Wednesday, May 23, 2012


Music and war have a weird relationship.  Our histories of art -- certainly those of art in the twentieth century -- often rotate around massive conflicts.  Political events have always helped divide up our centuries into periods; art historians and musicologists like to think of the French Revolution as a nice way to tie up the short eighteenth century and begin the long nineteenth, which itself concludes with World War I.  This doesn't always work out -- there are artistic "events" which are entirely independent from political ones, and sometimes the track of music history doesn't run on the same rails as the the track of political history.

But the last hundred-plus years of music have been inextricably shaped by our two World Wars and the Cold War .  We orient ourselves around pre-WWI modernism and post-WWI modernism, interwar Neue Sachlichkeit, post-war Zero Hour music, Cold War formalism.  Rightfully so: these conflicts weighed enormously on composers, because they actually participated in them.  The Second Viennese School were involved, in one form or another, in fighting World War I -- Berg's experiences gave birth to Wozzeck.  The second World War was even more tumultuous -- we had the patriotic-ish music on this side of the ocean from the likes of Aaron Copland, Marc Blitzstein, and even John Cage, but also the scarring experiences which shaped the early lives of Zimmermann, Xenakis, Stockhausen, Ligeti, Takemitsu, and many others.  To participate in music, before the 1970s, almost guaranteed that one had participated in war.*

That is very, very far from the case today.  I am not aware of any composers today who have served in the military (please let me know if you do Edit: in the comments, Arlene and Larry Dunn have kindly pointed out two musicians, Billy Bang and Lawrence Morris, who both served in Vietnam.  Alex has also smartly mentioned that Israeli composers such as Avner Dorman would have served military duty; he also points to two recent American soldiers, Jason Sagebiel and Daniel Todd Currie, both of whom are composers).  The only way war shapes today's musical lives is in its absence -- American art which engages with the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan deals primarily with the gulf between contemporary life in the U.S. and the conflicts we are fighting overseas.  In an effort to shake the public, or at least draw greater awareness to the thousands of troops we have stationed in the Middle East while we attempt to cut taxes, artists dramatize the absence of war in our lives.  Unaffected by the immediacy of conflict, we focus on its absence.

Thus, tonight and tomorrow night's Theatre of War, a multimedia event organized by Chicago's Spektral Quartet.

 As a friend of members of the quartet, I won't promise any journalistic objectivity in writing this preview -- it's a shout-out for a very well-deserving project.  Theatre of War (get your tickets here) promises to engage the eyes, ears, and mind in the wake of the NATO summit.  There will be films by Richard Mosse, the staging of a short story by Virginia Konchan, poetry by Wislawa Szymborska, and George Crumb's Black Angels along with Drew Baker's Stress Position.

Black Angels is a classic of the quartet repertoire, and certainly doesn't need any more ink spilled about it.  Stress Position, though, is intriguing.  (Here's an informative interview with Baker.)  It is a piano piece which dramatizes torture in a powerful way -- the pianist is subjected to a kind of physical distress, forced to bang on the farthest ends of the piano, while the audience watches.  It is a powerful, triple metaphor: a pianist subjected to the whims of an autocratic composer, commenting on the conventional performer/composer relationships of the classical tradition; an individual subjected to the aspects of musical torture, a recent and disgusting phenomenon; and a complacent public watching silently, mimicking our own removal from our government's actions abroad.  Baker, powerfully, gradually transforms the work into one in which the torture is impossible to ignore -- the audience cannot escape the message, and must undergoe mild "torture" elements (the piano is gradually amplified, the lights cut out towards the end), a very literal wake-up call even if it gives only a hint of what prisoners might have experienced at places like Guantanamo Bay.  The discomfort caused by a mere ten minutes of a mildly oppressive theatrical experience leaves one with the intense guilt and awareness that it is much worse elsewhere.  The actual music is reminiscent of Stockhausen's Klavierstuck IX, completing the metaphor of the dominating composer by referencing one of history's most autocratic composers.

(An excerpt, courtesy of my former aural skills TA Jonathan Katz, with pages turned by UNC's own Lee Weisert)

In the final moments of the 1965 premiere of Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Die Soldaten -- an arch-dramatization of the effects that military presence can have on civilian life -- after the main character had been raped and abandoned as a beggar in the streets, prerecorded screams blared through the Cologne State Opera house, and the house spotlights were lowered onto the stage and shined in the eyes of the audience.  The screams were meant to evoke those of the victims of Hiroshima, the stage lights to imitate the effect of watching the atomic bomb explode.  The message was not felt -- newspapers in following days shouted of the scandal caused by the audience's moment of blindness, but no one realized it was supposed to be an atomic explosion.  An attempt at literal political commentary at the end of a mostly-allegorical opera failed.

A similar thing happened when I saw John Adams' Doctor Atomic at the Chicago Lyric Opera in 2007.  Peter Sellars had spoken about not wanting to stage the atomic explosion itself but instead, after a nearly hour-long countdown, have the audience realize that they themselves were, in fact, the bomb.  We heard, as in Die Soldaten, a musique concrete assortment of noises, with a Japanese woman calling out for water -- Hiroshima re-staged.  But leaving the opera house, I heard no one discussing the political ramifications of the work, the idea that "we" might be the bomb, or anything having to do with issues of nuclear disarmament today; people talked about the music, the libretto, the success of the work as theater.  If there was a political intent here, it didn't seem to have any political effect.

What the Spektral Quartet is offering in Theatre of War, and what Baker projects in Stress Position, is a message that cannot be ignored.  It is not necessarily a message promoting one view over another, but it cannot help but incite debate.  They invite the audience to stick around for discussion after the performance, and hopefully new ideas will be formed, or old convictions brought back to the fore.  Some people complain that art shouldn't be too overtly political or literal, that we have to seek out change through universal, sometimes fuzzy ideals -- Alle Menschen werden Bruder and the like -- and that's fine some of the time.  But I'm also happy to see that there is musical work which will directly address the times we live in, and the things we spend most of our days ignoring.  Beethoven's Ninth won't remind you that there are men and women dying overseas for reasons that aren't always entirely clear, or just; Theatre of War will.

*Caveat: if one was male.

Monday, May 21, 2012

let's talk about music (part 3)

Sorry for the delay! Things needed to be attended to, and thought about deeply (or so I will claim).  If you will recall, last week we spoke about Silfra and The Bright Motion -- two new releases of almost brand-new music, one batch composed by the performers of the album, the other composed for the performer of the album.  Here we're going to talk about a third release with some new music, but also old music, newly interpreted.

Album No. 3: So Percussion - The Cage Bootlegs

Performance practice is a looming issue in all music, from your HIPster period instrument folks to your Mozart cadenza obsessors to your aria aficionados.  It's less talked about with contemporary music, but it's hugely fascinating.  What happens to Music for 18 Musicians or In C in the generational shift from the performers in Steve Reich & Musicians or Terry Riley and crew to Bang on a Can to Alarm Will Sound? Quantifying that shift is difficult, but it's present, and it shapes how those pieces influence later musicy.  Like me, you may have "learned" In C via Bang on a Can and then been a bit surprised by the more hippy-dippy original recording.

And those are the easy cases.  The much, much more difficult ones are with composers like John Cage, and trying to figure out what the hell to do with his vast, complex musical output, not to mention reckoning with the multitudes of written and spoken words, the performances by his collaborators or himself, the Happenings, and everything else.

Warning: moderately nonsensical analogy about comic books and John Cage ahead. Feel free to skip the next three paragraphs if you want.

I heard a paper given at a conference several months back titled "John Cage's Multiverse."  It was referring specifically to Cage's relationship to the philosophy of William James, but I couldn't help but think of the multiverse with which many nerdier people are more familiar -- that of DC comics.  The multiverse is a set of parallel earths/universes which occasionally come crashing together in massive year-long crossover "events" (I'm not sure if it still exists in DC's ever-relaunching recent history).  The thing is with crossovers is that DC always has to negotiate who gets thrown into its "expanded universe."  Obviously Superman is going to play a role in defeating the Threat-of-the-Galaxy villain, but what about some random Gotham-based police officer who's part of an ongoing prestige comic that only rarely interacts with the big superhero guns? Does every single character that's part of DC's line of a bajillion different comics need to come together ? Does everyone need to exist in DC's "universe"?

This brings us to the idea of "Cagean," one of those name-based adjectives that gets tossed around more than any other in the music world. (Did you eat ice cream while listening to Beethoven? Cagean. Did you listen to your ipod while going to the bathroom? Cagean.)  The thing with Cage is that we can essentially place his entire compositional output under the label "Cagean" (which basically means, at this point, anything) and consider it all as part of the Cage universe, in which everything is an indetermined Happening, a chapter in Silence.  The Cage Bootlegs is essentially a Cagean approach to Cage, subsuming a large slice of his percussion music, as well as music by other composers, within a project in which elements of production, marketing, and packaging all taken on Cage aspects as well.  This wasn't necessarily the case in the past.  Yes, a Cage performance was always Cagean, but all those Wergo and Mode recordings were about as prosaic-looking as any other new music release.

But are all Cage pieces actually "Cagean"?  Just as we might not necessarily need to see every DC character fighting the Anti-Monitor, do we need everything Cage wrote -- even the essentially conventionally-notated, normal pieces like the Third Construction -- thrown into Cage's multiverse?  On The Cage Bootlegs' CD sampler, the So players speak from Cage's Lecture on Something on top of the Third Construction, essentially transforming a "normal" piece into a "Happening" piece.  There's nothing necessarily wrong or "inauthentic" about this, but I'm not sure if every Cage piece actually makes a whole lot of sense placed into what we think of as "Cagean" today. However, The Cage Bootlegs makes a very compelling case of creating a narrative out of this notion, and these spoken excerpts help form the idea of the album as a complete experience (more on that later).

For those of you who skipped those three paragraphs, congratulations! Let's move on.

The Cage Bootlegs (hereafter, Bootlegs) contains, essentially, four things: a record sleeve with an awesome, handmade Rauschenberg-style collage, a completely blank LP (a perhaps overstated 4'33" reference), a CD "sampler" with tracks apparently chosen by the I Ching, and a download card which grants access to recordings of various live shows on So Percussion's Cage tour which included in March.

Funnily enough, I initially made the mistake of what a lot of this post will be about.  I listened to the sampler as an album, getting to know the recordings without realizing that they were actually random snippets and excerpts instead of full pieces.  I mistook a part for the whole, granting a traditional listening experience to only one component of a very non-traditional album.

I soon rectified my mistake by listening to the sampler in tandem with various downloads of live performances.  My sampler recordings all came from a UC Davis concert last October (not sure if it's different for everyone), and the downloads come from various tour stops across the country.  Much of the music that can be downloaded but didn't show up on the sampler -- like Cage's Child of Trees, performed on a cactus -- doesn't quite work with an audio-only recording.  But that's part of what's so fascinating about the album; the musicians create a kind of experience where one feels like one is part of an ongoing project, only living a sliver of what is actually going on (unfortunately, coming to writing about it rather late, everything has already "happened").

So what of the actual music? We get a nice mix of Cage and Cage-inspired.  My sampler began with five minutes of So's recording of Credo in US, a WW2-era work which samples radio and records, appropriating recorded elements of patriotism and classicism (Cage suggests "Dvorak, Beethoven, Sibelius or Shostakovich" for sections of it).  Our "classic" here is the gunmetal opening of Bon Jovi's Shot Through the Heart --  perhaps the best way to start a Cage album, ever -- which then launches into polyrhythmic percussion goodness.  Later we get snippets of sardonic piano tango and bits of the Star Spangled Banner.  Checking in on the online edition, the samples are even better -- The National's Fake Empire and Radiohead make it onto one version.  Our US is very different from Cage's, and the ensemble has an interesting idea of what "Dvorak, Beethoven, Sibelius or Shostakovich" might be today.>

As far as "real" Cage goes, the sampler also included a stunningly precise excerpt of the Third Construction -- pretty much the Brahms Violin Concerto of the percussion repertoire (I like to think of the conch shell towards the end as the percussionist mating call) -- as well as part of the subdued Percussion Quartet, and most of Imaginary Landscape No. 1.  The latter is one of the earliest electro-acoustic pieces, and sounds something like an apocalyptic hearing test.  Today, the mixture of phonographs, prepared piano, and cymbals has a wonderfully dated sound, with the high electronic pitches sounding particularly nostalgic.

Then we get the Cagean Cage, and the Cage-derived.  So Percussion has created a "Simultaneous Cage Pieces" work, which layers together three pieces (Inlets, 0'00", Duet for Cymbal) and the lecture 45' for a speaker (which can be found in Silence).  It's an fun conflation of sounds, with lovely little Cage aphorisms ("The best thing to do about counterpoint is what Schoenberg did: Teach it"), muted cymbal hits, and random bits of electronic-y fuzz.  Jason Treuting, one of So's Percussionists, also contributes his 24 x 24, a riff on the Third Construction, with more readings from the Lecture on Something.  This is a particularly intriguing piece, because it introduces drones, which aren't exactly Cage's thing, and that if anything recalled Riley and Young -- a piano occasionally chimes Cs in the back.  It's Cage refracted through the minimalism he helped inspire.

The Cage-inspired, but not necessarily Cage-derived, new pieces come from Cenk Ergun, Dan Deacon, and Matmos.  Matmos' Needles is a fun little series of Reichian clinking patterns which, as it turns out, were produced from an amplified cactus (unlike Cage's cactus piece, this one works pretty well without the visuals).

I enjoyed Ergun's Use, whose score can be seen here.  Written for percussionists, a string player, and "1 wild card performer," it involves each performer playing a series of succeding events -- friction, pattern, pulse, solo, etc.  In the sampler, this includes complicated polyrhythms produced by hollow cans or perhaps drums, whirring noises, whistling, and snatches of viola melody which float in and out.  More intrigugingly, an online recording from a Stanford performance includes violist Beth Myers tuning and warming up her instrument while anarchic percussion rages beneath.  Deacon's Bottles, a 25-minute piece from which the sampler only includes a single minute (I listened to the whole thing online) probably works better as a live visual experience.  The So musicians play simple drumming patterns on bottles while the 45' For a Speaker is read; we later hear a strangely jangly, electric/electronic instrument (guitar?), noise, the sound of the bottles slowly emptying and, towards the end, the keens of the conch shell from the Third Construction.

On the sampler, at least, Cage's written word plays as important a role as the music; pretty much every piece includes a speaker (the same one on the whole album, though I'm not sure who it is) reading various lectures by the composer.  It's occasionally distracting, but mostly it provides an aura of authenticity and an overarching narrative to the experience, as if Cage were watching over the performers' shoulders and approving of the absurdity.

So, what are our big ideas about this album and what it means for new music?  Here are two slightly fuzzy ones which can apply to Silfra and The Bright Motion as well:

The Album as Experience
Again, nothing new here.  Every album is an experience beyond the merely auditory.  Back in the day, the physicality of the LP format, with its liner notes actually on the sleeve, the weight and size of the album, made it a kind of Gesamtkunstwerk, a fully-conceived piece of art on multiple levels.  Today, we have the gamut of album experiences, from barebones digital downloads (that's not to say all downloads are barebones!) to those LP + CD + online access + bumper sticker + many-other-things deluxe editions.

The Bootlegs, besides offering a sly commentary on the return of the LP format, is more than just the limited edition series of goodies and extras.  This is an album not only to be experienced as a physical object, with its intriguing handmade cover art, but also as an ongoing and almost participatory experience -- one can continuously check the website, download new recordings from the ensemble's tour, and compare concert to concert (though this ongoing aspect is now, unfortunately, concluded).  The album is a way of charting the journey of the performers, tagging along digitally on their tour.  The problem here, which I'll talk about in the next section as well, is forming a narrative.  The Bootlegs grant me access to multiple downloadable versions of each piece alongside my sampler  -- there is no studio product here, no one single "thing" that the album is.  It's difficult to sit down and hear So Percussion's Cage, in this state, because there are many conflicting things to pick through.

If this were Beethoven, this would be a problem.  We would want a single product, our performer(s) to have focused his or her energy and produced One Grand Statement.  With Cage, it's actually not -- this ongoing approach matches perfectly with the master of anti-narrativity.  The album as indeterminate experience isn't what we got during Cage's lifetime, but it makes sense.

The album today can exist in tandem with a website -- like Silfra's -- which hopefully goes beyond marketing to provide the listener (or perhaps I should say user?) with an interactive and potentially participatory experience .  Musicians and composers are increasingly opening up their works to remixes, mashups, and visual re-interpretations (see: Son Lux).  This is, if anything, a multimedia extension of classical music's necessity of constant reinterpretation.  It's a good thing!

Dealing with the Archive

This is a new problem, and problem might be the word here.  There is an exhausting amount of new music being constantly released, and forming a narrative -- beyond that of this particular Cage album -- can be exhausting.  I can sit down and check out various live recordings on the Bootlegs website, but I would honestly rather hear those concerts in person.  There is now what is essentially an infinite amount of space out there for music (I guess there always was, but now it's infinite space + instant access).  Pretty much every major New York concert that I'm interested in is being live-streamed and archived by WQXR or Q2 (you can experience all of Spring For Music vicariously). and the Digital Concert Hall offer amazing streaming concerts; every weekend Parterre compiles the many operas being live webcast, often with video; every concert Ionarts mentions is one I want to listen to.  Without basically any effort, one can rip many of these streams and end up with lots of gigabites of concerts to listen to at some point in the future, alongside the many studio and live albums constantly being released.  With Bandcamp, new releases from labels like New Amsterdam can be streamed before purchasing for free.

I don't know if there is any one point in history where there is "more" or "less" music out there, and I have no idea how one would quantify such a thing.  But it's a bit exhausting to have an album which isn't a fixed entity alongside all these other streaming things, alongside all these real, conventional "fixed" albums.  I'm not sure if I will return to any of the online So material after this review, and that has nothing to do with quality -- there's just so much out there.

So how does one create this kind of open album experience while negotiating with the fact that The Archive is already so vast?  The release purports to be an ongoing series of bootlegs, and that's a particularly interesting metaphor for what we're talking about.  With the recent wave of specifically-produced albums, as I talked about earlier, via labels like Bedroom Community, we have an instance where the album is a musical work and the performance is another musical work, or a live realization of the album.  Here, there's no one musical work off of which the other is based -- you have a series of indeterminate pieces, each of which is different in every performance, brought together into -- well, bootlegs is the right word.

It's almost an acknowledgement of (or metaphor for) the way contemporary music is increasingly produced today, as series of of performance to performance rather than single monumental work to single monumental work.  So instead of spending two years writing a single piece which attempts to invent an entirely new musical language (this might be called the PhD approach), a composer will spend two years writing a ton of pieces, collaborating, doing some string arrangements for a band, performing her own music and that of others.  It's scrappier, and may result in fewer Teutonically Great works, but more very, very good and well-crafted music (and more concert experiences and opportunities to hear new music).  Our archive grows, and we may lose sight of the Grand Narrative, but what we've gained in immediacy for the music world today may be more important, even if we can't see the forest for the trees.


That's it for the album series.  Check back in a couple days for....WAR! And music! And the Spektral Quartet's promising new project.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

let's talk about music (part 2)

You can stream all of Michael Mizrahi's The Bright Motion herdane.

Michael Mizrahi is the resident pianist of the NOW Ensemble, a chamber group I've been following ever since I got completely hooked on Judd Greenstein's Folk Music a few years back.  Later this month, Mizrahi will release his first solo album, The Bright Motionon New Amsterdam, the label run by Greenstein, Sarah Kirkland Snider, and William Brittelle.  Like many of New Amsterdam's releases, this is very much an "in-house" affair -- NOW also records for New Amsterdam, and the album features works by Greenstein, Brittelle, NOW co-founder Patrick Burke, and NOW guitarist Mark Dancigers.  This musical not-quite-nepotism also takes place on most Bedroom Community releases.  I suppose you could look down on it as insularity, but I prefer to see a benefit in collaborators working repeatedly in the same circles.  As I mentioned in my last post, I think it is fruitful to continue pursuing collaborative relationships over time, even if it might mean that a certain aesthetic similarity can sink in.

We'll talk a bit about what that similarity might be later. For now, the music: it's great. (Hint: I'm only going to be talking about albums that I like this week.)  Dancigers' The Bright Motion -- specifically, the first movement, written several years after the second movement -- is easily the best piece on the album. (Listen here.)

It opens with a series of hazy arpeggios, a Debussyian filagree, articulated with breathtaking clarity by Mizrahi.  A chorale-like melody soon enters on top of the filagree; it quickly fades away into the arpeggiated mist, but returns with greater force, in a powerfully pianistic middle section.  It's the kind of arch-Romantic structure -- big-boned melody supported by rich arpeggios -- that is just one of the best ways to use a piano.  It reminds me of this:

And this:

Those are two very different composers who know exactly what the piano is about.  It's always refreshing to hear a pianistic moment like this, a reminder that, despite the fact that the instrument can and has been used for just about everything, there are still composers who can summon forth that old 1895-y full-bloodedness and pull it off.

The movement seems about to conclude where it began -- the wafting, subsiding filagree gestures return -- but then entirely new material emerges, a series of paired phrases providing a calming denouement.  The filagree makes one final, brief appearance, and quickly dies away, making for an almost seamless segue into the second movement (the "original" Bright Motion), a slightly less compelling but equally beautiful piece, again rife with moments of arpeggios rippling off of thick melodies.

Judd Greenstein's First Ballade and Patrick Burke's Unravel are tied for my second-favorite works on the album.  Unravel features an incessantly recurring three-note motive, which constantly "unravels," unspooling into longer and longer phrases before snapping back into its original form.  Jazzy, low bouncing figures take over, setting up a conflict between registers.  Eventually, the original motive returns in heavenly hyper-major mode, a Beethovenian gesture of triumph in non-Beethovian musical language.  Mizrahi brings to the work a lilting clarity -- a touch reminiscent of Bill Evans -- elucidating Burke's dense textures.

Greenstein's piece is a great match-up of lyric impulse and rhythmic drive, a mixture which really highlights Mizrahi's strengths.  There is a groove underlying the beginning section, but listening to Mizrahi's playing, one doesn't really feel that the rhythm is pushing it incessantly forward, Bang on a Can-style.  In the classic Bang on a Can, hard-driving grooves, individual rhythm units feel deliberately, aggressively metric.  Here, the "units" are phrases which breathe and deserve the rubato Mizrahi gives them (Greenstein cites Chopin as an big influence on the piece).  By the halfway point, these phrases become cascading series of Chopinesque arpeggios, making clear that the piece is less about groove than, well, ballade.  There's a story here.

Ryan Brown's Pieces for Solo Piano is a set of four curious miniatures which exclusively employ the higher registers of the instrument.  This particular range meshes neatly with Mizrahi's delicate technique, and allows for a very tactile experience -- you can hear the keys chiming out each high note.  Several moments feel just like William Duckworth's Time Curve Preludes -- that mix of quasi-minimalism, Satie, blues, and processes at work (the second movement, Buckle, feels particularly Time Curve-esque).  The final movement, Shoestring, is perhaps the most intriguing.  It spins out a simple two-note gesture in the piano's stratosphere over two minutes.  At the very end, though, Mizrahi sounds a single low note -- the only thing below middle C in the entire piece.  It's an obvious but intriguing, Haydnesque gesture -- is Brown telling us that the whole piece was a joke, a gimmick? Is he reminding us of the artificiality of the concept of writing for only a third of an instrument's range? Or simply telling us that the piano can do much more than what it just did?

I didn't really get into William Brittelle's Computer Wave, which had the postminimal rhythmic intensity of the rest of the album but lacked the poetry and breadth of the other works.  John Mayrose's Faux Patterns is dreamy, and Mizrahi's playing made the pedaled dissonances feel particularly mysterious, but the piece never grabbed me.

So what does this album tell us about contemporary music?  In the last post, I mentioned place and production.  These are important to this album, but don't come to the fore as obviously as they do on Silfra.  So here are two other interesting aspects that are particularly felt on The Bright Motion, and have implications for much other new music:

Personal Collaboration:
Collaboration is a very big thing right now, which I'm increasingly obsessed with.  It's not anything new, of course, but some things have changed in significant ways.  One, I think, is the degree of personal connections which are present, and even dramatized, in contemporary collaborations.  Mizrahi writes in his liner notes for the album:

"Several composers told me they composed with my hands, my sound, and my approach to the keyboard in mind, and I communicated frequently with all the composers throughout the process of learning, performing, and recording their music."

Having written about this idea in my undergrad thesis (yes, I get to mention it again) with regards to Muhly's Keep in Touch and The Only Tune -- two works which utilize Muhly's close collaborators but also dramatize aspects of the friendship between them -- I'm very conscious of what statements like this mean.  It may not necessarily be anything new that a composer would write for a performer's specific musical personality, and tie their music to their relationship with their collaborator -- one can assume this was happening with Britten and Pears -- but the openness with which it is discussed is striking.

Last year, I heard Ken Ueno lecture about his music and discuss Talus, written for his friend, the violist Wendy Richman.  Ueno based the piece's harmonies on a spectrogram analysis of an X-ray of Richman's shattered ankle, which she broke at a rehearsal in 2006.  This is co-biographical music, where the performer's life, not just his or her musical skill set, becomes ingrained within the work itself.

The implications of this are fascinating.  Would a performer that is not the original be missing a "secret" aspect of the music without having lived the experiences it describes?  (If it's not your broken leg in the score, does that shape how your play the piece?) If Yefim Bronfman played Dancigers' The Bright Motion, would an essentially personal quality of the music  -- the hands, the sound, or the approach -- be lost?  Certainly all the pieces on this album can be performed by pianists that aren't Mizrahi  (unlike, say, The Only Tune, which pretty much requires Sam Amidon).  What would be lost, though, and what might be gained?

This is really, really hard to quantify or even qualify.  There is a certain open emotional quality present on this album, and in much new music.  Isaac Shankler mentioned this as a characteristic of *blankity-blankity*-classical in a recent NMB post, and I think he is on to something. This pervasive emotional state -- somewhere between optimism and ecstasy -- is why I misinterpreted the title of the Ecstatic Music festival a while back.  I do think that much music by composers like Muhly, Greenstein, Missy Mazzoli, Dancigers, as well as bands like Sigur Rós/Jónsi, has this hard-to-name quality.  It is both an emotional aspect of the music as well as a way of dealing with musical time -- to quote the title of one of Greenstein's pieces, a Being There essence of musical presence.  I think it has to do with a mixture of postminimalism and Romanticism, staking out a place between the abstraction of the former and the personal implications of the latter.  I still haven't figured out exactly what the musical qualities of this "brightness/presentness" are, but it's what allows me to hear Hahn/Hauschka and think immediately of I Drink the Air Before Me or Jonsi's Go or Dancigers' The Bright Motion (it can't just be an Icelandic thing).  I'm going to write myself in circles if I keep talking about this, since I haven't quite figured it out yet, but I will keep it in mind, and I hope you will too.

Next up: So Percussion and Cage.

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.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

for the birth of a child

In 1944, Schoenberg wrote a short canon in honor of the birth of Richard Rodzinski, son of the famous conductor Arthur Rodzinski.  The text is priceless:

I am almost sure, when your nurse will change your diapers,
  she will not sing you one of my George Songs,
nor of my Second String Quartet;
  but perhaps she stills you:
Sleep, Richard, Sleep! Your father loves you!