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Jerry Bowles
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Record companies, artists and publicists are invited to submit CDs to be considered for review. Send to: Jerry Bowles, Editor, Sequenza 21, 340 W. 57th Street, 12B, New York, NY 10019

Wednesday, July 06, 2005
Evan Johnson's On the Record - 3 From cold blue

The once-defunct, now-resurrected, California-based cold blue label, had a brief heyday in the early 1980s and then disappeared for almost twenty years. These three recent discs share several features with many of the new cold blue releases: they are single-length, around half an hour long at most, usually with only one piece to a disc; the presentation and artwork are subtle and gorgeous; and there are no liner notes whatsoever. All of these are utterly admirable solutions to the vexed problem of the marketing, distribution and sale of new music.

First, the length of the discs. There is something fundamentally right about this as an artistic concept. Rare is the composer whose work is best heard in the context of the rest of their work; it is always a far more illuminating experience for Ferneyhough to be paired with Mozart, Carter with Beethoven, Boulez with Debussy, Reich with Ockeghem, not for any didactic purpose, but because that�s how freshness and excitement are generated when multiple pieces are to be heard sequentially. Better yet, though, they should be heard in isolation. A piece of music is a piece of music, not a jigsaw piece in search of a puzzle to give it meaning. To listen to one of these cold blue singles and have the CD player grind satisfyingly to a halt after a single track is a surprisingly refreshing experience.

Some will complain about the absence of booklets in these discs � no biographical information on the composer, no insights into the structure of the work or the process of its creation, no photographs other than the beautifully subtle ones that grace the cover. But unless there is something visual or performative specifically missing from a recorded presentation � for example, the works on the Steve Peters disc are identified as having been written for dance � this absence, too, is a liberation. Anyone who has ever bought a disc on the Austrian Kairos label (although I suspect that Kairos� and cold blue�s clientele do not overlap much) knows that liner notes can obfuscate as much as they enlighten, and music doesn�t have to be heard only after a textual warmup. Occasionally we as listeners need to trust that we are as capable as the liner-note writer of forming our own conceptual apparatus. For the very, very curious, or the very lazy, information not included in the package is available on the label�s website,, but listen first and be sure you aren�t seeking it out of habit.

Everything about these discs encourages fresh, attentive listening. The next question, of course, is what we are attentively listening to.

A Temperament for Angels
Michael Jon Fink
Robin Lorentz, vns; Erika Duke-Kirkpatrick, vcs; Jonathan Marmor, cym; Michael Jon Fink, cym and kbd
cold blue music CB0017

From the (first) beginning of its existence, Los Angeles-based cold blue was associated with what you could call �West Coast minimalism,� which unlike its New York counterpart had less to do with unrelenting pulse and processual evolution of atomic gestures than drones, soundscapes, and atmosphere. (As gross generalizations go, I don�t think this is much worse than most.) The disc here that most obviously relates to that tradition is Michael Jon Fink�s A Temperament for Angels, an unbroken 28-minute wash of strings, keyboards, and, eventually, bowed cymbals.

But �wash� is the wrong word, and that is something deeply troubling to me about this piece. The rate of harmonic change is too fast to allow the sounds to really sink in and hover, but too slow for actual harmonic motion; the listener is constantly unsure of what exactly he or she is supposed to be hearing. Perhaps this was the intent. It seems more likely to me, though, that Fink was unwilling to commit as fully to the idea of slowness as, say, Alvin Lucier or Gordon Mumma or Phill Niblock � possibly fearing, rightly, that the intervallic vocabulary he employs (based on open-fifth and octave sonorities broadly alternating with chromatic juxtapositions, a sort of Quaaludified Copland) and the timbral results (nicely played overdubbed string instruments in fairly uninteresting, comfortable registers, buttressed by electric-organ-like sampler keyboards) would not sustain such an approach. I constantly felt the urge to squeeze the harmonies just a bit, microtonally, in any direction, and to push the instruments a little more out of their comfort zone, to create an environment in which slowness could be more of a virtue and less of a pose. As the piece progresses, the range expands and the number of voices increases, but there remains a fundamental weakness to the harmonies and timbres that bothered me all the way through. Only in the last minutes of the piece, with the entry of the bowed cymbals, do the timbral and harmonic language open up sufficiently, and the rate of change slow sufficiently, to create genuinely interesting sonic worlds.

Los Tigres de Marte
Daniel Lentz.
Marty Walker, cl; Brad Ellis, Daniel Lentz, kbds; Peter Kent, Robin Lorentz, vns; Maria Newman, va; Erika Duke-Kirkpatrick, vc
cold blue music CB0016

Daniel Lentz�s Los Tigros de Marte, on a fifteen-minute-long CD graced by beautiful photographs of the surface of Mars, is a different sort of experience. �When it comes to attempts at musical seduction,� Kyle Gann has written, �Daniel Lentz is way out front.� There is something appropriate and telling about the phrasing of this quote, which follows the Lentz disc around wherever it is mentioned � for Los Tigros de Marte is in fact an obvious seduction attempt. It wants so much to be beautiful and appealing that the result is faintly pathetic, like a gawky teenager at the school dance. Major-sixth chords, clarinet arpeggios, intermittent dance-like pulsations� something for everybody? Music cannot be beautiful, even in the most reductive reactionary sense, when the attempt at beauty is so transparently obvious.

�from shelter� � Three short stories and My burning skin to sleep
Steve Peters
Marghreta Cordero, voices; Alicia Ultan, vas; Steve Peters, pn cold blue music CB0018

The best music on these three discs is also the most modest in conception and execution. Steve Peters� Three short stories for three violas is also, interestingly enough, the only piece in this group that was written to an extramusical end, as an accompaniment to choreography. It is absolutely diatonic, absolutely simple, absolutely flat, and consistently surprising; there is a strong air of Satie and early Cage here (Three short stories could be heard as a less homophonic Cage String Quartet in Four Parts), but never so much that the result does not seem fresh and, unlike the Lentz disc, genuinely appealing. The performance of Three short stories could be bettered (in particular, I�d like to hear this piece performed with three performers reacting to each other in real time, rather than as an overdubbed recording), but the effect is stunningly gorgeous. This is music that emphatically does not attempt seduction � it is reticent, modest, and requires attentiveness. For that reason alone, it is truly beautiful.

The other piece on the short Peters disc, apparently written for the same dance production, seemed slightly less successful to me, but I also couldn�t escape the sensation that it was my fault. My burning skin to sleep is another simple, diatonic piece, this time a vocalise for two female voices over a repeated little chord progression played on a (slightly out of tune) piano. As a listener, I had to work hard to overcome some serious negative associations with the vocal style � wordless oohs in a very wet acoustic � that were not inherent in the music; but when I was able to do so, the transparency and directness of the harmonies and gestures worked again. Peters� music, on the evidence of this disc at least, has in abundance what I miss in so much new American music: strong commitment to an aesthetic goal, and adherence to that goal without compromise. Three short stories is the standout work on this disc � and on all three of these discs � but My burning skin to sleep is in many ways a worthy companion.

Regardless of the varying interest of the music involved, cold blue�s series of CD singles is an extremely welcome and refreshingly daring experiment in the marketing of works that otherwise would not get heard, and for this they deserve a great deal of credit. Bring on more Steve Peters!


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