sweet light crude
New Amsterdam Records
- Oscar Bettison: B&E (with aggravated assault)
- Stefan Weisman: I Would Prefer Not To
- David T. Little: sweet light crude
- Missy Mazzoli: In Spite of All This
- Pat Muchmore: Brennschluß
- Caleb Burhans: Requiem for a General Motors in Janesville, WI
Caleb Burhans, violin; Mellissa Hughes, voice; James Johnston, piano, synth, organ; Taylor Levine, guitar; David T. Little, director, drums; Eileen Mack, co-director, clarinets; Brian Snow, cello; Yuri Yamashita, percussion.
The amplified and politically-charged ensemble Newspeak puts its best feet forward in their first album. First we fall victim to Oscar Bettison’s B&E (with aggravated assault), showing what happens when Cheating, Lying, Stealing grows up, smokes PCP, grabs a crowbar, and heads out lookin’ for a good time. The aggressive and driving texture abates a bit but maintains a strained and tense tone throughout. The work starts strong and escalates towards a speed-metal influenced frenzy of epic proportions. A double pedal on the kick drum sounds mandatory for performance. B&E is a raw and visceral experience but it also showcases the ensemble’s blend and cohesion in a remarkable way.
Newspeak is not a one-trick pony. Stefan Weisman’s I Would Prefer Not To, influenced by “Bartleby the Scrivener,” is as trance-inducing as B&E was spleen-venting. Mellissa Hughes restricts her voice for a perfect blend with the glassy sound world and detached affect present in the piece. The title track of the disc, David T. Little’s sweet light crude, also features Ms. Hughes’ vocal talents but this time she is able to open her instrument up more with a more full and expressive sound. This love song hits all the marks one would expect from a Broadway rock opera except that its subject is oil. I find the aesthetic crosses a toe over the line of cheesy a few too many times for my taste but the overall package is attractive and engaging.
One of the great unifying features of this disc, and Newspeak in general, is their political message. I don’t mean that you should listen to their music because of their political message, but rather that Newspeak is making music that is relevant to today’s topics and tastes. Sometimes the political message is overt, as in sweet light crude, but other times the messages are more oblique and open to interpretation. The focus is primarily on great art as opposed to propaganda.
In Spite Of All This hinges on a repetitive sigh figure in the violin while the ensemble springs to life and recontextualizes the solo. Caleb Burhans breathes exquisite emotional life into the line, making it always sound like an organic entity no matter how many times we hear it. Missy Mazzoli’s compositional voice is strong and I find this piece more attractive every time I listen to it.
Pat Muchmore’s toccata Brennschluß captures the energy of a firing rocket as well as the feeling of something hanging weightless in the atmosphere. Ensemble blend is again at a premium here in both the rough and prickly rhythmic sections and the smoother floating moments. Mellissa Hughes’ voice crafts this work into a rugged and tightly constructed monodrama influenced by a certain amount of thrash metal.
The final track, Requiem for a General Motors in Janesville, WI, directs the ensemble towards the sullen and morose. The electric guitar is the dominant melodic voice and Taylor Levine transmits the mood in exemplary fashion. The musical language is more “crossover-friendly” for lack of a better term. Tonality is in play, the sad mood is directly communicated, and it is easy to mentally picture workers leaving the plant for the last time. The piece ends with an unresolved feeling, almost inviting you to loop the CD and start over (which I usually do).
This is not a collection of composers and composer/performers writing posthumously but instead a gathering of topical works in an unabashedly contemporary language. I have no doubt that, as Newspeak continues to pursue this path, the works that come out will be works that endure. Groups like Newspeak make me laugh in the face of the “Classical Music Dead” folks.