Archive for the “minimalism” Category

This Was Written by Hand

Piano Music by David Lang

Andrew Zolinsky, piano

Cantaloupe Music CD

Wed, the audition piece for the David Lang 2011 Competition, is featured on This Was Written By Hand, David Lang’s latest CD, a recital disc recorded for Cantaloupe by pianist Andrew Zolinksy. It is one of eight “Memory Pieces” included on the disc. This group serves as postminimal “Characterstucke,” an attractive and mercurial group of contrasting miniatures.

Then there is the touching title work. One of Lang’s most organically constructed pieces, it was, indeed, written by hand and intuitively constructed. A meditation on the ephemeral nature of life, it captures a similar poignancy to Lang’s recent vocal work “Little Matchgirl Passion,” but writ smaller, more intimately. To both this and the Memory Pieces, Zolinsky brings a fluid grace and subtlety that abets the spontaneous, almost improvisatory, character of the material.

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Steve Reich

WTC 9/11

Mallet Quartet

Dance Patterns

Kronos Quartet

So Percussion

Steve Reich & Musicians

Nonesuch Records

 

I know all three of these works very well from online performances, and  the upcoming release of this album sounds much the same as what I’ve come to know of these works.

Let’s start with WTC 9/11. Even better, let’s start with the elephant in the room: the album cover. It’s been called “despicable” by no less than the composer Phil Kline, and many felt it crossed the line. In my opinion, while it wouldn’t have been my first choice (I’d have opted for a composite image of diverse people, as people from all ethnic and religious groups and all walks of life were killed on 9/11), it’s also not like the cover depicts those horrifying images of people jumping to their deaths from the towers. But I agree it might not have been as sensitive as, say, the cover for Adams’ On the Transmigration of Souls. That said, it is what it is, so let’s get to the music.

Based on what I had heard online, I made some comments on my own blog about WTC 9/11, and have not changed my opinion with the passing of time. The work is reminiscent of Different Trains and City Life, neither of which really grabbed me as completely as many of SR’s other works. They’re good, but not revelatory. But that’s just my own taste. The main issue for me with WTC 9/11 is that it can’t decide if it wants to be another Different Trains, another Double Sextet, or (insert older SR work here). I feel each time I listen to it that this was a project that SR was asked to take on, which is a very heady challenge by definition, and as a result had to turn something out in time. Expectations are high. So it’s understandable he’d fall back to a familiar formula, namely using the natural music found within speech as the basis for a work. It’s a concept that dates all the way back to his early taped phase works of human speech, and it’s a great concept. But it’s done; been there, done that. That technique just didn’t strike me as something that would work well with something of the magnitude of what happened on 9/11. The music seems to be secondary to pointing out the natural music found within snippets of speech. It kind of worked in Different Trains, perhaps in part due to its novelty and also due to the poignancy of the speakers. At the same time, there were good moments in Different Trains that were not accompaniments to the speech segments, but stood on their own as music for the (two) string quartets by themselves. That seems to be missing here; the music is nearly always subservient to the spoken texts and their inherent musical qualities. And that’s perhaps why I’m underwhelmed by the piece, despite the first-rate performance by the Kronos Quartet.

The two other works, however, are standard Reich, and work well. Nothing new there, but still very good to listen to. Either or both are worth the price of the album. And again, they are well performed.

What made something like Double Sextet work well is its novelty. It broke new ground after many years of variations on earlier SR works. I was really hoping WTC 9/11 would break new ground as well. I don’t doubt that many will love the piece, either because they love anything SR writes, or else really do feel genuinely moved by the work. And good for them. I would have loved to say something more positive about the work, in all honesty. But in the end, it has nothing to do with the cover (I got to know this piece before the cover was even revealed here on S21) and everything to do with the music. It just didn’t work for me. Feel free to love it. Or not. But don’t judge it by the cover. It works or doesn’t on its musical merits, or lack thereof.

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Cruel Sister  CD cover art

Ensemble Resonanz

Brad Lubman, conductor

Cantaloupe

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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An Hour for Piano

Tom Johnson

Performed by R. Andrew Lee (piano)

Irritable Hedgehog Recordings

Many of us grew up on Frederic Rzewski’s recording of Tom Johnson’s An Hour for Piano, which was released on LP by Lovely Music in the late 70’s (or perhaps it was the early 80’s-it was all a blur). This is considered a classic work of minimalism, although I could argue it was really a postminimalist work. Whatever it is, it’s a continuous, beautiful work that builds to a climax and then comes to an end around an hour into the work. Rzewski’s fine performance actually clocked in a few minutes shy of 60 minutes, but was a great performance and, as far as I was aware, the only one ever released of Johnson’s work. Until now.

R. Andrew Lee, who teaches at Avila University in Kansas City, MO, released his own performance on the Irritable Hedgehog label (available on both CD and digital download), and it’s in every way at least an equal of the Rzewski performance. To be honest, if you were to superimpose the recordings or blind me to which was which, I’d be hard pressed to tell one from the other. And that’s meant as a compliment-both performers skillfully captured the beauty in Johnson’s piece, and I’m not sure either recording could be outdone. Just as several recordings of Feldman’s For Bunita Marcus are equally wonderful.

The one difference, possibly, is that Lee’s performance is a tad quieter overall, which allows more of the resonance and some of the finer details to come through. Like Rzewski, Lee clearly has an affinity for the score, and is known as a performer of minimalist and postminimalist music, so this is as it should be.

The album, including the digital one (I’m listening to the digital version) comes with nice liner notes that include an essay by the composer himself. Johnson’s music has not been in vogue over the past few decades, although this piece and perhaps Nine Bells gained some prominence in the 80’s as I recall. Perhaps with this new recording, along with some of the recent performance efforts by composer Samuel Vriezen in The Netherlands, there will be more attention to Johnson’s output, which is not only an important output, but a very pleasing one as well.

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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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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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Simple Lines of Enquiry

Eve Egoyan, piano

Centrediscs

You have to be in an unfamiliar mindset to listen to Ann Southam’s Simple Lines of Enquiry. If you’re not, you might find yourself waiting just under an hour (58:41 to be exact) for something momentous to happen, and then leaving with the feeling that you have been cheated. As presented here with great discipline and sensitivity by pianist Eve Egoyan, who has often collaborated with Southam and gives the present work its premiere recording, the twelve movements that make up this major work for piano come across as the aural equivalent of twelve abstract paintings hanging by themselves in a gallery, generating an atmosphere of silence instead of sound, stasis instead of the activity we usually expect from a work of music.

This, of course, is minimalist, and very slow. The emphasis is on a 12-tone row, or rather a 12-interval row, as Southam would have it, with a slow, gentle, and precisely sequenced exploration of these intervals and the sonorities they create. As Southam has explained it elsewhere, the two notes in the right hand at the end of the sequence provide a kind of tonal center around which the 12-tone row works. At the same time, Southam’s music is distinctly atonal. Her silences are as eloquent as the bell-like sounds she is fond of deriving from repeated notes. In this recording you will typically hear Eve Egoyan play a cluster of 5-10 notes which seem to hang in the air, mingle their overtones, and then fade into near silence before she resumes her attack on the next cluster. Egoyan talks of Southam’s “magically suspended, weightless sound world, a place for deep listening and contemplation.”

And here we get to the crux of the matter. In Southam’s writing, the usual linear aspect of music takes on a very different meaning. Notions such as melody, rhythm and counterpoint exist, if at all, in a personal context. Tones and their overtones take on the character of the principal subject of the music. The end result is to create a deep listening experience that focuses and relaxes the mind of the listener, facilitating a contemplative state. Since these ends are so highly intimate and personal, it is difficult to imagine Simple Lines of Enquiry inspiring much enthusiasm from a concert audience, as opposed to the performer or the home listener. As contemplatives, we exist as individuals, not en masse. Depending on your own mood and your listening needs at the moment, attending to the music on this CD may leave you feeling deeply relaxed and centered. (If, however, you prefer things Canadian served up with a bit more excitement, go and watch the Stanley Cup Playoffs!)

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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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