Archive for the “Jay Batzner” Category

American Vernacular CD Cover art

New Music for Solo Piano

Nicholas Phillips, piano

New Focus Recordings

  • Spectacular Vernaculars – Mark Olivieri
  • Occidental Psalmody – Ethan Wickman
  • On the Drawing of Constellations – Ben Hjertmann
  • Bill-ytude – Joel Puckett
  • Piano Miniature #10, #12, #13 – Mohammed Fairouz
  • Beloved – David Maslanka
  • Back Porch Requiem for John Fahey – Luke Gullickson
  • Playin’ and Prayin’ – John Griffin
  • A Southern Pride – William Price
  • Hotfingers – David Rakowski

Nicholas Phillips approached several composers looking for music inspired by the phrase “American Vernacular” and the end result is a strong balance of eclectic musical tastes framed within relatively conservative harmonic and formal frameworks. Mr. Phillips was aiming for a “classical crossover” disc at the start but he creates is a disc of fun and charming music which, while performed with a high level of technical and musical sophistication, doesn’t feel the need to take itself too seriously. There are serious works on the disc, no doubt, but the overall focus is on enjoyable works which sound as gratifying to play as they are to hear. If you want a disc which is trying to rant for or against a style or idiom, you want a different disc. This is merely a well-programmed and performed collection of music which is approachable and engaging to listeners from a broad range of backgrounds.

Several works highlight direct ties to “vernacular” roots. Mark Olivieri’s Spectacular Vernaculars draws on ragtime, “Stella by Starlight” and De La Soul but clearly uses these inspirations as jumping off points instead of as a cursory exterior. Bill-ytude by Joel Puckett achieves the same using Billy Joel and Elton John stylings. Playin’ and Prayin’ by John Griffin takes Christian worship music tropes on a rhapsodic adventure and Mohammed Fairouz alludes to Liberace and Tin Pan Alley in two of his three miniatures. Back Porch Requiem for John Fahey synthesizes guitar licks and gestures from Fahey as well as Mississippi John Hurt.

Other composers focus more on the “American” side of the “American Vernacular” inspiration. William Price’s A Southern Prelude asks the question of “what makes music not just American but Southern?” and Ethan Wickman’s Occidental Psalmody takes the visual inspiration from watching the ocean rise and fall and turns that into expanding quintal harmonies. Fairouz’s third miniature, “America never was America to me” reacts to the 50th anniversary of the “I Have a Dream” speech filtered through the events of Trayvon Martin’s murder.

Hotfingers: Three Vernacular Nondances again shows David Rakowski’s flair for idiomatic and engaging piano writing. These three short works sound right at home among his piano etudes. Maybe I’m biased but I think every disc of American piano music should include something by Rakowski. David Maslanka’s Beloved doesn’t draw from any specific vernacular touchstone but rather keeps close to his other “remembrance” compositions. Perhaps the most removed from the “vernacular” idea, On the Drawing of Constellations by Ben Hjertmann is the least harmonically conservative and predictable. This work stands out on the disc for its unusual and captivating musical language and more ambient and environmental approach to its linear unfolding.

No matter the composers’ inspirations, Nicholas Phillips delivers solid and engaging performances which give first-time listeners all the overt connections they need and all the nuance that repeat listenings can uncover. American Vernacular is well worth checking out for anyone interested in current trends of contemporary American piano music.

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Meerenai Shim


The Art Of Noise


Meerenai Shim








Mix equal parts delicacy, satire, abstraction, and imagery; add a flutist whose performance is as charismatic as it is virtuosic and versatile. This is the recipe for Meerenai Shim’s second album, “The Art Of Noise” – five courses of musical repast highlighting Ms. Shim’s personality even more than it does her ability. To be simple, the disc, accidentally or not, validates Ms. Shim’s self-appointed title as, “the ultimate indie music curator and performer.” Credit for this extends both to the truly unique composers and compositions she collected for the album as well as her in-studio collaborators (percussionist Christopher G. Jones, pianist Lori Lack, and cellist Paul Rhodes), all of whom deliver splendid contributions to the recording.


“The Art Of Noise” begins its journey with Daniel Felsenfeld’s brooding To Committee: A Parody Of Self, for flute, piano and cello. As Mr. Felsenfeld explains in the CD’s liner notes, the work is a deliberately maudlin and mocking lament dedicated to the committee-industrial complex he finds encumbering to himself and American composers in general.  To Committee’s first movement opens with bitingly energetic, if not strained, material, which serves “The Art Of Noise” well by grabbing the listener’s attention. Over the next two movements, this nervous musical energy compellingly alternates with more lyrical passages, acting as a gentle introduction to the enormous range of musical expression present in the album’s remaining contents.


Janice Misurell-Mitchell’s title track, The Art of Noise, for flute/voice and percussion, is next on the album and contrasts strongly to the more lyrical and melodic characteristics of Felsenfeld’s To Committee. As the instrumentation for Ms. Misurell-Mithell’s piece suggests, the work calls for Ms. Shim to reach outside her instrument’s conventions. The heart of The Art of Noise is in fluid gulf of timbre that lies between Ms. Shim’s flute and the percussion instruments of her A/B Duo comrade Chris Jones.            Indeed, the piece is more about the similarity of sounds the two performers and produce than the distinctions. The flute and percussion’s metallic and earthen characters (the latter achieved in the flute through Ms. Shim’s fantastic singing/playing) complement and are cast in relief of each other through the composer’s crisp, adroit phrases.


Jay C. Batzner’s Mercurial, for flute and electronics, is the next piece on “The Art Of Noise”. Essentially, Mr. Batzner’s piece contains two kinds of material: ambient synthesized and processed sound paired with yearning flute melodies and upbeat, granular rhythms (which, at one point, made me think of a beat-boxing robot), once more appropriately paired with more facile flute lines. To me, Mercurial stood out as a pivot in the album’s narrative – its intimate moments drew me back to To Committee, while its abstract material and the expertise of its electronic and acoustic colors seemed reminiscent of The Art of Noise. Most importantly, the brief passages of straightforward, repeating rhythms in the electronics foreshadow perfectly the next piece on the disc.


Matthew Joseph Payne’s flight of the bleeper bird for flute and Gameboy sounds like the musical lovechild of Tristan Perich, Kraftwerk and Megaman kidnapped a flute to abet its manic, low-bit, synthesized mayhem. I applaud Mr. Payne for appropriating so iconic a found object  and using music to both capture and redefine its basic cultural essence. Ms. Shim’s flute is joyfully along for the ride through the work’s sugar-pop, kaleidoscopic dances and abstract, white noise reflections. In terms of the whole of “The Art of Noise”, flight of the bleeper bird is an exquisitely crude climax, the unabashed culmination of the Ms. Shim’s transformation as a performer from the relatively comfortable trappings of To Committee to the extended techniques of The Art of Noise and, at last, the electro-acoustic splendor of Mercurial. At least for me, it was impossible to foresee that this trajectory would lead to so tremendous a fusion of Ms. Shim’s artful musicianship and the repurposed vernacular of Mr. Payne’s musical material and machinery.


If you listen to “The Art Of Noise” from beginning to end, I think you will agree that David E. Farrell’s moonwave is a perfect conclusion for the album. Again we see Ms. Shim’s skill as a musical curator shine, because after experiencing the accumulating sonic density of the preceding works, my ears and mind were desperate to take in a gentle flute solo like moonwave. Works like Mr. Farrell’s are many in the flute repertory, but, at least for me, they never get old. Perhaps this is because, like the piano or cello, the flute, when in the hands of a truly gifted artist, is a treasure to hear by itself. As I have already suggested, moonwave is soft and unassuming, but not restrained; basically, the piece sounds content, which echoes the fulfillment anyone will enjoy after they listen to this album.


Meerenai Shim’s “The Art Of Noise” is available for purchase from and Ms. Shim’s Bandcamp page.

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cd cover


PRISM Quartet


innova records

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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AmericansCD cover art

music of Scott Johnson

various performers


  • Americans
  • 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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Cruel Sister  CD cover art

Ensemble Resonanz

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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CD coverThe 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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The World’s Longest Melody  CD cover art

music of Larry Polansky

various artists

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…”
  • ivtoo
  • The World’s Longest Melody
  • Ontslaan (toontood)
  • toovviivfor
  • 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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Build  CD Cover


Music by Matt McBane

New Amsterdam Records

  • Behavior Patterns
  • Dissolve
  • Ride
  • Swelter
  • Cleave
  • Anchor
  • Maintain

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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Charles Dodge

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 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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CD coverNewspeak

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.

Newspeak website

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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