Revised cover artwork for Reich's new CD
WTC 9/11, Mallet Quartet, Dance Patterns
Now that we’ve gotten the cover art discussion out of the way – and Nonesuch has acquiesced to the concerns of those who felt the artwork exploitative and inflammatory – let’s consider the music on Steve Reich’s latest recording.
An interest found throughout Steve Reich’s output concerns spoken word recordings, which he has employed in a number of pieces, from his early phase compositions to his most recent multimedia works. One of his watershed pieces from the 1980s, “Different Trains,” was written for the Kronos Quartet. It juxtaposes spoken word recordings detailing train travel in the US in the 1940s (Reich was frequently traveling from coast to coast to visit his estranged parents) with spoken word accounts of the treatment of deported victims of the Holocaust in transit to concentration camps.
“WTC 9/11” (2011), also for Kronos, employs similarly emotionally charged taped material, this time referencing the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers. Scored for three quartets (using overdubs), field recordings, and electronics, the piece’s outer sections are propelled by the jarring sound of a telephone’s “dead wire” signal, and also incorporate alarmed shouts of air traffic controllers and emergency first-responders. These are woven into the gestural fabric of the quartet’s music, which outlines each utterance with a melodic motif. Also incorporated are snippets of 2009 interviews with lower Manhattan residents, recalling their reactions to the tragedy and reflecting on how it has changed them.
The central passage is particularly evocative: the voices of Jewish officiants chanting and singing psalms over the remains of victims in the months following 9/11 interweaves with angst-filled sustained passages of string writing. One wishes that this area of the piece had been allowed more time to develop and register. Instead, Reich cuts it short, returning to the pensive and dramatically charged material of the opening to close out the work in portentous fashion.
In comparing it to its predecessor Different Trains, I would say that this piece takes a similar approach to the treatment of material. That said, its affect is entirely different. At around fifteen minutes long, “WTC 9/11” is a terser utterance than one might imagine as a response to an event with such far-reaching consequences. But in so crafting it, Reich has recaptured some of the blunt force trauma to our nation’s psyche in the days following the initial event. He’s also avoided some of the overt sentimentality that other artworks commemorating 9/11 have been unwilling to forgo. It is this quality that gives “WTC 9/11” a potent dramatic heft that, though jarring at times, proves taut and unflinchingly eloquent.
Rhythmic drive and insistent pulsation underpin most of Reich’s music. A signature aspect of his style is the incorporation of polyrhythms, which he learned from his studies of African drumming. Reich has created a number of pieces for percussion ensembles or featuring percussion as a strong component. But the Mallet Quartet (2009) is a nod towards the continuing evolution of pitched percussion instruments; it’s his first work to incorporate the largest member of the mallet family: the five-octave marimba. Two of these populate the piece with layers of ostinato repetitions and thrumming, resonant bass thwacks. Meanwhile, two vibraphones supply shimmering chords and sustained lines. The piece juxtaposes these forces of wood and metal, pulsation and sustain, demonstrating that these two instruments can provide abundant variety and color. Engaging in nimble interplay, So Percussion’s rendition of this piece is informed by their years-long association with Reich’s music; they’ve also release an excellent rendition of his earlier work Drumming. When I saw them perform Mallet Quartet live at Carnegie Hall, they did so from memory. This intimate and comprehensive knowledge of the piece is reflected in its authoritative recording.
Reich himself appears, as part of the Steve Reich and Musicians ensemble, in the recording of Dance Patterns (2002). It was originally written for Ictus to accompany Thierry de Mey’s film Counterphrases of Anne Terese de Keersmaeker’s Choreography. Here, mallet instruments are joined by pianos. While the limpid counterpoint and fulsome polyrhythms found in the Mallet Quartet prevails here, the addition of concert grands adds richness to the harmonies; some of the piano writing takes on a positively jazzy cast. Vibrant and accessible, it may not be a watershed work like his pieces for Kronos, but it’s the perfect way to introduce Reich to a new audience. Maybe a passel of foreign film buffs will catch the minimalist bug!
1 Comment »
The Sad Park EP
Kronos Quartet; Michael Gordon, composer
Michael Gordon’s musical reflection on 9/11, The Sad Park, is an interesting variant on another piece written for the Kronos Quartet to commemorate the terror attacks: Steve Reich’s WTC 9/11. Gordon’s source material is culled from spoken word recordings made by the teacher of his son’s Pre-K class: responses to the attacks as seen through the eyes of innocents.
But whereas Reich used taped voices of first responders and spoken-word reflections of its aftermath as recognizable, harrowing, landmarks, Gordon eschews using source recordings in an overtly referential, or even recognizable manner. Instead, with the assistance of composer Luke Dubois, they are digitally sculpted into ghostly apparitions; distorted to blur the excerpts’ message in favor of allowing their impact to operate on an emotive and sonic, rather than textual, level. Surrounded by quartet writing in the post-minimal ostinato manner, as well as sustained, siren-like lines that form a kind of keening, mournful refrain, The Sad Park is an unsettling threnody.
It’s interesting to note that in NPR’s 9/6 blog post about The Sad Park, the responses in the comments section diverge widely. Some feel that it is an affecting piece, while others pillory its use of children’s responses as exploitative. I guess one can engender controversy without inflammatory cover art.
Composer Michael Gordon
No Comments »
Trinity Wall Street, the “Ground Zero Church” in New York City, commissioned a work from Robert Moran to commemorate the 10th Anniversary of September 11, 2001. The result, Trinity Requiem, is one of the most moving musical settings I’ve heard associated with 9/11.
Set for children’s choir, harp, cellos, and organ, it utilizes an elegantly simple, yet abundantly appealing musical language, combining soaring vocal lines, sumptuous pan-tonal harmonies, and flowing ostinati accompaniments to create a comforting, contemplative mass setting entirely appropriate to this occasion. The forces assembled by Trinity Church are uniformly excellent: recording a subdued, poignant performance of considerable musicality.
Respectful of those still in mourning, yet preferring an affirmative demeanor to doleful lament, Trinity Requiem is a beautiful piece that one hopes will remain in the repertoire. It transcends the nature of many occasional pieces to speak with an eloquence and sensitivity that is truly special.
Robert Moran Trinity Requiem CD by innova Recordings
1 Comment »
Slagwerk Den Haag
For his latest recording for the Cantaloupe imprint, Michael Gordon chose an unusual and cohesively elemental instrumental palette. The percussionists of Slagwerk Den Haag use only one kind of instrument: simantras – 2″X4″s – carved to different sizes to correspondingly vary the indefinite pitch and timbre. Given this winnowed orchestration, one might imagine that the results are monochromatic. Timber is anything but.
Instead, listeners are treated to an astonishing array of playing techniques, from a pitter patter of ricocheting attacks resembling rain fall to passages that accelerate and slow down to thunderous unison thwacks. Gordon’s penchant for polyrhythms and rhythmic canons keeps the musical textures varied and buoys a fascinating narrative that remains instense throughout the piece’s fifty-five minute long duration.
Not only is this release musically pleasing, it’s easily one of the coolest packaging designs for a CD we’ve seen in a while. Instead of a jewel case, the CD and liner notes are packed in a wooden box -that weighs about a pound! Seeing performance details carved into the side of a wooden box is much for aesthetically pleasing and, I’d imagine, environmentally friendly, than plastic tray inserts.
No Comments »
Gibson, piano and sine wave drones
Avant Media CD
Composer Randy Gibson’s 50 minute long Aqua Madora, for sine wave drones and piano tuned in just intonation, is an exquisitely lovely piece. Gibson uses his studies of tuning systems, composition, and singing with LaMonte Young and Marian Zazeela as a jumping off point – even going so far as to tuning some of the intervals (particularly seventh scale degrees) in homage to these masters of early minimalism.
As touching as this tribute is, especially at a time in which the importance of Young’s work is not nearly as widely known as it should be, Aqua Madora is not just about expressing gratitude for knowledge transmitted between teacher and student. In collaboration with Ana Baer-Carrillo and Dani Beauchamp, Gibson spent a long time refining this piece as a multimedia work containing film and dance.
One needn’t have these visual elements to enjoy the suppleness and subtleties of Aqua Madora’s music. Gibson’s play with intervals that sound “out of tune” to those accustomed to equal temperament is particularly sensitive. He allows the tangy appearances of these notes to color the drift of harmonic progressions and provide fascinating variants that add a tinge of the unexpected to scalar passages.
Aqua Madora V-ii-2008 21:07:26" – 21:54:40" (NYC) by Randy Gibson
An aside: I wasn’t the only one in the house to be floored by the piece. Our tabby cat, Happy, comes running every time I put it on, and blisses out between the speakers. While I’m not trying to make a partisan statement in the temperament wars using inappropriate anthropomorphism, it’s worth noting that she seldom gets this excited by music in equal temperament!
No Comments »
Frkwys Vol. 7
David Borden, Daniel Lopatin, Laurel Halo, Samuel Godin, James Ferraro, synthesizers
The seventh edition of the RVNG’s Frkwys series features intergenerational electroacoustic collaboration. David Borden, one of the pioneers of analog synthesizer performance and founder of Mother Mallard’s Portable Masterpiece, the first all synth ensemble, teams up with some of the young pups of indie electronica, members of bands such as Ford and Lopatin, Oneohtrix Point Never, and the Skaters.
While, traditionally, these two eras’ musicians may not share the same marketing demographics, they do share a love for vintage gear: for the warmth that analog keyboards can impart. Another mutual interest is ensemble improvisation. This common ground was extensively explored in a two-day marathon of recording sessions. On the Frkwys release, listeners are treated to unadulterated cuts, sans overdubs. But Borden and company do fine “without a net,” creating imaginative soundscapes. At times ambient and at others verging into more experimental terrain, the prevailing language here extols a minimal harmonic field, slowly evolving textures, and a plethora of drones.
Apart from the twelve and a half minute long “People of the Wind, Pt. 1,” most of the cuts are under ten minutes in duration. If one had a quibble about the release, it might be that this collective could use more time to stretch out and develop their ideas. Maybe a future meeting will allow side-long compositions to emerge. But in the meantime, there’s some heady music making to be heard from this initial encounter between analog improv’s old school and emerging wing.
No Comments »
Works for Piano
Vicky Chow; piano
Tzadik CD 8080
Composer Ryan Francis (b. 1981) may have just turned thirty, but the Juilliard grad has already amassed a formidable hour plus of solo piano works. These compositions are featured on his recent Tzadik CD release. They are given energetic and laser-beam precise performances by pianist Vicky Chow, a similarly youthful artist best known for her work with the new music collective Bang on a Can All-Stars.
Chow is formidable in the Chopin inspired Consolations (2007), an imposing and hyperkinetic nocturne that features swirling cascades of overlapping accompaniment figures and hypnotic melodic figures. Another homage to the classical music canon, this time to musical “bird figures” referenced in Haruki Murakami’s book The Wind-up Bird Chronicles, is found in Francis’ similarly titled “Wind-up Bird Preludes” (2005). These works are more fragmentary, seeking to juxtapose birdcall motives rather than make them cohere. Thus, Mozart, Rossini, Schumann, and others are successively alluded to. All the while, the inevitable references to Messiaen cause this ornithologist—composer to serve as birdsong pater familias and master of ceremonies.
Even from the vantage point of an emerging composer just a little over a decade out of his teens, a work written when one is eighteen might be something to suppress rather than spotlight. But one is glad that Francis didn’t choose this route, preferring instead to include his set of aphoristic but abundantly attractive Moonlight Fantasy pieces on this CD. There’s a taste of Joseph Schwantner’s shimmering harmony alongside Francis’ already present penchant for brief contrasting sections, busily effusive rhythmic language, and authoritative dramatic contrasts.
Francis’ best work on the disc however, is a bit more recent and it is to date his most unconventionally constructed. In an updated version of Conlon Nancarrow’s punching of piano roles to create his studies, Francis worked away from the piano (not his usual writing practice) to create a set of Etudes (2008) using MIDI mapping. The results suggest that Francis should put himself outside his compositional comfort zones more frequently, as these are a dazzling group of pieces, incorporating facets of post-minimalism (“Loop”), electronica (“digital sustain”), and Stravinskyian ostinati mixed with Nancarrow-esque rhythmic canons (“Harlequin). What might Francis’ at this point conjectural but likely inevitable “Piano Works Volume 2” have in store for us? Judging by what one can hear in his music already, the sky’s the limit!
Ryan Francis: Works for piano performed by Vicky Chow by Vicky Chow
No Comments »
Prima CD 002
Aidan Baker is probably best known for his soundscapes that involve droning guitars and ample distortion. But this time out, on his Prima full length Still Life, the Toronto native left the guitars at home altogether. Instead, he performs all of the instruments himself, focusing on piano, electronic manipulations, upright bass, and drums.
Still Life contains four compositions, each exceeding ten minutes in duration, that combine the gradual, inexorable drive of slowcore with inflections of a modern jazz rhythm section and flourishes of avant-classical. Baker doesn’t shy away from crunching dissonance where required. A signature example is the opening of “Refuge from Oblivion,” where cascades of punctilious piano disrupt the calm surface that pervaded the previous track.
Often, multiple layers of rhythm compete for supremacy, creating a multifaceted, but never cluttered, interplay. All the while, there is a slow-brewing underlying pulse that undergirds the whole with a supply architectural sensibility.
Artists seeking to combine experimental music and jazz should take note of Aidan’s fluent amalgamations.
Still Life by Aidan Baker
No Comments »
Drums between the Bells
For his second CD on the Warp imprint, Drums between the Bells, Brian Eno collaborates with poet Rick Holland on compositions that combine spoken word with alt-electronica.
Spoken dialogue atop music constantly bombards us on TV and in the movies, but the music is backgrounded and the dialogue is unmetered. The Eno/Holland collaboration puts poetry and music on relatively equal footing. And while the constituent elements may be 21st century experimental electronica and post-modern language, the material actually hearkens back to an older artform, the 18th and 19th century genre of melodrama.
Melodrama has gotten a bad rap in recent years. today, we often use the term melodramatic to describe something that’s overwrought. Even though composers as prominent as Mozart, Schubert, and Beethoven composed them, for the most part, musical melodramas haven’t remained in the repertory. That said, one of our most prominent contemporary musical genres, hip hop, certainly is a marriage of spoken word with music on relatively egalitarian footing. But then, the MC is, in a sense, a musical soloist as well as an orator; his or her voice acts in a punctuating and percussive manner that is a bit more overtly metricized than Mozart’s melodrama, or than the collaboration between Eno and Holland.
That said, the balance and pacing of music and spoken word on Drums between the Bells works well. And the recording exhibits a wide range of demeanors both in terms of narration and musical approach. It certainly helps that a number of voices are heard throughout the album, including Holland, Eno, classical vocalist/visual artist Nick Robertson, Anastasi Afonina, and Elisha Mudley, providing a great deal of inflective variety. Eno takes care of most of the instrumental duties himself, with strings and guitars added by guest collaborators.
The album opener sets an uncompromising tone. “Bless this Space” pits a gravelly and booming bass vocal against Leo Abrahams’ edgily distorted and angularly deployed electric guitar playing. On the cut “Fierce Aisles of Light,” the music veers towards trip-house with rap riding buoyantly atop the beats. It’s not surprising that the cut “Glitch” explores the experimental electronica from which it takes its title, with the poetry emitted in robotic stabs. “Seedpods” pits electrofusion riffs and string synth chordal pads against each other and a more theatrical oration. Elsewhere, as on “Dreambirds,” Eno references his justifiably famous ambient soundscaping, creating lush tapestries which beautifully support Holland’s more reflective poems.
Even if the notion of spoken word takes you back to awkward memories of children’s theater, or lame college open-mike nights masquerading as wannabe poetry slams, you needn’t give up on melodrama entirely. Give this Eno/Holland 2011 reboot of the genre a try. Drums between the Bells is well worth questioning your listening biases.
Brian Eno – glitch (taken from Drums Between The Bells) by Warp Records
1 Comment »
Anna Snow, voice; Damien Harron, percussion; Azalea Ensemble; Christopher Austin, conductor
A constant, if sometimes subtly articulated, pulse runs through much of British composer Tansy Davies’ Troubairitz, a portrait disc on the Nonclassical imprint. While percussionists Damien Harron and Adam Clifford perform their parts with sensitivity, and are seldom asked for a flurry of activity, their omnipresent exertions have certainly earned them overtime pay. Indeed, sometimes they are required to unfold multiple simultaneous tempi. The terse punctuations that undergird ensemble works such as Neon, Inside Out, and Grind Show demonstrate Davies’ affinity for experimental jazz and pop references. Like fellow British composers Mark-Anthony Turnage and Oscar Bettison, she uses these vernacular references as a foil for the classical instrumentation and dissonant counterpoint that populate her works. Thus, listeners are apt to hear Radiohead and Matmos as much as Knussen and Andriessen serving as touchstones for these pieces. The result is a language that is pervasively energetic, at times spiky, but capable too of moments of delicate repose. The Azalea Ensemble, under the able direction of Christopher Austin, are keen interpreters of this supple and eclectic music.
Some of the most sensitively wrought pieces on the disc are its vocal selections. Again taking a cue from countrymen such as Peter Maxwell Davies and Gavin Bryars, Davies recalls early music in the title work, a song cycle based on 12th Century Provencal poems by female troubadours. Anna Snow’s voice, deployed with sparing use of vibrato, seems ideally suited to “period informed” performance; yet she’s also able to conquer the postmodern pitch language and challenging tessitura of this work with assuredness.
Greenhouses, a setting of an excerpt from an email by Rachel Corrie, an American peace activist killed by Israeli forces while trying to prevent them from destroying Palestinian homes on the Gaza strip in 2003, is a thoughtful and touching piece. Davies is never heavy-handed in treating this delicate subject matter, but instead allows Corrie’s text a poignant, understated eloquence that is most affecting.
No Comments »