A little disorienting at first to hear her style applied to the keyboard, but it gets better with every listen.
Dai Fujikara, Dai Fujikara: ICE. This is simply one of the finest collections of music at the cutting edge of the classical tradition that I’ve heard in years. Fujikara renders the densest and most complex ideas with complete clarity and control of his materials, and ICE plays the music like they’ve been working on it for years. Which they pretty much have.
Sarah Cahill, Mamoru Fujieda: Patterns of Plants. Fujieda’s work is one of the most striking compositions in contemporary music. The music is literally organic, composed out of Fujieda’s recordings of electrical activity in plants. What comes out is music that has an uncanny feeling of belonging to every place and epoch, yet having no identifiable national or temporal features. It is truly strange and beautiful. Cahill plays it with the attention to detail and musicality that one usually hears pianists bring to Schubert. Not a complete set of this magnum opus, but the most extensive to date.
Nils Bultmann, Troubadour Blue. A set of musical rich and beautiful viola improvisations that delve deep into the history of western music.
Bernd Klug, Cold Commodities. A gripping, surprising, unique and accomplished album that combines found sounds, electronics and improvisation with tremendous rigor and expression.
Asphalt Orchestra plays the Pixies: Surfer Rosa. An amazing record. These arrangements are imaginative sonic adaptations of the classic Pixie’s album, transforming the originals into something more complex and more consistently satisfying.
Robin Williamson, Trusting in the Rising Light. A strange, entrancing disc from one of the founders of The Incredible String band. This is a collection of songs that, though originals, have deep roots in ancient memories and traditions. WIlliamson’s voice is ravaged with age, making the expression that much more effective. Fantastic accompaniment from Mat Maneri and Ches Smith.
Lumen Drones. Post-rock meets Hardanger fiddle. Difficult to describe, the music drone based, full of rhythm and improvisation, tough and delicate at once. Must be heard, it’s completely wonderful.
Carolina Eyck, Christopher Tarnow, Improvisations for Theremin and Piano. Much more than a curiosity, this is fascinating set. Eyck is a tremendous theremin player, with complete command of tone and texture. Mostly quiet and tonal, the playing is superb, don’t be thrown by the twee track titles.
Battle Trance, Palace of Wind. I have the privilege of experiencing a performance of this piece by this quartet of tenor saxophonists, and it was jaw-dropping and powerful. Imagine Colin Stetson times four, playing non-stop for about forty five minutes with a romantic conception of transcendence, and you have some idea of the depths of this album.
Travis Just + Object Collection, No Song. Downtown to the max, turned up to 11! The good natured aggression of this record adds a sense of fun, but the playing is purposeful, intense, and heavier than the doomiest sludge. (http://shop.khalija.com/album/no-song)
Plymouth. The members of this band are Jamie Saft, Joe Morris, Chris Lightcap, Gerald Cleaver and Mary Halvorson. They play dense, lively, passionate, intelligent noise improvisations. Excellent in every way, and the best release so far from Rarenoise records.
Thurston Moore/John Moloney, Caught on Tape. Loud, but delicate. The muscularity hides what, underneath, is a severe, even ascetic aesthetic, a search for beauty in the midst of conflict, like the edge of razor blade, shining through a pile of trash. Pretty much Moore’s finest moments as a guitar player.
Dave Seidel, ~60Hz. As pure as music gets. Seidel’s pieces are made by combing sine waves and letting them play. Engrossing and gorgeous.
John Supko, Bill Seaman, s_traits. This record is astonishing. I’ll refer you to Marshall Yarbrough’s article for the details, but this upends every idea of structure and form and makes it work. Hard stop listening to.
No Lands, Negative Space. A prime example of the possibilities of electronic music: this band’s debut (mainly it’s Michael Hammond), is as abstract as Ussachevsky and as appealing as Tangerine Dream. Excellent.
Guenter Schlienz, Loop Studies. A haunting exploration of looped acoustic instruments and electronics. The music seems to be coming from the type of future that the past imagined would arrive. (https://sinkcds.bandcamp.com/album/loop-studies)
Philip White, Documents. Plastic, complex sound produced from the raw musical data extracted from a series of well-known, popular recordings. (https://philipwhite.bandcamp.com)
Rand Steiger, A Menacing Plume. Electro-acoustic works with a classical feel of modernism. Steiger is fine composer and the pieces, including the superb title work and Résonateur, are played expertly by Talea Ensemble.
Jacob Cooper, Silver Threads. There are many projects that combine voice and electronics, but they are rarely as accomplished as this set of electronic art songs, with the terrific Mellissa Hughes singing.
Juan Bianco, Nuestro Tiempo. Electronic music from Cuba that might have been a mere object of curiosity, but Bianco, who was unknown to me when this arrived, is a serious and excellent composer, with a sense of vitality.
This is not the type of music in which there are frequent reissues, but notable this year is a Cello Anthology, a box set of four CDs with a beautiful, thick book. This collects performances and biographical information of the new music cellist Charlotte Moorman, without whom the musical landscape would be very different and far more impoverished.
Some of the most timeless, gripping, modern and surprising music I hear consistently are the vocal works of Renaissance Italian composers and their associated circle – Monteverdi, Gesualdo, the great Madrigalist Luca Marenzio. Saturday night at Miller Theatre I heard music from composers who were new to me – Giovanni Maria Trabaci, Il Fasolo (not Giovanni Battista Fasolo) and Marco Marazzoli – in a revelatory and affecting concert from the great early music ensemble, Le Poème Harmonique, led by Vincent Dumestre.
Why Renaissance music at Sequenza21? First, Miller is as important for their early music programming as they are for their Composer Portraits, and second, they build the connection between the two eras not only abstractly through the two series but through a newer exploration of the past by way of the present. Last season they began a Bach Revisted series that paired early and new music musicians and programs (I saw an excellent concert with Kristian Bezuidenhout playing C.P.E., W.F. and J.S. Bach accompanied by Ensemble Signal, who themselves gave a masterful performance of Michael Gordon’s Weather, and since you can’t have Gordon without Reich and Reich without Bach, there’s nothing to argue ). The series continues this year with concerts that pair Bach with Kaija Saariaho, Reich and Joan Tower.
This fits into the ongoing history of music, where composers continue to write a cappella vocal works. I had a significant dose of them from John Zorn, including a set he explicitly calls “madrigals,” and there’s a good handful of contemporary vocal music built on the work of the ancient pioneers that has not only crossed my desk but been in the news this year. The critical point of all of this is that the old music is for the most part so much more daring, free and innovative than what I hear from contemporary composers, with some notable exceptions.
New vocal music has had a moment this year with Caroline Shaw’s Pulitzer Prize award for her Partita, which appears on the debut disc from Roomful of Teeth. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the piece, but not much right about it either. There are contemporaneous vocal compositions that do some of the same things, do them better, and go beyond. Partita is polite music with a few accessories that might appear experimental but that are, in 2013, ordinary things in a composer’s toolbox. The teleology of her texts is shallow and brittle. Spoken words? Berio wrote and adapted far more compelling texts. Phonemes? Kenneth Gaburo’s works are older than Shaw and are still experimental. These tools are also better used in choral works on an excellent new CD of music from composer Kevin Puts. His work doesn’t sound as superficially ‘new’ but he makes richer, deeper and more proficient music with the same elements of text and fragmented vocal sounds.
His harmonies are also involving, and this matters. Harmony is the essential feature of the history of this music, it’s through the voice that composers created polyphony and counterpoint. But we’re supposed to know so much more today than they did in the 17th century, so why does Gesualdo sound so much fresher and newer than most new vocal music? His harmonic flights of fancy are surprising and effective because he creates a context that is clear, logical and describes the terms he’s working with. There is a fashion in contemporary vocal music of tossing in dissonant or extended chords that, since it’s in opposition to the overall harmonic context, comes off as a self-conscious way of asserting new music bona fides. That is one of the traps that Zorn’s work can fall into.
At edge of the trap but never falling in is a new work from Gregory Brown, Missa Charles Darwin, available in an engrossing recording from New York Polyphony. Brown works with history in two ways, cultivating a refined sense of vocal polyphony while setting Charles Darwin’s writing from On the Origin of Species, The Descent of Man and various letters. The harmonic motion is mostly strong and logical, though parts like the “Alleluia” section suffer from jarring modulations. It’s a strong work overall, though, and in particular Brown is the only contemporary composer I can recall who crafts vocal lines that have the same sense of independent harmonic rhythm and expressive freedom that makes the madrigals of Monteverdi and the like so powerful (there’s a fine companion to Brown’s piece, another new recording from New York Polyphony, Times Go By Turns, a collection of works from Byrd, Plummer and Tallis).
It’s enduringly strange to me how the techniques of Monteverdi have been left by the wayside. The combination of voices singing the same text, in counterpoint and rhythmic opposition, is one of the most beautiful and involving sounds in music, across all genres. Add words like:
Veglio, penso, ardo, piango; e chi mi sface
Sempre m’è innanzi per mia dolce pena
Guerra è il mio stato d’ira e di duol piena,
E sol di lei pensando ho qualche pace.
(I watch, brood, burn and weep; and she, my undoing
Is ever before me, causing such sweet sorrow;
Warfare is my state, full of anger and pain,
And only thoughts of her bring me peace)
have immediate personal meaning to us across the centuries. Setting them as Monteverdi did gives them physical urgency and so the Miller Theatre concert was exciting and moving. Le Poème Harmonique, like other early music groups, sees this music as coming from the earth, the groin, not the mind and the heavens, so there is fire and humor. The program was “Combattimenti” which you can hear on this marvelous CD; it included Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda. It ended with Marazzoli’s La Fiera di Farfa, an astonishing dramatic parody of Monteverdi. For a while, it’s a dazzling picture of a fair, with hawkers, gawkers and more calling out, arguing, dancing. The parody comes near the end, when a ball breaks out and two gentlemen, friends, begin to fight. It seems in deadly earnest until the loser calls off the coup de grace by singing “Friend, you have won: I forgive you; you forgive me too. Indeed, in such circumstances it is a fine thing to be a base coward.”
In no way was this the experience of gazing quaintly back at the humanism of the past. Dumestre did something remarkable in this concert: there are songs within the larger piece, sung by characters inhabiting the fair, not only the faux-fight “Guera e Mort,” but two remarkable ballads, sung beautifully by tenor Serge Goubioud, “È no ssusciame’n canna (He cannot play a flute)” and “Vurria’addeventare pesce d’or (I’d like to become a golden fish).” In these moments, Dumestre moved the accompaniment from continuo-recitativo style repetitive bass and chord accompaniment, with a modern, vernacular sense of articulation and syncopation. Goubioud moved his voice from throat and head to his chest, and we were hearing popular music, as in-the-moment today as it was 400 hundred years ago. It felt liked the Marazzoli was here to keep us company with the knowledge that he knows our cares and loves and worries, because they are the same ones people have across epochs. The past is never past, the music of all eras speaks to us eternally.
But it would not if it wasn’t made with imagination and conviction. Those are the essential qualities of Andy Kozar’s remarkable recording On the End … . This is a superb collection of music, all the pieces exploring the possibilities of contemporary notation and instrumental playing. Kozar uses a variety of techniques, including graphic notation, and from the knife’s edge focus of the playing (Kozar plays trumpet and is joined by his colleagues in loadbang, Miranda Cuckson and others) it’s clear that he conveys his ideas to his musicians with precision and power.
The centerpiece is a Mass that has its foundation in the traditional movements and texts yet an expression that is at the cutting edge of creativity. Jeffrey Gavett’s voice croons and spits and shouts the words, through mellifluous lines and extreme intervals, while the instruments respond, sometimes amicably, sometimes antagonistically. There is a moment-to-moment fragmentation but an overall consistency of effect: the unfathomable mystery of death and how to express our incomprehension. Kozar steps outside the clichés of comfort and process, he never ingratiates and always fascinates. Like Le Poème Harmonique’s concert, it makes the past eternally alive, present and important.
Since no one listens to contemporary classical music, and it doesn’t get put on concert programs, to have a new work not only recorded but recorded again, by different musicians, is an impossible dream. But that’s what happens when you’re John Adams, America’s leading composer. And deservedly so, because he’s a deeply skilled and intelligent composer with serious things to say and the aesthetic to say them clearly, expressively and winningly without pandering to or patronizing his audience.
But he is a busy man, and some of his recent work, like Absolute Jest and The Gospel According to the Other Mary seems more assembled from parts of pieces he (or, in the case of the former, Beethoven) has already made than thought through and composed. That’s been particulary frustrating, since his String Quartet, which I saw premiered in 2009, is not only a terrific piece but one that seemed to have opened the door to a new, late style.
The St. Lawrence Quartet was the original dedicatee, the ensemble that played it in public and recorded it first. Their intense, nervous energy was exactly right for the sinewy, restless music. Now they’ve been followed by the Attacca Quartet, with a Fellow Traveller, a new CD of Adam’s complete works for String Quartet. Their manner with the piece is very different, and that’s a strength of the recording that also serves the quality of the composition.
What is most interesting about the String Quartet is how Adams, who is fundamentally a Neo-Romantic composer with a great facility for tension, release and powerful expression, uses repetition to create a sensation of agitation, but this time without much resolution. At the Attacca’s enjoyable CD release performance at (le) poisson rouge, Adams spoke about harmony and how he believes that a facility for it is necessary for composers. But the Quartet is one of his least harmonically rich pieces, it subtly reaches back to Minimalist experiments like “Christian Zeal and Activity.” It’s also more closely related to Beethoven, who was of course a magnificent harmonist but whose secret power was always rhythm, especially building and releasing tension by moving the downbeat around to different parts of measures while maintaining the same meter.
That’s what Adams does in the Quartet, plays around with the rhythmic possibilities of short phrases, different lengths, different pulses. There’s a lot of chattering interplay that add to the overall dynamism and the whole builds to an evocative and enigmatic payoff. The Attacca plays this with less muscular vigor than the Borromeo but with more thoughtfulness, more introversion, and so bring out the internal mysteries of the music, and the swing a little bit more. They also are a more lyrical ensemble, and they pay more attention to phrasing than attack and articulation, and the results are not only expressive but place the music directly in the long history of Western classical music. I can hear the Haydn and Beethoven that is part of their memories.
That approach also pays off in John’s Book of Alleged Dances, which is both amusing in intent and seriously well-made. This is extroverted music, and the Attacca plays it that way, which adds to the impression that larger piece gives. Dances is not first-rate Adams, but especially in person, the Attacca give it a first-rate performance.
(Houston, TX) The music of the Houston ensemble The Core Trio, featuring Richard Cholakian on drums, Thomas Helton on upright bass, and Seth Paynter on saxophones, is an utterly convincing amalgamation of jazz, free improvisation, heavy metal, electronic sounds, and music from across the Asian continent. Their repertoire includes compositions by Helton and Paynter, as well as arrangements of songs by Ozzy Osbourne and Ronnie James Dio. They often invite guest musicians to join them in performance, including trumpet players Kris Tiner and Tim Hagans, myself on laptop, and pianist Robert Boston. This Friday, Boston, saxophonists Warren Sneed and Martin Langford, and former Houston Symphony clarinetist Richard Nunemaker will perform with The Core Trio at their CD release party at Houston’s the long-standing jazz venue Cezanne’s.
The Core Trio’s new self-titled CD is welcome document of the high level of musicianship and inventive interplay that defines their sound. The album consists of two extended and completely improvised performances, skillfully captured by engineer Ryan Edwards. Boston, a former Houston musician now based in New York City, joins the trio on the new CD.
On both pieces, the classically-trained Boston casts the music into a further relief. His presence opens up the ensemble sound creating the space each player needs to be heard and to play with conviction.
“When I freely improvise with players on this level, something special happens,” says Boston. “No one feels any pressure to play in any particular style. Everyone is listening and responding to what is happening in the moment. When it’s good, the thoughts don’t get in the way, but there is a logic present that follows its own momentum.”
“It’s very similar to a speaking conversation with someone,” says Cholakian of his experience playing with The Core Trio. “If they (Boston, Helton, Paynter) choose a topic, I will converse with them on that topic. If they don’t, I will converse with them on a topic I choose, the bottom line being, what is my point and will it be heard?”
Cholakian is one of the most creative and dynamic drummers I’ve ever heard. He’s always listening, contrasting or complimenting the contributions of his band mates, and often steering the music into unexpected and unpredictable territory. Eleven or so minutes into the new CD’s second track, where the trio plus Boston explore a textural, musique concrète-like approach to ensemble playing, Cholakian brings the music to a crescendo with an almost primal-sounding drum solo that stops suddenly and startlingly at one point for six seconds of dead silence before returning to its bruising ritual.
Paynter possesses a truly original and honest voice on his instruments, which includes soprano and tenor saxophone, EWI, and lots of gongs. The technique and versatility that makes a great jazz and improvising musician is all there but somehow, his playing never strays into what Helton calls “the trappings of licks or patterns.”
“By learning to play with a defined structure, one can then learn how to venture away to new ones,” says Paynter when describing playing a tune verses freely improvising. “Everything has structure no matter how abstract.”
“As soon as I play a sound, that is the foundation for what comes next regardless if I’m playing a tune or not. Its basic function is structural. I can vary it slightly by subtly changing a rhythm or drastically with a timbre or emotional change. And those are just a couple examples of the variables one can employ.”
Helton concurs that being able to play in a traditional manner will allow a musician to be more musical in their free playing. But “tradition” doesn’t necessarily have to mean “jazz.”
“I get something different out of all the different styles I play,” says Helton, who also plays in the Houston metal band Echo Temple. “Whether it is jazz, classical, metal, country, funk, or whatever, there is some payoff personally, spiritually or musically.”
“With The Core Trio,” says Helton, “I get the most satisfaction, since there is a lot of passion, thought, aggression, finesse, communication. It is sort of the sum of all the things I love in music.”
The Core Trio with special guest Robert Boston perform Friday, February 8, 9 p.m. at Cezanne’s, 4100 Montrose Blvd. $10 cover.
Pianist and composer Kris Becker (photo by Bhavin)
(Houston, TX) “Ah! Expression!” That’s the first thing that came out of my mouth when I cued up and heard “Elegy,” the poignant, yet unsentimental first track on Houston-based pianist and composer Kris Becker’s new recording Expansions. Becker is a classically trained pianist and composer with a passion for both 19th century and prog-rock piano and a compositional vision well served by his formidable technique. Like the song says, “Oh, yeah! The boy can play!” But it’s the range of expression in Becker’s playing and writing that ultimately resonates with me.
Real quick, let me explain the name thing. Kris and I are not related, although we are definitely brothers in spirit. We’ve even performed on the same bill, albeit separately, me on laptop cuing and mixing electronic and sample-based sounds to accompany avant-garde films, and Kris on Nord playing both what he calls his “nu-classical” repertoire and rock influenced songs. When I first relocated the Houston, the local press managed to mix the two of us up at least once (my photo appeared above Kris’ name in an ad for a gig with his rock band Frozen Heat). So just to clarify, it’s Kris with a “K,” okay?
Okay. Now back to the music. Expansions features 13 tracks, 11 of them compositions for solo piano. “Covenant” is a feisty dialogue for clarinet (played by Sarunas Jankauskas) and piano, and the title track is a seven and a half minute theme and variations for solo flute beautifully performed by Victoria Hauk.
There’s no question Becker’s formidable (that word again) piano skills have everything to do with generating the compositional material he has shaped into an award-winning, body of work. But there’s heart and soul in the man’s music, not just technical fireworks. His compositions, especially the compositions on Expansions, are intensely programmatic and poetic, a fact one can gather not only from Becker’s liner notes but the expressive and dynamic directions you see in his scores (a couple of my favorites include “scintillating and terrifying” and “twisted”).
Expansions closes with a four-movement monster of a of a piece “Piano Sonata No. 1,” which is dedicated to Becker’s Rice-era piano instructor Robert Roux. Becker appreciated my description of this piece as a “monster,” and told me that in fact that’s how the piece struck him after he first heard it back in its entirety. Several tempo and meter changes, as well as the breadth of expressive demands on the player, sets the piece firmly outside of the camp of this generation’s latest batch of post-minimialists. It’s a hell of a lot of fun to listen to. At times, especially in the first movement, I’m reminded of Louis Moreau Gottschalk, though Becker is quick to name check Keith Emerson as he is Chopin and of the usual 19th century long hairs. “Piano Sonata No. 1″ deservedly won the 2012 National Federation of Music Clubs Emil and Ruth Beyer Composition Award.
Like any good romantic, Becker is determined to realize his music, his way, maintaining what a friend of mine calls “aesthetic ownership” of a very personal musical vision. Sure, Becker can tear up Mozart and Beethoven, but why play it safe? His drive compels him to a road a little less traveled. It’s a hard road, but many classically trained musicians these days are similarly deciding to forgo the traditional and instead cut their own artistic path. So Kris with a “K” is in good company!
All of that hard work has unfortunately just gotten a lot harder; Their offices are in the Redhook area of New York City, and weren’t dealt kindly with by Hurricane Sandy. As Sarah Kirkland Snider writes on her Facebook page:
Our new New Amsterdam HQ in Red Hook was totaled by Sandy. The water mark is over 4′. We had moved much of the office to higher ground prior to the storm, and elevated everything else, but we still lost all files/paperwork, a hard drive, some furniture, vintage synthesizers and music gear, and most of our CD stock. Our landlord does not have flooding insurance, and our attempts to acquire it before the storm were denied. There is some talk of FEMA helping uninsured Red Hook businesses, but that seems like a long shot. Stunned and heavy-hearted we are.
Truly a catastrophe for a small company like this… Clean-up and picking through has begun, but they’re certainly going to need a lot of help to get back to a point where they can continue the outstanding service they’ve done to new music listeners, performers and composers alike. Nothing is set yet, but at the very least you can “like” their Facebook page to show your support, and to stay aware of any coming requests for help, donations, or benefits.
New Amsterdam is truly a treasure, and we’re absolutely rooting for a comeback.
Long a fixture here at S21 until just a few years ago, composer David Salvage has been busy teaching at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia. Back in 2010 he conceived the idea of keeping his compositional chops up by starting an open-ended series of piano pieces, called Albumleaves. At the same time David started a blog as an integral part to showcase them, in which each new piece features not only the score but a recorded performance as well. The series is now pushing 90 pieces (!), and some of them have just come out on a recording on the Navona label. It’s an elegant, smartly realized project, and I asked David to give a little recap and backgroud on how it came to be, and what it’s meant to him:
I wanted to write a lot of music; I wanted to play the piano more. And I wanted to write a blog. I figured out how to put these desires together in January 2010, when the idea occurred to me to start a blog that would consist of posts that would be musical instead of verbal, and that would nonetheless reflect the offhand, freewheeling, and autobiographical character of conventional blogs. And now that I had a piano in my home for the first time in twelve years, I was especially fired up to get the project going. The next month, I came up with the title Albumleaves, and, in late March, I began composing the “leaves,” as I thought I’d nickname the posts.
I thought that in order to maintain the blog-like nature of the site the posts would have to be written quickly and manifest a high degree of musical variety. Initially, my goal was to write three leaves every two weeks. While I was only able to maintain this rate for a month or two, the pace of composition remains rapid: in the 139 weeks since beginning Albumleaves, I have completed 89 leaves, which is more than one leaf every two weeks (and there is both an 81a and 81b). As for musical variety, click here, here, and here to hear for yourself. By maintaining variety, the blog remains casual, surprising, and attractive to listeners—and full of fresh challenges for me.
The original vision for the site always went beyond original composition. Since 2010, I’ve been posting recordings of music by other composers—like Federico Mompou—and quotations about music by authors like E.M. Cioran. More recently, I’ve started excerpting from free improvisations that I record and posting them as improvisation fragments.
Over time, I’ve grown more confident about the project’s integrity. Since I listen to such a wide variety of classical music (from Notre Dame organum to twentieth-century atonality with few gaps in between), I’m not concerned by my reluctance to develop a personal style of composition. Writing good pieces is challenge enough for me at the moment; if they do not synthesize their disparate influences into a unique musical voice, I’m not going to worry about it. Nor do I worry anymore about inconsistency of quality: even the greatest composers (and authors and painters and everyone else) produced works of varying quality. And I don’t see how writing quickly or slowly has anything to do with consistency: some of the strongest leaves were written in two hours; some of the weakest took weeks. (And even though it took him much less time to write, Brahms’s second symphony is just as good as his first.) For now, the quality of my playing troubles me more than the quality of my composing: I admit to posting a few sloppy recordings. (Here’s one.) But hopefully the music always comes through anyway.
I am proud of the nine lucky leaves that made it to market on the new CD Lock and Key; they are representative of the site, and I thank Navona Records for their enthusiasm and interest. I also would like to thank the 2,404 unique visitors from 75 countries who have visited the site to listen—though surely it’s not for purely musical reasons that the most popular leaf remains “Manatee.” Happy listening, everyone, and see you at Albumleaf 100!
If you were having a conversation with fellow music lovers about the great American composers, Carl Ruggles would not be the first person to come to mind. The “Great American Composer” honor is most often bestowed upon Copland, Ives, or even depending on the company you are with, Bernstein.
Courtesy of SONY Music & Other Minds Records
This is not to say, however, that a popularity contest equates to greatness. An equally adept and creative composer, Carl Ruggles produced a small yet intriguing output of pieces for a variety of ensemble types. It is only fair, then, that when recording the complete works of a lesser known composer such as Ruggles, top-tier musicians should be brought in to lead the process. This recording does not disappoint, and the Buffalo Philharmonic, under the leadership of Michael Tilson Thomas, have produced an earnest and committed recording of Ruggles’ entire catalogue.
Ittai Shapira's new CD, released this month, includes his new violin concerto, to be premiered on April 20th.
Ittai Shapira is best known as an internationally acclaimed soloist with an impressive list of collaborators that includes some of the world’s finest conductors and orchestras. He is a champion of contemporary music, having premiered concertos by many of todays most renowned composers, including Kenji Bunch, Shulamit Ran, Theodore Wiprud, Avner Dorman, and Dave Heath.
While still a violin student years ago, Shapira studied analysis and composition with Mark Kopytman. He loved composing, but his performance career soon grew too busy to allow for any other callings, so he kept his creative spark alive by writing his own cadenzas to the standard violin concertos. Over the last decade, his many collaborations with composers have reconnected him to the creative process and rekindled his early passion for writing music. Since 2008 he has written two violin concertos, as well as a series of fiendishly challenging solo violin caprices.This month the British label Champs Hill Records released a CD of Shapira’s two violin concertos, Concierto Latino (2008) and The Old Man And The Sea (2011), as well as his Caprice Habanera (2010).
The most recent of these works, The Old Man And The Sea, is an exciting, larger-than-life piece in the grand tradition of the virtuoso violin concerto. Inspired by Earnest Hemingway’s classic novel of the same title, the work is full of soulful melodies, dramatic orchestration, and dazzling technical passages, all delivered on the recording with Shapira’s smooth tone and powerhouse virtuosity. While the piece keeps a close programmatic relationship to the novel, it also stands on it’s own as a compelling work, and a substantial contribution to the violin repertoire. The recorded performance is with Neil Thomson and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra.
In a recent conversation, I asked Shapira about his compositional process for The Old Man And The Sea. He explained that the idea first came to him while on a concert tour in 2008, when he found himself based in Key West, Florida, for several days. Not surprisingly, he was struck by the beauty of the locale, but he also became very interested in the local fishing culture. Shortly after this trip, when the BP oil spill devastated the whole region, Shapira felt moved to write a piece that was in some way related to the lives of the Gulf Stream fishermen. As a long time fan of Hemingway, it did not take him long to connect his new inspiration to Hemingway’s great novel, and when Molloy College commissioned him to write a piece for the “Innovative Classics Series” all the pieces fell into place.
As with his first concerto, Shapira prepared for this new endeavour by composing some solo pieces, in this case caprices with Carribean and Cuban stylistic elements. Describing his process, Shapira says,” In every piece I write there is an ‘outside influence’ because that is how I learn; this leads to different harmonic languages, different sound worlds, and consequently different bow techniques. The caprices that I write are always studies towards these new styles.” The solo piece included on this disc, Caprice Habanera, was indeed a study for The Old Man And The Sea.