Monday, May 31, 2010

in the news

Composer Robert Muczynski died last week at the age of 81. Muczynski fits into that weird category of obscure composers who, in the halls of various conservatories, end up better-known than many figures in the contemporary mainstream. Because of his wind literature, most notably works for flute and sax, Muczynski is one of those names that sits on the tongues of Northwestern students (along with David Maslanka, Dana Wilson, Vincent Persichetti, and a few others)--unlike, say, Lachenmann, or even Stockhausen. Weird, right? Having played his saxophone sonata, one of our repertoire standards, I can vouch for his solid wind writing. Andrew Patner has an obituary.

I wrote what I would call a fairly even-handed assessment of how critics have been weighing in on Dudamel's first year and tour. The L.A. Times continues their crazy Dudamel coverage with this completely ridiculously article from a certain James Rainey; it speaks for itself. I took the opportunity to publicly hate on Rainey, and others contributed--the comments are worth a read.

My main man Justin Davidson weighs in on Dudamel, in one of the more snarky but elegant reviews; Mark Swed looks at Dudamel's season and makes a bold proclamation: "No music director in America tried so much last season." This seems to be a jab directly at Alan Gilbert in New York, and one that really misses the point. Dudamel's successes came from a combination of Deborah Borda's excellent administration, the gifts Salonen already gave the orchestra, and Dudamel's natural personal appeal, inherent musicality, and outreach efforts. But what Gilbert has done at the New York Phil came almost entirely from him: there hasn't been much administrative shakeup since Maazel left, but the orchestra programming (and, at least from reading the reviews, playing caliber) is a whole new ballgame. NY sold out Le Grand Macabre last weekend, and all of that credit lies with Gilbert taking the initiative to really run with this difficult work and make it happen for the city--reportedly, their clever marketing campaign was something he pushed for personally. Though Dudamel may have led some great performances, he certainly did not try, nor succeed, as much as Gilbert.

Davidson lobs one back at Swed with a look at the Kulturkrieg, as I am now calling it, between New York and L.A (okay, Swed's was actually written before Davidson's, but it's more fun to read this way). He comes down a little harsh on L.A. but it's all in good fun; if the L.A. Times is going to sink this far into Dudamania, then we might as well get our own (well-written) dose of Empire State propaganda.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

berlin diaries, part two

My second excerpt from the Kessler diaries again describes George Grosz, one of those artists who so clearly epitomizes his time and place. I thought it would be easy to find good excerpts about Berlin and its characters in the diaries, but unfortunately so many of them require political contextualizing, especially in the years 1918-1923 or so, that you simply need to read the whole book to get the gist of it. It's really astonishing, that Kessler fills each entry with bevies of names of assassinated socialists, anti-Semitic sisters of philosophers, and physicists (that is--Liebknecht and Luxemburg, Frau Nietzsche, and Einstein). Here's some more Grosz for you:
Friday, 7 July 1992 Berlin

Spent the afternoon with the painter and draughtsman George Grosz. The devotion of his art exclusively to depiction of the repulsiveness of bourgeois philistinism is, so to speak, merely the counterpart to some sort of secret ideal of beauty that he conceals as though it were a badge of shame. In his drawings he harasses with fanatical hatred the antithesis to this ideal, which he protects from public gaze like something sacred. His whole art is a campaign of extermination against what is irreconcilable with his secret 'lady love.' Instead of singing her praises like a troubadour, he does battle against her opponents with unsparing fury like a dedicated knight. Only in his colours does he ever let his secret ideal show through. His is an excessively sensitive nature which turns outrageously brutal by reason of its sensibility, and he has the talent for delineating this brutality creatively.

Becher and Dr. Gumbel dined with me. I warned the latter. I have sound reasons for believing him to be on the list of those due for assassination.
George Grosz, The City

Monday, May 24, 2010

mahler five, not so alive

Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Semyon Bychkov, conductor

Detlev Glanert, Theatrum bestiarum, Songs and Dances for Large Orchestra
Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 5

A Mahler symphony performance is no longer that big of a deal. This is a bit weird--even just ten years ago, these symphonies were the gems of every orchestra season, that night where the critics and audience flock to see the rarity of over a hundred musicians sawing away on stage. Now, critics and audiences still do their flocking, but Mahler is pretty much everywhere; it seems that almost every major orchestra in the U.S. and Europe is embarking on, or continuing, a full Mahler cycle next season. The Chicago Symphony has done practically a full cycle in the four years I've been here: I've seen them perform the First, Second, Third, Sixth, Seventh, and now the Fifth. I missed their Fourth, and the Ninth will be next season. We don't talk anymore about Mahler specialists or Mahler revivalists--everyone conducts his music, though some better than others.

But just because it's possible to see a Mahler Fifth in a dozen cities around the world any given season, doesn't mean that it puts anyone off the hook for delivering a transcendent performance. I was excited for my seventy minutes of instrumental Mahler, and was decidedly underwhelmed by Semyon Bychkov's conducting. At points, Mahler's Fifth actually became boring, a feat I did not know possible.

The Fifth is somewhat of an oddity among the symphonies, really the only purely absolute symphony in his output, as the only instrumental one without strong programmatic connotations. The First has its Des Knaben Wunderhorn quotations and fragments; the Second through Fourth their vocalists and world-shattering extra-musical associations; the Sixth its implications of fate and death; the Seventh its "Song of the Night" designation; and the Ninth its swan-song and farewell to the world. Here, though, we have music about music, from the opening funeral march echoing Beethoven to the ruckus of the Bach-inspired finale. Perhaps more than any other Mahler symphony, it allows a conductor to produce a clear musical vision and interpret the music without being overladen with concerns of reincarnation, doom, or transcendent suffering.

Unfortunately, Bychkov had no particular insights into the work. It started off nicely, with the Chris Martin's glorious trumpet fanfares, and we seemed in for a sensitive reading. But the first movement lacked any sense of urgency: not snappy enough rhythmically for a funeral march, but not slow or lugubrious enough for a personal mark. Everything seemed to drag, and the whole piece lacked the Viennese lilt necessary for any great Mahler performance. And you don't need to be Austro-German to pull that off: Bernstein did it, Tilson-Thomas does it, James Levine does it, Gustavo Dudamel does it. Luckily we were blessed with the CSO brass; Martin's gorgeous, rich trumpet was a beam of sound cutting through the murkiness of the interpretation.

The second movement showed Bychkov's faults most clearly: where one expected a crackle of energy and a palpable sense of exigency, there was none. The gorgeous slow section did not gleam in the way it should. As the music gradually transformed to hopeful, even victorious, teetering on the edge of crashing back into the chaotic opening section, Bchkov gave no indication of these conflicting emotions. Luckily the level of playing was so high that it almost didn't matter, with triumphant brass chorales, burnished strings, and tight ensemble work in the sarcastic little coda.

We were also, alas, damned by the CSO brass. I hate, hate, hate to have to specify members of any orchestra to fault for a performance, but Dale Clevenger's horn playing has, particularly this season, become unacceptable for an orchestra of this caliber. It was sad to see him struggle with the massive solo part in the third movement scherzo--strange buzzing sounds emitted, he sounded constantly breathless, and notes shared with other instruments were completely out of tune. Chris Martin's trumpet stole his melody right out from under him, giving the music the heft and attention it deserves. And with such poor intonation, Clevenger nearly butchered the key structural moment when a single note is passed between the horns (the other horns sounded lovely). Fortunately , this was the only movement Bychkov had some success with, elegantly shaping the ländler, with its opening bustle of strings and clarinets and grotesque, bizarre ending with the solo oboe submerged in brass.

Bychkov put down his baton for the Adagietto, an hopeful indication that this might be an individual statement, some music from the soul. Alas, these sounds from another world, with celestial harp and strings, were far from that. Bychkov led a movement stuck somewhere in an awkward and uncomfortable middle ground, between letting the music unfold and coaxing out a specific interpretation. This music can either be micro-managed, with the conductor assuming the role of shaping every single phrase, or it can be allowed to float and handle itself: somehow Bychkov did both and neither, and the molten music just fell flat.

With roughly ringing horns, the orchestra arrived at the final rondo. Bychkov played up its rustic, earthy qualities well and managed the Bachian counterpoint quite nicely. But the best parts of the movement lie in those weird moments and interludes, with strange instrumental juxtapositions emerging, and for those Bychkov didn't deliver. There were stirring final moments, after which the music furiously spins away, but by the end the orchestra seemed to take over the interpretation, leaving Bychkov along for the ride.

Theatrum bestiarum, receiving its U.S. premiere, fit well with the Mahler. Judging by this work (I'm not familiar with any other part of Glanert's output), the composer belongs to the post-Romantic aesthetic of German composers--much more Henze than Lachenmann. But the real model for this music is Shostakovich. A pungent opening chord (apparently composed of twenty-five notes) sets a scene not unfamiliar to many of Shostakovich's symphonies: groaning basses, sardonic winds, sputtering brass, and spectral ghosts of violins. Tension gradually builds, the massive chord seems to return, and the brass play a kind of greasy chorale. Glanert's use of heavily dissonant, blaring organ evokes the sacred theatricality of Messiaen. We get more effects, a different orchestration of what I think was the same chord, an acerbic section with strings sliding around, a circus-like romp, and then Shostakovich takes over completely--a mega-loud climax falls apart to reveal solo string players, eerily quoting one of the Russian master's string quartets.

According to the program notes, Glanert attempted to draw upon the "musical essence" of his opera Caligula, focusing on its most horrible acts of violence: he says that "The work is an exploration of dangerous dreams and wishes, with an uncomfortable undertow." In many ways this brazen orchestral writing and sheer loudness is a German version of Corigliano's Circus Maximus, making art out of the vulgarities of modern life: the orchestra as the embodiment of excess. The CSO dispatched the piece with ease, and the duets between principal trumpet and trombone were excellent. After hearing Bychkov's undramatic Mahler, however, I wonder if he could have gotten a lot more out of this piece and the orchestra; it never really reached the heights of loudness and excess I was expecting.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

music critics: getting it (mostly) right

One of the more interesting aspects of the L.A. Phil's recent tour with The Dude has been his critical reception. The L.A. Times seems obsessed with this in a way that's borderline unprofessional, but for the rest of us it's great insight into how a mostly-the-same concert line-up (Tchaikovsky's Sixth or Mahler 1 plus either Adams' City Noir or Berstein's Age of Anxiety) can garner such different feedback. It's very easy to tell who's doing a good job either addressing the musical issues of the performance, or focusing more on the hype factor.

I wonder if it was a mistake for Dudamel to go in the road with an orchestra that he is (hopefully) still building, but you can't really turn down a demand that huge. When was the last time an American orchestra sold out every city it went to? And let's remember that for a long time before Salonen revived it (even during Zubin Mehta's tenure), the L.A. Phil was mostly considered a provincial nobody. Obviously everyone's here to see Dudamel (if you interchanged L.A. with Simon Bolivar, you'd probably have the same sales and reception), but it's refreshing to see an American orchestra outside the big 5 galvanizing concert-goers.

And the reviews. The L.A. Times' appropriately named Culture Monster has been amalgamating them. Mark Swed's "reviewing the audience" New York review makes me a bit uncomfortable. I really react negatively when critics use their own cities and orchestras as a giant stick with which to beat on other cities and orchestras---it always seems that anecdotal evidence leads to some conclusion about the coldness/rudeness/inattentiveness of New York audiences or whatever. I'm not saying that these conclusions are wrong, but there's a tendency to generalize, and then suddenly your own regional orchestra becomes the savior to classical music.

And this is just embarrassing for a national newspaper. Instead of reviewing the Phil's San Francisco performance, the writer reviewed the Phil's San Francisco reception. This includes quoting Josh Kosman and then watching him as the concert concluded:

"When Dudamel hammered home the final chords of the Mahler, causing deafening applause to fill the concert hall and bringing many people to their feet, Kosman clapped quietly and remained in his seat. He shrugged emphatically. And then he was gone."

Luckily that's the end of the article and she doesn't go ahead and "speculate" as to what his emphatic shrug "meant." Now, it turns out Kosman didn't really like it, but coming close to judging his opinion of the concert based on how a reviewer applauded is just voyeuristic and a little creepy.

As for the rest of the reviews, it's refreshing to see that we have a ton of intelligent critics with a wide variety of opinions. Even if each concert goes differently, we can get a sense of what critics value in a performance, how they deal with the issue of Dudamania, etc. Of the Tchaikovsky/Bernstein program, weirdly enough some found the Bernstein to be the better half, and some the Tchaik. Anne Midgette didn't really like Age of Anxiety and loved the Pathetique; Tommassini flipped that. What's great about almost all the reviews is that they touch on how Dudamel might not live up to the hype--and then they give really specific examples in each piece of what's he's doing right or wrong. Tommassini's review is the most impressive in this regard, and shows why he's the Big Dog in New York: when he's reviewing symphony orchestras (even though he's the chief opera critic, I really think his best writing is for orchestras) he can just get down to business. Each movement of the Tchaikovsky gets a couple sentences with general observations and specifics. Because there's such a wide swath of reviews and the hype is so immense, it seems like everyone decide to bring his or her A-game.

Nearly everyone agrees that Dudamel needs to spend more time with the music, both expanding from his somewhat-limited 19th/20th-century "big piece" repertoire and re-immersing himself in those scores as well. And although people tend to want to knock him off his pedestal (podium?), no one was completely turned off: all agree that this is a conductor with an immense musical vision and that Dudamania is not unfounded. When I interviewed John Adams in the winter, we were talking about his feelings about younger composers and hype, and I brought up Dudamel. He told me (and this was a candid observation) that he believed Dudamel had such a purely musical core that marketing and hype were essentially irrelevant.

Contrast this with, say, Lang Lang. He's got a trademarked name, a gigantic cult following around the globe, and sells out just about every concert hall. He's a national icon for his home country and has a rags-to-riches background story that would make anyone cry. He got a New Yorker profile from David Remnick himself! But, but, but. He's just not very good. He's got technical chops up the wazoo, and even though his reviews have gotten better over the past couple years (recent reviews seem almost apologetic, attempting to find reasons why people like him so much), he lacks that strong musical core. The way he manipulates phrases and plays with rubato speak to a musical ego rather than a vision--Dudamel's a crowd-pleaser too, but his showmanship serves a purpose.

This is a long winded way of saying that, despite the impending death of all print media as we know it, most classical critics are doing a pretty good job. La Cieca's commenters have a tendency to see Tommassini and the Times as lapdogs for the big New York institutions like the Met and the New York Phil, but in reality they're writing honest reviews (whether or not they're all good reviews is another story). Even Mark Swed judges Dudamel mostly on his own merits, even if his newspaper is being swept away by the marketing machine. So a round of applause for all you critics out there.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

berlin diaries, part one

With my departure to Berlin less than four months away, I have decided to begin a weekly series on Seated Ovation titled Berlin Diaries. As I continue my research and cultural immersion in preparation for my year in Germany, I will excerpt passages from various books, and possibly interject some of my own stuff as well.

One of the more fascinating discoveries I made at the Northwestern library booksale last year (this year, my greatest finds were a copy of the Denson revision of The Sacred Harp and a vocal score for The Flying Dutchman) was Berlin in Lights, the diaries of Count Harry Kessler from 1918 to 1937. Not only was Kessler a fascinating man, straddling both arts and politics, but he lived in just about the best time to be writing a diary in Germany. It begins with abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II and Berlin's political crossfire (literally, with shootouts in the streets), continues through the rise and fall of the Weimar Republic, and ends with Kessler cavorting around Paris in exile.

The next month or so of our Wednesday series will probably be devoted to excerpts from the diaries. Here's the first.

Wednesday, 5 February 1919 (Berlin)
The Government forces have taken Bremen. The Spartacists have been defeated.

In the morning I visited George Grosz in his studio in Wilmersdorf. He showed me a huge political painting, Germany, A Winter's Tale, in which he derides the former ruling classes as the pillars of the gormandizing, slothful middle class. he wants to become the German Hogarth, deliberately realistic and didactic; to preach, improve and reform. Art for art's sake does not interest him at all. He conceived this picture as one to be hung in schools. I made the reservation that, in accordance with the principle of conservation of forces, it is uneconomic to use art for purposes which may be achieved just as well, if not better, without artistic propaganda. For instance, warnings against venereal disease; here an anatomical exhibition is more to the point. On the other hand there are complex events of an ethical character which perhaps art alone is capable of conveying. In so far as this is the case, a didactic use of art is justified.

Grosz argued that art as such is unnatural, a disease, and the artist a man possessed. Mankind can do without art.

He is really a Bolshevist in the guise of a painter. He loathes painting and the pointlessness of painting as practiced so far, yet by means of it wants to achieve something new or, mroe accurately, something that it used to achieve (through Hogarth or religious art), but which got lost in the nineteenth century. He is reactionary and revolutionary in one, a symbol of the times. Intellectually his thought processes are in part rudimentary and easily demolished.

George Grosz; Germany, A Winter's Tale

Saturday, May 15, 2010

reviewing jónsi part 2: live show and extras

As I mentioned before, I have a misguided tendency to avoid even the better classes of non-classical (or non-jazz) music. So it was no surprise when, upon arriving at the Jonsi live show at the Vic Theatre, I realized I haven't been to a purely rock show in upwards of five years. People were young and not dressed up! And some members of the crowd wore face paint and colorful feathers, in tribute to Jonsi's garb (see the Go Do video).

The entire evening was both a thrilling event and an intense display of craftsmanship, addressing just about every aspect of the live performance, creating a kind of art-pop Gesamtkunstwerk. I wouldn't be surprised if this thing were more in line with Wagner's vision of a unity of the arts rather than, say, Otto Schenk's drearily naturalistic Ring. Colorful, vibrant video projections not only added a visual narrative to the music, but brought out unexpected themes within the music itself. Running wolves, chirping birds, and soaring landscapes enhanced the constantly recurring motive of movement in Jonsi's lyrics and music, and drew the listener's attention to details in the music in the same way that Mark Morris's choreography does to Purcell or Mozart.

Each of the five musicians of the live show band was incredibly talented; everyone played a different instrument for nearly every song, creating intriguing juxtapositions of musical textures. Muhly's strings and winds were unfortunately not present, though mostly made up for by an array of keyboards. The only real problem of the show laid with the unrestrained drummer, Thorvaldur Thór Thorvaldsson, whose name says it all. He apparently thought that any important musical moment required massively loud drum fills, which seemed decidedly inappropriate given the frailty of Jónsi's voice. I understand that Jónsi was looking for more of a rock approach with his tour, and I respect that decision, but giving Thór free reign may have been a mistake. It overshadowed the impressive keyboard, guitar, bass, and other random instrument performances by the other band members (úlfur Hansson, Ólafur Björn Ólafsson, and Alex Somers), and occasionally eclipsed Jónsi as well.

I won't get into specifics, since I already talked about most of the songs performed on the album (there were a couple ones not on the album, but none particularly struck me), but each live recreation maintained the energy and excitement of the studio work, and often added new elements. The pop-ier tunes like Go Do and Boy Lilikoi were utterly fun, and slower songs like Kolnidur appeared even more elegiac and haunting than on the CD. Jónsi himself put on an impressive show, prancing around stage in his adorably weird outfit and playing his own share of instruments (guitar, ukelele, keyboards, percussion).

One of my favorite moments was the combination of the upbeat, vivacious Animal Arithmetic with intense visual projections. As Jónsi sang and threw himself around in a fit of joyful epilepsy, an infinite swarm of ants crawled across the backdrop behind him. It seems at first in the vein of the spontaneous innocence of the music: ants scurrying away from a picnic, perhaps. They began carrying objects; a gaggle made off with a coke can, others with a feather, bits of old documents, even musical manuscript paper on their backs. This playful imagery gradually became apocalyptic, as one realized that they hauling away the scraps of humanity: the picnic was human civilization , and they're making off with whatever's left.

What's remarkable about the Go experience is how many different but effective iterations that Jónsi has created of his music. I've encountered three full versions--the Go album, the live show, and Go Quiet, the acoustic DVD (not counting the four-song Jónsi and Muhly video)---and each somehow manages to create a cohesive narrative out of varying song orders and arrangements. Go Quiet purposefully strips away the electronic veneer of the studio album. Jónsi makes this clear from the beginning, which features faint echoes of the studio Animal Arithmetic eventually fading to silence, with shots of young people rapturously dancing. And then we are then at Jónsi's home, watching him perform Animal Arithmetic and accompanying himself on piano, with the occasional flashback to the dancers.

Where Go is public, wild, and joyfully overcrowded, Go Quiet is bare and private, a domestic re-imagining. We have just a man at home with his guitar (and piano, and organ, and celeste). Each song gains a loneliness not present in the album due to both the unadorned arrangements , and the excellent, intimate camerawork. Certain songs stand out, like the plinking celeste of Sinking Friendships, a kind of musical fairy dust. The organ in Heliglas creaks like an ancient house, old but comforting. And my heart breaks just a little bit every time I watch Jónsi sing the chorus to Grow Till Tall acapella, with close-up shots of dolls and dusty photographs.

Following the playful but portentous Animal Arithmetic, Jónsi performed one last song at the Vic. Grow Till Tall, with its pessimistic mantra ("They all, in the end, will fall") was a reminder of the seriousness of Jonsi's passion, that the facade of innocence is flecked with darker thoughts.

In its final moments, Jónsi repeated the mantra "You'll know" as the band maintained a tight, militaristic groove. Distortion crept into the sound, and the crowd began a low roar. Battered by electric noise, Jonsi convulsed on the stage in his colorful headdress. It was not clear whether he was writhing in ecstasy or pain. Was this a rain dance in a storm? Was he embracing the cleansing torrent, or agonizing in its painful deluge? The effect was ritualistic, that of a shaman possessed by forces of nature beyond his control. To suggest Wagner again, we are at the end of Götterdämmerung: the imagery cataclysmic but cathartic, the doom laden with promise for a better tomorrow. Despite, or perhaps through, the accrual of massive electronic forces, Jónsi tapped into a primal energy. That he can replicate this moment in concerts around the world shows that regardless of what that force may be, its source is driven by sheer artistry.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

an interlude

In-between my two Jónsi posts, I must remind you all that this Friday, Northwestern's Symphonic Wind Ensemble will be performing John Corigliano's third symphony, Circus Maximus, at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall (50 Arts Circle Drive in Evanston, IL). It is part of a whole slew of Corigliano events this week and next at Northwestern. I can personally vouch that Circus Maximus is going to sound awesome, and I'm pretty confident we will blow all other performances (including the Baltimore Symphony) out of the water. At first I thought the piece was ridiculous, and it still is, but it's grown on me and is pretty damn entertaining. The concert will be live-streamed on the internet beginning 7:30pm Friday (also featuring Corigliano's Gazebo Dances and Strauss's Festmusik der Stadt Wien), but really needs to be experienced in the hall. Tomorrow Corigliano arrives to coach us, as well as the specialist we're bringing in to shoot a shotgun, the sound of which concludes the piece. As I said, this is something you'll want to see in person.

It's a bittersweet moment for me: my last big concert at Northwestern. As The New Yorker so eloquently puts it, onward and upward with the arts.

Monday, May 10, 2010

reviewing jónsi part 1: the album

Confession time: I am a bad music appreciator. I consider my tastes eclectic and my mind open, and though I know there's a ton of great non-classical music floating out there, rarely do I take the initiative to pluck it out of the ether. Instead of seeking out awesome new rock stuff the way I seek out awesome new classical stuff, I end up hearing it in a bar, on TV, or through my roommate's door.

My immature classical pretensions make it so that I need some kind of "hook" to validate checking out what every normal person considers a great band. So I needed Alex Ross to tell me why I should listen, and subsequently fall in love with, Radiohead and Björk. My other "hook" as of late has been Nico Muhly, who with his delightful orchestrations gave me the gift of Grizzly Bear, Sam Amidon, Antony, Doveman, and now Jónsi. Somehow I missed the Sigur Rós bandwagon, even though people have been telling me for years they are the third member of the holy trinity of non-classical-stuff-that-classical-people-like (with Radiohead and Björk). So I'm glad I saw this blog post and clicked to listen to Boy Lilikoi: I was quickly enchanted, and eagerly awaited the release of Jónsi's/Muhly's album Go for four months.

I really like the process of gradually obtaining parts of Go. Initially on Jónsi's website I was able to listen to a couple songs and see a few videos, as well as hear acoustic versions of some tracks. In March I pre-ordered the limited edition album and could immediately download Go Do, an EP of three songs from the album. A week before its release, the full Go was available streaming on NPR's website; on the release date, I could download the whole thing, along with a video of Jónsi and Muhly performing four songs from the album acoustically (more on that later). Unfortunately the physical copy of the album and accompanying Go Quiet DVD didn't arrive until a few days ago. By that point the physical version was the least important thing--I had already experienced the album dozens of times. This is now the de-facto format for big music releases (you can still stream the full album for free): the actual CD is the least important component.

But let's talk about the music. The overarching theme of Go is kinetics: growing, moving, climbing, running, crawling. It is youthful exuberance wrapped up in forty minutes of music, as epitomized by the buoyant opening Go Do, a paean to childlike achievement. Over giddy electronic swirls and a thumping bass, Jónsi happily intones "You will survive, will never stop wonders/You and sunrise will never fall under." Nico Muhly's elegant arrangements weave in and out, with cute postminimalist wind and string grooves maintaining the beat. This style continues with the chaotic glee of Animal Arithmetic, which has a wonderfully out-of-place, half-a-second flute hoot before its opening chorus--a daring little solo for a rock album and something only Muhly could pull off.

The best of the fast and fun is Boy Lilikoi, an energetic and delightfully upbeat song made perfect by Muhly's arrangements. Dense interludes, packed with not only electronic beats, but also crazily virtuosic piccolo and flute licks, fill the gaps between Jónsi's ecstatic childhood fantasies ("You growl, you howl, you show your teeth/You bite, it's alright"). It's the musical equivalent of the first third of Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are, the naivete of animalistic joy before the onset of a darker reality.

Slower songs like Tornado still maintain that sense of movement--"You grow, like tornado"--combined with Jónsi's gorgeous falsetto, rising up into the stratosphere, accompanied by lightning percussion and sensitive piano playing. I love Sinking Friendships, the midpoint on the album, with its adorable little opening of Jónsi harmonizing his own voice and radiant middle section. And the pulsing verses of Kolnidur (one of two songs not in English) are a great vehicle for Muhly's delicate string tremelos; its chorus is haunting, as Jónsi's voice soars over his band.

In Around Us and Grow Till Tall, Jónsi creates a complementary pairing: the first in the fast-paced, energized style of much of the album, and the second more reflective, the only truly penchant song on the album. Both repeat the mantra "Grow till tall," made palpable by the music's constant expansion, but with different emotional resonances. Growth in Around Us is the miraculous, adolescent triumph over obstacles ("You break through them all/I see you crawl, now you stand tall"). It celebrates the journey to maturity as an end in itself; the destination of adulthood is far away, and Jónsi revels in the purity of youth. At the end of the song, the vocals become part of the wall of electronic sound, and the music shimmers spectrally--we are not too distant from the sound world of Kaija Saariaho and Magnus Lindberg. But Grow Till Tall is a darker counterpart, a more pessimistic view of growing up: "They all, in the end, will fall." Jónsi's voice, rather than merging with electronic swirls of color, is barraged and overwhelmed by static (more on this in part 2).

A gorgeous, slow string intro allows us to emerge unscatched from the apocalyptic electronics into the lullaby of Heliglas. Jónsi sings in a soothing whisper. The music gradually comes to a cadence, pauses briefly, and we hear the same beautiful strings from the opening, which cascade away into silence.

Coming up next: Reviewing Jónsi's live show at the Vic, as well as the supplemental Go Quiet DVD.

An acoustic version of Around Us

(Later edit: there's definitely some organ and brass going on in the intro/outro to Heliglas, my bad)

Thursday, May 6, 2010

miss ellaneous

First: Run, don't walk (or just click, I guess) to New Amsterdam's website and download Corey Dargel's new EP, Every Day is the Same Day, for free. Dargel's fierce ruminations on death are accompanied by the ecstatic violin loops of Cornelius Dufallo, a truly wonderful eight minutes of music. It's Kafka Fragments for the SoHo crowd. I'm very excited for Dargel's upcoming double-album Someone Will Take Care of Me, out May 25th.

Second: Thank you all for your support and help--blogging, donating, watching--towards making Music Marathon a success. It was an incredible 26 hours (actually more like 25.5, but who's counting?), and I heard everything except for the 4AM to 8AM stuff. Excellent performances and more fun than a barrel of monkeys. So far we've raised over $12,000 and donations keep coming in--I'll have a final money tally by next week. At about 10pm on Friday night, I noticed a middle-aged Asian man sitting in the back of the hall. When the crowd thinned out at around 1am, he was still there. Two hours later, when he was one of four people in the hall, I decided to strike up a conversation. Roy Nakamura is the official Music Marathoner, the only person to stay for all 26 hours. Considering he didn't know any of the performers personally, and is just a classical music fan who happened to saw our Chicago Tribune article and decided to stop by, that's pretty astonishing.

Third: I saw Jónsi's spectacular live show last week at the Vic Theatre, and have yet to blog about it. But don't worry, I will! His new album is all I've been listening to the past few weeks, and I'm still waiting for my limited edition boxed set of goodies to arrive. When it does, I'll review everything in there and the live show as well. Stay tuned.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

tune in now!

A last minute schedule change means I will be performing Mark Engebretson's She Sings, She Screams for sax and tape in fifteen minutes! Tune in at at 11:45PM CST!