Archive for the “Jay Batzner” Category
Doctor Atomic Symphony
Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra
conducted by David Robertson
I’ve been excited about this music for several years, ever since I heard about the opera project on NPR back in maybe 2005. When reviews starting coming in, well, everyone reading this probably already knows what the reviews said. Any failings in the libretto were usually balanced by praise for the music. My experience with the opera itself lasted all of 30 minutes. I was watching it on PBS, bored out of my skull, and fell asleep before the end of the first act. My wife stuck it out for half of the second act at which point she gave up, too.
So again, I was excited to hear the music and not be distracted by a story which seemed to be about physics and the dietary intake of military officers. In general, I like the music of the Doctor Atomic Symphony but it does suffer away from its dramatic context. The brief opening movement, “The Laboratory” is quite an ear-catcher. The two and a half minutes are driving, engaging, and my favorite part of the symphony. The long center movement, “Panic,” languishes a bit too much for my tastes. The form revolves around recurring brass solos, all very well played, but I never get the feeling that the movement is leading anywhere. “Panic” kind of sprawls around for fourteen and a half minutes. Divorced from what drama was in the opera, the music can’t seem to find its own internal trajectory. At times, it ends up sounding like a soundtrack for a movie I haven’t seen. Strangely enough, I’ll write about this very thing in my next review. The final movement, “Trinity” pulls things together nicely. Fast and driving, much more filled with a sense of urgency than the previous “Panic” movement, “Trinity” has a satisfying dramatic formal arc and a wider range of expressed emotional content.
Perhaps I am judging the work too harshly since I had such high expectations. I have found Adams’ more recent work to be a bit on the unfocused and sprawling side of the spectrum which is a far cry from the tightly focused and forward moving pieces that I have enjoyed so much. Perhaps I need to spend more time with the opera but, as a wise man once said, “A bad libretto is like bone disease.”
It should probably come as little surprise that I think Guide to Strange Places is the real sleeper hit on this CD. From 2001 (the year, not the movie), THIS is the kind of music that I like from Adams. The energy rolls right along with Adams’ characteristic orchestrational tricks but around 4 minutes in the air gets let out and we go into a “strange place.” Transitions into foreign areas abound as a formal technique in this piece but I found each transition effective and engaging as well as each of the musical vignettes that they connect. I’m especially a fan of the low brass and woodwind groan/grunt section around the 13 minute mark. THIS piece, to my ears, is a Symphony. The music is varied yet coherent, engaging yet new, and extremely well performed.
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Dark Full Ride: Music in Multiples
music of Julia Wolfe
Matthew Welch, bagpipes
Talujon Percussion Ensemble
Lisa Moore, pianos
Robert Black, double basses
This disc is bound to get an immediate reaction and I’m willing to wager that the reaction will be extreme. When approached with the fact that Julia Wolfe has written a piece for nine (9) bagpipes, the reaction is going to be one of the following:
- “Why would anybody do such a thing?”
- or “Holy crap, it must be awesome! Put it on RIGHT NOW!”
I fall into that second category. This Canteloupe release collects four works by Julia Wolfe all featuring ensembles of a single instrument type and all with a singular musical focus that can’t be bargained with, can’t be reasoned with, don’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear, and absolutely will not stop, ever, until the piece is over. And then you’ll want to listen to the music again. Trust me. I haven’t lied to you yet.
LAD for nine bagpipes is a glorious work featuring drones (of course), expressive melodic fragments, life-altering glissandi, and the most revelatory emergence of tunes this side of Denis Smalley’s Pentes. Wolfe’s sense of musical timing is outrageously good. There is a slow wind-up of activity in the first half of the piece and then, when she “brings it” in the second half, she really Brings It. Matthew Welch, covering all 9 parts, provides a fantastic wall of sound, tons of musical expression, and has a palpable amount of fun with the material. The last 5 seconds of the work, where all 9 bagpipes power down, is simply perfect.
The title track of the disc is a work for four drum sets and is performed by the Talujon Percussion Quartet. Similar to LAD, Dark Full Ride is in two parts. The first part obsesses on cymbals and metal, especially the hi-hat, for an all too short seven and a half minutes. Wolfe is the master of transfixing the listener the simplest idea (running sixteenth notes). Part 2 brings in the drums and what starts off as a fairly normal groove. It doesn’t take long for the groove to become a distorted and lumbering engine and I mean this in an enthralling sort of way. Dark Full Ride grooves along with a propulsion and drive. The Talujon Percussion Quartet smacks out ever nuance and detail.
my lips from speaking, for six pianos, is a prismatic projection through a single soulful progression taken from Aretha Franklin’s song Think. The first third of the piece is dark and lugubrious with lots of space and resonance between gestures. Part 2 starts pushing forward with the help of a solid and comfortable blues bass line. You can hear every harmonic and overtone in Lisa Moore’s playing, which makes the piece that much more engaging and detailed. In part 3, Wolfe “let’s it snap” as my father says. Imagine the most soulful and explosive piano music you can muster. Now multiply it by 6.
Last, and certainly not least, is Stronghold for eight double basses performed by Robert Black. Part 1 is held together through throaty throbbing arpeggiations. There is a great stratification in registers that keeps the gestures clear when they need to be or hazy background when called for. The arpeggios give way to rapid tremolo fixations that lithely wind their way into part 2. In part 2, there is a clarification of musical elements and a clearer pecking order of melody, harmony, and bass line. It doesn’t take long for this clarity to complicate itself and devolve into rich static harmonies. The last two minutes of the piece consists of each bass groaning out the low E string with such ferocity and intensity that you would swear Robert Black was using electronic manipulation. Black’s sound is so huge and powerful that it seems as if it emanates from the most primal forces of nature. It is the perfect ending to the piece, the only ending you really want, but you don’t know it until you are soaking in it.
Did I mention how much I like this disc? I really, really do. Each piece transfixes me. I am writing my own music differently because of this disc. I am so glad that Julia Wolfe exists, is writing music, and that such talented performers play the hell out of her stuff.
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Moons and Ancestors
music of Robert Shechtman
performed by Paul Austin, Gregory Crowell, Christina Fong, and Ethnoeccentric
Ancestral Songs for horn and organ
Water from the Moon for amplified violin
- Sirens’ Song
- Soft Shoe
- Sirens’ Song II
- Sirens’ Song & One More Waltz
Variations on the Huang Chung of the Eleventh Moon for amplified ensemble
Robert Shechtman’s music is exactly what I wanted to hear exactly when I wanted to hear it. There is a simplicity to the musical materials that is skillfully propelled into emotional arcs and meaty performances. Shechtman’s language is open and inviting, drawing upon pitch centric and motivic gestures with lots of space and time between events. I felt like I could really process what was being said as opposed to just trying to keep up.
The opening calls of the horn in Ancestral Songs are lonely, spacious, and inviting. The droning organ provides the perfect counterweight to the horn as the soloist picks up energy and gradually yanks the organ along with more spritely gestures. Paul Austin and Gregory Crowell evoke the timeless and eternal quality that this music needs.
Christina Fong brings the same needed energy to the five movement Water From the Moon. From the seductive long tones of Sirens’ Song to the One More Waltz, the music feels effortless and engaging. The electronic manipulation of the violin is quite subtle and well placed. The dance movements, Soft Shoe, Jitterbug, and the final Sirens’ Song & One More Waltz are particularly charming and note perfect. If you don’t feel like moving while hearing these movements, you might want to check your pulse.
Variations on the Huang Chung of the Eleventh Moon is a rousing and sparkling work for amplified ensemble. Ethnoeccentric gives a passionate and intense performance. Variations is the most driving and propulsive work on the disk and yet I still feel that sense of space and longing from the earlier pieces. The variations walk a fine line between sectional/character variations and free-flowing fantasia. Either way is fine with me.
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Courtney Orlando, violin; Evan Price, violin; Kurt Rohde, viola; Marco Mazzini, clarinets; Michael Formanek, bass; Christopher Froh, percussion; Nasar Abadey, drums
At first, I thought this disc was another great example of insightful free-improvisation. Each player takes great care to contribute to a fundamental aesthetic per track and makes groovy, understated, or rhapsodic lyrical music as the track demands. Then, I read the CD notes. It turns out that Fernando Benadon, the mastermind behind this disc, recorded each player doing free improv in isolation from the other players. Benadon then took the helm of mixmaster and chiseled together these insightful and intuitive (hence the disc name) tracks.
The end result is a breezy sounding ensemble that is never too heavy or too meandering. This music could easily be foreground or background in any of a thousand hip settings. It sounds like performers that have a mature working relationship and an excellent set of ears.
The conflict between the natural sound of the group and the unnatural story of the recording is equal parts engrossing, maddening, and bewildering. I expect this disc to spark up the conversation about the truth (or lack thereof) in the recording process. I’ll leave that discussion aside and say that I like where Benadon’s ears are and I look forward to hearing more.
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music of Jeffrey Stadelman
performed by the Slee Sinfonietta and Movses Pogossian,violin
conducted by Magnus Mí¤rtensson
- Pity Paid for violin solo and chamber orchestra
- Kinderszenen for five players
- Mr. Natural for trumpet and piano
- Starry Wisdom for chamber orchestra
These four offerings by Jeffrey Stadelman show different facets of an active and thorny pitch language coupled with frantic rhythms and intense blotches of sonic color. Each work on the disc is programmatic in some way, shape, or form, but the programmatic aspect is largely oblique. Each piece works well in its own dramatic space.
Pity Paid, for violin and chamber orchestra, races by on an aggressive and lithe engine with clean and concise gestures and textures. Through all the activity, though, I never get a feeling of emotional or dramatic padding. Every note and shape counts, every moment matters. Kinderszenen gathers up eleven short movements for flute, trumpet, piano/celesta, percussion, and cello. Most of the moments burst with energy and intensity but there is the occasional serene and tranquil meditation. My one quibble with the piece is that all of the movements are lumped into a single track and I would prefer to be able to isolate the different movements. Hardly worth mentioning, but I do it anyway.
The trumpet and piano piece Mr. Natural highlights an interesting philosophical point. What is “natural” music? The composer describes the opening punctuations as “naturalistic” and that the piece then continues through “non-organic” adventures. I certainly don’t hear the piece that way, simply because my definition of “natural” is different from Stadelman’s. Not right or wrong, just different. Mr. Natural is a muscly piece full to the brim with tight and punchy, aggressively pointillistic music. I whole-heartily agree with the “non-organic” nature of the piece and I agree with the composer that there is an underlying darkly humorous statement being made.
The chamber orchestra finale of the disc, Starry Wisdom, keeps up the pace of dense, short, colorful punctuations that is present in each work on this recording. My impression of Jeffrey Stadelman’s music after hearing this CD is one of a powerful and caged beast which is barely contained by its enclosure. Stadelman’s gestures are finely chiseled works that flash by the listener like fireworks. Every second on this CD was meticulously composed and expertly performed.
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James Mulcro Drew
Animating Degree Zero
New World Records
Animating Degree Zero; Bonaroo Breaks (Street Funeral Music); 12 Centers Breathing; The Lute in the Attic; Solemn Acts in Rain; In Memoriam J.C. Higginbottom
Performed by The Barton Workshop
For me, this was the right music at the right time. I didn’t know I needed to hear this music and, lo and behold! it arrived. James Mulcro Drew’s music has an honesty and sensitivity that make it seem like a natural spirit instead of the construct of an individual. Each work exudes purity of essence and unwavering commitment to the musical/emotional goals quickly set at the start of the piece. Animating Degree Zero
, for a large mixed chamber group, colorfully drifts along the ether while a single, un-transposed motive arrives periodically to ground us to reality. The piece could go on forever with its tranquil and slow breathing pace.
Bonaroo Breaks (Street Funeral Music), on the other hand, has more of a sense of drive and direction. The two trombones play through a modular improvisational framework that perfectly captures the sense of a New Orleans street processional. The percussion is thin, simple, and extremely effective. As in Animating Degree Zero, there is a purity of the compositional idea that oozes through the piece. Not a note or gesture is out of place in the performance.
Twelve Centers Breathing for viola and percussion sounds like a template for the serene and expansive gestural language of Animating Degree Zero. Long, slow, sustained sounds with expansive pauses play out over the duration of the piece, never seeming to disturb the surrounding silences. The flow of time is set at a hypnotically slow pace and it is hard for me to listen to the music and do anything else.
The biggest surprise on the disc is The Lute in the Attic from 1963. Approximately 40 years the senior of any other work on the disc, this more expressionistic composition hints at the serene style that dominates the disc. There are some shockingly aggressive vocal moments at times that made me think of Eight Songs for a Mad King. Drew’s piece, though, was written 6 years earlier. Baritone Charles van Tassel does a great job balancing the smooth lyrical motion with the more harsh shouting eruptions.
The last two works, Solemn Acts in Rain and In Memoriam J. C. Higginbottom, return to the tender and blissful music found earlier on the recording. Solemn Acts in Rain drifts along without much trajectory but it drifts along nonetheless. The music floats around as if it were part of the ether. The pitch language is somber, as you might expect from the title, with a mixture of contemplation and disquiet throughout. In Memoriam J. C. Higginbottom follows up with the more mournful soundworld of a solo trombone in caverns of delay. The long tones become a smearing, shifting, oozing chorale that, like so many other works on this disc, simply sit timelessly until the sound stops. I think that even had I heard In Memoriam in a concert hall, I would still feel as alone as the trombonist.
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Turning Point Ensemble, Owen Underhill, conductor
featuring Franí§ois Houle, clarinet
- Liquid, by John Korsrud
- Schrift by Yannick Plamondon
- Concerto by Franí§ois Houle
- Kya by Giacinto Scelsi
This ATMA release of music for clarinet and chamber ensemble certainly gets the title right. John Korsrud’s opening work begins with a rhythmic drive but quickly succumbs to a freely flowing and whirling series of colorful passages. The return of the opening pulse is simultaneously surprising, welcome, and inexorable. Yannick Plamondon’s Schrift takes a few timid steps at the beginning but then plunges the clarinetist feet first into blissful and graceful streams. The harmonic language is rich and shimmering and the textures blend seamlessly from chaotic to plaintive and achingly beautiful without effort. Plamondon uses the strings, piano, and percussion scoring to its maximal coloristic potential. Schrift is a work that truly breathes in all the right places.
Franí§ois Houle is all over this disc (and I mean that in every way you can imagine). His technique and musicality are perfectly matched to the flowing runs, soaring long tones, and any multiphonics that are thrown his way. As a composer, his Concerto is the beefiest work on the disc and encompasses an eclectic and quirky musical language. A frantic opening culminates with quasi-jazzy brass punctuations and then thins out into driving yet playful escapades. The single 20 minute span contains a well delineated fast-slow-fast form. The net result is as if Stravinsky’s Ebony Concerto had been given a bunch of steroids with a twisted helping of Gershwiny activity. The final scrambling cadenza has great use of slap tonguing and monophonic counterpoint. The ending, with the small clarinet sound and high pizzicato, is hands down the best ending on the CD.
Scelsi’s Kya is a prime example of Scelsi’s style and of the expressive emotional potential that can be (and, in this recording, is) realized from his language. Pitch centricity abounds while all players bend and twist around the drones in a haunting and mesmerizing fashion. If the previous work was Stravinsky and Gershwin, this work falls somewhere between Klezmer and Alvin Lucier’s drone compositions. The music and the performance is ultimately captivating and engrossing. You just want to sit and soak in it again and again.
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Lynn Johnston, clarinets; Ellen Burr, flutes; Eric Sbar, euphonium; Bruce Friedman, trumpet; Michael Intriere, cello; Andrea Lieberherr, violin; Emily Beezhold, keyboard synthesizer; Jeremy Drake, electric guitar; Rich West, drums and percussion; with Haskel Joseph, guitar and Richard Kim, violin
Optional Parameters To Improvise Organized Nascent Sounds is a collection of graphics which attempt to provide a semi-structured free improvisation (you can get a randomly generated sample score here
). The recording is a collection of four MCT’s or “monochromatic textures” that treat a symbol as a texture, with or without solos and duos.
The textures are rather sparse and well-behaved which I enjoyed. Sometimes free improv can err on the side of overly chaotic and I did not feel bombarded with meaningless noise on this disc. Whenever I started to want something different, I usually got it.It is important to recognize that the intent of the disc was to create singular textures of activity. The various incarnations of the MCT’s do, at times, start to become a bit too monochromatic for my tastes, but thankfully the solos and duos seem to come in at just the right time and play just the right contrapuntal textures to freshen things up again. The solos and duos also add an additional musical trajectory which keeps the music flowing along.All of the instrumental voices maintain a clear sense of sonic space. I enjoyed the sparser “less is more” approach to building texture and admire the way that no one particular voice stands out unless it is one of the obvious solos or duos. The icons that form O.P.T.I.O.N.S. would be applicable to any ensemble at and skill level. This collection of MCT pieces is as good of a place as any to start. I’m curious what comes next and I’d love to hear what others would do with this system.
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Trios for Deep Voices
Cold Blue Records
2. Around the Hearth
3. Kon Burunemo
Christopher Roberts, Mark Morton, and James Bergman: double basses
The CD note provided by the composer tells you everything you need to know:
“In 1981, I ran off to the jungles of Papua New Guinea to study the natural prosody of music. I lived with the people of the Star Mountains and introduced them to my double bass, while they introduced me to their songs. I took part in drumbeat initiations and listened to the sound of hornbills in flight. I was overwhelmed. I had a dream in which I moved my bow across the strings of the bass in an entirely new way that recreated the drums, and the hornbills’ wings, and the voices of the people whose every song tells a story.”After that quote, and the obligatory produced/recorded/legalese stuff, the only other insights you get into these pieces (movements?) are the plentiful pictures of the aforementioned jungles. Some composers want the listener to know their set permutations. Christopher Roberts, on the other and more affective hand, gives us a dream and 14,000 words (in picture form) that explain every iota of this fabulous recording.It is never addressed if these five tracks are movements of one larger piece or separate trios as the CD title indicates. While each track works well on its own and has its own shape and life, I have a hard time imagining one separated from the others. Melodic fragments reappear throughout the five movements which lends a gratifying cyclic form to the whole disc. These fragments are convincing whenever they appear and never sound forced. The music, the culture, the performances, everything blends together into a single construct.
The music itself is quasi-minimalist, keen on repetition instead of development. The emotive ideas behind each movement is clearly communicated and fluidly performed. The three double basses never for a moment sound heavy and cumbersome. There is a lot of air, life, and breath to the music and the playing. Roberts is also adept at managing textures and energy flow. You can easily hear his success at creating his “entirely new way” of playing. The playing might not be new but he clearly achieves his intent and it is a joy to hear.
And yes, he really did lug his double bass through the jungles of Papua New Guinea. Can’t imagine doing that myself, but I found myself ruminating upon that notion a lot while listening. I think the end result was worth the effort!
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The Phenomenon Of Threes
Trios For Flute, Clarinet And Piano
Suite for Flute, Clarinet and Piano,
Breezes of Yesteryear,
A Time To…,
Esther Lamneck, clarinet; Keith Underwood, flute; Martha Locker, piano
The five works on this disc are nothing like I thought they would be. With the instrumentation of flute, clarinet, and piano, I imagined that the music would be showpieces for the woodwinds while the pianist provided some kind of obligatory backdrop. Instead, I found delightful and engaging chamber music. It is nice when that happens.
Each of the five works has its own sense of fluidity and flow. Lawrence Moss’ Suite is a delightful collection of miniatures, rich with color and vibrant gestures. Breezes of Yesteryear is an impressionistic-inspired fantasia that swims through time and timbres. Richard Brooks’ three movement Circular Motions takes the performers through spritely and playful material, keeping everything light and airy the whole time. Isomorphic Plenum is the thorniest work on the disc but is engaging and compelling with rich contrapuntal lines and long, sinewy passages. The final work, A Time To… is an energetic and passionate work with abstracted electronic sounds which are well-orchestrated into the acoustic fabric. I preferred the shuffled vocal textures over the synth punctuations, but everything works well together.
The performances on the disc are first-rate. The ensemble has a wonderful sense of blend and a smooth, rich sound overall. The cohesiveness in their playing makes every piece shine, shimmer, and sparkle regardless of compositional language. I can’t wait to hear more from them!
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