Posts Tagged “postminimalism”

AmericansCD cover art

music of Scott Johnson

various performers


  • Americans
  • The Illusion of Guidance
  • Bowery Haunt
  • Anthem Hunt

performed by: Kermit Driscoll, electric bass; Scott Johnson, electric guitar; Michael Lowenstern, clarinets; Mary Rowell, viola; Greg Chudzik, bass; David Cossin, marimba, percussion; Mark Dancigers, electric guitar; John Ferrari, drums; Stephen Gosling, piano; Derek Johnson, electric guitar; Liviu Onchoi, sampled voice; Taimur Sullivan, saxophones; Ken Thomson, clarinet; Shekaiba Wakili, sampled voice; Alex Waterman, cello; Janet Xiong, sampled voice

Scott Johnson’s Americans is a large pseudo-rock ensemble work punctuated by the sampled voices of various American immigrants. The rhythmic cells found in the voices are woven into the ensemble for an effect that is best described as “Zappaesque.” The compositional techniques are similar to Johnson’s “How It Happens” featuring the sampled voice of I. F. Stone but ramped up with more aggressive and driving features. The ensemble playing is tight and at first listening I thought the composition was for fixed media a la Noah Creshevsky. I am much more impressed knowing that the ensemble is live and that only the voices are sampled. I found my own listening to gravitate towards the voices, which I think is natural, so I found some difficulty with the through-line of the second movement (the narrator of which speaks Romanian). The final movement, featuring the voice of an Afghan-American talking about her internal schism about going to war in Afghanistan, makes for a poignant and subdued ending.

The last three compositions are all pure instrumental chamber works featuring electric guitar is some way, shape, or form. The Illusion of Guidance keeps a tight reign on its motivic materials. The clarinet often comes across as the primary melodic voice but Johnson uses the blend between the electric guitar and the high clarinet register to keep the timbres alive and kicking. Rhythms are spiky, driving, but never devolve into a frivolous groove. Bowery Haunt and Anthem Hunt are two excellent examples for what composers can and should be doing with their rock heritage. Each piece uses steady rhythms, electric guitar timbres, and power chords but neither piece does anything trite or cliched with these elements. If I were to describe these as a sommelier, I’d say something like “Delightfully post-minimalist/totalist, still lyrical, with notes of King Crimson.” These works, and the disc as a whole, are prime examples of well-crafted music that speaks to the moment. Scott Johnson isn’t creating pieces that use contemporary flavors simply on the surface. There is compositional craft knitting each piece together and some fantastic performances to boot.

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Cruel Sister  CD cover art

Ensemble Resonanz

Brad Lubman, conductor


The big question I had when putting in this disc for the first time was “Will a string orchestra be able to recreate the visceral power and energy that I find vital in Julia Wolfe’s string quartets?” My fear was that the harder and sharper attacks I enjoy will be too diluted with more players in the ensemble. It was a silly skepticism to hold and any trepidations I had quickly melted away once I started listening. Also, Ensemble Resonanz is the same group that recorded Weather and a disc of Xenakis. I was pretty sure I was going to have a good time with this CD.

Ensemble Resonanz and Julia Wolfe make an excellent team. Not only did Wolfe obviously compose music better suited for an orchestra than a quartet (it was foolish of me to doubt that she would) but Resonanz also threw serious energy behind both pieces. Cruel Sister, inspired by a dark Old English ballad, is expressive and emotive balancing the programmatic elements with a clean dramatic line that makes sense in the abstract. The hollow open intervals which throb away at the beginning enmesh with more angry and spiky punctuations. The four attacca movements are woven together in a solid and disrupted narrative. Ensemble Resonanz brings power and control to the whole range of the sonic spectrum and Wolfe adeptly showcases register and texture. I am especially fond of the transition between the second and third movements which is (to my ear) simultaneously abrupt yet smooth.

Fuel is a far more abstract work driven by the problems the world faces regarding the necessity of fuel. Ensemble Resonanz masterfully blends in a variety of coloristic techniques, making sounds like scratch tones a part of the woven tapestry of sound. The CD notes go so far as to state that electronics were not used at all and that all the sounds in the piece are acoustic. I think that disclaimer is a bit  much. There is certainly a wider variety of string techniques and timbres in Fuel than in Cruel Sister but I never had a “What the heck was that?” reaction. Scratch tones, harmonics, tremolo, and filtering the sound via bow placement are all active parameters in the sound world. Again, Resonanz brings a whole lot of power throughout the registers and forms a massive hyper-instrument blend  the likes of which make string quartets secretly jealous.

Wolfe’s music is also doing what she does best: frenetic power created through post-minimalist techniques that transcend mere repetition. The music materials are sharp, taut, basic, and the economy of material is expertly managed. Wolfe knows how to make a lot out of a little AND pull the listener along for the ride. Both works have programmatic elements but not knowing the program does not interfere with the listening experiences. These works sound fresh and contemporary and I’m confident that audiences in the future will continue to relate and connect with the ideas therein.

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The World’s Longest Melody  CD cover art

music of Larry Polansky

various artists

New World Records

  • Ensembles of Note
  • tooaytood 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 9, and 11
  • for jim, ben and lou
  • “…getting rid of the glue…”
  • ivtoo
  • The World’s Longest Melody
  • Ontslaan (toontood)
  • toovviivfor
  • 34 Chords (Christian Wolff in Hanover and Royalton)

Various aspects of Larry Polansky’s music are given compelling and nuanced performances on this disc. The opening Ensembles of Note is a funky, rhythmic, semi-controlled improvisation based on a four bar rhythmic germ. When I first heard the disc, I really enjoyed the piece. It is quirky, it grooves, and the formal flow is natural and fluid (a gradual increase in the amount of activity). To my surprise upon reading the notes, the melodic materials are entirely improvised and only the rhythmic ostinato is given. Suddenly, my opinion of the piece and the performance skyrocketed. The ensemble has a wonderfully cohesive feel in their sound as well as to the shape of the piece. The music belongs to the performers as much as it belongs to Polansky and I think that is the right balance for a work that relies so heavily on improvisation.

The tooaytoods are all miniature miniatures (the longest being :24). Originally solo piano works, here they are electric guitar duets. Each tooaytood has its own internal logic, however brief, and each work as perfectly chiseled gems. Could they be developed into longer works? I guess so but I think that would crush their ephemeral beauty and wit.

My favorite composition on the disc is the trio for jim, ben, and lou for guitar, harp, and percussion. Each movement honors a composer important to Polansky’s compositional language (James Tenney, Ben Johnston, and Lou Harrison). Microtonality abounds in the trio and Polansky’s touch with this tonal palette is delicate, expressive, and extremely artful. No note, no matter the clash with other notes, sounds “wrong.” The reverence for these three composers is communicated at a very fundamental level in this trio. Just to contradict myself, the trio has a very light touch, too.  Simple formal structures, such as variation, are masterfully used. I’ve been listening to this piece a lot in the last few weeks. A lot.

The brief guitar solo “…getting rid of the glue…” is in some ways a flashback to how Polansky arrived at the style of these previous, yet more recent, pieces. Sparse pointallistic gestures create a timeless and directionless space. Harmonics, gentle humming, and detuned strings pass through this space created by the work. The next track, ivtoo, then sounds like the direct descendent of “…getting rid of the glue…” and the trio. Toon Callier’s overdubbed acoustic guitars form a cloud of active-yet-directionless harmonies and colors. It is as if a pizzicato fog has descended. The directionlessness is merely an illusion, of course, as the piece slowly and inexorably oozes into more tense and strenuous areas.

The ensemble version of The World’s Longest Melody (also the title of the trio movement dedicated to Lou Harrison but is not the same piece) rings in with epic power chords and drums. One might expect a power rock thrash will emerge but the piece stays fairly tame if that is your expectation. There is a cyclic and periodic repetition of ideas, a non-Western-inspired sense of form, that again has its own compelling logic. Similar temporal logic gets merged with Western harmonies in the next tracks Ontslaan (toontood) and toovviivfor. In Ontslaan (toontood) a very stock sounding chorale of electric guitars quickly gets warped and bent and twisted until almost beyond recognition (keyword: almost). toovviivfor uses a decidedly less comfortable and more abstract harmonic grounding and then proceeds in a similar manner.

Polansky’s musical language is naturally complemented by the guitar. The timbre works well to provide a clarity to his pitch/temperament choices and the resonance (or sustain in the case of the electric guitars) works well to enforce the mood or emotional tone of the pieces. The final track, 34 Chords (Chrisitan Wolff in Hanover and Royalton) is another reverent homage that exploits these facets of the electric guitar to great effect (and affect).

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CD coverNewspeak

sweet light crude

New Amsterdam Records

listen to the album online here

  • Oscar Bettison: B&E (with aggravated assault)
  • Stefan Weisman: I Would Prefer Not To
  • David T. Little: sweet light crude
  • Missy Mazzoli: In Spite of All This
  • Pat Muchmore: Brennschluß
  • Caleb Burhans: Requiem for a General Motors in Janesville, WI

Caleb Burhans, violin; Mellissa Hughes, voice; James Johnston, piano, synth, organ; Taylor Levine, guitar; David T. Little, director, drums; Eileen Mack, co-director, clarinets; Brian Snow, cello; Yuri Yamashita, percussion.

Newspeak website

The amplified and politically-charged ensemble Newspeak puts its best feet forward in their first album.  First we fall victim to Oscar Bettison’s B&E (with aggravated assault), showing what happens when Cheating, Lying, Stealing grows up, smokes PCP, grabs a crowbar, and heads out lookin’ for a good time.  The aggressive and driving texture abates a bit but maintains a strained and tense tone throughout.  The work starts strong and escalates towards a speed-metal influenced frenzy of epic proportions.  A double pedal on the kick drum sounds mandatory for performance.  B&E is a raw and visceral experience but it also showcases the ensemble’s blend and cohesion in a remarkable way.

Newspeak is not a one-trick pony.  Stefan Weisman’s I Would Prefer Not To, influenced by “Bartleby the Scrivener,” is as trance-inducing as B&E was spleen-venting.  Mellissa Hughes restricts her voice for a perfect blend with the glassy sound world and detached affect present in the piece.  The title track of the disc, David T. Little’s sweet light crude, also features Ms. Hughes’ vocal talents but this time she is able to open her instrument up more with a more full and expressive sound.  This love song hits all the marks one would expect from a Broadway rock opera except that its subject is oil.  I find the aesthetic crosses a toe over the line of cheesy a few too many times for my taste but the overall package is attractive and engaging.

One of the great unifying features of this disc, and Newspeak in general, is their political message.  I don’t mean that you should listen to their music because of their political message, but rather that Newspeak is making music that is relevant to today’s topics and tastes.  Sometimes the political message is overt, as in sweet light crude, but other times the messages are more oblique and open to interpretation.  The focus is primarily on great art as opposed to propaganda.

In Spite Of All This hinges on a repetitive sigh figure in the violin while the ensemble springs to life and recontextualizes the solo.  Caleb Burhans breathes exquisite emotional life into the line, making it always sound like an organic entity no matter how many times we hear it.  Missy Mazzoli’s compositional voice is strong and I find this piece more attractive every time I listen to it.

Pat Muchmore’s toccata Brennschluß captures the energy of a firing rocket as well as the feeling of something hanging weightless in the atmosphere.  Ensemble blend is again at a premium here in both the rough and prickly rhythmic sections and the smoother floating moments.  Mellissa Hughes’ voice crafts this work into a rugged and tightly constructed monodrama influenced by a certain amount of thrash metal.

The final track, Requiem for a General Motors in Janesville, WI, directs the ensemble towards the sullen and morose.  The electric guitar is the dominant melodic voice and Taylor Levine transmits the mood in exemplary fashion.  The musical language is more “crossover-friendly” for lack of a better term.  Tonality is in play, the sad mood is directly communicated, and it is easy to mentally picture workers leaving the plant for the last time.  The piece ends with an unresolved feeling, almost inviting you to loop the CD and start over (which I usually do).

This is not a collection of composers and composer/performers writing posthumously but instead a gathering of topical works in an unabashedly contemporary language.  I have no doubt that, as Newspeak continues to pursue this path, the works that come out will be works that endure.  Groups like Newspeak make me laugh in the face of the “Classical Music Dead” folks.

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An Hour for Piano

Tom Johnson

Performed by R. Andrew Lee (piano)

Irritable Hedgehog Recordings

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

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

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

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

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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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