Archive for the “minimalism” Category

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


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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Tom Johnson

Rational Melodies

New World CD 80705-2

When he was a critic at the Village Voice in the 1970s, Tom Johnson (b. 1939) was one of the first writers to apply the term ‘minimalism’ to music. As time has moved on, many composers originally associated with minimalism have branched out stylistically; while certain gestural signatures may remain, the processes by which they created their earliest works seem to have loosened up considerably.

Johnson has moved on too. After leaving the Voice, he relocated to Paris. While active as a composer throughout his tenure as a journalist, since the 1980s he’s focused on music instead of words as his primary means of expression. Johnson has continued to write pieces in the minimalist tradition, retaining the genre’s early reliance on generative processes. One of his best known works, Rational Melodies, is a case in point. Composed in 1982, the melodies are single line compositions that have been constructed with painstaking care using various patterning models. Contour, rhythmic shape, meter, proportion, intervallic profile, and tessitura are all parameters variously mapped in these 21 pieces — hence the ‘rational’ portion of their title.

There have been two previous recordings of Rational Melodies, both for solo instruments. But the French Ensemble Dedalus has rehearsed them as ensemble pieces for an extended period of time. It’s interesting that, despite the attention paid to details of compositional design, Johnson has been willing to allow Dedalus to revise these works extensively. Some involve matters of a heterophonic sort of orchestration — deciding which instruments will play each given note was apparently an intrinsic part of the rehearsal process — while others actually create significant changes of register. There are even instances when an organum-like planing is added to the proceedings, creating momentary ‘music in fifths.’

Dedalus seems to know this music backwards and forwards. One can well understand why they’ve chosen to make Rational Melodies their debut recording. That said, it still seems a courageous decision on Johnson’s part to abnegate enough control to allow his music to change, grow, and in this case, prosper.

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Time CurveTime Curve

Music by Philip Glass and William Duckworth

Bruce Brubaker, piano

Arabesque Recordings

Six Etudes for Piano – Philip Glass (original 1994 version)

The Time Curve Preludes, Book I – William Duckworth

Bruce Brubaker has assembled strong performances of attractive solo piano music on this recording.  The Glass etudes are a kind of “Glass concentrate” to my ears: all the harmony and rhythm but few (if any) timbral changes and developments.  Mr. Brubaker plays these works with a fair amount of rubato and feeling, something that others might shun in the face of such minimalist compositions.  These recordings are much more reverberant and meditative than the recordings on Orange Mountain Music.  

Mr. Brubaker’s work on the Duckworth preludes is similar in interpretation to the Glass.  There is more of an emphasis on ringing sound and a distance from the piano than, say, the Bruce Neely recording.  The overall affect of Mr. Brubaker’s recording is more of a watercolor smear instead of crisp Mondriaan lines.  I don’t mean that as a negative statement.  Brubaker’s sound is warm and comforting, letting me revel in the harmonic arpeggiations of each piece.  Listening to this disc, I get a better sense of what Mr. Brubaker sounds like in concert as opposed to in a studio.  I see this as a positive thing.

I like that Bruce Brubaker is able to draw a different sound out of these same pieces.  Instead of hearing a machine play the music, you hear a person interpret the score.  Mr. Brubaker has found his own path through these pieces and I find his path quite listenable.

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Doctor Atomic SymphonyDoctor Atomic Symphony

John Adams

Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra

conducted by David Robertson

Nonesuch Records

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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GLASS BOX: Music by Philip Glass. 10 CD Nonesuch. (Sony Classical; Orange Mountain Music; Virgin, Shandar)

Philip Glass piano, keyboards,: The Philip Glass Ensemble, Michael Riesman, keyboards, music director; Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra; Vienna Radio Symphony; Bruckner Orchester Linz; American Composers Orchestra, Dennis Russell Davies, conductor, various vocal soloists; New York City Opera Orchestra, Christopher Keene. conductor, various vocal soloists; English Chamber Orchestra, Michael Riesman, Harry Rabinowitz, conductors; various film studio orchestras with members of The PGE and The Western Wind Vocal Ensemble;conducted by Michael Riesman; Kronos Quartet – David Harrington; John Sherba, violins; Hank Dutt, viola; Joan Jeanrenaud, cello; Lyric Quartet.

Philip Glass is so ubiquitous and successful that’s it’s easy to take him for granted and stop listening. Sure, he repeats, uses arpeggios, broken chords, minor modes/keys, and his style is instantly identifiable and frequently copied. But he’s always been interested in re-inventing himself and he’s changed the rules of his game by putting himself into unknown situations with other artists, or forms, and sometimes both at once. The fruits of several seminal collaborations with theatre director Robert Wilson — -EINSTEIN ON THE BEACH (1975), and film director Godfrey Reggio — KOYAANISQATSI (1983) are in this with essays and appreciations 40 year retrospective set. But there’s a kicker. Glass frequently works with visual artists, or artists from theatre or film, but the CD only format can’t show how his music works with images. Yet it does show how arresting his music is as sound, and those who think he hasn’t changed, developed, or matured are in for a shock or a revelation.

The early works (1969- 70) on the eponymously titled disc one were shocking to some and a revelation to others when first performed. Glass threw the academic rule book out the window, but kept what he learned from Nadia Boulanger – the music of the classic masters was both logical and inevitable — and that sense of inevitable logic certainly drives these works here. The carefully added lines in MUSIC IN SIMILAR MOTION (1969) are like a mural you have to walk with in order to see, and its development is just as planned as the nearly hour long 1970 MUSIC WITH CHANGING PARTS – 45 minutes here – in which Glass let his musicians play and sing pitches they heard in its intricate overlapping parts which I think reflects his rarely remarked on before India encounter with the rhythmic patterning of Moroccan ritual music where drones and simple shifting counts – there are frequent contrasts between 2 and 3 and multiples thereof – become the building blocks for something very complex.

These early works grew in complexity as Glass’ musical language developed , but their complexity has nothing to do with the serial method in vogue when they were written. That was tied to the dialectical view of history as a kind of conflict resolution process, which starts as thesis, moves on to antithesis, and culminates in synthesis. These pieces function outside of history, or rather within their own idea of history and time.

Glass decided to confront that subject head on in the massive yet ingeniously varied MUSIC IN 12 PARTS (1971-74) [ disc two ] which is, in some almost dialectical way the culmination of his minimalist period. Or as Glass told me ” My idea was to write a piece that was like a catalog, a kind of grand compendium of all the ideas I had worked out”¦ and I tried to find ways of linking an overall harmonic structure to an overall rhythmic structure to produce a kind of (laughs) unified field theory of music. ” Time and how it’s perceived is a large part of what it’s about, and Glass has many ways of expanding our sense of it here. Producers Robert Hurwitz, Kurt Munkacsi, and Michael Riesman have chosen parts VII to X so that the listener can experience them as a sequence of developing units and not just bleeding chunks. There’s a lot of variety in Glass’ sometimes circumscribed approach – a full range of contrapuntal devices and rhythms as well as surprising but perfectly logical changes of direction and texture. But you can’t hear the unwritten undertones and overtones which emerge from the overlapping lines, volume, and acoustic properties of the room where it’s played live. And a rare complete performance by the PGE at San Francisco’s Davies Hall 16 Feb 2009 will certainly bring these out. Orange Mountain Music – — has also released a PGE live at Rovereto, Italy, 2006 set of 12 PARTS, which is as thrilling and cogent as this studio one though the tempos are markedly slower in several places.

Glass’ 5 hour ” opera ” with Robert Wilson EINSTEIN ON THE BEACH (1975) – [ disc three ] – is paradoxically more elaborate and simpler than 12 PARTS, as befits a work tailored for and responsive to the exigencies of stage action. These excerpts give a good sense of its shape as well as its intimate – all 5 Knee Plays – and spectacular dimensions – Train 1 and the concluding Spaceship scene. The incisiveness and elegance of the playing and singing defines the character of the piece as I imagine it to be when encountered live – all space, light, movement, décor – aligned with Glass’ strongly varied harmonic and rhythmic densities, though I miss the seat of your pants rawness of the PGE’s Tomato LP . Still it’s wonderful to hear the Prologue from Act V ( Rome Section ) of Wilson’s originally for the 1984 LA Olympics the CIVIL wars (1983) — a beautiful, imaginative, and tremendously moving score with killer bass clarinet solos, which Dennis Russell Davies and his American Composers Orchestra play with heart and soul. But there’s not a note from the Wilson/ Glass – Rumi poems MONSTERS OF GRACE (1997) , which is on OMM.

Three of Glass’ 5 collaborations with Reggio – KOYAANISQATSI (1983) , POWAQQATSI (1987) – [ disc 6 ], and ANIMA MUNDI (1999) [disc 10] are here. KOYAANISQATSI is revered for its fits like a glove marriage of image and sound – the slow moving lines and suspended harmonies in “Organic” and the unsettling altered chords in “Resource” are perfect musical analogues as well as stand alone pieces as are al the others — while Glass’ absorption of world music instruments into his own idiom in POWAQQATSI is striking, but much less known, largely because its distributor, Cannon Films, was going bankrupt when it was released. But the last installment in Reggio’s QATSI trilogy, NAQOYQATSI (2002), with its intricate textures and demanding but perfectly apt writing for cellist Yo Yo Ma – it’s on SONY Classical – sadly didn’t make the cut. But the good news is that all 3 QATSI films have gotten a new lease on life by being performed live with the PGE.

Glass’ orchestra only and orchestra with voices writing , which appears throughout his 8 symphonies. has grown by leaps and bounds. The strings only – violin 1 and 2, violas, cellos, double basses – Symphony # 3 (1995) [ disc nine ] is full of timbral contrasts despite its white on white sound which Stravinsky and Herrmann also exploited in APOLLO (1927) and PSYCHO (1960), and the third movement’s quick assymetrical metres — 7 /8 , 9/8 “¦ are virtuosic and thrilling. The complex rhythmic and harmonic writing for every choir approach of Symphony # 8 (2005), which Dennis Russell Davies and his Bruckner Orchester Linz premiered at BAM on their first US tour in 2005, and play here, is extremely original and subtle. The 8 themes which begin the first movement are closely related yet legible, the second movement passacaglia ventures into strange harmonic waters ala Boulanger’s teacher, Faure, and the third and final one, with its sense of deep and inevitable sorrow, never fails to bring me to tears, whether at BAM, or at home.

Chamber music speaks from the mind and heart , and Glass’ string quartets are clearly letters from home. # 4 (Buczak) (1987) [ disc seven ] , which was commissioned by Geoffrey Hendricks as a memorial to his young artist lover Brian Buczak, who died of AIDS, has an alternately ecstatic, and otherworldly character – the suspended in time middle slow movement – while the first movement’s sostenuto   chords seem to frame a kind of narrative of Buczak, Hendricks and Glass together – they were friends – in a continuously evolving present, which extends to the third and final movement, too. Lots of the writing in # 5 (1991) , with its frequent metric shifts , mercurial changes of texture, and the headlong dive of its chromatic scales in 17/8, at a very fast tempo, is openly virtuosic, and Glass told me he asked David Harrington and Kronos to play it as one thought, which they do, with accuracy and point, in all 3 quartets here. Four of the 10 Etudes for Piano (1994), which Glass wrote for Davies to play, and which Glass does here, are very personal, idiosyncratic and non-didactic additions to this form which Chopin and Debussy enlarged so beautifully before him.

Glass’ use of the orchestra in his Gandhi opera SATYAGRAHA (1979 [ disc five ] is not unlike that of Debussy in PELLEAS Et MELISANDE (1893-1902) , where the orchestra disappears into the music, and being invisible in this way becomes more deeply felt. His wind and string – with one synthesizer – writing evokes a completely unique sound in which the voices seem to flower from the orchestra and vice versa. Tenor Douglas Perry’s Gandhi – he virtually owned the role till Richard Croft sang it at The Met this spring – gives a mellifluous and touching performance, though the miking of alto Rhonda Liss’ Mrs. Alexander, while dramatic alright, is too far forward harsh. But Christopher Keene, sadly dead from AIDS, leads a cogent performance with the New York City Opera Chorus, and his singers in Act III’s extremely exposed sextet make it seem easy as pie.

The text and performance style of Glass’ opera about the heretic king AKHNATEN (1983) [ disc eight ] aim, like the in Sanskrit SATYAGRAHA, at divorcing and /or mirroring action(s) from words. The voice – countertenor Paul Esswood sings the pharaoh – is set within an umbrous ( no violins as in KOYAANISQATSI ) yet continuously shifting orchestral frame, and musical time and scale once again take center stage, in Davies and the Stuttgart State Opera and Chorus’ vigorous and deeply atmospheric account of this monumental yet very personal score.
You get a touch but only a touch of Glass’ wide-ranging efforts in moving pictures – other than his for Reggio — in disc ten, Filmworks, though Nonesuch’s PHLILIP ON FILM gives a better introduction and in depth survey of his work in this form. Still disc four has excerpts from his odd yet enchanting score, ETOLIE POLAIRE , for Francois de Menil and Barbara Rose’s 1977 doc MARK DI SUVERO, SCULPTOR. My favorite has always been ” Are Years What? ( for Marianne Moore ) ” for flute and soprano and tenor saxophone – Dickie Landry , with its startling and refreshing “break ” – rest — midstream. Disc ten is strangely unsastisfying – we don’t get bleeding chunks, but chunks nevertheless of scores both famous and obscure. But who could ever think, much less see Glass’ 1994 opera based on Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film LA BELLE ET LA BETE, as anything but new music wedded to the work of this way too gifted – who could ever pigeonhole Cocteau? -and deeply influential artist? Glass apparently identifies with him – both were outsiders even when they appeared to be movers and shakers within their own time – and Glass’ time is decidedly ours. But anyone curious about his recent film, concert, and theatre work should check out Orange Mountain Music’s catalog – as well as Nonesuch’s , which give a close-up view of this straightforward, extremely important, yet deeply elusive artist.

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product149462image.jpgBRYARS: And so ended Kant’s travelling in this world; Pí„RT: The Beatitudes; LOMON: “Transport”, from Testimony of Witnesses; DUCKWORTH: Selections from Southern Harmony; WALKER: Selections from The Southern Harmony & Musical Companion. Boston Secession/Jane Ring Frank. Brave 720. 52 minutes.
The house of minimalism has many mansions. In fact, minimalism itself moved out (probably in order to sublet) around the time of Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, a piece whose relatively spritely harmonic rhythm (the pace at which the chords change) indicates a break with “pure” minimalism. Since then, the label of “minimalist” has been accepted and rejected by composers of a wide range of musical attitudes and attributes.
The music on Surprised by Beauty: Minimalism in Choral Music shows that the choral and instrumental group Boston Secession takes a broad view of minimalism. The common characteristic among the pieces is a certain level of simplicity on the surface and a commitment to tonality in one form or another.

Gavin Bryars’ And so ended Kant’s travelling in this world is a meditative setting of a brief prose description of the last, minor occurrence in the philosopher’s life. The text is from Thomas de Quincey’s biography, and Bryars sets it in straightforward speech rhythms, with no counterpoint and only occasional harmony. The expressive power in the piece comes from Bryars’ use of melodic dissonances, which usually consist in lowering scale degrees and lengthening the syllable. And so ended Kant’s travelling in this world is an almost perfect match of subject/text and technique.
Arvo Pí¤rt’s Beatitudes is even more austere than the Bryars, in some ways. It is scored for chorus and organ, and the organ supplies volume, counterpoint, and drama. On the other hand, the text is given a ritualistic setting, letting the words speak for themselves free of expressive ornament. The result is a piece both lean and haunting.
Ruth Lomon’s Testimony of Witnesses is an evening-long oratorio based on poetry by victims of the Holocaust. The “Transport” section is a setting of short verses about the trains that carried people to the concentration camps. Lomon uses the considerable resources of the Boston Secession instrumental contingent (Testimony of Witnesses was written for them) to paint a harrowing sound picture of these events. The music is tonal and directly expressive. It’s powerful and deeply moving.
The program proper concludes with selections from William Duckworth’s Southern Harmony, a reworking of hymn-tunes from William Walker’s 1835 The Southern Harmony & Musical Companion. Duckworth is one of the founders of post-minimalism, which employs minimalist techniques (repetition of notes, motives, or phrases and clear, usually relatively fast pulsation) along with techniques from both more traditional and more Modernist techniques. Walker’s original hymn-tunes provide excellent grist for Duckworth’s mill. The result is an exultant updating and deepening of music that already was part of America’s artistic DNA when Duckworth got hold of it. The disc closes with “bonus tracks”, lively readings of some of Walker’s hymn-tunes that Duckworth used as source material.
The performances, led by Boston Secession Artistic Director Jane Ring Frank, are uniformly outstanding and sound very good””you can hear everything. Highly recommended for those interested in recent trends in choral writing and performing.

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