Monday, April 18, 2011

Tradition for the End of Time

Quatuor Pour la Fin du Temps by Olivier Messiaen @ Covenant Presbyterian Church of Chicago, May 17, 2011

Rebekah Cope: violin
James Falzone: clarinet
Karen Schulz-Harmon: cello
Rick Ferguson: piano

One of the more inspired Chicago traditions - now having been observed over the past three Palm Sundays - is the annual performance of Olivier Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time within the architecturally impressive Convent Presbyterian Church of Chicago. The large chapel playing host to one of the most vibrant, emotional and spiritually intense compositions of the twentieth century. A work that embodies the dual strains of serenity and anxiety as it was composed within the darkness of a German prisoner of war camp where Messiaen was interned.

The eight movements of this profound work of chamber music are an expression of faith. Faith as a foil against the despair of incarceration and an uncertain future. Faith as a necessary companion in the face of adversity.

Musically, it is a challenging piece that explores an elastic approach toward pulse and time and harmonic materials frequently drawing upon octotonic scales. Challenges deftly met by the well rehearsed quartet at Covenant Presbyterian.

James Falzone's use of a slide projector to display the composer's own notes for each movement was a welcome touch. His thoughtful introduction to the piece and post-performance question and answer session gently invited the audience to hear and understand this music. I appreciated the statement that Messiaen's music "is not entertainment." The best music often isn't. Fortunately, Chicago has no shortage of people intellectually curious enough to grasp, and even enjoy, music that challenges our sense of what is possible.

The cavernous echo of Covenant Presbyterian quickly added a thick layer to this sound that took some getting used to. I struggled to hear the rhythmic precision of the first movement and found myself concentrating to hear the cyclical patterns that were buried within a wash of sound. The room acoustics offered similar challenges for the Interlude and "Dance of Fury" movements with their rhythmically propelled energy washing against the acoustic delay. The solo clarinet movement, "Abyss of the Birds," took on an interesting quality within this space. While the long tails of sound at the end of each note and phrase were substantially different for these ears, the harmonies that came out revealed a new perspective on this familiar material. And the cello feature "Praise to the Eternity of Jesus" and violin feature of the final movement, "Praise to the Immortality of Jesus" were absolutely stunning within this wash of harmonic sound. Slow as these movements are, I imagine playing them even slower within that live space would accentuate the qualities of this music even more.

As a non-believer, this is a tradition I can respond to. Just as Messiaen's music draws upon a mysticism that can be admired (and even envied) from the outside. This is thoughtful, reasoned tradition that touches upon meaning and expressions of faith from a grounded perspective. A reason to perform this fantastic piece with these dedicated musicians. Something I'm happy to get on board with.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

HurdAudio Rotation: The Sound of One Finger Snapping

Don Byron: Romance with the Unseen. 1999. Blue Note Records: 7243-4-99545-26.Link

Don Byron: clarinet
Bill Frisell: guitar
Drew Gress: bass
Jack DeJohnette: drums

Boasting a lineup that easily puts this disc into the "must hear" camp, the impressive musicians collected together for this session deliver a surprisingly understated effort. Though there are pockets here and there where Bill Frisell cuts loose with his ridiculous chops. As a group, their deeply original take on Herbie Hancock's "One Finger Snap" makes this listening experience entirely worthwhile. Don Byron drills new holes into that tune that exposes something entirely original within a familiar piece. Likewise, the collaborative interpretation of Byron's "Basquiat" is filled with revelations not found in the earlier version recorded by the talented clarinetist. Like so many great jazz records, the deep qualities of this music do not leap out of the speakers or attempt to impressive the passive, casual listener with any kind of gimmick. This is a music that patiently waits for an active listener ready to draw the connections between this performance and the jazz tradition writ large before leaving an impression. It is entirely worth the effort.

Albert Ayler: New Grass. 1968 (re-released in 2005). Impulse: A-9175.

Albert Ayler: tenor saxophone, recitation, vocals, whistling
Bill Folwell: electric bass
Burt Collins: trumpet
Joe Newman: trumpet
Garnett Brown: trombone
Seldon Powell: flute
Buddy Lucas: baritone saxophone
Bert De Coteaux: arranger, conductor
Call Cobbs: electric harpsichord
Bernard Purdie: drums
Rose Marie McCoy: vocals
Mary Maria Parks: vocals

The fact that this set opens with Ayler's recitative imploring the listener to accept, or possibly even dig this new direction is a tacit acknowledgement by Ayler that this music fails to speak for itself. Beyond that heartfelt plea, this music is a pure train wreck. One can't help wondering what could have been if Albert Ayler had simply written off the American audience and pursued his course in Europe where his creative force was better understood. Then perhaps he would not have poured his creative energy and heart into the creative cesspool that is New Grass. An obvious pandering to the American rock and roll audience of the late '60s that has aged poorly. It fails as rock and roll and it fails as free jazz. The fact that it emanated from the otherwise profound creative wellspring of Albert Ayler less than a handful of years before his untimely demise is heart wrenching.

Gregorio, Roebke, Labycz Trio: Colectivos. 2010. Peira: 04.

Guillermo Gregorio: clarinet
Jason Roebke: contrabass
Brian Labycz: electronics

The striking thing about Colectivos is the dialogue that forms between these three players as each bends their individual voice, register and timbral qualities toward the other. Brian Labycz's modular electronics unfolding as a sonic film of controlled bands of noise and tone that weaves delicately at times around and within the acoustic instruments. At times complementing the almost square-tone qualities of the clarinet. At other times offering up an enharmonic texture along side Jason Roebke's bowed tones and scrapes on the bass. Colectivos is a collective approach toward improvisation. Each role within this trio is an equal coexistence between contrasting instruments. Featuring eleven short sonic canvases - alternating between free improvisation and interpretations of compositions (that invite improvisation) by Roebke and Gregorio. Beautifully recorded to reveal a range of brush strokes of varying density. These are austere studies of abstraction that gently pull the ears toward an inviting and otherworldly sonic territory.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

HurdAudio Rotation: Improvisation and Restraint

Albert Ayler: Holy Ghost [disc 3]. 2004. Revenant Records: 213.
Albert Ayler Quintet @ La Cave, Cleveland, Ohio. April 16-17, 1966
Albert Ayler: tenor saxophone
Don Ayler: trumpet
Michel Samson: violin
Mutawef Shaheed: bass
Ronald Shannon Jackson: drums

To my ears, these La Cave performances are the most substance rich part of the Holy Ghost box set in terms of capturing this amazing quintet at a particularly explosive point of their creativity. Michel Samson in particular is a blistering part of this sound. These sets play like a suite of familiar Albert Ayler compositions and themes that weave in and through a texture of free improvisation. "Spirits Rejoice," "Our Prayer" and "Ghosts" making multiple appearances within this performance. Leading the ears through a tight sense of how this material lived and breathed within the collective space of these performers. And how it developed and balanced within a dialogue between deeply introspective players. These are sets that overcome the technical failings of the recording by sheer brute force of content.

Dawn of Midi: First. 2010. Accretions: ALP048CD.

Qasim Naqvi: drums, toys
Aakaash Israni: contrabass
Amino Belyamani: piano

Dawn of Midi hit upon a sound so naturally, so instinctively and so intellectually taut that it triggers multiple "why didn't I think of that?" moments. The trio of Nqavi, Israni and Belyamani are a pure collective. Free improvisation with an egalitarian sense of each member making an equal contribution. No single player emerges into the foreground. But even more striking is the incredible restraint employed in crafting these real-time compositions. Restraint that not only leaves room for three collaborators, but also leaves enormous open space within these composition/performances. Even more striking that that is the deliberate restrictions of harmonic materials. This music is a new minimalism employing free improvisational means. The image of this trio rehearsing and recording in the dark (a practice going back to Dawn of Midi's origins as students at CalArts) speaks of a sense of communication through focused and restricted means. What emerges is a sparse and lyrical music that hints at a startlingly accessible avenue for drawing more ears toward improvised music. This is a sound with an incredibly promising future.

Curlew: Gussie. 2003. Roaratorio: roar 05 (LP).

George Cartwright: alto saxophone, tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone
Davey Williams: electric guitar
Chris Parker: piano
Fred Chalenor: electric bass
Bruce Golden: percussion and such

Curlew has undergone many transformations over the decades. Bending to the compositional and improvising impulses of George Cartwright. In this live set recorded in Minneapolis in 2001 (Cartwright's home base at that juncture) we hear several strands and wisps of the Curlew sound and energy dissipating through extended free improvisation. The relatively late addition of a piano to the group sound balancing against the familiar antics and extended techniques of Davey Williams on guitar. Part of the sense of "dissipation" or expansive quality to the sound is the focus upon smaller subgroups and the complete absence of charts being performed by the full group. Within the individual players there remains the kinetic, frenetic energy that has long marked the Curlew sound. A persistent resiliency to forge ahead along the same creative impulse after so much change. This LP release is one for the fans already steeped with the spirit of Curlew that may hear this set as a long echo extending both forward and back. Free improvisation that embraces an expansive sense of possibility and a restrained sense of dipping sparingly into such vast musicianship.

Monday, April 11, 2011

HurdAudio Rotation: Ghost Trance Razumovsky

Anthony Braxton: 9 Compositions (Iridium) 2006 [disc 6]. 2007. Firehouse 12 Records: FH12-04-03-001.

Composition No. 355 - Dedicated to the multi-instrumentalist/composer Gino Robair
The Anthony Braxton 12+1tet
Anthony Braxton: alto saxtophone, soprano saxophone, sopranino saxophone, clarinet, E-flat contralto clarinet
Mary Halvorson: electric guitar
Nicole Mitchell: flute, alto flute, bass flute, piccolo, voice
Sara Schoenbeck: bassoon, suona
Reut Regev: trombone, flugelbone
Carl Testa: acoustic bass, bass clarinet
James Fei: alto saxophone, soprano saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet
Andrew Raffo Dewar: soprano saxophone, c-melody saxophone, clarinet
Jay Rozen: tuba, euphonium
Stephen H. Lehman: alto saxophone, sopranino saxophone
Jessica Pavone: viola, violin
Aaron Siegel: percussion, vibraphone
Taylor Ho Bynum: cornet, flugelhorn, trumpbone, piccolo trumpet, bass trumpet, shell

Anthony Braxton is a conceptualist of the highest order. His music makes enormous demands upon the creative musician as well as upon the creative listener. The startling thing is how much this music gives back in return for one's efforts. A fully realized sonic universe that synthesizes a staggering array of ideas and sources. It's the kind of place these ears seek to inhabit. These ghost trance compositions are even more exciting. Each one presenting a 60-minute slice of altered beauty. Composition No. 355 builds upon layers of thematic development realized by one of the finest ensembles Anthony Braxton has ever assembled. Each disc within this box set is both interconnected and self-contained. Shedding new light upon different angles of a singular pocket of this Tricentric universe.

Ludwig van Beethoven: The Symphonies [disc 5]. 1994. The International Music Company: 205299-305.

The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

Symphony No. 7 in A Major (op. 92)
Barry Wordsworth: conductor

Symphony No. 8 in F Major (op. 93)
James Lockhart: conductor

The reason for listening to these works (or any works, for that matter) is to develop one's relationship with the music. To understand and discover the ideas that make this music tick. Somehow, it becomes more challenging to do this with the Beethoven Symphonies because there is already a passing familiarity with them. A false sense of already "knowing" them. It takes a few times through the rotation to develop a fascination with the sequence of materials. Particularly in the seventh and eighth symphonies. There's an infallible sense of form at work well beyond the familiarity (these pieces both will and will not surprise these ears). And the seventh symphony is surprisingly loaded with contrapuntal mischief. It's clear why so many have emulated this material through this medium in the wake of these thunderous works. And the eighth symphony doesn't even begin to foreshadow the devastating impact the ninth would later have.

Ludwig van Beethoven: The Complete Quartets [disc 4]. 1994. Delos: DE 3034.

The Orford String Quartet
Andrew Dawes: violin
Kenneth Perkins: violin
Terence Helmer: viola
Denis Brott: cello

String Quartet in E Minor, Op. 59 No. 2 ("Razumovsky")

String Quartet in F Minor, Op. 95 ("Serioso")

A dip into the middle and late periods of Ludwig van Beethoven's considerable works for string quartet. A body of music that is both rich and not burdened with the excessive familiarity that comes with the fetishized symphonies. Juxtaposed like this, one can trace the creative journey that bridged the Classical and Romantic eras. The "Serioso" quartet hinting mildly at the excesses of Romanticism that would follow a generation or two later. But it is the middle period - and these "Razumovsky" quartets in particular - that hold the greatest fascination for me. The breaking away from the polite regularity of early Classical music's cadence structures and composing a new elasticity into the form. The focus shifts toward the development and Beethoven's uncanny sense of order. This particular performance of the Op. 59 No. 2 positively soars as a transcendent work of art.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

HurdAudio Rotation: J.H., J.T. & J.S.B.

Joe Henderson: Mode for Joe. 1966 (1988 re-issue). Blue Note Records: CDP 7-84227-2.

Joe Henderson: tenor saxophone
Lee Morgan: trumpet
Curtis Fuller: trombone
Bobby Hutcherson: vibraphone
Cedar Walton: piano
Ron Carter: bass
Joe Chambers: drums

This time through Mode for Joe I'm waking up to the fact that Bobby Hutcherson is an incredible player and a key part of this outstanding sound. His sense of rhythmic time and dynamicism makes his presence into something extraordinary. Easily holding his own within an ensemble of heavy hitting hard boppers. And coming well to the foreground with the Latin number "Caribbean Fire Dance." Beyond being blinded by the vibes there is the undeniable excellence of Joe Henderson's compositions and arrangements. Not to mention his solos. What kind of world would this be if Henderson wrote more original tunes? Cedar Walton and Lee Morgan also contributed original numbers to this set list as this septet throws several hard punches in a short span of time. In a Blue Note catalogue filled with perfect gems this one ranks as one of the greatest jazz recordings of all time.

James Tenney: Postal Pieces. 2004. New World Records: 80612-2.

Tatiana Koleva: percussion

Swell Piece
The Barton Workshop
Jos Zwaanenburg: flutes
Alex Geller: cello
Nina Hitz: cello
Judith van Swaaij: cello
Marieke Keser: violin
Jacob Plooij: violin
Elisabeth Smalt: viola
John Anderson: clarinets
Gertjan Loot: trumpet
Krijn van Arnhem: bassoon, contrabassoon
Frank Denyer: melodica
Charles van Tassel: baritone
Theo van Arnhem: contrabass
Jos Tieman: contrabass
James Fulkerson: conductor

A Rose Is a Is a Round
The Barton Workshop

Jos Tieman: contrabass

Swell Piece #2
The Barton Workshop

Having Never Written a Note for Percussion
Tobias Liebezeit: percussion

Elisabeth Smalt: viola

For Percussion Perhaps, Or... (night)
James Fulkerson: trombone, live electronics

Swell Piece #3
The Barton Workshop

Nina Hitz: cello

August Harp
Ulrike von Meier: harp

Studies of radical simplicity. Drawing upon the audible immediacy of conceptual form. A singular shape drawn out on a postcard becomes an ensemble of swelling sounds. A reminder that sound materials are like lumps of clay waiting to be sculpted into shapes. And that simple shapes draw out unexpected detail and acoustic phenomena. The rich, focused attention toward the beating found between two slightly detuned strings of the contrabass in "Beast," animating an inner being within that instrument. The mechanics of "August Harp" plucking through its sequences like a mobile suspended from a ceiling as it reflects and deflects the sunlight across the room. The whimsical snapshot of a round sung in "A Rose is A Rose is A Round." Or the invitation to slowly immerse the ears into a sheen of enharmonics and noise in "Having Never Written A Note for Percussion." Each performance brings the ear and mind closer toward understanding the limitless potential within even the most deliberately restricted of ideas.

Johann Sebastian Bach: Bach Edition [disc I-3]. 1994. Brilliant Classics: 93102/3.

La Stravaganza Koln
Andrew Manze: musical direction

Ouverture (Orchestral Suite) No. 1 in C Major, BWV 1066 for 2 oboes, bassoon, strings and continuo
Sinfonia from Cantata BWV 29 "Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir"
Ouverture (Orchestral Suite) No. 2 in B minor, BWV 1067 for flute, strings and continuo

The music of J.S. Bach represents the loftiest of human achievements. A body of music that shaped, and continues to shape, an entire tradition of music in its wake. His material is so timeless that the ideas animating his music still resonates even through the most amateurish of performances or any number of arrangements. But when experiencing an outstanding performance by La Stravaganza Koln playing on period instruments this music positively soars. These ears were ready to pack up and head to Europe just to experience this kind of beauty up close. There is something unmistakeable about the construction of Bach's music. These are meticulously worked out while still retaining the sense of joy and reverie of the material. There is a reason why this music retains such strong gravity.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

HurdAudio Rotation: Zach's Flag

Soul Coughing: El Oso. 1998. Slash Records/Warner Brothers: 9-46800-2.
Mike Doughty: vocals
Mark De Gli Antoni: sampler
Sebastian Steinberg: bass
Yuval Gabay: drums

The third and final record to emerge from within the narrow confines of the Soul Coughing formula. A formula of tightly nested grooves built up from rhythmically repeated verbal phrases, samples and the tightly interlocked drums with acoustic bass. It's a sound with multiple hooks that made for three outstanding records back in the day. Smothering its own failings by sounding good for the brief time it hits the ears. Mike Doughty's vocal style verges upon wearing out its welcome by treading a fine line between repetitive and insistent chanting. If pushed any further the shallow depths of its rap would be exposed. But folded within this group sound it propels things forward as an equal to the instrumental tracks. Occasionally hitting upon an interesting observation (that gets repeated and repeated and repeated).

Arnold Schoenberg: Moses und Aron. 1996. Deutsche Grammophone: 449-174-2.

Arnold Schoenberg: composition, libretto
The Chorus of De Nederlandse Opera
Zaans Jongenskoor: chorus master
Jongens Muziekschool Waterland
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Pierre Boulez: conductor

Ah, sprechstimme opera. I think I'm in love with the half sung, half spoken delivery of this German language retelling of the Old Testament story of Moses. And I'm pretty sure the whispered chants of "Who ist Moses?" is exactly what the medium of opera was created for. Composed at the end of his life and career, Moses und Aron captures Schoenberg's expressiveness at the tail end of his aesthetic arc. It is his Delusion of the Fury. A sweeping, exquisitely crafted work with a dazzling array of harmonic colors. It is hard to imagine a better operatic recording to paint the air of a Sunday morning. The generous dissonance and ragged tension serving as an antidote to the sticky sweet excesses of a Nixon in China along with a timeless narrative that places it in sharp perspective. The fact that it is an incomplete work adds a deeper mystery to what could have been if this had been fully composed to its large-scale conclusion. It is a work well worth staging and experiencing at just two-thirds complete and potentially represents some of Arnold Schoenberg's most evocative writing. The balance of rigor and intuition is rarely more satisfying than what is here.

Skeleton Crew: Learn To Talk/The Country of Blinds. 2005 re-release of the 1984 and 1985 originals. ReR Megacorp: ReR/FRO 8/9.

Tom Cora: cello, bass guitar, casio, drums, home-made drums and contraptions, singing, bass, accordion
Fred Frith
: guitar, 6-string bass, violin, casio, home-mades, piano, drums, singing
Dave Newhouse: alto saxophone, percussion
Zeena Parkins: organ, electric harp, accordion, drums, singing

These two crazy and brilliant records from Skeleton Crew offer up a scathing and acerbic reactions to the anti-intellectualism and jingoism of the Reagan era. A voice that is both relevant to this age as well as sorely needed as a counterbalance to the stultifying trends of mainstream American culture. "Do you ever get the feeling that America is becoming a second-class world power?" Indeed. Music that revels in its freedom to be creative while offering up commentary on the ways "freedom" is used to control. Two records that have lost no punches over the years. And two records that drive home the painful absence of Tom Cora on the sonic scene. This material is so brilliantly off kilter, simple when it needs to be, dense when it needs to be and sloppy in ways only extreme musicianship can draw out. There are numerous tracks on here that beg to be re-interpreted by similarly creative minds as both homage to the original and further reinforcement of the timeless voice behind this music. Music densely packed with an ability to go anywhere at any time while retaining a timeless sense of humanity.