Sunday, February 03, 2008

HurdAudio Rotation: Quarters, Poems and Duets

Charles Ives, Ivan Wyschnegradsky: Quarter-tone Pieces. 2006. Hat Hut: hat[now]ART 143.

Josef Christof: piano
Steffen Schleiermacher: piano

24 Preludes in Quarter-Tone System (excerpts) (1934/70) Wyschnegradsky

Three Quarter-Tone Pieces For Two Pianos (1903-23) Ives

Three Page Sonata (1905) Ives

Etude sur le "Carre Magique Sonore" op. 40 (1957) Wyschnegradsky

The language of microtonal discourse is caught within a peculiar deference to the displacement of writing a music that so thoroughly exposes the conventions and weaknesses of both notation and instrument design. The quasi-spiritual assertions of just intonation advocates Lou Harrison and Ben Johnston as "prophets in the desert" as found in the liner notes of this 2006 release serves to reinforce the cult-like mystique of deliberately throwing the 12-tone-to-the-octave order into disarray.

Furthering this sense of spiritual isolation we have the deeply mystical pronouncements and compositions of Ivan Wyschnegradsky. The fact that recordings of his music are frustratingly rare and hard to obtain only enhances the image of a wise seer perched at the highest mountain top. When the music is rendered audible in recordings such as this, I am struck by how transcendent it truly is. The microtonal qualities gives Wyschnegradsky's music an added profound chromaticism that is striking and irresistible. Here, 12 of the 24 quarter-tone preludes are presented. When will a full set be available on record? The hunger to feed these ears a more complete representation of Wyschnegradsky's musical universe grows with this sampling.

With the Charles Ives quarter-tone pieces we find a different attitude toward expanded harmonic materials, something less steeped in mystical overtones. In Ives' universe the quarter-tone serves as expansion, period. The sound is changed by the additional harmonic possibilities. But that sound is still rooted in a world of familiar melodies and idiomatic styles. The allusion to rag-time piano music or unorthodox harmonizations of "My Country 'Tis of Thee" keeps an earthiness in the sound that suggests a healthy alternative to the mystical detachment or righteous assertions of breaking with prevailing harmonic conventions.

Richard Strauss: Tone Poems. 1988 (Collector's Edition of recordings from 1957, 1958). Deutsche Grammophon: 463 190-2.

Karl Bohm: conductor
Staatskapelle Dresden
Berliner Philharmoniker

Eine Alpensinfonie op.64
Don Juan op.20
Waltzes from Act III
Also sprach Zarathustra op.30
Festiches Praludium op.61
Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche op.28
Dance of the Seven Veils
from Salome op.54
Ein Heldenleben op.40
Tod und Verklarung op.24

There was a time when I'd be lost in these sweeping, long narrative symphonic works. A younger version of myself had written off the romantic syntax and rejected the notion that an abstract sequence of sounds could convey image and story. As I revisit that impression with more wisdom in the ears I find the scope of these epic tales to be human and surprisingly easy to understand and follow. Three discs of Strauss tone poems is a heavy dose of Germanic music to take in one sitting (which is exactly how I've approached them as an avoidance of the spectacle playing out on American television this Sunday). I am struck by the orchestrations Strauss applies to these works. Particularly the use and incorporation of organ in Eine Alpensinfonie (heralding the storm) and Festival Prelude (presumably calling the masses to celebrate).

Lee Konitz: The Lee Konitz Duets. 1967 (Re-released in 1990). Milestone: OJCCD-466-2.

Lee Konitz: alto saxophone, tenor saxophone, baritone saxophone, varitone saxophone
in duets with:
Marshall Brown: trombone
Joe Henderson: tenor saxophone
Elvin Jones: drums
Karl Berger: vibraharp
Eddie Gomez: bass
Richie Kamuca: tenor saxophone
Ray Nance: violin
Jim Hall: guitar
Dick Katz: piano

In the middle of this collection is "ERB," possibly the most exquisite free improvisation between alto saxophone (Konitz) and guitar (Jim Hall) ever recorded. The presence of this three-minute, atonal gem would be startling in midst of any collection of duets - especially one with as many bop oriented tunes as this one - except that the same quiet, shimmering inventiveness of Hall and Konitz is found on every track no matter how "free" each piece may or may not be. "Tickle Toe" presents a focused, sparkling two tenor take on the Lester Young classic (performed by Konitz and Richie Kamuca) while "Struttin' with Some Barbecue" offers up a spirited slice of soulful sax and valve trombone (Marshall Brown) complete with some light overdubbing on the final chorus. "Alphanumeric" closes out this set with a full ensemble of players unloading all the restraint that makes the duets so taut, lean and brimming with verve. These players are so good, even Konitz's typically understated excellence nearly boils over. This is a great album and one well worth dusting off and rediscovering.

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