Archive for the “Uncategorized” Category
Earlier this year I chatted with Chip Michael about the social media based ensemble TwtrSymphony. At the time, only a single movement of Michael’s Symphony No. 2: “Birds of a Feather” had been recorded. The full symphony is now complete and you can hear the complete work on their website.
The music is rather attractive, rhythmic stuff with a general tendency for thick orchestration and conventional harmony. The four movements (each 140 seconds in duration, a play on the Twitter restriction of 140 characters) takes the traditional classical approach to structure (1. Moderate, 2. Slow, 3. Dance, 4. Fast) and as a whole, the music is rather charming and well constructed. Such a short time restriction creates difficulties but Michael has a way of making each movement sound like the length is appropriate and not simply arbitrary. At around 10 minutes, Chip Michael manages to cover a nice amount of ground.
The biggest obstacle to be worked out by TwtrSymphony is in the mixing and mastering of the recording. With each part recorded in isolation by each performer using whatever materials they have on hand, assembling and crafting a master mix is a technological nightmare. At its best, the ensemble sounds pretty good (the first movement, “The Hawk Goes Hunting,” is the most successful to my ears). At its worst, the group sounds like software playback from a moderately priced set of virtual instruments. I found the strings particularly troublesome in this respect. Also, the panning is too severe and ends up highlighting the unnatural nature of the group. I think Chip Michael’s music is quite pleasant and I am willing to bet that this piece will get a fair amount of play by other ensembles. I’m also still intrigued by the nature of the TwtrSymphony and I look forward to hearing them address these sonic issues in future releases.
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Flickers of Mime/Death of Memes (2 discs)
What do you get when you combine Kubrick moods, outer space, Middle Eastern vibes, clouds of metal timbre, and a lot of talent in mixing those ingredients? Something similar to a disc by Alexander Berne. How about combining the primeval, the creepily serene, and the sense of slow motion. You’ll get the same thing.
Now, coalesce both of those, and you’ll get an illustration of the arc of human nature woven into an ambient collection. Or, more accurately, you’ll get Alexander Berne’s new album Flickers of Mime/Death of Memes.
Flickers of Mime/Death of Memes is the third collection of works by Berne and his Abandoned Orchestra. Berne is a composer from New York who has primarily immersed himself in the jazz scenes of America and Belgium. He is a saxophonist and has also invented a new wind instrument, one he calls the “saduk,” a mixture between a saxophone and a duduk.
Flickers of Mime/Death of Memes is an album divided into two discs. The first, Flickers of Mime, is meant to symbolize what a mime might create using its bare movements. Many of the tracks off this disc include very 80s-space sounding, sustained notes, such as “Flicker I” and “Flicker VII,” while many others include eastern scales and timbres. However, these tracks are not obviously themed. Each is soon invaded with other ambient sounds that help the disc do what it was meant to do; through each of the “flickers” on the first disc, a different world, structure, or mood is built. Despite some of the celestial sounds, Flickers of Mime/Death of Memes does not use any synthesizers or the like. “Flicker VIII” sounds like calm, Middle Eastern-sounding club music, and can be compared to songs by Mocean Worker with its sassy wind motifs paired with loose piano phrases. “Flicker X” is a whirlwind of sounds that the listener arrives at in linear ways, like passing each one in a car. While each track is one train of thought without much individual development, the way the flickers are lined up in the album creates one leg of the arch that is Flickers of Mime/Death of Memes. “Flicker XI,” the last track on the disc, is eerily similar to “Flicker II,” but with faded glances back at previous flickers.
The second disc, Death of Memes, is meant to be the second leg of the arch—the one that recedes back to the ground. One would more literal apocalyptic sounds on a disc that illustrates the downfall of a society. But the pieces on the disc are mostly loosely primitive, like the aftermath of said apocalypse. While Berne’s album’s first disc focuses on the construction of aural formations, the second one is the destruction of those. The perspective is also different on the two discs. Flickers of Mime is, hypothetically, meant to come from the hands of one man. Death of Memes describes the downfall of a large mass, like a city. Many of the tracks on the disc are much more subtle, such as “Meme III,” a piece of unfettered yet serene piano accompanied by ambient drones. “Meme I” is one of the only tracks that moves slightly in the realm of more aggressive dystopia, with subdued timpani and other percussion.
Alexander Berne’s Flickers of Mime/Death of Memes is an album that doesn’t fall into the whirlpool that ambient music, or music of the sort, sometimes can—monotony. Because of the well thought-out relationships between the two discs, Berne has constructed a body of work that works together in ways not only aurally, but conceptually. It offers a new way of looking at the arch of humanity; the arch that we ourselves, as humans, might never understand.
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Daniel Okulitch, baritone
The New American Art Song
Songs by Ricky Ian Gordon, Jake Heggie, Lowell Liebermann and Glen Roven, accompanied by the composers
The first solo record by Canadian baritone Daniel Okulitch is an impeccable portrait of his voice’s warm and earthy elegance. Through sets of songs by Ricky Ian Gordon, Jake Heggie, Glen Roven and Lowell Liebermann, Mr. Okulitch’s voice comes across as richly dark, sensitive and – above all – clear. The songs themselves are very good and lovely as well, but do not necessarily display a wide swath of the landscape of contemporary American song. With this fact stated, I want to stress that each cycle has beautiful, poignant moments and are scrupulously written…they are just cut from a similar cloth in terms of their musical materials. Because the composers actually accompany Mr. Okulitch on the recording, I was particularly attentive to the interplay between the piano and vocal parts. The role of the two musical characters varied greatly between and within each group of songs, providing – along with the transient moods of the texts – the listener with welcome volatility and contrast against the stylistic consistently of the works and Mr. Okulitch’s undeviatingly sterling performance.
Dominating the CD is Glen Roven’s from the Underground, a set of fifteen songs each with an isolated personality and texture, yet united by Mr. Roven’s mostly triadic and diatonic musical fabric. The piano imitates the vocal line in many of the songs, strengthening the reflection of, “[Mr. Roven’s] personal feelings about each poem”, which he describes is his goal when writing art songs. Repetitive rhythms in the piano accompaniments, combined with humorous texts gave some songs, like “This is Just to Say”, the flavor of musical theater music (an affect that reappears in other cycles on this disc). Though I enjoyed the whole set, I felt the song “Come to the Edge” was the most beautiful – perhaps perfectly constructed – thanks to the absolutely engrossing way the vocal line pairs with the piano. Mr. Okulitch’s part begins quietly, accompanied by timorous pandiatonic clusters in the piano, the two musical bodies simultaneous build momentum, energy and scope until the vocal line climaxes and the piano part spills into a valley of lush extended triads, marking the most important moment in the poem.
The musical hints at musical theater I noted in from the Underground are also apparent in the album’s first cycle – Ricky Ian Gordon’s Quiet Lives. To me, all songs are theatrical and narrative, so I am not surprised – in a contemporary music world typified by the fusion of popular and traditional motifs – that the clear phrasing and persistent rhythms of musical theater songs have bled into the already closely related genre of ‘art song’. Like all the composers on the album, Mr. Gordon has written some stunningly beautiful songs fueled by very interesting texts with the exact personality of each song remaining pretty variable. Contrastinglt to from the Underground, the piano is limited to a strictly accompanimental presence and does not often double or imitate the vocal line. Conveniently, the cycle’s extremes in mood appear adjacent to each other. “As Planned” features a sarcastic text discussing the unpredictable consequences of drinking too much vodka, with the air of mischief shared in the piano’s tongue-in-cheek, cabaret-style waltz. The following song, “Kid in the Park” is the cycle’s most reflective, with a piano part that hints, with the most extraordinary subtleness, to slow, R&B ballads (I could very well be imagining such a connection exists). The tempo and chordal accompaniment leave Mr. Okulitch plenty of room to draw the listener into the text’s account of the challenges facing urban youths.
The two remaining cycles both stood out to me with their more coherent character/mood (thanks, no doubt, to their relative brevity in comparison to the aforementioned works), and subtly cultivated drama. Lowell Liebermann’s Night Songs, probably the most traditional sounding of the disc, paints a delicate and convincing portrait of the introspection that so often accompanies the setting of the sun. This is particularly apparent in the set’s first two songs – “Good Night” and “She Tells Her Love Half Asleep” – whose repetitive accompaniments and melodies firmly establish a musical world haunted by the stillness of moonlight and stars. Jake Heggie’s Of Gods and Cats had, by far, the most memorable texts of the whole album. The first, “In the Beginning”, retells the biblical creation through the perspective of a cat engaging with quotidian experiences such as drinking milk and falling asleep in a paper bag. Closing out the pair is “Once upon a Universe”, which describes what God was like as a child, destroying his toys much to the chagrin of his mother. Of course, the text is not so engrossing on its own accord: Mr. Heggie sets it both impishly and austerely, with the piano part adding masterfully timed moments of levity to an otherwise reverent portrayal of poet Gavin Geoffrey Dillard’s comical musings.
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Line Upon Line Percussion
Line Upon Line Percussion
In a contemporary music world where percussion is stereotyped as high-volume and high-action, Austin-based percussion trio Line Upon Line’s first CD boldly focuses on something other and speed and volume: color. Featuring the work of four local, Texas composers – James D. Norman, Steven Snowden, Zack Stanton and Ian Dicke – the self-titled album is a remarkably diverse journey in sound and expression. Each work revolves around contrasting, evolving relationships in timbre and employ a variety of pitched and unpitched, commonplace and specialized percussion instruments. Exquisitely produced and performed, the album is limitlessly captivating and stimulating thanks to the deft, elegant work the composers and the constant variety of colors present in their pieces.
James D. Norman’s Redshift (2010), the album’s first track, crystallizes the aforementioned emphasis on timbre: from its explosive outset, a crucial dialogue emerges between wooden and metallic sounds. As his program note explains, Mr. Norman armed each member of the trio with the same materials – “six metal plates, six wood planks (tuned to the same pitches for each player)”. This allows him to create multiple layers of essentially the same sound and develop fascinatingly detailed variations on a consistent foundation of timbre. Another consistent element in the work is a persistent rhythmic/melodic idea that repeats heavily, but with increasing irregularities as the work moves forward. To my ears, the agent for this variation is a distinct metallic sound – what Mr. Norman calls a, “modified crash cymbal” – that breaks the rhythmic energy of the aforementioned rhythmic/melodic idea over the course of the piece, causing it to restart itself and seemingly precipitating the turbulent and thrilling evolution this tightly-knitted work undergoes from beginning to end.
The next piece on the CD – Steven Snowden’s A Man with a Gun Lives Here (2010) is the only work of the four I had already seen performed. My language is intentional I watched a DVD of the performance, much of which is deliberately choreographed to add an extra level of drama and to connect to the work’s back-story. The title refers to the signal system hobos developed during the Great Depression to inform wanders about dangerous and generous residences; moreover, the scoring of the piece – three percussionists play on and around a single bass drum – is deliberately aimed to suggest hobos gathered around a trash can fire. Although I loved the piece the first time I heard it, I worried, without the visual element, the music would not mesmerize me as much as it had before. This was not the case in the least. In fact, losing the ability to see the performance heightened my awareness of Mr. Snowden’s subtle decisions about timbre, foreground/background and the temporal spacing of the music. These qualities, on their own, project a compelling dramatic tale of action and reaction and inter-ensemble conversation united by the highly original and ominous way the trio exploits the shared bass drum.
The written description of Zack Stanton’s Echoes of Veiled Light (2009) epitomizes the unabashed boldness with which Line Upon Line and their collaborators approached this project. “When line upon line approached me about writing a new piece for them, they had a terrifying request: ‘write us a quiet piece’”. To me, this account demonstrates the trio’s understanding of their supreme expressive ability and the resulting composition, with its beguiling delicacy, meets their challenge with unquestionable success. The work has a twinkling, metallic sheen to it, using unpitched and pitched instruments to construct a chrystalline web spangled with unobtrusive harmonies that meld seamlessly with the other sound elements of the work. I was very fond of the way Mr. Stanton used pitch in Echoes because his harmonies are very affective, not stylistic, along the lines of the low piano clusters in Varese’s Ionisation and – to be a little more obscure – the droning trumpet in Donald Sur’s Red Dust. The pitched material adds inviting, soothing warmth to an accompanying texture of cymbals, gongs and bongo drums that, otherwise, would seem a little stoic.
The final piece on the album is Ian Dicke’s Missa Materialis, a musical response to Austin’s ‘Cathedral of Junk’, a massive environmental folk art exhibit created by artist Vince Hannemann. Mr. Dicke calls the work a “soundtrack” for the art, employing a variety of traditional percussion instruments and found objects over the course of five movements. The extra-musical framework for the piece is twofold: the found objects – namely plastic bags and water bottles – represent the environmental destructiveness of our material culture, and the pitched material, form and title mimic the traditional Latin mass. These influences emerge in different, intriguing ways – the fourth movement, ‘Plastic Deity’, climactically features the smashing of bottles and bags directed by an imperious egg timer, while the work’s infrequently appearing melodies (including contrapuntal singing by the trio!) are heavily referential to, if not direct quotes of Medieval chant. Overall, the work has the feeling of post-apocalyptic ritualism, made uncommonly memorable by Mr. Dicke’s bizarre ‘instruments’.
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ChromaDuo’s recent release Hidden Waters is an impeccably produced/performed exploration of a wide range of contemporary guitar music. Equally showcasing guitarists Tracy Anne Smith and Rob MacDonald’s lyrical and athletic playing, the CD features divergent works by three living composers: Roland Dyens, Stephen Goss and Christopher William Pierce. Overall, the album’s contents are subdued, with highly rhythmic, energetic tracks and musical ideas emerging intermittently and satisfactorily as if all the tracks were one giant, convivial, through-composed exploration of the guitar’s expressive range.
The breadth of style and musical mood I’ve applied to the entire album exists on a smaller scale in its first featured composition, Stephen Goss’ The Raw and the Cooked (Le Cru et Le Cuit) (2004). This piece is a set of seemingly unrelated miniatures, all of which share a reference to some other music. As Goss puts it in the liner notes, the transparency of the stylistic allusions vary, “[t]hese borrowings can be near the surface (the Raw), or hidden deep in the texture of the music (cooked).” More apparent is the energetic direction of the work, which opens with a fast, loud, groovy – heavily scented with the feel of New Orleans-style jazz – movement, “Hot”, and then immediately recedes into a more introverted and laconic sound world. It isn’t really until the seventh movement, “Hotel Kepinski”, that the steady rhythmic pulse of the opening music is reestablished, though – at first – weakly. This higher musical energy then builds through the next movement – “Tango Brawl”, the site of a tongue-in-cheek Astor Piazzolla quotation – and culminates in the work’s Arabic-influenced closing movement, “The Ajman”.
Mr. Goss shows his ‘softer’ side with the album’s next composition, Still at Sea (2009), which, with its more consistently intimate sound world, begins to establish the album’s introverted/extroverted dialogue I noted in the introduction. The work is rather beautiful, and has a very impressionistic, contemplative affect, much like the guitar music of Maurice Ohana, though not nearly so dissonant. This mood is broken by the work’s final movement, “Fire Water”, which features an ostinato in one guitar paired against a mostly chordal, fricative line in the other. The driving energy of the ostinato does subside at moments, relating to the lyricism of the preceding movements, yet this music functions very much like a fast, violent interruption to the CD’s prevailing sense of reflection and subtlety.
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The Sad Park EP
Kronos Quartet; Michael Gordon, composer
Michael Gordon’s musical reflection on 9/11, The Sad Park, is an interesting variant on another piece written for the Kronos Quartet to commemorate the terror attacks: Steve Reich’s WTC 9/11. Gordon’s source material is culled from spoken word recordings made by the teacher of his son’s Pre-K class: responses to the attacks as seen through the eyes of innocents.
But whereas Reich used taped voices of first responders and spoken-word reflections of its aftermath as recognizable, harrowing, landmarks, Gordon eschews using source recordings in an overtly referential, or even recognizable manner. Instead, with the assistance of composer Luke Dubois, they are digitally sculpted into ghostly apparitions; distorted to blur the excerpts’ message in favor of allowing their impact to operate on an emotive and sonic, rather than textual, level. Surrounded by quartet writing in the post-minimal ostinato manner, as well as sustained, siren-like lines that form a kind of keening, mournful refrain, The Sad Park is an unsettling threnody.
It’s interesting to note that in NPR’s 9/6 blog post about The Sad Park, the responses in the comments section diverge widely. Some feel that it is an affecting piece, while others pillory its use of children’s responses as exploitative. I guess one can engender controversy without inflammatory cover art.
Composer Michael Gordon
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music for violin and electronics
- cosmic clouds
- waiting for you
- suite for electric violin
Cornelius Dufallo’s Dream Streets is a sublime collection of music for violin and electronics. Expertly crafted, beautifully played, and something that I’m honestly ashamed that it has been out since 2009 and I’m only now getting acquainted with it. The first seven tracks form a seamless cycling journey through a variety of moods and textures with very deftly deployed electronics. Most of the electronic touches fall in the categories of reverb and looping as well as some ambient soundscape accompaniments. Dufallo is no stranger to genre-crossing string+electronics settings and every moment on this disc is perfectly placed. I never felt like “oh, here is the section where he builds up a lot of loops” even though there are clearly sections where he does just that. Those moments contain a momentum that many other loopers lack and, in “Waiting for You,” Dufallo hits us with an enchantingly simple and catchy tune. A wise man once said “Reverb is like garlic; too much is just enough” and it is clear that Dufallo feels the same way. And still, reverb is an active tool. Dufallo uses it when it is most effective and builds up a three-dimensionality to his soundworld by drying out the solo lines for contrast.
Dufallo’s Suite for Eleectric Violin is edgier and more overtly abstract and artificial. Still, he chisels out distinct sound worlds that draw you into ornate and vibrant environments. Each of the six movements is a world in and of itself and the Suite still comes across as a single organic whole. Onefivesix is a brief and haunting gem weighing in at only 1:49. On the one hand it is so perfect as it is, on the other I wish the music would go on. It does lead well into the final track, Transcendence which shimmers and ripples with Paganini-style arpeggios. The harmonic language, while firmly tonally rooted, throws some most welcome curveballs and the manic bow work sounds free and easy as it smears into broad colors.
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Oasis Quartet: Glass, Gotkovsky, Escaich
Oasis Saxophone Quartet
Innova Records #744
The saxophones of the Oasis Quartet bound through the full range of expression and energy in their new self-titled release on the Innova label. Armed with Ida Gotkovsky’s Quatour (1983), Thierry Escaich’s Le Bal (2003) and a 2007 arrangement of Philip Glass’s String Quartet No. 3 (Mishima), the Oasis Quartet spans the Atlantic, compellingly illustrating strong traditions in saxophone quartet repertoire. The group’s members – James Bunte, Dave Camwell, Nathan Nabb and James Romain – unite the CD’s stylistically divergent content with their collective crispness, obvious instrumental mastery and subtly executed interpretations.
Classifying this CD’s contents as traditional shouldn’t surprise anyone: the saxophone has French origins and its players of historically rely on transcriptions to fill in gaps in their repertoire. As the album’s liner notes describe, even Thierry Escaich’s Le Bal is based on traditional forms – the dance suite. The work is raucous and expansive, slithering between energetic and mysterious sections over its twelve-minute duration. Appropriately, Le Bal is united by a surging rhythmic momentum. When this driving energy finally explodes in the work’s home stretch it sounds as if the piece spirals out of control into oblivion.
Ida Gotkovsky’s Quatour is a large, five-movement work that displays Oasis quartet’s expressive flexibility within an, “approachable and attractive” musical landscape. In addition to the assonant remark I just quoted, the liner notes highlight Gotkovsky’s use of unison passages to create clear textures. Indeed, parallel movement of all kinds appears throughout the work’s foreground and background passages. Observed alongside Quatour’s predilection for ostinati and limited polyphonic passages, it is clear one Gotkovsky’s principle goals is to establish a crystal clear hierarchy between melody and accompaniment. The piece’s bombastic fifth movement, “Final”, challenges this trend with an unprecedented section of wild, independent counterpoint. However, Gotkovsky compensates for this textural outlier with three closing minutes of nearly all unisons melodies or chorale-like harmonic progressions.
The most well-known offering on the CD is obviously Oasis’ adaptation of Philip Glass’ String Quartet no. 3, taken from Glass’ 1985 film-score for a biographical film on Japanese author and activist, Yukio Mishima. Like many of Glass’ other film scores – I am specifically thinking of his soundtrack to Notes on a Scandal – the String Quartet no. 3 is primarily composed of triadic arpeggios, simple, repetitive phrase structures and unbalanced rhythmic layers often playing with competing duple and triple feels.
The harmonic language, though characteristically sparse, tends toward swift major-minor transitions, which, when set in the rhythmic landscape of work, reminded me heavily of John Adam’s score for Nixon in China. A big difference between the two is Glass’ melodies, simple and languid, floating above the babbling triadic latticework below. I doubt I would have made this connection listening to the original instrumentation because the sound of Oasis’ saxophones immediately led my inner ear to associate the work with Adams’ love of flashy brass and wind parts.
On that note, I think Nathan Nabb’s arrangement works really well, and even surpasses the original version in my opinion. The difference is most striking in the third and fourth movements, the first of which is fast-paced and syncopated and the second begins with an extremely slow and reserved mood. Of course, strings and saxophones can achieve the plaintive affect of the fourth movement, but – despite Glass’ use of double stops – a string quartet does not pull off the third movement’s edgy mixed-meter rhythmic minefield as successfully as Oasis’ saxophones.
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Open Graves with Stuart Dempster
Prefecture Records, PREFECTURE004
The ominously lit photo on the cover of Flightpatterns – a recent release from Open Graves, a West Coast-based improvisation duo – depicts the uniquely overriding characteristic of the album: where it was recorded. Gas lamps and candles cast soft glows on a variety of percussion instruments resting inside an enormous abandoned water cistern in Port Towsend, Washington, the site where Open Graves’ Jesse Olsen and Paul Kikuchi teamed with renowned trombonist Stuart Dempster for this suspenseful and dark series of improvisations.
The album’s liner notes identify, “a wide range of traditional and invented instruments” and, “unusual acoustic environments”, as two of Open Graves’ strongest artistic pursuits. Yet, it seems the idea for using the cistern as a recording space may have come from their collaborator. Allaboutjazz.com’s Mark Corotto implies as much in his February 2011 review of Flightpatterns, noting that Dempster’s 1995 recording, Underground Overlays From The Cistern Chapel (New Albion), started a trend of site-specific improvisations, to which Flightpatterns may simply be the latest contributor. The sonic fingerprint the performance space lends the album’s four tracks is captivating and indelible, casting a translucence over the music as if we are looking at the sound through wax paper, or listening underwater. Again, Corotto speaks to this rather eloquently in his review, writing, “time must be slowed, giving a protracted feel to the performance. Dempster’s long drawn-out trombone notes act as a blanket…so lovely, that you might find yourself holding your breath.”
To me, the effect of the cistern’s reverberations on the music was twofold. The constant level of echo blurred the lines of musical phrases, much like how shadows projected on a distant cave wall distort an object’s original shape and identity. These resonant acoustic conditions produced music beautiful in a way I had never heard before. Everything sublimely bled together, softened out by the airspace inside the cistern. Olsen, Kikuchi and Dempster’s instruments melded together, moving as one amorphous musical body through time, shaded multifariously as the album went along by a constant variety of percussion sounds.
Unfortunately, I felt the obvious intransigence of the cistern’s acoustic undermined much of Flightpatterns’s wonder and beauty. Around three-quarters of the way through the disc my ears were plane tired of the ambience. At its worst, I was reminded of my first forays in electronic music where I sheepishly swathed all my musical layers with the same EQ or reverb, denying the individuality of my components to speak through this acoustic surface. I was pained as Flightpatterns wrapped up because I knew Olsen, Kikuchi and Dempster’s virtuosity and musical sensibility are absolutely admirable, but had been largely washed out by the unwavering sonic environment of the recording.
Despite this qualm, I highly recommend the disc to all lover’s of improvised music and supporters of unconventional music presentation. Olsen, Kikuchi and Dempster have hit on an interesting thread in the world of contemporary music with Flightpatterns, even if they just hit a double instead of a grand slam. I’m talking about site-specific performances and other musical-environmental integrations. Again, I’m drawn to the world of electronic music where Roger Reynolds, for example, tediously designs spatial elements into his electro-acoustic scores and has been involved in many site-specific performances including a November 2010 event at the National Gallery in Washington, DC. Michael Gordon’s smash multimedia orchestral work, Decaysia, and the recent series of New York Philharmonic concerts at the Park Avenue Armory also illustrate the grandeur certain kinds of physical space can lend a live performance of contemporary music.
Flightpatterns demonstrates the potential value of designing albums around special acoustic environments. Immediately, the album’s intrigue and surface appeal blossoms in light of of Open Graves’ imaginative use of the empty water cistern as a recording studio. Despite the evident danger of casting the music in a monochromatic reverb throughout the length of the disc, Flightpatterns is a bold exploration of physical and musical resonance. Alluring and chilling at once, the CD’s tracks will undoubtedly leave you with aural goosebumps as the blurred identities of Stuart Demptser’s trombone and Open Grave’s multi-instrumental accompaniment will press the boundaries of your music-listening imagination.
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The Salt Lake Electric Ensemble Performs Terry Riley’s “in C”
The Salt Lake Electric Ensemble
One of the earliest examples of minimalism and process music, Terry Riley’s seminal 1964 composition in C is beautifully recast in the Salt Lake City Electric Ensemble’s 2010 recording, “The Salt Lake Electric Ensemble Perform Terry Riley’s in C”. SLEE’s version for “laptop orchestra” is dominated by the synthesized timbre of contemporary dance music, and garnishes Riley’s concept with the flavor of Ratatat and other mainstays of the electronic rock genre. Led by Matt Dixon, the 8-man group relies on overdubbing and sophisticated music software to produce a vibrant electro-acoustic aural tapestry weaving together a variety of percussion instruments and computerized elements.
The album’s liner notes contain a brief summary of the work’s performance instructions – the piece has 53 numbered phrases of differing lengths, the performers play through these in order but are free to repeat the phrases as many times as they wish. Above this explanation was a reflective and compelling quote from the composer, “Essentially my contribution was to introduce repetition into Western music as the main ingredient without any melody over it, without anything, just repeated patterns, musical patterns.” In many ways, in C is a picture-perfect representation of Riley’s mindset: given the simple melodic and harmonic elements he employs, phrase repetition is the most dramatic musical variable in each performance.
With this said, I was intrigued SLEE included these words from Terry Riley in the recording’s liner notes. To me, Riley’s mantra implies dissolving the traditional musical hierarchy, replacing a directional structure of melody and accompaniment with constant repetitions and an abstract form. The heterophonic texture that dominates SLEE’s interpretation of in C reflects the anarchy and freedom that undertone Riley’s philosophy; yet, the work has a clear direction. Bear in mind the performers are required to play through the 53 phrases in order. Much like Morton Feldman’s Why Patterns?, leadership in the performance is obscured by the fact that every player is moving at a different rate, nevertheless it is clear Terry Riley – and Feldman – imagined a firm structural gravity pulling the piece from its beginning to its end.
The Salt Lake Electric Ensemble’s recording of in C honors the work’s underlying momentum with changes in color and varying rhythmic backdrops in the acoustic percussion parts, which for most of the piece sound like rock drum beats. I am not sure how the unpitched percussion parts fit into the scheme behind in C, but I felt the style of the drum parts – in particular – was responsible for the hue of dance music I mentioned before. SLEE’s version of in C feels more like electronica than minimalism and highlights the conscious or accidental similarities between minimalism and many styles of popular music. The coloristic change from beginning to end is even more dramatic, insofar as the performers incorporate more and more computer white noise, the kind of sound I’ve heard from placing a contact microphone on a computer while it is processing data. Similar to the percussion parts, there is no mention of how these free sound elements are reconciled in Riley’s score; though, these elements are critical to the work’s formal clarity.
These characteristics seem like a fitting modern tribute to Riley’s spirit of indeterminacy and repetition. Although the Salt Lake Electric Ensemble’s performance of in C is not traditional, the work itself is meant to challenge tradition, at least the traditions of the time in which it was written. Ironically, with the large selection of recordings available, it seems in C is becoming canonized as it approaches 50 years of existence. The piece born to countermand the melodic traditions of Western music is gaining a reputation similar to the 19th-century masterpieces orchestras and soloist love to re-record and re-perform with the hopes of lending their own special fingerprints to the music. Consider this CD from the Salt Lake Electric Ensemble a wilder interpretation of a classic in the minimalist canon, displaying the longevity of Riley’s style alongside this unusual group’s broad spectrum of musical expression.
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