How much you enjoy Nico Muhly’s new album Mothertongue will depend, ironically enough, on which is your original musical language: rock or classical.
If The Beatles or Prince count among your first loves, chances are you’ll hear this album as warmed over Bjōrk. If you were weaned on Beethoven and graduated to Terry Riley, you may well think this album is genius, especially if you take the time to read Muhly’s notes.
He’s awfully good at writing about his music in the best sort of restaurantese, the kind which transforms a simple list of ingredients into a seduction, leaving you craving whatever it is he’s serving up. Instead of “Beef Cheek Ravioli with Crushed Squab Liver and Black Truffles” you get “a violent, ecstatic recitation of addresses and zip codes antagonized by a “˜monster’ made out of over-amplified cereal and synthesizers”.
Mothertongue is organized into three suites, which differ in their surface material but are all identical in basic form. Each starts fairly simply and builds to a fulminant climax. Tonality is either completely static or moves at a glacial pace. There are no truly bad sounds. Everything is stitched together lovingly.
The first suite (“˜Mothertongue’) relies a bit too much on cut and paste composition as minute and indistinguishable syllables are looped endlessly. The synthesizer is pure 1983′s kitsch, and the result is an unavoidable (and unfavorable) comparison to Laurie Anderson.
The second (“˜Wonders’) uses a meandering harpsichord and trombone overdubs to rework a Weelkes madrigal, which is sung by the trombonist. With every moment in the album, it’s safe to assume Muhly’s choices are deliberate. So, apparently allowing the trombonist to be overmatched by Weelkes’ melody in the singing of it has some sort of intent. Unfortunately, his bland tone and inaccurate pitch do more to distract than enchant.
The last and strongest of the suites is “˜The Only Tune‘, which is sung by Sam Amidon. As with the rest of the album, overdubs abound, but here Muhly finally lets his material breathe. Amidon’s fractured vocal finally seems like a genuine device rather than a posture, and his banjo picking is a welcome sonority.
By quirk of iTunes, Mothertongue is nestled just in front of Yesterday Was Dramatic Today Is OK by míºm on my computer. If you are interested in hearing the music that Muhly is imitating, this is a great place to start. It’s hardly a coincidence that Mothertongue is released by a label in Iceland (Bedroom Community). The genetic code of this album is hopelessly intertwined with that of Icelandic artists like míºm and Sigur Rí³s. Chances are, if you already love this music, Muhly’s stab at it will seem like a minor effort: enjoyable but forgettable.
But if all this is new to you, and you like to read a couple hundred words about whatever you hear, chances are Mothertongue just might strike you as brilliant. It’s all a matter of interpretation.
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Six Preludes for cello and piano (1929-30)
Composition 1 for cello and piano* (date unknown)
Sonata No. 1 for cello and piano, Op. 52 (1915)
Two Pieces for cello and piano, Op. 33 nos. 1 and 2* (date unknown)
Sonata No. 2 for cello and piano* (ca. 1920)
* World Premiere Recording
Well, not quite. Ornstein was part of that multitude of heralded geniuses at the onset of modernism (back when it was called Futurism). He made quite a splash, prompting one critic to deem him the sum of Schoenberg and Scriabin squared, but posterity has endowed only a fraction of their fame on poor Leo, who disappeared into academia after his initial notoriety.
The new recording by Joshua Gordon and Randall Hodgkinson of Ornstien’s Complete Works for Cello and Piano seems to confirm posterity’s judgment. The compositions on this CD are all very lovely to encounter, but aside from a few haunting moments, they don’t particularly linger in the mind. Back when it was easy to become famous for breaking all the rules, enfants terribles were a dime a dozen, but Ornstein is no charlatan. His musical vocabulary is expansive, and he has a gift for creating a wide variety of textures that, left by themselves, would make fine post-modernist pieces.
However, what emerges as Ornstein’s greatest talent in this collection of five pieces is not any groundbreaking modernity, but rather, a passionate, Russian-Jewish lyricism. (Ornstein rejected Judaism as an adult, but his cultural heritage is never far afield in these pieces. In the fifth of his Six Preludes for cello and piano, he even quotes the triplet piano motif of Mussorgsky’s “Samuel Goldenberg und Schmuí¿le”.) Composition 1 for cello and piano is simply one long lament for the cello, much like the first part of Sonata No. 2. On this disc, these languorous melodies abound.
Joshua Gordon sings each melody with a gorgeous, dark tone that is utterly captivating at times. Ornstein was a crack pianist, and like most composers with prodigious piano chops, he writes some miserably complex accompaniments, all of which Randall Hodgkinson plays effortlessly. If these two are coming to your town any time soon, don’t miss them. The only flaw in this recording is the mix, which often lets one instrument overbalance the other.
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Cold Blue Music
The three compositions on this disc form a little travelogue, beginning in Armenia and ending in Portugal. The bulk of the listener’s time, though, is spent in the Canary Islands during the title track, where the sound of the Atlantic being forced through volcanic rock formations is used by Fahres as a glacial ostinato.
All that water sounds uncannily like breathing, as if some monstrously large creature were in a deep slumber. It’s a sound that moves from innocuity, through claustrophobia, to sheer dread at times. Slowly, the sound of Mark Atkins’ didgeridoo and Jon Hassell’s trumpet are layered into the mix, but what could be your standard recipe for Yoga-Studio schlock is deftly paced and beautifully constructed. Both instruments enter well under the radar, and assume the spotlight without ever abandoning exceptional taste. The conclusion of Hassell’s cadenza is a typically breathy explosion of sound that is just about indistinguishable from the undulating ocean. This is the kind of recording that lets you get wondrously lost in someone else’s sound world.
Sevan opens the CD and features some delicate singing from Parik Nazarian. Her performance was recorded inside the huge metal pipes that the Soviets began to build in an attempt to revitalize Lake Sevan in Armenia. The pipes stand empty now, one of countless public works that were abandoned in the wake of the Cold War, and anyone who has seen eerily motionless steam shovels and bulldozers and half-laid concrete in post-Soviet Russia can easily conjure up a desolated image to accompany Fahres’ elegy.
But therein lies the power of program notes. Nazarian could just as easily be singing in the DC Metro. It’s a testament to Fahres’ command of his source material that these pieces add up to far more than the sum of their parts.
The only piece that is explicitly linked to a particular time and place is the closing Coimbra 4, Mundi Theatre, far and away the disc’s standout track. The source material here is culled from a sprawling interactive event that took place in Coimbra, Portugal in 2003. Some 1700 performers were involved, featuring everything from marching bands to choirs and people on the street. The soundscape Fahres develops from what must have been a daunting archive of field recordings is absolutely compelling, and stands squarely with the best of musique concrí¨te.
The exhiliration of Coimbra 4′s pacing is a wonderful counterpoint to the preceding material. It brings the disc to a stirring close and leaves the listener wanting much, much more.
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||A Sweet Quasimodo Between Black Vampire Butterflies
Cold Blue Music
The title obliquely sums up precisely what this recording is: Charlemagne Palestine wedged between two pianos.
Unfortunately, it is not a high quality recording of Palestine’s live performance at Maybeck Studio a year ago (January 7, 2006). On ordinary speakers, it is a frustrating listen. The pianos sound distant and one gets the feeling of watching a magic show from the theater lobby. The original recording was so poor that the editor, Scott Fraser, is actually credited as having ‘sonically repaired’ it.
Thank God for headphones, and while we’re at it, thank God for Charlemagne Palestine.
In a close listening, most of the magic is there. He begins simply, explaining to the audience that, in more carefree times, the performance would have begun with everyone being served brandy. He sings a little invocation, and then, almost mid-sentence, begins playing two E’s on the pianos.
The next half hour is a fairly predictable exploration of the two instruments. If you heard it piped into an elevator, you might think it Philip Glass’ new score for Notes on a Sunbeam. It’s pleasantly minimalist, replete with climax, but in the hurly burly of the different tunings and clashing overtones, there’s a wonderful listening experience to be had, which (if this is your thing) you’ll revisit often.
The sheer childishness of what Charlemagne does is part of his appeal. Who hasn’t banged a piano with the pedal down? The fact that he can make that universal childhood delight a compelling concert experience is somewhat mystical, and always worth a listen.
Charlemagne Palestine at the Maybeck, 1.7.06
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There’s something to be said for leaving things unrecorded. Not every jot and tittle may be worth committing to the ages, and in the case of John Cage, there are quite a lot of jot and tittles.
Inlets (1977) is Cage’s famous conch shell piece. [Conch shells are the ones that are handy for calling island-wide meetings and that Steve Turre used to play on SNL going into commercials.] But Inlets is one of Cage’s indeterminate scores. The point is that you fill the things up with water and twist them around, waiting for them to gurgle.
Just like there’s no predicting when a water cooler will burp, the fun of the piece is that there’s no telling when the shells will gurgle or how. It’s a neat idea for a party game, but it hardly holds up on a recording. The magic lies in the physical act: the exoticism of the shell, the mysterious turning motion, the invisibility of the sound mechanism.
Sadly, there’s no magic in Glenn Freeman’s precisely recorded version of Inlets that appears on the latest OgreOgress release. Though the piece also features burning pine cones, and one solitary conch whistle, (both faithfully recorded), there simply isn’t enough musical material to create a compelling recording.
Glenn and company are in the middle of an ambitious project to be the first to record all of Cage’s number pieces. In addition to Inlets, this latest installment features Two3 (1991) and Two4 (1991), both of which are far more compelling, though just as monolithic.
Two3 is One9 (1991) with a conch obbligato, and in this performance, the water-filled conch is used sparingly. So much so, that over the course of the recording’s two hours, when the bubbling conch intrudes, it is startling. Cage’s use of the sho’s extremely limited timbre has a cumulative effect, which is quite compelling. Kudos to OgreOgress for stretching their legs in DVD format, thereby enabling a reading of the piece that starts to make sense. Unless you’re a glutton for punishment, avoid headphones when listening. Best to light a candle and pop this disc into your surround sound. Give yourself the time and the space to truly encounter the piece and you will definitely be rewarded.
The recordings here are clinical, however, which is only really detrimental in the rendering of Two4, where Christina Fong’s lovely performance of the microtonal violin part is matched poorly with Tamami Tono’s sho. The two parts sound like they were spliced together from two very different sessions in two very different sound environments, creating a hybrid that never captivates the ear.
Though the DVD allows for OgreOgress to deliver nearly three hours of music on a single disc, it does knock the retail price into a range that only Cage devotees would enter ($37.99 on Amazon. Considerably less on CDBaby). The usual shenanigans with the liner notes are present (they are printed in nearly illegible lines of monstrous length across the entire inner jacket), rendering the total package less than impressive, which is a shame, because there are real merits to each of these recordings, and this is clearly a labor of love on OgreOgress’ part.
The best bargain for the casual Cage fan will be to purchase the separate recordings on iTunes, when it becomes available next month.
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