Posts Tagged “CD Review”
performed by R. Andrew Lee
Getting a copy of this recording for review reminded me of my all-time favorite CD review, Chuck Klosterman’s review of Chinese Democracy by Guns n’ Roses. I find it especially relevant when Klosterman states that reviewing the disc “…is not like reviewing music. It’s more like reviewing a unicorn. Should I primarily be blown away that it exists at all? Am I supposed to compare it to conventional horses? To a rhinoceros? Does its pre-existing mythology impact its actual value, or must it be examined inside a cultural vacuum, as if this creature is no more (or less) special than the remainder of the animal kingdom?”
Dennis Johnson’s November is the minimalist example of Klosterman’s situation. Spoken about in hushed, revered tones, November seemed to be a work on par with any other lost/imaginary work of art you’d care to name. Hearing this piece is, to my brain at least, similar to hearing the supposedly lost “first” symphony of Mahler and finding it to be as sophisticated as his ninth. Or seeing what could have happened if David Lynch had actually directed Return of the Jedi as Lucas originally had in mind. November is a piece of epic epicness; the minimalist unicorn circa 1959.
There is little about the construction of the piece that I can say which would add much to Kyle Gann’s stellar research and reconstruction efforts. At almost 5 hours exactly in duration, Lee’s performance shows us a world where minimalism was driven forward by time instead of pulse. The busy nattering process of old-school minimalism is not in play; events merely unfold at a slow and spacious rate. November is surprisingly easy to listen to for its full duration. The opening minor third returns at appropriate but not predictable times. The dissonance and consonance interplay is captivating and clear. Full chords are surprising rare; single tones and intervals dominate the glacial unfurling of events. When larger harmonies finally do coalesce, they are striking and new but they are right. November is a work about harmony as much as it is about time and Lee’s performance elucidates the harmonic drama and narrative throughout the entire duration.
This recording is also a testament to humanity. Most big-time works of minimalism, especially early works, seem to treat the performers as machines dutifully assembling the music as it comes by on a conveyor belt. Expression and interpretation are eschewed for rhythmic precision and crisp bright timbres. Early minimalism is many things but I doubt many would use the term “lush.” November comes alive under the fingers and musical abilities of R. Andrew Lee. Every note, every chord, every ninth that still doesn’t resolve even after 4 hours, every moment is in its perfect place. November is not something like “Clapping Music” where as long as you put the right notes in the right order the piece takes care of itself. November needs a deft mind and Lee delivers. The piece is not a technical challenge of the fingers but rather a challenge of the performer’s interpretation and mental endurance. Given such few musical materials and so much time, there are rather few pianists who I think could pull this off. Some could work with these materials for 30 minutes, maybe an hour, but the ability to bring forth five hours of music in such a compelling-yet-accessible way is nothing short of a miracle. An earlier draft of this review included a “loaves and fishes” reference at this point but I think it best if I leave it out.
So the piece that should have never existed finally does and it exists in as definitive of a performance as possible. What more could we ask for except R. Andrew Lee’s next release?
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music of David T. Little
David Adam Moore, Newspeak, Todd Reynolds
David T. Little’s Soldier Songs is one of the most exciting recordings I have experience in 2013 and while the year is yet young I am confident this disc is going to stay in the cultural consciousness for the foreseeable future. Broken into three large sections (Child, Warrior, and Elder), Little has crafted a song cycle of a grand scope. The complicated and contradictory emotions involved with serving in the military is a topic that many have approached and this recording handles it all with bewildering perfection. Little’s music is intensely dramatic and emotional without becoming histrionic or sentimental and while this work has a distinct point of view, its message(s) are far from simple propaganda.
David Adam Moore’s voice is riveting throughout the disc as he transforms through the various stages (physically and emotionally) via his subtle and nuanced performance. Moore is called upon to sing falsetto, shout, and growl and does all of these things with powerful musical abilities.
Musically and emotionally, Soldier Songs does everything right. Little’s craft coupled with Moore’s abilities and Newspeak’s tight and precise energies join together into a particularly resonant work. The libretto, adapted from interviews with veterans, provides haunting and realistic vignettes about being on the ground during war time.
Overall, this piece, this performance, taps into Truth. The music is a vehicle for a larger message but one that is too complicated for words alone. This is a fantastic disc, released today.
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Music of Bill Ryan
Ashley Bathgate, cello; Vicky Chow, piano; David Cossin, percussion; Michael Lowenstern, bass clarinet; Pablo Mahave-Veglia, cello; Jonathan Nichol, saxophones; Todd Reynolds, violin; Paul de Jong, cello
- Simple Lines
- Towards Daybreak
- Rapid Assembly
- A Simple Place
- Solitude in Transit
Billband is another fine example of a post-minimalist/alt-classical chamber ensemble. Bill Ryan’s compositions fit the model well with direct and clear musical ideas well-paced and orchestrated for his mixture of performers. Whereas (gross generalizations follow, prepare yourself) Build draws from a jazz combo sound, Newspeak leans towards aggressive and edgy literature, and Victoire centers around a subdued synth-driven music, the Ryan/Billband sound world is heavily connected to a more traditional chamber music aesthetic with occasional bits of rock drumming deftly added to the mix.
As a composer, Ryan gets a lot out of a little. His penchant for simplicity (aside from appearing in several titles) makes for affective music making. Simple Lines is just that, good melodic gestures woven together using an overdubbed Ashley Bathgate. A Simple Place contains more surface action but it maintains attractive and clear emotional trajectories. Towards Daybreak and Sparkle are other contemplative pieces which paint clear aural pictures. Blurred uses copious piano pedal and reverb to gently smear an otherwise driving pulse towards its inexorable climax.
Ryan contrasts his contemplative nature with a handful of more groovy and driving works. Rapid Assembly starts with a thin groove which picks up speed and energy as the whole composition comes together. Friction jumps right in with a heavy rock groove. To my ears, it sounds like something someone is about to rap over but no real melodic material emerges until the drums subside and the whole piece quiets down. Even in his more driving works, Ryan has a delicate hand at orchestrating his ideas. Each instrument has not only its own musical space but also serves a vital role in creating a single ensemble sound. Most of the music utilizes strings, piano, and metal pitched percussion but the woodwinds are well balanced and blended in the group (expressively played by Lowenstern and Nichol). The whole of the Billband sounds great on this disc and I look forward to more releases.
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music for Disklavier
- bolerun 1
- für louisa
- für eli
- bolerun 2
- la pluie
Jocelyn Robert’s approach towards the Disklavier is quite different than what I usually encounter. Typically, I find the Disklavier used in a hyper-kinetic way, a way that simply overpowers conventional fleshy pianists with a flashy and thick stream of harmonies and rhythms at semi-ludicrous tempi. Robert’s approach is refreshing in its sparseness, using the Disklavier to evoke an almost piano-as-wind-chimes aesthetic. What Robert embraces in his music is an underlying nature and humanity. The textures get thick at times and while portions of each piece might be playable by a human many portions are not. The fact that my ear loses the exact moment when that possible/impossible shift occurs makes me like this disc even more.
The two bolerun works assemble grander textures from extremely simple repeated figures. Robert is quite adept at filling in the blank spaces with new material while simultaneously expanding the original looping material. As usually happens in a work of interlocking ostinati, my ear drifts from layer to layer in an almost hypnotic fashion. bolerun 1 is shorter and a bit less forceful than bolerun 2 but the overt use of looping material seems to be what binds these works together (as well as the loudest activity happening in the mid/low range of the piano).
The two für pieces are significantly different from each other. für louisa is a staccato and spritely monophonic work which arpeggiates through fairly conventional harmonies. The work abruptly cuts off at the end, keeping it just under 60 seconds but I could have easily listened to his melody for a while. für eli is a 26 minute work which slowly unfolds while maintaining a lot of open space between gestures. A rich harmonic progression seems to be the glue which binds this piece together and an almost random articulation of the tones in the progression make the work infinitely listenable to my ears. Tendency tones are well established and the underlying dissonances are resolved in a leisurely yet timely manner. At 26 minutes, I could still listen to more of this piece unfold. Any systemic or mechanical processes are kept invisible to the ear (at least to mine). The final work on the disc, la pluie, delves even deeper into the ideas of resonance and space than für eli and relies less upon a motivated harmonic progression. The attacks are sometimes sharper than in für eli and, while la pluie does more to coalesce its energies, at 17:25 in duration the work is still relatively directionless (in a good way).
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Complete Piano Works, volume 1
David Del Tredici
Marc Peloquin, piano
- Aeolian Ballade
- Ballad in Lavender
- Ballad in Yellow (after García Lorca)
- S/M Ballade
- Gotham Glory (Four Scenes of New York City)
Marc Peloquin sounds perfectly at ease with this disc of David Del Tredici’s piano music and there are many reasons why that should be the case. Peloquin’s technical facility is certainly not in question, he makes works such as the self-described “pianistic terror” of the S/M Ballade sound effortless and almost breezy. Overall, his playing is sensitive and clear and Peloquin captures the emotional core of each work. Another reason that this disc sounds at ease under the performer’s fingertips is the music itself. Del Tredici’s writing is perfectly idiomatic and his compositional language pretty much squashes the “neo” from the label Neo-Romantic. Most of the compositions pull straight from the Chopin playbook and Chopin certainly knew a thing or three about making the piano sound good (Aeolian Ballade is more Debussy than Chopin but again, Debussy is a fine model for piano writing). Gotham Glory is a particularly engaging work with a mock-Chopin prelude, a sensual fugue (if such a thing could be), the hollow perpetual canon of “Missing Towers” and the closing witty fantasia on “The Skater’s Waltz.”
As a composer, I found these pieces a bit disappointing because I’ve always connected Del Tredici to the more expressionistic and often histrionic vocal works. That level of kinetic energy is mostly missing from this disc. Since the latest work on the disc is from 1997, I think my expectations were simply faulty and I was expecting Del Tredici to write the kind of music he was writing in the ’60s and ’70s. These compositions are full of elegant refinement and pianists would do well to freshen up their over-played literature with these compositions.
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Songs of the Living and the Lived In
You can download each album for free right here.
Lawrence English says this about these two collections of field recordings:
“Songs Of The Living is a collection of field recordings I have had the chance to make over the past decade and a half. Many of these recordings hold very strong memories for me; spending days with Antarctic Fur Seals, hearing monkey’s calling whilst swaying on an old 50 metre high wooden tower in the Amazon or being surrounded by literally thousands of microbats, flying out from their diurnal home. I feel these recordings hold something profound and hint at the wonder that lies beyond our usual sonic radar.”
The variety of sounds that Lawrence English has collected, and the high quality at which he has collected them, is rather astonishing. Split into two collections, Songs of the Living is a series of sound recordings/soundscape compositions that feature the sounds of beings in nature. A host of monkeys, bats, insects, frogs, and seals are on a compelling sonic display and the disc never feels dull, repetitive, or simply ambient. Many times I was surprised that such sounds were from natural phenomenon; the visceral impact of some of these noises drives much deeper than what most composers do with electronic resources. The “Unidentified Cicada,” and the “Rhinocerous Beetle” for example, are ear stunners of the insect world. The “Antarctic Fur Seals” are expressive and rhythmic: they appear to be nature’s beatboxers…
And the Lived In takes the same concept as the first album but applies it to non-living beings. How does one capture the sound of a place without recording its inhabitants? English finds motors, gates, shorelines, toy stores, and more that provide rich and lush aural landscapes. The rich tones of “Cemetery Gate” and “Blizzard Battering Walls” are deep and fantastic. The “VLF During Solar Storm” is equally captivating with its high and thin sounds. I don’t know if Lawrence English put these sounds together for others to use in their compositions, to offer up as soundscape compositions alongside works of Annea Lockwood, or to show off the world that his ears have heard. In the end, none of that matters. These are two wonderful sets of recordings to hear which will reinvigorate your reception of the simple beauty all around us. Did I mention they are free?
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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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The Mimesis Ensemble
Scott Dunn, conductor
- Mabrouka: Jo Ellen Miller
- Asakir: Rachel Calloway
- Sumeida: Robert Mack
- Alwan: Mischa Bouvier
Sumeida’s Song, Mohammed Fairouz’s first opera, is based on the play Song of Death by Tawfiq al-Hakim. This story of a young man returning home and facing a long-standing family feud was adapted by Fairouz, as well, and the relatively plain language does well at communicating the major plot points. The music is very Stravinskian with punctuated orchestral rhythms, little ostinato figures, and slightly boxy tonal mechanics. The growth of microtonal colors in the third scene, however, is rather refreshing and engaging. I was surprised at the overall lack of ethnic-derived music given that the Egyptian setting and culture are strongly tied to the plot. I’m not asking for cliches or tastelessness, of course, but the relatively unspecific music suggests that the story could be happening anywhere. I suspect that the musical intent might be to make the story more of a generalize parable (since the story of sacrificing oneself for peace is a relatively universal ideal).
While Sumeida is in the title, this opera belongs to Rachel Calloway as Asakir. Present in almost every scene, this opera seems to be so much more about her than the title character but the libretto never really generates any sympathy for her. Calloway’s rich and powerful tone sounds like it has potential for great tenderness and nuance but the tone of this particular character never gets away from “angry evil shrew.” Her character’s edge is always present in her voice, never giving way to softness, and I would have enjoyed hearing Calloway’s dark sound in a more soothing melodic ground.
Overall, the music is a chain of solos with almost no ensemble singing whatsoever. I found most of the melodic lines emotionally flat with few resonating moments. Alwan’s lines “I won’t kill” towards the end of the second scene are punctuated with highly traditional harmonic cadences, for example. The ensuring argument builds up has wild energy and vibrant orchestration, I just find the drama uncompelling. This is always difficult when listening to an opera (instead of seeing it). All the motions that are happening on the stage could do much to heighten the impact.
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Wood and Forest
works by Jacob Bancks, Kenji Bunch, Robert Pateron, Carlos Sanchez-Gutierrez, and Michael Torke
American Modern Recordings
- The Trees Where I was Born for solo marimba – Jacob Bancks
- Duo for Viola and Vibraphone – Kneji Bunch (with Kenji Bunch, viola)
- Forest Shadows for solo marimba- Robert Paterson
- Arbor Una Nobilis for marimba and violin – Jacob Bancks (Jesse Mills, violin)
- Winik/Te’ for solo marimba – Carlos Sanchez-Gutierrez
- After the Forest Fire for marimba, flute, and cello – Michael Torke (David Fedele, flute; Wilhelmina Smith, cello)
Makoto Nakura has assembled an impressive array of compositions which feature not only his fluid solo playing but also his superior collaboration and chamber musician skills. The solo marimba compositions by Bancks, Paterson, and Sanchez-Gutierrez each draw on different kinds of virtuosity from Nakura and he delivers wonderfully compelling performances of each. Banck’s The Threes Where I was Born is fairly disjunct in texture yet cogent in thought throughout the three movements. Nakura is nimble and graceful as he zips around the whole range of the instrument and connects the musical dots in a salient manner. Forest Shadows by Paterson is less theatrical and notey, using sustained chorales to build and resolve tension. Nakura does a wonderful job creating a musical through-line and solid sense of emotional trajectory. Winik/Te’ stands out from the pack with its brighter, crisper gestures and groovier rhythmic structures. Nakura plays the piece with admirable amounts of spunk and vigor.
This is not just a solo recital recording, though. Nakura’s chamber collaborations are just as excellently performed as the solos. Bunch’s Duo for Viola and Vibraphone is probably my favorite composition on the disc (right up there with Winik/Te’). The warm, throaty sound of the viola pairs well with the cooler vibraphone and Bunch’s music embraces simple musical textures and moods over complex virtuosity. Bancks’ chant-inspired Arbor Una Nobilis puts the violin in the primary role adding sparse yet important flourishes in the marimba. The final composition on the disc, After the Forest Fire by Michael Torke, casts the marimba in an even more traditional role than the Banck’s work. The marimba is an erstaz-piano providing conventional boom-chicks and arpeggios of functional harmony while the flute and cello do their best to hog the melodic spotlight. Regardless of where Nakura is in the musical texture, featured soloist or in various stages of the collaborative relationship, he is an impressive performer who knows how to pick music that features his many skills.
Six Mallet Marimba
music of Robert Paterson
American Modern Recordings
- Stillness (with Sarah Schram, oboe)
- Clarinatrix (with Meighan Stoops, bass clarinet )
- Duo for Flute and Marimba (with Sato Moughalian, flute and alto flute)
- Tongue and Groove (with Jeremy Justeson, alto saxophone)
- Braids (with Victoria Paterson, violin)
- Links & Chains (with Robin Zeh, violin)
- Fantastia (with Dan Peck, tuba)
Also released last week by American Modern Recordings, a disc of the music of Robert Paterson using Paterson’s unique six-mallet marimba technique (and featuring Paterson on marimba throughout). The addition of two more mallets is actually more subtle of a change than I expected. The texture is mildly thicker but what really comes through are more nuanced shapes on the inside voices rather than a bombastic “listen to all those notes!” kind of effect. The solo works Komodo and Piranha are great compliments to each other (Paterson wrote them to be so) in that Komodo fixates on the lower range of the instrument while Piranaha surfs and splashes nimbly in the upper register. I must confess that oftentimes I have difficulties with the form of solo marimba music since a lot of it sounds (to me anyway) as inspired by a stream-of-consciousness narrative that never connects with my ears. Paterson’s works do not suffer from this ailment, however, and his fluid forms are well communicated.
The bulk of the disc features the six-mallet marimba as an accompaniment instrument for a wide variety of performers: oboe, bass clarinet, tuba, violin, and flute. In each case, Paterson largely regulates the marimba to the background of the texture, providing harmonic support for facile and enjoyable melodic writing. Paterson is adept at mixing and matching the timbre of the marimba with these various instruments so it never sounds as if he is recycling materials or techniques from one piece to the next. The feature of the disc, after all, is the six-mallet technique. Paterson’s range of music expressions show variety in using six mallets, whether it be ominous dark chords with Stillness or the sultry bass lines of Clarinatrix and the middle movement of the Duo for Flute and Marimba. Nuanced arpeggiations are possible and displayed in the Duo as well as Tongue and Groove. I am particularly fond of Links & Chains for violin and marimba with its tightly woven accompaniment and edgy yet lengthy violin melody. I’m not sure how wide-spread the technique of using six mallets is but this disc and Paterson’s music show lots of potential for those willing to try.
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Ain’t Nothin’ But a Polka Band
Polka from the Fringe
29 polkas by various composers
Aint’ Nothin’ But a Polka Band are: Guy Klucevsek, accordion and vocals; John King, electric guitar, electric violin, dobro, vocals; David Hostra, Fender bass, doublebass, tuba; Bill Ruyle, drums, marimba, triangle; David Garland, lead vocals, whistling.
Confession time: I didn’t know what to think about this disc when I first received it. I thought I had gotten on the wrong person’s mailing list and couldn’t understand why anyone would send me a polka disc (much less a 2 disc set of polkas). All I really know about polkas I learned from Weird Al. Then I started looking at the disc: Starkland? Mary Ellen Childs? Aaron Jay Kernis? Carl Stone? Fred Frith? Lois Vierk? William Duckworth? What?!? I instantly put the discs in and all my questions were answered.
While far from being some kind of “gag disc” or collection of jokey compositions, this double-disc set is a heck of a lot of fun. Each composer makes their own work on the subject of “polka,” some are very traditional sounding others flirt with polka-ness, others take the instrumentation and write their own thing. The boisterous opening “The Grass, It Is Blue” sets the stage well with its riffs on Gershwin. Peter Garland’s “The Club Nada Polka” stutters and stammers through polka world. Aaron Jay Kernis’ “Phantom Polka” sounds like bits of Petrushka which were swept up off the floor and stitched back together. Bobby Previte’s epic (8 minutes seems appropriate for a polka to be called ‘epic’) “The Nove Scotia Polka” is equal parts polka and fantasia. Disc two contains just as many gems as disc one. William Duckworth’s “Polking Around” has all the subversive rhythmic arpeggiation grooves you would expect. Fred Frith’s “The Disinformation Polka” is full of fits and starts which make me chuckle every time I hear it. I would talk about each piece but there are just too many!
What I really love about the disc is, well, everything I suppose. You can tell that the composers had a good time writing these pieces and Ain’t Nothin’ But A Polka Band delivers clean and genuine performances of each work, no matter how “un-polka” they get. I don’t get the send of this being Hugely Important and Reverent Music. This is a boatload of composers writing out of the joy of writing. Some days you want to be blown away by profound artistry. For every other day, there are discs like this full of joy, pleasure, and talent.
- The Grass, It Is Blue – Guy Klucevsek
- The VCR Polka – David Garland
- Polka Dots And Laser Beams – Guy De Bievre
- Diet Polka – Daniel Goode
- The Club Nada Polka -Peter Garland
- The 22nd St Accordion Band – David Mahler
- The Nova Scotia Polka – Bobby Previte
- Happy Chappie Polka – Elliott Sharp
- The Winnemucca Polka – Robin Holcomb
- (Do The) Lurk – Part 2 – Polka – Bill Ruyle
- Oa Poa Polka – Mary Ellen Childs
- Peek-A-Boo Polka – Joseph Kasinskas
- Solidarity-Polka Song – John King
- Phantom Polka – Aaron Jay Kernis
- Prairie Dogs – Carl Finch
- Guy, Won’t You Play Your Accordion? – William Obrecht
- Polking Around – William Duckworth
- The Imperial Buzzard – Tom Cora
- The Disinformation Polka – Fred Frith
- Medjunarodni Nacin Polka – Anthony Coleman
- From Here To Paternity Polka – Steve Elson
- (The) Who Stole the Polka – Peter Zummo
- Some of that “Old Time Soul” Polka – Guy Klucevsek
- Polka I – Rolf Groesbeck
- Attack Cat Polka – Lois Vierk
- Fuddle The Shux – Carl Stone
- Guy De Polka – Mary Jane Leach
- Pontius Pilate Polka – Phillip Johnston
- Wild Goose – Dick Connette
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