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.

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