Archive for the “Jay Batzner” Category
Timothy McAllister, soprano saxophone; Zachary Shemon, alto saxophone; Matthew Levy, tenor saxophone; Taimur Sullivan, baritone saxophone
- Roshanne Etezady: Inkling
- Zack Browning: Howler Back
- Tim Ries: Lu
- Gregory Wanamaker: speed metal organum blues
- Renee Favand-See: isolation
- Libby Larsen: Wait a Minute
- Nick Didkovsky: Talea, Stink Up! (PolyPrism 1 and 2)
- Greg Osby: Prism #1
- Donnacha Dennehy: Mild, Medium-Lasting, Artificial Happiness
- Ken Ueno: July 23
- Adam B. Silverman: Just a Minute, Chopin
- William Bolcom: Scherzino
- Matthew Levy: Three Miniatures
- Jennifer Higdon: Bop
- Dennis DeSantis: Hive Mind
- Robert Capanna: Moment of Refraction
- Keith Moore: OneTwenty
- Jason Eckhardt: A Fractured Silence
- Frank J. Oteri: Fair and Balanced?
- Perry Goldstein: Out of Bounds
- Tim Berne: Brokelyn
- Chen Yi: Happy Birthday to PRISM
- James Primosch: Straight Up
I don’t think there are enough words to describe the technical precision, the unity of sonic intent, the musicality, and the timbral facility present in the Prism Quartet’s playing. Fortunately for me, I don’t really need the words; I have this disc instead. These 23 compositions, all short and wonderfully focused, paint a wonderful aural picture of this amazing sax quartet. The slithering of Roshanne Etezady’s Inkling showcases the extreme fluidity of their sound and as soon as it is over – BAM – we are hit with the spiky and strident Howler Black by Zack Browning. Adam B. Silverman’s Just a Minute, Chopin is as tender and expressive as Gregory Wanamaker’s speed metal organum blues is not, yet Prism sounds like they were born to play both. Compositions using lots of extended techniques like Ken Ueno’s July 23… (the full title takes longer to read than it takes to listen to the piece) and Jason Eckardt’s A Fractured Silence are gorgeous and rich sounding. The composers’ voices are strong and resonant and Prism plays these works as if no effort was involved (the effort for these pieces is considerable). Frank Oteri’s Fair and Balanced? exploits Prism’s pitch and tuning control with his four microtonal movements. By the time the disc is over, you’ll think there is nothing the Prism Quartet can’t do. And you’d be right.
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music of Scott Johnson
- The Illusion of Guidance
- Bowery Haunt
- Anthem Hunt
performed by: Kermit Driscoll, electric bass; Scott Johnson, electric guitar; Michael Lowenstern, clarinets; Mary Rowell, viola; Greg Chudzik, bass; David Cossin, marimba, percussion; Mark Dancigers, electric guitar; John Ferrari, drums; Stephen Gosling, piano; Derek Johnson, electric guitar; Liviu Onchoi, sampled voice; Taimur Sullivan, saxophones; Ken Thomson, clarinet; Shekaiba Wakili, sampled voice; Alex Waterman, cello; Janet Xiong, sampled voice
Scott Johnson’s Americans is a large pseudo-rock ensemble work punctuated by the sampled voices of various American immigrants. The rhythmic cells found in the voices are woven into the ensemble for an effect that is best described as “Zappaesque.” The compositional techniques are similar to Johnson’s “How It Happens” featuring the sampled voice of I. F. Stone but ramped up with more aggressive and driving features. The ensemble playing is tight and at first listening I thought the composition was for fixed media a la Noah Creshevsky. I am much more impressed knowing that the ensemble is live and that only the voices are sampled. I found my own listening to gravitate towards the voices, which I think is natural, so I found some difficulty with the through-line of the second movement (the narrator of which speaks Romanian). The final movement, featuring the voice of an Afghan-American talking about her internal schism about going to war in Afghanistan, makes for a poignant and subdued ending.
The last three compositions are all pure instrumental chamber works featuring electric guitar is some way, shape, or form. The Illusion of Guidance keeps a tight reign on its motivic materials. The clarinet often comes across as the primary melodic voice but Johnson uses the blend between the electric guitar and the high clarinet register to keep the timbres alive and kicking. Rhythms are spiky, driving, but never devolve into a frivolous groove. Bowery Haunt and Anthem Hunt are two excellent examples for what composers can and should be doing with their rock heritage. Each piece uses steady rhythms, electric guitar timbres, and power chords but neither piece does anything trite or cliched with these elements. If I were to describe these as a sommelier, I’d say something like “Delightfully post-minimalist/totalist, still lyrical, with notes of King Crimson.” These works, and the disc as a whole, are prime examples of well-crafted music that speaks to the moment. Scott Johnson isn’t creating pieces that use contemporary flavors simply on the surface. There is compositional craft knitting each piece together and some fantastic performances to boot.
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Posted by Jay Batzner in CD Review, Jay Batzner, minimalism, Women Composers, tags: Cantaloupe, CD Review, Ensemble Resonanz, Jay Batzner, Julia Wolfe, postminimalism, strings
Brad Lubman, conductor
The big question I had when putting in this disc for the first time was “Will a string orchestra be able to recreate the visceral power and energy that I find vital in Julia Wolfe’s string quartets?” My fear was that the harder and sharper attacks I enjoy will be too diluted with more players in the ensemble. It was a silly skepticism to hold and any trepidations I had quickly melted away once I started listening. Also, Ensemble Resonanz is the same group that recorded Weather and a disc of Xenakis. I was pretty sure I was going to have a good time with this CD.
Ensemble Resonanz and Julia Wolfe make an excellent team. Not only did Wolfe obviously compose music better suited for an orchestra than a quartet (it was foolish of me to doubt that she would) but Resonanz also threw serious energy behind both pieces. Cruel Sister, inspired by a dark Old English ballad, is expressive and emotive balancing the programmatic elements with a clean dramatic line that makes sense in the abstract. The hollow open intervals which throb away at the beginning enmesh with more angry and spiky punctuations. The four attacca movements are woven together in a solid and disrupted narrative. Ensemble Resonanz brings power and control to the whole range of the sonic spectrum and Wolfe adeptly showcases register and texture. I am especially fond of the transition between the second and third movements which is (to my ear) simultaneously abrupt yet smooth.
Fuel is a far more abstract work driven by the problems the world faces regarding the necessity of fuel. Ensemble Resonanz masterfully blends in a variety of coloristic techniques, making sounds like scratch tones a part of the woven tapestry of sound. The CD notes go so far as to state that electronics were not used at all and that all the sounds in the piece are acoustic. I think that disclaimer is a bit much. There is certainly a wider variety of string techniques and timbres in Fuel than in Cruel Sister but I never had a “What the heck was that?” reaction. Scratch tones, harmonics, tremolo, and filtering the sound via bow placement are all active parameters in the sound world. Again, Resonanz brings a whole lot of power throughout the registers and forms a massive hyper-instrument blend the likes of which make string quartets secretly jealous.
Wolfe’s music is also doing what she does best: frenetic power created through post-minimalist techniques that transcend mere repetition. The music materials are sharp, taut, basic, and the economy of material is expertly managed. Wolfe knows how to make a lot out of a little AND pull the listener along for the ride. Both works have programmatic elements but not knowing the program does not interfere with the listening experiences. These works sound fresh and contemporary and I’m confident that audiences in the future will continue to relate and connect with the ideas therein.
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Posted by Jay Batzner in CD Review, Jay Batzner, Piano, tags: CD Review, chamber music, Ensemble CMN, instrumental, Jay Batzner, Laganella, Marilyn Nonken, Prism Quartet, saxophone
The Calls of Gravity
music of David Laganella
The Prism Quartet, Marilyn Nonken, Ensemble CMN
New Focus Recordings
- Leafless Trees – The Prism Quartet
- The Hidden River – Marilyn Nonken
- Unattainable Spaces – Ensemble CMN
- The Persistence of Light – Marilyn Nonken
- Sundarananda – Ensemble CMN
These recent works by composer David Laganella feature a constant nattering of activity full of motion and gestures and with very little stability or repose. Leafless Trees is an energetic and coloristic set of miniature toccatas for saxophone quartet. The Prism Quartet are clearly at home here as they make the acrobatics and difficult timbral shifts sound fluid and organic. The quartet is a showy virtuosic piece and I found that I wanted to listen to the individual sound worlds of each movement for a greater amount of time that Laganella had composed.
Marilyn Nonken’s two performances (The Hidden River and The Persistence of Light) features almost constant activity and flow as is fitting to the compositions’ inspirations. Both pieces function with their own internal logic through a linear form that eschews repetition for constant development. These pieces are based on textures instead of gestures with broad dramatic shapes to guide the listener. Harmonies are dense clusters which occasionally relax into softer sounds. As a whole, Laganella uses the piano as a single voice with very little use of large-scale polyphony. The smaller gestures that make up the whole composition are again appropriate given his inspirations of water and light.
Unattainable Spaces stays true to the sound world that Laganella has presented thus far. Tight dissonances are the glue that bind this ensemble (string trio, clarinet, and percussion) into a single unified instrument. The language is equally sinewy and slippery as it progresses from one moment to the next. In a refreshing change of pace, the final composition played by Ensemble CMN has smooth edges and a more tender touch. Sundarananda for flute, cello, and guitar, is a compellingly understated piece built of slower moving lyrical lines sometimes punctuated by more hectic activity. The trio waxes and wanes and is full of breath. Short spiky gestures that become the mainstay of Laganella’s later compositions (this work is the earliest on the disc – 2004) are given resonant space. A tight control over the dramatic arch is still maintained. I’m not sure what has happened in the past 7 years to move Laganella’s music into a more hectic and manic direction but I hope he will still draw upon the serene contemplations he had when composing Sundarananda.
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Posted by Jay Batzner in CD Review, Jay Batzner, New World, tags: CD Review, electric guitar, Jay Batzner, microtonality, New World Records, New York School, postminimalism, saxophone quartet
The World’s Longest Melody
music of Larry Polansky
New World Records
- Ensembles of Note
- tooaytood 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 9, and 11
- for jim, ben and lou
- “…getting rid of the glue…”
- The World’s Longest Melody
- Ontslaan (toontood)
- 34 Chords (Christian Wolff in Hanover and Royalton)
Various aspects of Larry Polansky’s music are given compelling and nuanced performances on this disc. The opening Ensembles of Note is a funky, rhythmic, semi-controlled improvisation based on a four bar rhythmic germ. When I first heard the disc, I really enjoyed the piece. It is quirky, it grooves, and the formal flow is natural and fluid (a gradual increase in the amount of activity). To my surprise upon reading the notes, the melodic materials are entirely improvised and only the rhythmic ostinato is given. Suddenly, my opinion of the piece and the performance skyrocketed. The ensemble has a wonderfully cohesive feel in their sound as well as to the shape of the piece. The music belongs to the performers as much as it belongs to Polansky and I think that is the right balance for a work that relies so heavily on improvisation.
The tooaytoods are all miniature miniatures (the longest being :24). Originally solo piano works, here they are electric guitar duets. Each tooaytood has its own internal logic, however brief, and each work as perfectly chiseled gems. Could they be developed into longer works? I guess so but I think that would crush their ephemeral beauty and wit.
My favorite composition on the disc is the trio for jim, ben, and lou for guitar, harp, and percussion. Each movement honors a composer important to Polansky’s compositional language (James Tenney, Ben Johnston, and Lou Harrison). Microtonality abounds in the trio and Polansky’s touch with this tonal palette is delicate, expressive, and extremely artful. No note, no matter the clash with other notes, sounds “wrong.” The reverence for these three composers is communicated at a very fundamental level in this trio. Just to contradict myself, the trio has a very light touch, too. Simple formal structures, such as variation, are masterfully used. I’ve been listening to this piece a lot in the last few weeks. A lot.
The brief guitar solo “…getting rid of the glue…” is in some ways a flashback to how Polansky arrived at the style of these previous, yet more recent, pieces. Sparse pointallistic gestures create a timeless and directionless space. Harmonics, gentle humming, and detuned strings pass through this space created by the work. The next track, ivtoo, then sounds like the direct descendent of “…getting rid of the glue…” and the trio. Toon Callier’s overdubbed acoustic guitars form a cloud of active-yet-directionless harmonies and colors. It is as if a pizzicato fog has descended. The directionlessness is merely an illusion, of course, as the piece slowly and inexorably oozes into more tense and strenuous areas.
The ensemble version of The World’s Longest Melody (also the title of the trio movement dedicated to Lou Harrison but is not the same piece) rings in with epic power chords and drums. One might expect a power rock thrash will emerge but the piece stays fairly tame if that is your expectation. There is a cyclic and periodic repetition of ideas, a non-Western-inspired sense of form, that again has its own compelling logic. Similar temporal logic gets merged with Western harmonies in the next tracks Ontslaan (toontood) and toovviivfor. In Ontslaan (toontood) a very stock sounding chorale of electric guitars quickly gets warped and bent and twisted until almost beyond recognition (keyword: almost). toovviivfor uses a decidedly less comfortable and more abstract harmonic grounding and then proceeds in a similar manner.
Polansky’s musical language is naturally complemented by the guitar. The timbre works well to provide a clarity to his pitch/temperament choices and the resonance (or sustain in the case of the electric guitars) works well to enforce the mood or emotional tone of the pieces. The final track, 34 Chords (Chrisitan Wolff in Hanover and Royalton) is another reverent homage that exploits these facets of the electric guitar to great effect (and affect).
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Music by Matt McBane
New Amsterdam Records
- Behavior Patterns
Build is Andrea Lee, cello; Ben Campbell, bass; Matt McBane, violin/composer; Michael Cassedy, piano; Adam D. Gold, drums/percussion.
Build’s second album is far from sophomoric. I had the pleasure of reviewing their first album and I find this second release to keep all the best aspects of Matt McBane’s compositional voice and add more sophisticated instrumental textures and more compelling dramatic shapes. The strings have a more distributed use of pizzicato and bowed playing, tracks feature more subsets of the ensemble, the percussion is invigorated with a restrained use of the drum set and a broader sound palette of percussion instruments, and in general McBane employs more variety in the orchestrational vocabulary. While each track stands squarely on its own, there are plenty of distinct dramatic chunks that cross over individual track boundaries. The ensemble plays with a tight sound, everyone in sync with the needs of the music before them.
Behavior Patterns establishes a fairly static yet compelling harmonic world. Build does us the favor of NOT resolving these harmonies and just lets us chill in them for a while. Dissolve then dissipates the tension left over from Behavior Patterns. In some ways, I hear a fond connection to side-scrolling video game music in the driving sections of Dissolve (I could totally play Ninja Gaiden to this) and a wonderful sense of release as Dissolve splashes down and does what the title suggested it was going to do. Ride is a mellow flowing melodic interlude before the meatier Swelter set gets going.
The three Swelter tracks work as a single dramatic arc (fast, slow, fast) and Swelter 3 has been made available for free download. Swelter 1‘s frenetic and irregular groove is infinitely listenable, especially as the texture thins and the soaring cello melody rises over the top of said groove. Swelter 2 turns to lighter and thinner textures and Swelter 3 turns the grooves back on. These three tracks emulate one of the points of growth in this disc; all three are scored for cello, piano, and drums. Within that subset of Build, Matt McBane finds additional textural life and a true chamber music sense of discourse. You don’t realize that the ensemble is pared down at all.
I hear a similar multi-track arc in the end of the album. Cleave is, to be blunt, f*$&ing incredible. The simplest materials (piano ostinato, tight and irregular glissandi in the strings, militaristic drums) grow and build and expand inexorably to Cleave’s high point. The music is haunting, sorrowful, mesmerizing, and hits me in an intensely personal space. When it starts, I can do nothing but listen. Following Cleave, Anchor is the most abstract and disjointed work. The replacement of vibraphone for drum set and the fragmented ensemble (often in disjointed pairs and trios) keep the track lively but without a massively driving force. Fragments of distorted cello bubble under the surface, glassy and timeless intervals hang in the air, the bass gets expressive bowed lines, hocketing abounds in the middle; the whole piece seems to be the ensemble asking the “what haven’t we done on this album yet” question and creating elegant answers. To end the disc, Maintain is Build at its most straight forward. Resonant open intervals pulse forever forward, pushing the album towards a very satisfying harmonic and gestural goal. The directness of the line may come across to some as slightly corny in a quasi-film score sort of way but I thoroughly enjoy the plain and direct motion. After the ride we’ve had since Cleave I find the stable and hypnotic push towards the end the perfect closer.
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a retrospective (1977 – 2009)
New World Records
It may be unfair to say that the genre of electronic music is one that ignores its history. Of course that isn’t entirely true, there is always attention paid to the past, rarely does that attention manifest itself in the presentation of music more than ten years old. Concerts that feature or include electronic music typically showcase the “newest in new” as if anything prior to 2004 is the sonic equivalent of day-old donuts, anything from the 1990s is “quaint” and literature found before 1980 is approached the way a music appreciation class approaches Machaut.
I know this is a brash generalization and a stunning example of hyperbole, but it is rare that the pioneers of electronic music are given much air time in concert halls when compared to acoustic composers who also paved the way for future generations. And since fixed media pieces lack the element of performer interpretation, there seems to be no need to release a composition more than once. That the work is available at all seems to be enough.
New World Records does a great service here by releasing a collection of works by the venerable master Charles Dodge. Dodge, a paragon of the early American pioneers, is someone who made exquisite compositions from the digital equivalent of banging two rocks together. Most of those early compositions, released on vinyl, haven’t found the larger distribution in part because earlier electronic compositions are not as valued as more contemporary pieces. Sites like Ubuweb and the now defunct Avantgardeproject.org offer access to earlier experimental electronic recordings. New World’s commitment to preserving, promoting, and distributing cornerstones of the genre is worthy of praise.
What about the music? The bulk of the disc is occupied by Dodge’s seminal Cascando, based on the radio play by Samuel Beckett. Cascando dates from 1977 and makes heavy use of the vocal synth/sampling techniques found in Dodge’s earlier Speech Songs. Cascando is to Speech Songs, though as Reich’s Drumming is to Clapping Music. Cascando’s texture is sparse and draws the bulk of its sound world from the speech synthesis engine. My reaction to the work is similar to my reactions to much of Beckett; I don’t feel a strong narrative arc but I find the events compelling in and of themselves.
New World includes two other more recent compositions alongside the 30 minute Cascando. Fades, Dissolves, Fizzles for fixed media, from way back in 1995, connects well to the older work and demonstrates a through line in Dodge’s compositional voice. Fades, Dissolves, Fizzles is built from fairly plain and simple synthetic bell-like timbres. The event language is similar to Cascando in that there is rarely a counterpoint of ideas. Dodge favors single events and a slow unfolding of activity. Fades, Dissolves, Fizzles has quite a bit more pep, though, as the active pseudo-gamelan textures that arise help motivate the narrative and provide formal continuity. Fades, Dissolves, Fizzles is also strongly concerned with just intonation. The pure timbre of the synth helps the tuning relationships shine through.
The final composition is the 2009 work Violin Variations for violin and computer, played here by Baird Dodge. Again, just intonation and the slow unfolding of simple textures are the motivating factors in the construction. The synth sound is subtly refined from Fades, Dissolves, Fizzles with more overtones and richer sonic fabrics behind each pitch. The four movements rarely move past a contemplative affect, a faster tempo and pizzicato third movement help break monotony. Like the other pieces on the disc, I don’t feel a sense of a traditional dramatic narrative but find the work sonically compelling.
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sweet light crude
New Amsterdam Records
listen to the album online here
- 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.
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Psst … Psst!
Molly Barth, flutes; Brian McWhorter, trumpet/flugelhorn; David Riley, piano/celesta; Phillip Patti, percussion.
- Mysteries of the Macabre – Györgu Ligeti (arr. Beta Collide)
- Mollitude – Frederic Rzewski
- Trio – Valentin Silvestrov
- Memories of an Echo – Robert Kyr
- Nanosonata No. 7 + Mollitude – Frederic Rzewski
- Waterline – Stephen Vitiello
- Kryl – Robert Erickson
- Nanosonata No. 7 – Frederic Rzewski
- Yellow – Stephen Vitiello
- Nude – Radiohead (Beta Collide Remix)
Psst…psst! is an amazing collection of music and performance by the quartet Beta Collide. Each performance is virtuosic yet effortlessly musical. Each piece chosen for the disc suits the instrumentation well and the variety of works performed highlights the performers’ own mercuriality. Their arrangement of Ligeti’s Mysteries of the Macabre is wonderfully energetic and manic. I honestly prefer their take on it over the original.
Beta Collide presents a “Rzewski Sandwich” in the solo flute work Mollitude, Nanosonata No. 7 for piano, and combining both pieces in the aptly named Nanosonta No. 7 + Mollitude. The Silvestrov Trio for flute, trumpet, and percussion is delivered in a sparkling fashion. Haunting pieces like Waterline and Yellow flow with the same effortless sound as the more flashy and chaotic works. I am especially enamored with Memories of an Echo by Robert Kyr as an achingly beautiful duet for flute and trumpet.
Closing off the disc is a remix of Radiohead’s Nude. Their spin on this track is, in many ways, the antithesis of their arrangement which began the CD. Their brief meditation is governed more by a contemplative mood than raw energy.
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Posted by Jay Batzner in CD Review, Jay Batzner, minimalism, Piano, tags: CD Review, Charlemagne Palestine, instrumental, Jay Batzner, Piano, strings, Sub Rosa
(piano, harpsichord, and string ensemble versions)
Upon first cracking open this 3-CD collection of Strumming by Charlemagne Palestine, I saw the brief newspaper article by John Rockwell who tells the tale of a Palestine performance cut short because the composer was playing a Steinway and not a Bösendorfer (“cut short” is relative since the piece lasted 2.5 hours instead of 4). The article presents the situation as an acute case of “diva-itis” but when I heard the original version of Strumming (even listed as “for Bösendorfer piano”) and heard the massive clouds of overtones and sympathetic vibrations, I could see why Palestine would not be pleased with a Steinway instrument. So much of the piano version of Strumming doesn’t happen at the keyboard but in the air around it. The incessant keyboard hammerings melts into waves of sound much like dots in a Seurat painting. Around the 17 minute mark of this 52 minute performance from 1974 my brain couldn’t hear the keyboard anymore – just the spectra of the harmonies pushing against each other. The cresting wave around 30 minutes is an absolutely transcendent ride as is the surrender to the “power chords” 7 minutes later. I trust Charlemagne Palestine to deliver what he wants me to hear and this recording is one you can trust. As much as I would love to hear a more recent, higher-resolution, and longer version of the work, I think it is hard to call this performance anything other than definitive. It makes the 12 minute version of Strumming on the Godbear album feel like a 5 Second Film.
In addition to Palestine performing on Bösendorfer, the Sub Rosa collection has two other versions: one for harpsichord performed by Betsy Freeman in 1977 and one for a string ensemble organized at the SF Conservatory by John Adams in that same year. The harpsichord version weighs in at 35 minutes and is probably the closest to providing an actual “strum” aesthetic although without the pronounced melting of sustained sonic spectra. Freeman’s technique and treatment of the material is compelling and well paced. Some folks might approach a harpsichord version of Strumming with extreme distaste but there is no reason to avoid this wonderful performance.
I found the string ensemble version (about 25 minutes long) to be surprisingly sustained whereas the keyboards furiously chug away. There is nary a tremolo to be heard nor any other picturesque technical tricks that one would expect from string ensemble writing. The harmonic journey is laid bare and exposed in a frail and naked manner. It is this string version that I really hope gets taken up and revisited in a longer and higher quality recording (at least one without coughing). As a minor quibble, I’m not sure why this is sold as a 3 disc set since the harpsichord and string versions could comfortably fit on a single disc. True, there are few of us who will spin all versions back-to-back-to-back, but I always bristle when I have a disc with so much dead space by a composer known for extended compositions.
While these recordings are supposedly of the same piece of music, each of these versions contains a different element of “truth” to them. Each stands squarely on its own as a performance of a hypnotic and unique compositional voice instead of sounding as mere arrangements of the original piano version. These three recordings are interconnected the same way that good film/book pairings (2001, Blade Runner) contain the core of the work while still showcasing different distinct artistic visions.
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