Friday, May 31, 2013

Cabaret Voltaire: The Conversation

While such albums as Micro-Phonies, The Crackdown, and Red Mecca are usually the more acclaimed recordings from Cabaret Voltaire, YHB has always found the last album from the duo of Richard H. Kirk and Stephen Mallinder, 1994's The Conversation, to be a favorite.

Maybe this is partially because, after the debacle that was the short tenure with conglomerate EMI, CV was able to pick up the pieces and move back into an experimental stance while also going forward with a sound that looked ahead to what electronica was heading toward in the early 90s.

This was no small feat, given the Cabs were able to reinvent themselves at least three times during their lengthy career and to do so generally successfully (with the later EMI years being a notable exception.)  It does have to be noted, though, that Mallinder's involvement in the last three albums, under the duo's Plastex imprint, was considerably less than previously and The Conversation appears to be almost completely, if not entirely, Kirk's doing as there are no vocals from Mallinder, who last performed them a few albums back, though he may have had a hand in the pieces that was more subtle than previous contributions.

The double disc album is solid all the way through, from the bookmarked intro and outro of Exterminating Angel to the sharp grooves of Brutal But Clean to the smooth machine funk of Let's Start and the unusual The Message (An Original Hollywood Theme).

But, the centerpiece of this great album is the mind-blowing sound collage piece Project 80, which spans 53 minutes, but almost operates like a electronic concerto or symphony with several movements.  Washes of sound, often heavily treated with echo and other effects, sampled voices, and other sources are densely layered into a compelling mix that doesn't drag or peter out, but transforms into another "movement" and changes the dynamic of the piece.  It's hard to believe that it's been almost 20 years since this record comes out, but Project 80 never fails to impress and stands as an apt culmination to two decades of remarkable work from a truly remarkable group.

Richard Kirk's solo work really began to accelerate in the early 90s and Mallinder's move to Australia marked the end of CV or at least its suspension, though there were some unrealized plans for a 1998 return to recording and live performance. 

While Mallinder did some recording "down under" and continues to make music now in England after completing a PhD, using his music background as his field of research and writing, Kirk has made dozens of fascinating recordings under a slew of monikers, showing that he remains a highly productive and imaginative manipulator of sound.

There have been a couple of projects in which Kirk has resurrected the Cabaret Voltaire name on his own, these being remix albums for young groups, including Kora and The Tivoli, though it has been a few years since the last of these and there hasn't been any indication of new recordings utilizing the CV name.

In any case, The Conversation is an album that holds up as well to this listener as any in Cabaret Voltaire's extensive discography, even if not as well recognized as its early to mid-1980s "classics."

Cabaret Voltaire:  The Conversation (Plastex/Instinct, 1994)

Disc One:
1.  Exterminating Angel (Intro)  5:47
2.  Brutal But Clean  11:05
3.  The Message (An Original Hollywood Theme)  8:16
4.  Let's Start  8:11
5.  Night Rider  9:54
6.  I Think  8:56
7.  The Heat  7:52
8.  Harmonic Parallel  10:52

Disc Two:
1.  Project 80  53:05
2.  Exterminating Angel (Outro)  8:01

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Johann Sebastian Bach: Multiple Concerti

This is another excellent Naxos label recording from 1995 by the Cologne (Germany) Chamber Orchestra of four concerti by the great baroque master, J. S. Bach.  In this case, the use of the harpsichord and recorder provide for original instrumentation that give a close approximation of how this amazing music would have sounded when the composer wrote and performed the pieces over three centuries ago.

Except that  it is not known what instruments were utilized by Bach when these were created, except for the harpsichord.  Existing necrologies, catalogs of the works, only, as the liner notes by Peter Wollny indicate, listed, "a quantity of other instrumental works of all kinds and for various instruments," although a given concerto could include up to four harpsichords.

Bach's works for organ and the harpsichord or other keyboard instruments are far more known than the most ensemble pieces, such as these, though the Brandenburg Concertos are very popular, but he did compose a great many concertos and the author of the notes speculated that the sheer quantity may have precluded specific descriptions of the instrumentation used for them by his son, Carl Philip Emanuel Bach and Johann Friedrich Agricola in their necrology.  Alternatively, he worked much of his life in the employ of German royalty and may have left many of his concerto manuscripts in the places he worked as part of his contracts.

In any case, these are beautiful works, light, stately, filled with gorgeous melodies and harmonic interplay between the instruments.  As pointed out in the notes, one of these, the F Major, was the original version of the famed fourth Brandenburg Concerto, with the original's organ part transcribed for the violin, while the first in the set, the A Minor (also known as the Triple Concerto, because of its instrumentation of harpsichord, flute and violin), is related to the fifth Brandenburg in style.  Moreover, we learn from the liners that the first two movements come from earlier works, namely the Prelude with a Fugue and the Trio Sonata for organ.

The D Minor is for three harpsichords and the orchestra and it was thought by some that Bach wrote this for himself and his two older sons for their development as musicians, though the author of the notes disputes this on the basis of how the solo instruments were scored.

The D Major, of which surviving versions are for either two or three harpsichords and orchestra, but accepted practice is to use three violins or violin and oboe.  Wollny observes that it "is a work of great density and almost symphonic dimensions," which is why an orchestra was employed in those surviving versions.  As he notes, the soloists perform very complex and difficult sections in the first movement and there the allegro tempo is repeated in the third movement, while a very beautiful melodic line comes in the second movement's adagio form.

It is still hard to believe that, in his time, Bach was better known as an organist than a composer, with his reputation in the latter not coming to the fore until over a half-century after his death.  These concertos are great examples of his genius and are well performed by an excellent chamber ensemble and issued by a superior budget label.

Johann Sebastian Bach:  Multiple Concerti  (Naxos, 1995)

Concerto in A Minor  21:56
Concerto in F Major  15:03
Concerto in D Minor  13:24
Concerto in D Major  16:32

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Tibetan Buddhism: Tantras of Gyuto

When this was first purchased on cassette in the early 90s, it came fairly close to the reading of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, so there was attempt, even if not looking to practice Buddhism, then at least to be open to other ideas beyond Western ones and to see this recording as something beyond music, though many might question where this is actually music.

Recorded in 1972 at the Gyütö Tantric College at Dalhousie, India, where thousands of Tibetans moved to at the invitation of India's prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru after the Chinese invasion and conquest of Tibet in 1959, the project was supervised by David Lewiston, who compiled so many fantastic performances of music around the world for the great Nonesuch Explorer series.

Tantras of Gyütö  consists of two long pieces.  The first, "Sangwa Düpa" is a 41-minute excerpt from a tantra, lasting seven and a half hours and performed by forty lamas and monks chanting a text that has to do with the universe and the energy the chanters draw from its immovable sacred characteristic.  From the strength derived from the contemplation of the universe, participants become more attuned to the compassion and wisdom of the Buddha. 

The chanting features a "one-voice chording," in which each person sounds a chord in a low bass running between B and D, as well as another note more than two octaves higher.  A remarkable production is that another note can be heard in conjunction with the expressed one.  The example in the very informative liner notes by Lewiston and Francesca Freemantle is that "When the C two octaves below middle C is sounded, the E above middle C is heard clearly." 

Moreover, there is actually another E note a full octave above that that is not easily heard by the untutored ear!  There are also overtones or augmented notes and the great complexity of this style of chanting required some three or more years for the monks to master.  The text is also memorized, which also takes a great deal of practice and repetition.

Also of note is that, while an individual might chant in a monotone or a short melody and two or three might share the same pitch, a larger group brings together different pitches and mantras are also rhythmically free, each monk reciting at his own pace.  This adds to the rich and powerful effect of the overall recitation.

With Buddhism's main concern of moving past the vain illusion of ego and into an identification with the great void of the universe, free from earthly constrictions and constructions, the chanting and singing of ancient mantras, picturing or visualizing the nature of the universe in a freed mind, and other practices are essential to tantric practice.

Chanting in a metrical form by the group forms the basis for the piece, with solo voices indicating the beginning of a new chapter or a new section within one and an extended vocalizing of a given chord would occur with the end of verses.  "Sangwa Düpa" has origins dating back at least 1500 years ago and perhaps as far as nearly two millenia.

The second, shorter piece, "Mahakala" is eighteen and a half minutes in duration and the subject matter deals with a transcending awareness in the form of a demon-like god with horrifying physical features, but which manifests a protection to the Buddhist against selfishness.  There is a wrath in the battle against the ego, but it leads to a total sense of peace in the conquest of the self. 

This tantra is traced directly to the Buddha and it made its way to Tibet about 1000 years ago and it can be, like the "Sangwa Düpa," be performed with voice only or, as on this recording, with instruments, including drums, cymbals and the powerful radong, a six-foot long bass melody trumpet, although the a capella version does include a rhythmic slapping of the celebrants' hands on  rosary.  Some recitations of the Mahakala can take twelve hours, though the use of excerpts over a three to five hour period is more typical.

It is striking that, at the time of the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1959, between 10 and 20 percent of the male population of that country, some 300,000 to 600,000 in all, were monks in Buddhist monasteries.  The occupation of Tibet by the Chinese over a half-century has been very controversial and the subject of much discussion throughout the world.  More recently, self-immolation has been a common method for Tibetans to protest the Chinese takeover of their country.

However it is taken, whether by someone practicing the Tibetan form of Buddhism or by a listener who is open minded and curious, the effect of hearing this amazing recording can be striking.  This listener has found that listening with headphones with concentrated attention has a strong effect, even if the goal is not to try and follow Buddhist tenets.  Something powerful and, hopefully, long lasting, is still attained.

Tibetan Buddhism:  Tantras of Gyütö (Nonesuch Explorer, 1988)

1.  Sangwa Düpa  41:18
2.  Mahakala  18:31

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Tim Berne's Caos Totale: Pace Yourself

This was another early foray into the adventurous side of jazz and an early CD purchase as a brand-new release, way back in 1991, from the German label JMT (Jazz Music Today.)  Berne's Caos Totale, a sextet, has a wide-ranging array of instrumentation, from the leader's alto sax and the highly expressive Mark Dresser's bass to Bobby Previte's energetic drumming and Marc Ducret's excellent electric guitar playing to the trombone of Steve Swell and multi-instrumentalist Herb Robertson's trumpet, cornet, flute, fluegelhorn, whistles and other sounds.

If anything can be expected from Berne, it is that he has richly arranged pieces that can often go on at great length, although Pace Yourself is somewhat restrained, with four of its six tunes clocking in at under ten minutes, "Sam's Dilemma," which is this listeners' highlight, at over thirteen, and the expansive "The Legend of P-1" extending over 26 minutes.  Sometimes, though, the length has to be viewed in the context of changes in tempo, new melodies and what might be thought of as movements.

The opener, "Bass Voodoo," is perhaps most notable for its pairings of guitar and bass and trumpet and trombone duets, which reveal the great sensitivity the members of the band have for each other, an essential quality between "total chaos" and an "aware freedom." The second piece, "The Noose," contains an excellent drum solo from Previte, whose playing throughout the record in tandem with the always-compelling Dresser is stellar.  "The Usual" is a more ambient, down-tempo, and softer tune and provides a bit of a respite from the frenetic and complex sounds that embody much of Berne's work.

As noted above, "Sam's Dilemma" is the favorite track on this album.  Ducret's searing and searching electric guitar intro lays the groundwork and Previte's percussion is exceptional.  There is also a probing and inventive bass solo from Dresser, which is no surprise to anyone who's heard his work with Anthony Braxton (or read Graham Lock's Forces in Motion about the British tour headed by Braxton and including Dresser.)  Dresser then plays the melody that leads into the finale with the full band and it's a fantastic way to end a great tune.

"The Legend of P-1" has an atmospheric and soft opening that continues for several minutes gradually building to a fuller sound.  This work is a showcase for how Berne utilizes shifting tempos and changing melodic and rhythmic ideas and with a band as sensitized to the way the leader writes, arranges and plays, this lengthy piece doesn't drag or wander.  It's a testament to how solid a composer and arranger Berne is that the tune never fails to hold interest, even at 26 plus minutes.

The closer, "Luna," is another slower, softer, almost ambient piece and here Berne gives a nice expression, almost mournful or somber, to his alto sax work.  It's a nice way to end an album that shows all of the dynamic interplay of an excellent band working with some inspired material.  Those who have heard Julius Hemphill, whose big band record was highlighted here recently, will recognize his influence on his student, but Berne also has his own style or way of expressing himself and "Pace Yourself" is an apt title for a record that runs the gamut of the various tempos, melodic concepts, harmonic interplay and rhythmic variety that is a Berne hallmark.

Tim Berne's Caos Totale:  Pace Yourself (JMT, 1991)

1.  Bass Voodoo  9:57
2.  The Noose  7:34
3.  The Usual  8:15
4.  Sam's Dilemma  13:33
5.  The Legend of P-1  26:21
6.  Luna  4:32

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Nick Drake: Pink Moon

Nick Drake was almost completely unknown in his short lifetime, released three albums between 1969 and 1972 that were a particularly distinctive kind of folk-rock, if it could be called that, and then disappeared further into depression and died in 1974 at age 26 from an overdose of antidepressants.  As is so often the case with young sensitive artists, a cult developed around Drake that has remained small, but strong, over the years.

This final recording, Pink Moon, is extraordinary in its insular simplicity, but with Drake's accomplished acoustic guitar playing, his penchant for plaintive melodies, and his affecting but unaffected vocal style, the album has a powerful pull on the listener through the course of its eleven songs in just over 26 minutes.

Only the title track, which opens the record, has instrumentation aside from Drake's guitar and vocals, as he overdubbed some piano on the piece, and this spare setting and crystalline production is part of the immersive experience, particularly if listened to on headphones.  To this blogger, it feels as if the experience is like that of a concert performed with only the listener as the audience. 

"Know" has almost a bluesy riff in the guitar, while "Horn" is an extremely sparse instrumental with single note phrasing creating a hushed and expectant atmosphere.  "Place to Be" has a memorable melodic statement, as does "Things Behind the Sun."

"Parasite" is, to this listener, is the centerpiece of the record.  Its hypnotic guitar playing dovetails beautifully with Drake's impressionistic lyrics and straightforward vocalizing and is a mesmerizing performance.  "Ride" has some wonderful guitar strumming and picking with another distinctive melody and chorus.

The short "Harvest Breed" might be the strangest piece on Pink Moon with its lyrics all but indecipherable, but it provides an interesting contrast to the closer, the gorgeous, "From the Morning," a tune that almost seems like the coda to a brilliant, short career that ended with Drake's almost total withdrawal from a world in which he was never comfortable and unable to find a place.

Often, the most powerful and affecting musical statements are those that are stripped down to essences.  After the somewhat baroque presentations of the first two albums, Five Leaves Left and Bryter Later, which are excellent recordings, Pink Moon distilled Drake's unique aesthetic to its barest attributes—to the point where Drake is said to have uttered that, after finishing the album, he had nothing further to say musically.  It is a phenomenal record that doesn't seem dated at all, but has a timeless acoustic purity that will likely remain a cult favorite for a very long time.

Nick Drake:  Pink Moon (Island Records, 1972; Rykodisc reissue on CD)

1.  Pink Moon  2:00
2.  Place to Be  2:39
3.  Road  1:58
4.  Which Will  2:56
5.  Horn  1:19
6.  Things Behind the Sun  3:23
7.  Know  2:23
8.  Parasite  3:30
9.  Ride 2:57
10.  Harvest Breed  1:00
11.  From the Morning  2:25

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Franz Liszt: Piano Sonata in B Minor and Dante Sonata

Born of German ancestry in Hungary in 1811, Franz Liszt was first known as the most brilliant pianist of his age, with an astounding technique and a flair for the dramatic that made him, in modern terms, a "rock star," complete with fawning, adoring women as his fan base.  Between 1839 and 1847, his tours of Europe made him so famous that the era is known for its "Lisztomania."

This condition, which seems to have burst forth when he played in Berlin at the end of 1841, was marked by extreme reactions by followers who were transported, it is said, into a mystical ecstasy-like state when the pianist performed.  Fans clamored for his personal effects, his hair, cigar butts, coffee grounds and broken piano strings and they wore his portrait to performances.  How much of the reporting of Liszt fever was based on psychology, politics or other lenses through which to view the phenomenon has been oft-debated, but there is no question that the sheer brilliance of his playing and his dramatic and romantic style and persona were fundamental to the condition.

In any case, after 1847, Liszt ceased most public performing and turned his attention to developing himself as a composer.  He spent most of the next fourteen years at Weimar where he was a Kapellmeister, composed his most memorable works, taught students and wrote about upcoming composers like Hector Berlioz and Richard Wagner, who later married Liszt's daughter, Cosima.

In the late 1850s, Liszt joined a Franciscan order and, after being denied marriage to his long-time consort and losing two children to early deaths, he entered a monastery in 1863 and received minor orders, becoming known as an abbe.  He occasionally composed, including a Hungarian coronation for Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph I in 1866 and traveled frequently to give courses on the piano through the 1870s.  After ill health beset him following a fall in 1881, he died in 1886 from pneumonia at Bayreuth, Germany, where Wagner and Liszt's daughter Cosima conducted their annual music festival to promote Wagner's works.

This 1990 disc by Russian pianist Elisabeth Leonskaja showcases some of Liszt's great piano works, including the 33-minute Piano Sonata in B Minor, which, though in one continuous movement, has distinctive sections in which dramatic, florid and complex elements are interspersed with introspective and quiet passages with gorgeous melodic and thematic statements.  This sonata is often considered one of the composer's great, if highly controversial, works and was composed in 1852-53 and published in 1854, dedicated to the great Robert Schumann, who had just been committed to an asylum where he spent the remainder of his life.

The 17-minute closer, the Dante Sonata, is a technically demanding piece, which had its origins in 1837 after Liszt's spent considerable time in Switzerland and Italy, was revised in 1849 and then classified in the late 1850s with other pieces in the "Years of Pilgrimage" series that emanated from that 1835 to 1839 era.  Liszt, who was not highly educated, became a devoted admirer of literature and composed many programmatic works and symphonic poems based on literary themes.  Again, there are heavier, dramatic sections contrasted with gentle, reflective melodic passages and this is also one of the composer's most famous pieces.

In between are two of the three Petrarch Sonnets, composed in 1838 in Italy, published in 1846 and then included in the 1858 classification of the "Years of Pilgrimage" collection mentioned above.  The first of these pieces, Sonnet 104, is more intense as a lover's longing lament , while Sonnet 123 has a more lyrical and languid character that reflects the poem's ecstatic content.

Leonskaja performs these pieces with the strength and power when required and then the necessary grace, refinement, and light touch when called for.  Her work on the demanding Dante Sonata is particularly spectacular.  Now 67 and a resident of Vienna since leaving the Soviet Union in 1978, Leonskaja is still active in recording, performing and instruction.  Incidentally, there is a fantastic performance by her of Schubert's sublime E-flat Impromptu on a YouTube link in this interview (click here) that is well worth seeing.

Franz Liszt:  Piano Sonata in B Minor and Dante Sonata (Teldec, 1990)

1.  Piano Sonata in B Minor  32:53
2.  Petrarch Sonnet Number 104  6:50
3.  Petrarch Sonnet Number 123  8:06
4.  Dante Sonata  16:51