Monday, May 14, 2012

let's talk about music (part 1)

After reading this, and voicing my thoughts on Twitter, I thought I finally had to do it: write a blog post about *redacted*-classical.  I even started writing it! Then I got super confused, slightly angry, and very tired.  So I decided to do something else.

I rarely review albums here -- I don't consider it too fair for me to write them up, since I don't listen to everything that's coming out and feel more comfortable in general talking about the live experience.  However, I've gotten a bunch of great albums lately, and in lieu of talking about some giant, amorphous musical scene which has been defined by a ridiculous set of terms, I'm going to talk about three albums, and what each one might suggest for contemporary music.  I'll talk a bit about each album individually and discusses characteristics of it which I think are indicative of (but certainly not unique to) how composed/classical/new music is being made in our time.  Without further ado:

Album Number 1: Hahn/Hauschka - Silfra

You can listen to it on NPR for free here.

There is something somewhat extraordinary about this album -- actually, there's something somewhat extraordinary about the direction Hilary Hahn has taken in recent years.  A press release plopped into my inbox several months ago mentioning the upcoming release of Silfra.  It was the first I had heard of the collaboration between Hahn and Hauschka, a German prepared-piano virtuoso (this was, admittedly, the first I had heard of him as well).  Hahn has been pushing into relatively unexplored territory for a former child prodigy -- I suppose it got started (or at least publicly acknowledged) with the 2008 recording of the Schoenberg concerto, but that didn't particularly impress me as a unusual act unto itself (neither did last year's Ives album).  But then there was the Encores project, the composition contest, and now this.  It's not like famous virtuosi haven't devoted themselves to fostering new music in the past (Maurizio Pollini and Pierre Laurent-Aimard are two good examples), but it seems to happen less often in America, and rarely with such fascinating eclecticism.

And rarely does a violinist who has been releasing albums of concertos and sonatas nearly every consecutive year since she was a teenager dive into improvisation.  I'm not sure what exactly motivated this.  Two lengthy essays outline the history of the H&H relationship (totally what I'm calling this now, since the bagel joint is defunct), but it's hard to get at exactly what drove Hahn in particular.  It's actually always hard to get at exactly what's driving Hahn, from the quirky YouTube videos to Happy Birthday Ives to the slightly hare-brained ideas turned into quasi-institutions.

But what about the music? It succeeds! Maybe not beyond-your-wildest-dreams succeeds, but it is a very impressive freshman effort for a collaborative idea that seems to be new to both musicians.  The album, though divided into individual tracks/pieces which don't flow into each other, feels like an organic whole. This has its up and its downs.  There is really only one kind of "mood," if that's the right word, for the fifty minutes of music -- a kind of perpetual vacillation between ecstatic and melancholic -- and the drama comes from shifting variations of that interplay, rather than abrupt changes of style or emotion.

The musical language resembles a languid postminimalism, with short, repeated violin patterns hovering over open drones and crunching prepared piano sounds.  It actually reminded me more than anything of the music of Valgeir Sigurðsson, who produced the album (more on that later).  The energy of tracks like Bounce Bounce comes out of a very loose, un-mathematical version of minimalism, with Reichian patterns, multiple violins superimposed over each other, and an appealing jangliness which evokes In C -- the see-sawing fragments which the violin plays aren't far from the 53 cells of Riley's masterpiece.

Hahn's contribution to the album is a particularly interesting way to watch the transformation from classical virtuoso to quasi-composer take place.  The improvisation itself is fairly "rudimentary" -- she's not exactly reading chord changes or doing Braxton-style free jazz.  But it's compelling in its own right, mostly due to Hahn's musicality -- she delivers each gesture with refinement and purpose.  Krakow, a conventional duet of unprepared piano and violin, is a lovely Satie-like miniature, which benefits hugely from Hahn's presence.  We hear a series of snapshots of a "Romantic violin melody" -- like soundtrack outtakes from a movie about shtetls in Eastern Europe -- layered on top each other, fading in and out.  Hahn delivers these drooping turns and cadential figures with the same grace you'd hear in a recording of Faure sonatas.

What Hauschka offers is fascinating, too -- especially if you listen before watching any videos of how he works.  With piano layered atop prepared piano crunches and buzzes and what sound like modified pedals, I was under the impression I was hearing multi-tracking.  But look at this!

It's a completely fascinating version of polyphony, with different registers taking on not only different sound qualities but different emotional spheres.  Godot, the album's longest and most delicate track, has all kinds of sounds I had no idea a prepared piano could make -- subdued hammer-pounding effects, spectral ratcheting -- which layer into terrifying moments that feel less mechanical than natural.  What's most impressive is how the effects coalesce -- about nine minutes in, the various registers of piano notes and effects become a haunting progression of noise as harmony.

The collaboration works well -- the voices blend together naturally (so much so that occasionally it's hard to tell what is violin and what is piano string), and you get the sense of kindred musical spirits.  My only gripe is that it feels like a lot of the same.  As an album experience, this works pretty well; but by about 2/3rds through, individual tracks tend to run together.  One hopes this is the start of something, not just a single product in itself -- collaboration needs to build over time, and one-offs can be fascinating, but dialogues built over years can be even more artistically fruitful.

Anyway, what does this tell us about new music today? Two things that I'll talk about (and then more later this week):

As I said earlier, this sounds like a Valgeir Sigurðsson album -- it's not entirely clear how much of a compositional role Sigurðsson actually played in the making of Silfra, but I can't help but think it was a major one.  It's also not entirely clear exactly how the process of improvisation then production worked -- remember, Hahn's violin is often layered atop Hahn's violin multiple times, so someone is doing this editing, and it's not clear if it's Hauschka or Sigurðsson or Hahn.  It seems to me that Sigurðsson is really a strong presence on the album, and a lot of the musical elements point straight back to an album that's very close to my heart -- Nico Muhly's Speaks Volumes, which I increasingly think was a pioneering record back in 2006 (maybe that's just because I wrote my undergrad thesis on it, I don't know).  

The conventional role of a classical album is to mimic the live concert experience -- to construct a space that would allow one to pretend that he was hearing an orchestra or string quartet in an actual hall.  Most pop works a bit differently -- since the '70s, at least, it's about creating an entirely imaginary listening space, independent of the "reality" of the concert.  That's what Speaks Volumes did as well, and deliberately so -- even the pieces without electronics included the sounds of musicians breathing and noticable close-micing.  One can hear the presence of Sigurðsson's Greenhouse Studios on the album (more on that idea, too, in a bit).  In Muhly's Keep in TouchSigurðsson recorded Nadia Sirota trying out all kinds of funny little sounds on her viola, which he mixed into the piece's electronic backing track.  That seems to be what's going on in Silfra, too -- re-interpreting the physical sounds of the violin and prepared piano and transforming them into musique concrete elements.

I know they're going to be touring this thing, and I wonder how that's going to work -- the layering doesn't exactly accomodate for a live experience with just acoustic instruments.  In this instance, as well as pretty much every album that Bedroom Community has released, the album becomes the work, a self-standing piece of music, often before the concert experience has even take place -- it's almost like a score, in a way, the blueprint of the music from which a live performance will extract one particular rendition.  The producer takes on the role of co-composer.  This isn't necessarily new -- the great producers of olde like Walter Legge at EMI created Wagnerian opera which existed only on record -- and electronic music has long invented experiences which cannot be re-created live. But this idea of transforming chamber music -- which is really what Silfra is -- into an imagined, recorded experience, rather than a mimesis of a live one, is impressively new.

Greenhouse Studios is only fifteen years old, but as far as I'm concerned it already has a myth surrounding it.  The fact that there is a sound common to all of Bedroom Community albums as well as Silfra testifies not only to Sigurdsson's importance as a producer but also to the fact of his studio as a place in which collaboration takes place.

We tend to think of music-making today as being removed from place, that the Internet today has replaced the need for art existing physical locations.  (Certainly that's the vibe that people gave in the Spring for Music contest.)  I would argue that perhaps the opposite has happened, that as music has taken on its own life in the electronic ether, place becomes almost more important.  There's a reason that people seem fixated on Brooklyn as the source of some new musical movement; there's a reason that installation art has seen a surge; there's a reason Make Music New York has grown in popularity, that we have The Party and Inuksuit.

Hahn and Hauschka collaborated online before meeting in Iceland, exchanging recordings and creating improvisatory ideas via the Internet.  But for the Hahn and Hauschka arrival in the studio, they apparently attempted to start from scratch, "forgetting" what they had learned (this is a theme among recent collaborators), with Iceland's mountainous landscape out the window.  Though collaboration takes place online, the physical space becomes a kind of muse, unique merely for the fact that it exists in real life.  Silfra is the place where the tectonic plates of North America and Eurasia meet -- as the collaborators have attested, Iceland itself permeates the music-making.

Iceland has, in recent years, become a wellspring for musical inspiration -- even Robert Lepage seems to think the tectonic plates are the place to find Wagner's Ring.  Perhaps it's our new, more politically correct Orient, but I think it may have to do just as much with the inspiration of the actual people on the ground -- the Sigurðssons and Jónsis -- as the myths which lurk beneath them.  How much is Valgeir Sigurðsson defining the sound of not just Icelandic music, but the sound of Iceland itself?  Is he tapping into some tradition that goes back to the Vikings, or is the myth being re-created and reenforced with each new gorgeous soundscape?  Those are questions for which I don't have answers.

Let's meet back later this week, for discussions of Michael Mizrahi's The Bright Motion and So Percussion's The Cage Bootlegs.

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