Monday, June 27, 2011

HurdAudio Rotation: Heavy with Sound

Jim Staley: Mumbo Jumbo. 1993. Einstein Records: 004.

Jim Staley: trombone
Wayne Horvitz: piano, dx-7, rx-11 drum machine
Elliott Sharp: double-neck guitar/bass, soprano saxophone
Shelley Hirsch: voice
Samm Bennett: drums, percussion, electronic percussion
Bill Frisell: guitar
Ikue Mori: drums, drum machine
Fred Frith: electric guitar, acoustic guitar, vocals
John Zorn: alto saxophone

Mumbo Jumbo is a set of trios that combine Jim Staley's trombone with two members of the downtown New York scene at a period when my ears fell hard for that downtown sound. And here we have the Bill Frisell sound that first captured and redirected my attention. Here we have the Elliott Sharp sound that became an early addiction. Ikue Mori at a time when drum machines were her noise device of choice. Jim Staley's trombone holds his own in these freely improvised trios. Leaving this gem of sonic shards.

Roscoe Mitchell Sextet: Sound. 1966 (re-released in 1996). Delmark Records: DE-408.

Roscoe Mitchell: alto saxophone, clarinet, recorder, etc.
Lester Bowie: trumpet, flugelhorn, harmonica
Lester Lashley: trombone, cello
Maurice McIntyre: tenor saxophone
Malachi Favors: bass
Alvin Fielder: drums

Sound was an early shot across the bow from the AACM. A first aural glimpse into the sound worlds being crafted by Roscoe Mitchell and his collaborators. The spontaneity of this record manages to resonate through the decades with an unmistakable joy and many startling turns within the dialogue between players on the two takes of the title track. Roscoe Mitchell's prowess on reeds is already evident in his debut. The presence of Lester Bowie and Malachi Favors brings on the ache of their absence today. To my ears, it is the cello work of Lester Lashley on the two takes of "Ornette" that is a pleasant surprise. This record is more than a statement of what is to come with this movement of Great Black Music. It is a document that stands on its own as a masterpiece of free jazz.

Edgard Varese: The Complete Works. 1994, 1998. Decca: 289 460 208-2.

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
ASKO Ensemble
Riccardo Chailly: conductor

Tuning Up
(original version)
Poeme Electronique
Un Grand Sommeil Noir
(orchestral version)
Un Grand Sommeil Noir (original version)
Density 21.5
Dance for Burgess

Dear Chicago Symphony,

You have a fantastic brass section. It is loud and sounds amazing in your concert hall. The music of Edgard Varese may be the ideal way to show off those brass chops. Think about it. I'd positively melt given a chance to hear Nocturnal in that concert hall. Or Ecuatorial. Or if we wanted to be ambitious; Deserts.

Yours truly,

Taking in the full creative output of Edgard Varese in one sitting is an incredible listening exercise. With these recordings by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and the ASKO Ensemble we have a solid collection of definitive performances that allow the ears to steep within this monumental touch stone of twentieth century music. Music that has aged well and is perpetually overdue for a revival. Or an orchestra boasting a top notch brass section looking for ways to show off.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Bang On

Bang on a Can Marathon 2011 @ World Financial Center Winter Garden, New York, New York
Sunday, June 19, 2011

Carlton by STEW and Heidi Rodewald
Opus 81 by Yoko Ono
Asphalt Orchestra

The Self and the Other by Matthew Welch
Mirrors mvmt 1 by Matthew Welch
Hericlitus mvmt 3 by Matthew Welch
Queens College Percussion Ensemble
Matthew Welch: bagpipes
Amanda Accardi: piano
Michael Lipsey: conductor

Codigos secretos by Gabriela Ortiz
Alejandro Escuer: flute

Portrait of Eva Hesse (palindrome), for percussionists in unison contours by Anthony Gatto
Queens College Percussion Ensemble
Iktus Percussion

Three Small Pieces for String Quartet by Richard Ayres
JACK Quartet

Hymn by Kati Agocs
Prism Saxophone Quartet

Transamerica by Todd Reynolds
Todd Reynolds: violin

Xas by Iannis Xenakis
Prism Saxophone Quartet

Love Always Counts by Michael Nyman
Sinatra Shag by Michael Daugherty
Sentieri Sevaggi

Keen by Roshanne Etezady
Prism Saxophone Quartet

Risvegliatevi! by Filippo Del Corno
Brightness by Mauro Montalbetti
Zingiber by Carlo Boccadoro
Sentieri Selvaggi

Two Ships by David Byrne and Annie Clark
Ngoma Yekwedu by Thomas Mapfumo (arr. Alex Hamlin)
Asphalt Orchestra

Concerning the Doodle by Christine Southworth
O Shut Your Eyes Against the Wind by Bryce Dessner
Bang on a Can All-Stars

Hijaz by Michael Harrison
Young People's Chorus of New York City
Maya Beiser: cello
Michael Harrison: just intonation piano
Payton MacDonald: tabla, percussion

warmth by David Lang
Taylor Levine, James Moore: guitars

Exalted by Michael Gordon
Young People's Chorus of New York City
JACK Quartet

Songs and Rhapsodies by Poul Ruders
Athelas Wind Quintet
Frode Andersen: accordion

Zomby Woof by Frank Zappa (arr. Peter Hess)
Hyper Ballad by Bjork (arr. Alan Ferber)
Champagne by Goran Bregovic
Asphalt Orchestra

An Index of Metals by Fausto Romitelli
Talea Ensemble
Tony Arnold: soprano

At the River by Timo Andres
Timo Andres: piano

Cruel Sister by Julia Wolfe
Ensemble Signal
Brad Lubman: conductor

From Euridice: Playing in the Waves, E-U-R-Y-D-I-C-E, Orpheus at the Gates, Yes! Yes! Yes! by Toby Twining
Toby Twining Music

Metamorphosis 4 by Philip Glass
Music in Similar Motion by Philip Glass
Closing by Philip Glass
Bang on a Can All-Stars
Philip Glass: piano, keyboard

Various selections by The Sun Ra Arkestra

Hive by Evan Ziporyn
Carol McGonnell, Joshua Rubin: clarinets
Michael Lowenstern, Evan Ziporyn: bass clarinets

Various selections by The Glenn Branca Ensemble

The Bang on a Can Marathon is a bit like having a friend over for an extended round of "check this out" as you rifle through your personal music collection to expose and share the excitement of a range of music you've discovered. Except that Bang on a Can does this with live performances and a dizzying array of players shuffling on and off a stage in an exceptionally well organized way. Bringing the full Sun Ra Arkestra on stage feels nearly as effortless as dropping in a CD or clicking on a track on iTunes. The music that unfolds over a 13+ hour span revels in an all encompassing regard for music from a multiplicity of creative impulses. The infectious enthusiasm and welcome exposure of "check this out" is meticulously preserved.

This was not my first marathon. And it will most certainly not be my last. I can't recall attending a better oiled machine of new music than this year's offering. It was remarkably smooth (running ahead of schedule for most of the day) and nearly every piece of music was compelling over an extended span.

The most astonishing experience of the day came in the form of An Index of Metals by Fausto Romitelli. This was my first exposure to Romitelli's music and it delivered a prolonged intensity and density of ideas that provokes me to learn much more about his music. One could feel the energy of this well attended performance mirroring the other worldly qualities of this hour long piece as it built outward like an expanding universe. The dimensions of this music take on an unusual scale without releasing the ears. The Talea Ensemble and soprano Tony Arnold gave it a knockout performance.

The highlight of the marathon was Ensemble Signal's transcendent performance of Julia Wolfe's Cruel Sister. An amazing composition for string orchestra that transitions beautifully into a pizzicato section that depicts the sound of a harp. Julia Wolfe has a remarkable knack for drawing upon the language of over 50-years of minimalism to say something unique and non-derivative.

Also impressive was Michael Gordon's Exalted for choir and string quartet. A brilliantly composed work that builds its layers with descending, cascading lines in the choir against looping material in the string quartet. It takes on the feel of a prayer uttered through rhythmic pulse.

The understated, sonic beauty of Kati Agocs's Hymn performed by the Prism Saxophone Quartet was a haunting work that resonated with me. It explored the contrast between the independent instrumental parts within the timbral unity of the ensemble. It was one piece that could have been longer. A rare quality in new music.

Another shimmering beauty worth noting was Michael Harrison's Hijaz for choir, cello, just intonation keyboard and tabla. A piece that thrives upon its simplicity and Harrison's wisdom in allowing the harmonic qualities of the "Hijaz" scale to resonate.

The energetic performances of the Asphalt Orchestra sprinkled through the marathon offered an accessible-yet-avant-garde take on the marching band. Bringing a refreshing mobility to this year's marathon that was later extended upon by the Sun Ra Arkestra - who have been playing with deft mobility within audiences for decades.

The marathon as a whole built toward a forceful conclusion toward a pair of established icons of new music: Philip Glass and Glenn Branca. Philip Glass performed Metamorphosis 4 on piano before being joined by the Bang on a Can All-Stars to play two of his significant early works.

Then came Glenn Branca with his arsenal of amplification and guitars. Closing out a long day of music with a loud foray into the rhythmic and sonic materials of rock and roll. Not to mention the "fuck it" attitude that oozes charismatically from Branca as he conducts 4/4 beats with surrealistically Elvis-like poses. His music is unmerciful and oppressively loud. And completely necessary. A dose of punk into a new music aesthetic that risks becoming too effete without such an open acknowledgement of beat and brutality.

There were only occasional hints that the World Financial Center Winter Garden is not an ideal concert hall. The acoustic challenges of what is essentially a large atrium within a mall were rarely evident. And for 13 hours it retained the intimate qualities of a living room as many performers took to the stage to reveal several wellsprings of musical inventiveness. The desire to commit the ears to every moment of the experience is rarely so richly rewarded.

Music After the Future

Orchestra of the League of Composers @ Miller Theater at Columbia University, New York, New York
Saturday, June 18, 2011

John Schaefer: host
Louis Karchin: conductor

More Melisma (2006) by Milton Babbitt
Fred Sherry: cello

Silent Voices (2010) by Shulamit Ran
Peter Van Derick: reader

Concertino for Bass Clarinet and Chamber Orchestra (2008) by Elliott Carter
Virgil Blackwell: bass clarinet

Sound Merger (2011) by Arthur Kreiger

Talking Points (Right Wing Echo Chamber) (2010) by David Rakowski
Fred Sherry: cello

Violent, Violent Sea (2011) by Missy Mazzoli

The Orchestra of the League of Composers is a medium for realizing a musical aesthetic that was once touted as "the music of the future." A musical vein that passes through the second Viennese School of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern and into the sonic worlds of Milton Babbitt, Elliott Carter and Roger Sessions. Eventually, that future came and went and the emphasis of "the music of the future" dissolved into "a music of the future" as a plurality of stylistic approaches and aesthetics began to co-exist without a single set of rules to judge the "rigor" and intellectual brawn of each piece of new music. Now that careers and tenure are no longer gauged against fidelity to set theory it is possible to hear the current works within this tradition in a new light.

Milton Babbitt's More Melisma is a beautifully lyrical solo cello work. Fred Sherry gave an outstanding performance that never allowed the extreme virtuosic demands of the piece to overwhelm its gentle humanity. It was a ringing sonic reminder that Milton Babbitt possessed a remarkable compositional instinct and sense of humor that was in full command of the heady underpinnings of his musical language.

Silent Voices
by Shulamit Ran is a piece based on Draft of a Reparations Agreement by Dan Pagis. Words and music about the Holocaust presented along side one another as Ran developed a sonic texture from the expressive qualities of her writing for chamber ensemble. The words and music were powerful enough to more than justify their temporal separation.

Speaking to the durability of the tradition of the League of Composers was Elliott Carter's Concertino for Bass Clarinet and Chamber Orchestra. A piece composed when Carter was 100 years old. And performed with Carter in the audience at age 103. Carter's own career has been intertwined with the League for many decades. Age has not dulled his ability to write demanding, virtuosic music.

Arthur Kreiger's Sound Merger is a tightly orchestrated piece for large chamber ensemble with an electronic track. It is an extremely polished set piece that blurs the distinction between the prepared recorded material with the live realization on stage. The widely dynamic sense of reverberation within the electronic component stood in stark contrast to the static, stage reverberation of the ensemble. While it was a nearly flawlessly realized and executed piece I was left craving a more improvised interplay between the two parts.

David Rakowski's Talking Points (Right Wing Echo Chamber) presented a transparency of process as the solo material in the cello part formed the generative material for the ensemble as a whole. This worked extremely well.

The program concluded with Missy Mazzoli's Violent, Violent Sea. A through-composed, lush work that drew more heavily upon intuitive sensibilities than the other pieces on the program. And it packed a more emotionally loaded punch as a result. It was a detail rich piece that deserves performances well beyond this world premier.

The Orchestra of the League of Composers reminds these ears that "the music of the future" thrives when it is so well rehearsed and presented. It is not served nearly as well by the in between interviews conducted by John Schaefer. While Schaefer is a passionate host who mercifully kept these interviews with the composers limited to the duration needed to change the instrument configurations on the stage, they were still an unnecessary dialog for a music that stands well on its own merits. Empty moments to reflect upon this music more introspectively would be an improvement.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Miserable Pieces Exquisitely Performed

International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE): ICElab
Saturday, June 4, 2011 @ Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, IL

Ryan Nelson: conductor
Claire Chase: flute
Eric Lamb: flute
Campbell MacDonald: clarinet
Joshua Rubin: clarinet
Rebekah Heller: bassoon
David Byrd-Marrow: horn
Gareth Flowers: trumpet
Dan Peck: tuba
Daniel Lippel: guitar
Erik Carlson: violin
Jennifer Curtis: violin, mandolin
Katinka Kleijn: cello
Jacob Greenberg: piano
Nathan Davis: percussion
Tony Arnold: narrator, soprano
Ryan Ingebritsen: sound engineer

Nathan Davis
: Bells (2011) for 2 flutes, clarinet, percussion, and live electronics activated by cellular phones

Du Yun: The Last Post, music for the film by Shahzia Sikander (2011) for flute, clarinet, bassoon, tuba, percussion, guitar and voice

Nathan Davis: On the Nature of Thingness (2011) for flute, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, piano, vioin, cello, soprano, conductor, guitar and engineer

Marcos Balter: AEsopica (2011) for flute, clarinet, bassoon, horn, tuba, piano, two violins, cello, soprano, guitar and conductor

At the sound of a bell the audience milling about in the lobby of the Museum of Contemporary Art pulled out their cell phones and dialed into a conference call. Each entering a code for one of four electronic tracks from the Nathan Davis piece being performed within their midst. With speakers turned on and turned out, the soft presence of tiny speakers added a delay to the electronic sounds within the reverberant space. Performers armed with flutes and percussion instruments moved within the crowd. Occasionally adding to the sonic texture. A clarinetist could be heard from one balcony. A percussionist on another along with live electronic manipulations.

The audience participation of collective cellular phones brings to mind the new music holiday tradition of Phil Kline's Unsilent Night with its boom boxes strolling down the street. Much of the spatial energy was similar. Even if the communal element was conspicuously absent. What the din of tiny speakers did bring out is the sense of impoverishment common to many pieces where live electronics and acoustic instruments. The full spectral beauty and richness of real gongs, bells and flutes contrasted sharply against the lo-fi sounds from the phones.

Nathan Davis' other piece of the evening, On the Nature of Thingness used amplification to similar effect. Dulling the qualities of live acoustic sound by stretching the timbre into a caricature of itself. This was accompanied by a text that effectively did the same thing to language.

Du Yun's The Last Post was a study in beautiful textures worn thin. Accompanied by an astonishingly beautiful video by Shahzia Sikander. The extreme distance between performers at opposite ends of the stage added a strange sense of detachment between media and sound.

Marcos Balter's AEsopica began with some amazing orchestration that quickly dissolved into an overly theatrical mashing together of disjointed extended techniques. Each promising moment cut short along the way.

ICE executive director Claire Chase repeatedly referred to the ICElab project as a vehicle for the music of this generation. There is no doubt that this generation will produce amazing music. But there were no keepers in this evening's program. Like every emerging generation, there are a number of aesthetic dead ends to be worked out. And several were on display here. The talent and precision of this well rehearsed ensemble was clearly not at fault.

One thing that made this performance far more difficult than it needed to be were the brief conversations between Claire Chase and the composer before each piece. Such dialog means little before a piece is heard and is often unwelcome after it has been played. Composers are rarely articulate in a concert setting and Chase often sounded like one of the "NPR Ladies" from Saturday Night Live speaking as quickly as possible. Musical works need to speak for themselves and they rarely live up to the verbal baggage thrown at them when presented in this manner.

The desire to give a pre-performance presentation is unique to formal concert spaces. An attitude has evolved in concert halls and orchestral venues that believes the audience needs to be spoon fed its information about the music. Chances are that the audience is there because they're already informed or at least interested and there is no shortage of information readily available in this wired world. Spoon feeding is not needed and is often defeating. Many of these conversations should have been done as a podcast for those inclined to hear them.

Also, formal concert spaces need to learn from the experience found in less formal spaces. The Umbrella Music concerts are an excellent example. With at least three concerts every week in bars and art galleries this series succeeds by consistently presenting great music that never feels precious. The music is respected by a "keep the talking to none" policy that respects both performers and listeners. I have to think that New Music could grow and give voice to this generation much more quickly if allowed to flourish in less formal venues with this kind of frequency. The access to quality beers doesn't hurt the experience either.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

HurdAudio Rotation: Of Toys and Surrealism

Erik Friedlander: Maldoror. 2003. Brassland: HWY-005.

Erik Friedlander: cello

Solo cello improvisation loosely based upon and inspired by the surrealist writings of Comte de Lautreamont. Music translated from stark images and labyrinthine texts from an altered version of this reality through a filter of the nineteenth century. Ultimately, it is Friedlander's own talent and abilities as an improviser that breathes life into this solo yarn. For these thirsty ears, a perfect chance to hear the cellist in isolation relying upon his own sense of musicality. A recording that I gladly come back to again and again.

Mad Love: White With Foam. 2009. Ipecac Recordings: ipc-115-2.

Trevor Dunn: bass, vocals, keyboards
Sunny Kim: vocals
Hilmar Jensson: guitar
Ches Smith: drums, vibraphone
Shelley Burgon: harp
Marika Hughes: cello
Mazz Swift: violin
Jessica Troy: viola

For a band made up of such an outstanding lineup of musicians and the compositional and arranging prowess of Trevor Dunn this music makes a poor first impression. The rock driven song forms feel just a little too polished and the sticky sweet vocal style of Sunny Kim just seems to glide along the surface of this music as a brittle focal point. It takes a few spins to hear the qualities buried within this set and the inspired moments that weave throughout. But there is precious little enticement for repeated listening once the slick veneer of "accessibility" hits these ears.

Gavin Bryars: The Marvelous Aphorisms of Gavin Bryars: The Early Years. 2007. Mode: 177.

The Squirrel and the Ricketty-Racketty Bridge (1971) for 2 guitars (1 player) or multiples of this
Seth Josel: electric guitars

Pre-Mediaeval Metrics (1970)
Ulrich Krieger: soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone, contrabass saxophone, tom-tom
Seth Josel: electric guitar, 12-string guitar, electric bass

Made in Hong Kong (1970)
Ulrich Krieger: diverse toys

1, 2, 1-2-3-4 (1971) interpolating music by The Beatles
Ulrich Krieger: tenor saxophone, recorder, tambourine, maracas
Seth Josel: electric guitar, acoustic guitar, 12-string guitar
Eli Friedmann: electric guitar
Yayoi Ikawa: piano
John Davis: electric bass
Kenny Growhowski: drums

A glimpse into the sonic and conceptual territory of Gavin Bryars that reveals a mixture of the austere with humor. The obsessive rhythmic territory of Pre-Mediaeval Metrics contrasted against the minimalism of The Squirrel and the Ricketty-Racketty Bridge. These are in turn balanced against the humor of the soup of Beatles riffs in 1,2,1-2-3-4 and the deeply unpleasant Made in Hong Kong. Much of the humor exists as an undercurrent running through the selection of material (or instruments). The Marvellous Aphorisms of Gavin Bryars is a mixed bag of compositions. Each succeeds on its own merits. Though occasionally those merits are set fairly low.