Archive for the “Jay Batzner” Category

CD cover art Beta Collide

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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Charlemagne Palestine   

Strumming Music

(piano, harpsichord, and string ensemble versions)

Sub Rosa

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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Mikel Rouse  

Corner Loading (Volume 1)

ExitMusic Recordings

  1. Active Denial
  2. (Running Out of Time for) Good News
  3. My Tide
  4. Made Up, Oh Lord
  5. Years
  6. Busy Humanist
  7. Be Real Bad
  8. Trouble Making
  9. Lonesome Shoeshine
  10. Great Adventure Jail
  11. Hide in There
  12. It’s Hard to be Nobody
  13. Ad Man

The second half of ExitMusic’s 10th anniversary celebration, Corner Loading (Volume 1), will be released on December 7 alongside the album Recess (my review of Recess can be read here).  Where Recess lives and breathes with Rouse’s density and complexity, Corner Loading is a lean, mean, stripped-down exploration of his musical core.  The musical language, on the surface, sounds like a fairly straight-ahead country/blues singer/songwriter but as soon as you listen past that surface you are rewarded with an intimate portrayal of what makes Rouse’s music really tick.

Each song features Rouse as a solo performer, usually voice and guitar, so at first listening Corner Loading sounds like something you can comfortably put on in your local coffee shop.  The only problem with that scenario is that this isn’t passive music.  Rouse’s language has a way of focusing your attention the same way that a magician makes you wonder how it is all being done.  The layers which Rouse usually uses are right there in Corner Loading but in a much more transparent package.  It is easier to hear deep into the musical structures of this recording and that exposed nature makes the disc even more hypnotic to me.  You hear exactly what he is doing and it still fascinates and draws you closer into the music.  If this was on in a coffee shop I don’t think I could do much but sit and listen in slack-jawed fascination.

An example of this elegant simplicity hits you right up front with the track “Active Denial.”  Rouse sings the line “Maybe I want to do it again” in melodic and rhythmic unison with the guitar.  He then repeats the lick on the guitar but inserts a single beat rest in the voice between phrases shoving the voice out of phase with the guitar ostinato.  Even better, instead of keeping this phase process as a gimmick for the song, Rouse finds important times to stretch out his melodic line by a beat so he can come back in phase with the guitar for the chorus.

This phasing procedure gets used throughout the disc but in enough deft variations that no track sounds stale.  Regular and irregular phrases are spun out in a natural manner.  Accompaniment patterns change and break up any possibile monotony.  A few tracks, like “My Tide” and “Great Adventure Jail” are accompanied by simple clapping (which isn’t nearly as simple as it sounds).  Great care has also been taken towards the pacing of the CD.  The more repetitive songs “Be Real Bad” and “Trouble Making” are followed up by the quick-fire verses of “Lonesome Shoeshine.”  Songs are very short and focused.  They create their world, do it very well, and then get out.  Tension is also built throughout the disc, too.  The final track “Ad Man” has the thickest and most frenetic guitar texture and the most driving harmonica interjections which makes this song sound like a culmination of all that came before it.

Rouse’s husky vocals are expressive and perfectly matched for this sound world.  There is soul and emotion in each track.  Rouse’s gift in lyrics is also spread all over the songs.  Unlike Recess, Corner Loading doesn’t include the lyrics in the physical disc (they are available on his website) but this never troubled me.  The intimacy of the disc makes the lyrics and their poetic meanings rather clear.  His ruminations on the current societal conditions are just as targeted, poetic, and salient as you would expect.

The whole disc has an immediate appeal that I find runs throughout all of Rouse’s music and there is not an ounce of pretention on the record.  This is a disc I spin a lot.  Beyond the deep post-minimalist structure that is driving each song, the tunes are just damned catchy.

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Mikel Rouse  CD cover art


ExitMusic Recordings

  1. Dolls & Dreams
  2. Cutting Class
  3. What You Want
  4. Plug Nickel
  5. Designing Women
  6. Everything
  7. Family Dollar
  8. Coward
  9. Is That Money
  10. Failure
  11. Empty Nest
  12. Courage

To commemorate the 10th anniversary of ExitMusic Recordings, Mikel Rouse is releasing two new discs.  It might make sense to talk about these two discs (Recess and Corner Loading Vol. 1) together since they share some connective tissues except the exteriors of the discs are so drastically different it can be hard to believe that one man is the creative voice behind both.

Recess is a dense and mesmerizing collage of disperate sonic elements elegantly tied together by Mikel Rouse’s signature vocal style, harmonies, and metrical/temporal play.  Where Gravity Radio‘s aesthetic was closely aligned with a “radio-friendly” sound, Recess drifts back across the complexity spectrum adding layers of audio collage and found sounds on top of the immediately understandable grooves and hooks.  The iPod experience with this album plays on the blend of the ambient recorded sounds with your own environment and often I had to question whether what I heard was “live or Memorex.”  The sonic space of the album is huge and I think frequent iPod listening would be a mistake.  This album sounds BIG and the production level of the disc is a technological and artistic marvel (a marvel which is not properly communicated as mp3s). Recess is such an immersive experience that I have a hard time doing anything else but listen when it is on.

The disc begins with what sounds like a cash register scanning an item and this ubiquitous bleep from our society quickly morphs into a rapid-fire texture.  It is as if the disc takes me sonically backwards to its purchase and then distorts and expands the sounds until the relaxed groove of “Dolls & Dreams” starts up, making this a delicious 21st century updating to Pink Floyd’s “Money.”  Since this album and Corner Loading Vol. 1 were recorded between October 2008 and November 2009 one would expect the topic of finance, wealth, economics, and retirement to be on the front burner.

Everything you want and have come to expect from Mikel Rouse is there in Recess. Sophisticated and nuanced textures and grooves are the DNA of this record.  Poignant lyrics and spoken text elements are also in play.  Recess might be quoted less as Facebook status updates as Gravity Radio but there is a lot to be said for these lyrics which are consistent in their truth and profundity.  Rouse’s word play in “Cutting Class” is especially present with the lines “Being old is like being young, but not as young today” and the inverse “Being young is like being old, but not as old today.”  “Failure” contains lyrical gems such as “You make me believe that the problem is me and not you,” and “I wake up every morning/Cheating death most of the time.”  The sentiment of “Courage just got laid” in the final track helps close the disc in a lighter, brighter place than where we began.

This album’s density is one of its most mesmerizing features.  Where Gravity Radio and International Cloud Atlas were certainly thick it is safe to say that Recess ramps things up a notch further.  The spoken elements often found in Rouse’s works are woven more directly into the musical fabric instead of being used as focal or relief elements.  Rouse fragments speech and transforms it into musical motives similar to Reich’s Different Trains except the adoption and transformation of these spoken elements happens at turbo speed.  Mundane phrases such as “I like the bread, the bread likes you” become earworms of the highest degree.  The number of times I’ve woken up with that specific phrase running through my head cannot be counted.

The thick layers of the album are carefully managed.  Songs have their own life and growth and tracks play well off of each other.  If you are overwhelmed by the first few tracks of the album, Rouse relaxes the tensions with “Plug Nickel” and its quirky three-bar phrase verses and metrical modulation chorus; a good tune that is the kind of thing I wish was on commercial radio more frequently.  After the soundscape “Family Dollar,” “Coward” begins with a mellow, spacey choral sound reminiscent of “Soul Train” from Dennis Cleveland. Once the title emerges in the lyrics in a pseudo sing-song name-calling manner, Rouse hits us with the line “Everyone’s a coward until they get around to it.”  Couple that with the chant “Everybody’s waiting around” and you’ve pretty much described the human condition.

Cyclic elements are also threaded through the disc.  “Empty Nest” launches off the lyric “We end up where we started” and brings back a groove reminiscent of the “Dolls & Dreams.”  The connections from beginning to end are not necessarily as strong as those found in Gravity Radio which makes Recess more of a linear sonic journey than a rounded whole.  The entire album works well as a single composed event but there are ample opportunities to drop in and pick up different subsections of the work as well as songs that lift out independently.

The album is being released on December 7 but you can get at it now via Bandcamp.

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Trio Fibonacci

5 x 3


  • Ana Sokolovic – Portrait parle
  • Paul Frehner – Quarks Tropes
  • Jean Lesage – Le projet Mozart, où l’auteur s’interroge sur la complexité du style et le métissage des genres
  • Analia Llugdar – Tricycle
  • Chris Paul Harman – Piano Trio

Julie-Anne Derome, violin; Gabriel Prynn, violoncello; Anna D’Errico, piano

Trio Fibonacci is quite a group.  I first heard them on their recording of Jonathan Harvey works a few years back and I am astounded at their ability to program and perform Old Warhorses alongside cutting-edge contemporary music.  This recent release, 5 x 3, plays to the trio’s strengths in technique and interpretation providing an end result of excellent music making.  All of the composers represented have some connection to the Montreal new music scene but beyond that, the five compositions provide unique experiences.  Ana Sokolovic’s Portrait parle, inspired by 19th century French phrenology practices, is reminiscent of the sparkling colors and shifting hazes found in Jonathan Harvey.  The trio is made of many small vignettes which are woven together in a compelling and kaleidoscopic narrative.  Paul Frehner’s Quarks Tropes is about as different as it could be: long, stoic melodic lines and dark harmonic tones in the first movement and aggressive energies in the second.  The more conservative harmonic language is still fresh and inviting as both movements traverse satisfying emotional arcs.

Le projet Mozart, où l’auteur s’interroge sur la complexité du style et le métissage des genres (The Mozart Project, where the author questions himself on the complexity of styles and mixing of genres), other than winning long title competitions, shines a wondrous magnifying lens on the music of Mozart and watches it melt and subsequently catch fire.  Jean Lesage treats the Mozart as an elusive figure, slipping in and out of recognizability with remarkable skill.  The music could, and does, go anywhere at any time.  Analia Llugdar’s Tricycle brings back the coloristic sound world of the Sokolovic trio but with an emphasis on pointalistic moments and slowly developing shapes.  Energies ebb and flow throughout the piece but the overall vibe projected is one of almost serene detachment.

The final composition on this disc is Chris Paul Harman’s Piano Trio, set in six brief movements.  This composition gives Trio Fibonacci yet another chance to shine since it contains some of the most intricate and quickly orchestrated material on the entire disc.  Trio Fibonacci is adept at sounding as a singular unit as well as three separate virtuosi but this Piano Trio gives Trio Fibonacci the presence of 9 people.  The overall rough and rugged language (pitch and rhythm) is a great contrast to the delicate works which proceeded it and its closing position on the disc is a good choice.  The silky smooth and poignant ending in movements 5 and 6 (attaca) is a surprise (which I’ve ruined for you now but it is still worth hearing).

In general, there is hardly anything left that you should want from this disc.  The excellent music, fabulous performances, and great programming have kept this disc in my regular rotation for quite some time.

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Elodie Lauten  

Piano Works (revisited)

Unseen Worlds

I was surprised when the two-disc collection of piano music (composed and performed) by Elodie Lauten had me entranced from the opening of the first track: Cat Counterpoint.  I approached this particular track with a fair amount of apprehension.  I’ve simply been around too many instances of composers using their pet’s meanderings on music instruments as source material.  Any hesitation I felt towards the track melted away within seconds.  Instead of Lolcats, the room filled with driving and energetic punctuations.  You can’t judge a track by its title.

The collected Piano Works from 1983 take the lead on the first disc: Cat Counterpoint, Revelation, Adamantine Sonata, Alien Heart, and Imaginary Husband make for excellent character pieces as well as a cycle of works.  There is a foundation in minimalism present, as one would expect from an icon of the Downtown scene.  Lauten’s minimalist language is one full of play and punk, separating it from the austere minimalism found safely inside textbooks.  The underlying simplicity lends to a strong sense of flow over process.  Each piece creates a moment that rarely extends beyond itself nor do they need to extend.  These 1983 pieces were constructed with an ear and not a slide rule.  I find Adamantine Sonata particularly charming.

The inclusion of ambient sound and supporting electronics is frequent in the 1983 works and the technique is put in overdrive for Lauten’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestral Memory. This 1984 set uses a quilt of disconnected instrumental and electronic textures to create eight signature moments.  Each of these segments is strongly focused around a shape, texture, or groove and throughout the segment’s lifespan the idea simply is.  There is a zen element in this concerto, each track is totally of the moment.  Some listeners may want more of a sense of trajectory and dramatic shape but I am not among them.  These moments are what they are and as such they are fascinating.  The spacious Orchestral Memory and the cheeky Tempo di Habanera form polar opposites of affect and, for that very reason, appeal to me the most.  Disc one closes with a fairly straight-ahead Tango with a mournful and husky vocal line.

If you are looking for a deep end off which to go, then disc two will be happy to serve you.  Instead of many short tracks, disc two provides two beefy works: Variations on the Orange Cycle and Sonate Modale. Any criticisms laid out about disc one’s lack of trajectory can be laid to rest in Orange Cycle. Within the opening seconds I knew I was going to be here for a while, letting the hypnotic and resonant sounds wash over me, La Monte Young-style.  After about seventeen minutes, Lauten does the most amazing thing.  The low drone, the foundation of the very work, goes away.  The listener drifts and floats, untethered for some time, and when the low voice returns it is not the same static firmament we had left behind us.  Where I expected the drone to reassert itself, it never finds full strength again.  The piece closes on that drone pitch but with uncertainty, timidity, and quiet.  The world of the piece has changed and Lauten did not take the easy way out.  Variations on the Orange Cycle is worth every second.

Sonate Modale, in this live recording from Toronto in 1985, is a rather intimate experience.  I felt as though I was a fly on the wall while Lauten created all the 1983 pieces and the Concerto. The ambient electronic environments are cut from the same cloth as the earlier pieces and the live piano meanders through gestures and stream-of-consciousness improvisations.  Dramatically, the piece works well as a whole, as if Lauten decided to stich together the quilt of the Concerto.

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Itaipu and Three Songs  

music of Philip Glass

Orange Mountain Music

I used to be somewhat dismissive of the music of Philip Glass.  I was big into Elliott Carter and it isn’t hard to see Glass as being diametrically opposed to everything that I was listening to.  I always respected that Glass was writing the music that was genuine for him and I never thought of him as a fraud or a sellout.  Glass’ voice is so distinct and confined that, popular or not, this is the music he is going to compose.  Over the last decade, I’ve softened my stance on Glass and I do enjoy more of his music than I did in the past.  The respect of his style is still there even if I don’t always enjoy the end result.

Inspired by the hydro-electric dam on the border of Paraguay and Brazil, Itaipu is Glass at his most obvious.  Glass does nothing to strain his limited choice of harmonic progressions and textures.  The performing forces of chorus and orchestra are treated as fairly blunt instruments (pun partially intended).  The four movements are mildly different from each other but none of the sections are particularly memorable.  The differences lie in simple changes such as block chords in one movement and arpeggios in another.  The words of the chorus seem unimportant to the piece and the voices are used as another timbre for Glass’ harmonic repetitions.  These choices tie somewhat programmatically into the work’s inspiration (a giant concrete slab is probably best described through block chords, after all) but I haven’t found that repeated listenings to this work provide anything deeper than a cursory once-over.  The piece is, to my ears at least, a work without surprises.

The Los Angeles Master Chorale and the orchestra “made up of the best studio players in Los Angeles” sound excellent under the leadership of Grant Gershon.  The performance is austere and detached, well blended and mixed, letting the music do what it does.  If you enjoy the music of Philip Glass already, I don’t think this particular piece is going to bring you much that you haven’t already heard.  If you are new to Glass, then Itaipu is a worthy place to begin.  Joking that Itaipu is “the best dam piece Glass ever wrote” is fun, too.

The sleeper-hit on this disc is the Three Songs for choir a cappella performed by The Crouch End Festival Chorus National Sinfonia, conducted by David Temple.  Glass’ treatment of the chorus, without any of his usual instrumental accompaniment tricks, reveals the clever and insightful craft that good Glass can possess.  The harmonic skeleton of all of Glass-dom is present but revisited and made more potent by obvious text painting.  The music is not complex but I find each of the three movements much more listenable and enjoyable than Itaipu.  Where Itaipu is a summer blockbuster with a big budget, thin plot, and forgettable characters, Three Songs is a lean and tight flick with a killer ensemble cast.

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Ballad Nocturne  

Music of Ann Millikan

Bulgarian National Radio Symphony Orchestra

Grigor Palikarov, conductor

Innova Records

  • Ballad Nocturne (with Emanuele Arciuli, piano)
  • Trilhas de Sombra
  • Landing Inside the Inside of an Animal

Ann Millikan’s music is a wonderfully eclectic mix of several contemporary compositional styles and yet Millikan retains an individual and consistent voice throughout each work on this Innova CD.  Ballad Nocturne, (2009) for piano and chamber orchestra, puts jazz harmonies and figurations through a Druckman-esque prism.  Neither straight-ahead jazz nor purely-abstract instrumental music, this piece encapsulates Millikan’s musical personality: that of a synthesizer.  Disperate elements flow together and mix in seamless compositions.  Around the 8 minute mark of Ballad Nocturne, time simply stops as high strings and a repeated high piano figure float over a slightly-disturbed walking piano bass.  The piece switches gears from pseudo-lounge to Morton Feldman without dislocating the listener’s eardrum.  Instead of ending the piece at this moment, which I fully expected, a more traditional jazz ballade lugubriously emerges and clarifies everything we’ve heard previously with the subdued juxtaposition of earlier elements.

Perhaps jazz transformations aren’t your thing.  No worries there, because the orchestral triptych Trilhas de Sombra, (2009) a programatic work based upon a story written by Millikan’s niece, feeds any needs you have for good ol’ American atonal expressionism.  Except, of course, when Millikan doesn’t need such language to express the ideas in the story.  Gestures and textures tend to abound instead of melodies but the music is still a cohesive unit that moves in a single, unified direction.  The melodies that emerge are long and fluid and showcased with solid and direct orchestrations.  Millikan doesn’t get caught in the trap of being overly clever and instead crafts a wonderfully picturesque and programatic work and like many great programatic orchestral showcases, Trilhas de Sombra doesn’t come across as a movie soundtrack without the visuals.  Unabashedly contemporary in sound, this is an approachable and enjoyable work that does not condescend to the listener.

Millikan has been flexing her synthesis muscles in the previous two works and the final composition, as one would expect, merges elements from the previous two (even though it is the earliest piece on the disc – 2008).  Landing Inside the Inside of an Animal is just as trippy and fun as the title might suggest.  I don’t know how to land “inside the inside” of something, nor do I wholly understand how the spacey, abstract, atonal music of the first half relates to the Afro-Cuban inspired dance rhythms that drive the second half.  I also don’t know how this all ties into the “story of initiation” mentioned in the program notes.  You know what?  I don’t care that I don’t know how this works.  It works. Being a fan of WTF moments in compositions, Landing Inside the Inside of an Animal hits me right where I live.  This piece is a journey but, unlike Trilhas de Sombra, there didn’t seem to be a predetermined path to follow.  It is as if Millikan just struck out to go somewhere and ended up in the most wonderful and fantastic places.

I do have one problem with this disc.  While the Bulgarian National Radio Symphony Orchestra sounds great on each piece, it really irks me that such purely American music written in the last 2 years had to be outsourced for the recording.  I should think that American orchestras would be falling all over themselves to perform and record Millikan’s output.

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Kyle Gann  

The Planets

performed by Relâche

Meyer Media

Book 1: Sun, Moon, Venus, Mars

Book 2: Jupiter, Mercury, Saturn

Book 3: Uranus, Neptune, Pluto

Members of Relâche: Michele Kelly, flute; Lloyd Shorter, oboe; Bob Butryn, saxophone;  Chuck Holdeman, bassoon; John Dulik, synthesizer; Chris Hanning, percussion; Ruth Frazier, viola (on Neptune, Sun, Mars, and Jupiter); Sarah Sutton, viola; Douglas Mapp, bass.

For too long it has seemed like the most comfortable portions of the cosmos were musically owned by a dead British composer.  Holst had essentially staked his claim on the biggest chunks of well-known real estate outside of the Earth and put up a sort of musical “Do Not Enter” sign.  We composers could write about the Earth or Pluto, the “dwarf planets” that may come and go, or any other cosmic entity (manmade or otherwise), but Holst took the celebrities of our galactic neighborhood and hung them on display like so many apples on the Tree of Knowledge.  From 1994-2008, Kyle Gann refused to be daunted by this musical monopoly and created his own suite of suites inspired mainly by the more recent evolutions in cosmology/astrology.

Relâche proves to be the perfect vehicle for Gann’s music and this collection of works showcases their extreme virtuosity in the realms of rhythm and blend.  Relâche’s rather quirky instrumentation provides a constantly shifting sense of color and, like an instrumental Pierrot Lunaire, each movement maintains its own timbral character within the context of a unified whole.  At first I was skeptical of the synthesizer but in the hands of John Dulik the synth always blends with the woodwind-dominated group and never sounds cheesy or anything less than ethereal.  Gann, of course, knows what he is doing and The Planets comes across with light and careful touch.  Every movement, no matter how driving and rigorous, maintains a fundamental buoyancy.

While some of these works were available as singles from Gann’s website, this disc is the first aggregation of all ten movements collected into three “books.”  Each book could be performed autonomously and, to my ears at least, each individual movement works on its own as well.  Gann’s attention to internal driving structures never trumps his generally accessible and listenable sonic palette.  This music is intensely difficult to perform but Gann and Relâche never make it difficult to hear.  The surface is attractive and approachable and repeated listenings reveal a web of clockwork structures that madly spin forth in a way that would make Bach jealous.  I never feel as if I am receiving some grand and verbose lecture on How to Write Post-Minimal Music, even though this disc is a treasure trove of relationships and techniques.  Kyle Gann is, in this respect, the Neil Degrasse Tyson of contemporary music.  Gann has all the smarts and his passion towards the subject is augmented by sharp and highly refined communication skills.  I’m sure Gann would kill on The Daily Show, too.

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Mark Snyder

Royal Livermush Music

I have had the fortune of knowing Mark Snyder and his music for the last few years, so please consider this statement a warning of my own bias.

Snyder’s music does not follow the aesthetic of “instrument as effects machine” when combining a live performer with live-processing.  Instead, the role of the computer is much more ambient and serves to enhance and extend the sound of the performer.  His music is expansive, expressive, and extremely human.  The technology involved is not the most advanced and sophisticated outside of the fact that this music is, from a technical and technological aspect, approachable and satisfying.  Snyder’s work attracts performers who resist to works with electronics as well as audiences who don’t think they want to hear computer processing.

Snyder’s style is consistent throughout: slowly unfolding instrumental melodies are enhanced and allowed to spin in an electronically created space.  Where some composers might favor the sound of the computer over that of the live performer, Snyder always keeps the main emotional and musical content very firmly rooted in the person on the stage.  Snyder uses spectral enhancements to keep the sound alive as well as build ambient layers of material to sculpt the form of the piece.  Spoken words, children at play, and other very human sounds permeate the prerecorded material.  The end result might not be the pristine technical perfection sought by some, but the music is rich with intimate emotional resonance.

The one-man multimedia show that Mark Snyder has been touring in recent years combines his work as a composer, multi-instrument performer (tuba, clarinet, and accordion), and video artist.  This collection of pieces is, in many ways, a wonderful and logical extension of his tour but, at the same time, owners of the CD will be missing the video component so vital to the majority of the tracks presented here.  Fortunately for us all, he sells a DVD to rectify this problem.

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