Monday, January 27, 2014

Elliott Carter: Eight Compositions (1948-1993)

This excellent disc from Bridge Records came out in 1994 in commemoration of composer Elliott Carter's 85th birthday.  At the time, it was reasonable to assume that Carter's long career would soon come to a natural close, but he lived for almost two more decades, passing away in November 2012, a month shy of his 104th birthday.

Eight Compositions (1948-1993) is a diverse and exciting overview of works for solos, duos, and trios and shows a great range of compositional formats and elements, from solo pieces for clarinet, flute, violin, and, unusually, guitar and some shorter pieces, including these solo works, to longer compositions, including the fine piano and violin duet "Duo" and the fantastic early work, 1948's "Sonata for Violoncello and Piano."

The performers from The Group for Contemporary Music, founded by pianist Charles Wuorinen and flautist Harvey Sollberger, who appear on the recording, are uniformly excellent and include Fred Sherry, a cellist whose work on John Zorn recordings is prominent; clarinetist Charles Neidich, whose rendering of "Gra" opens the album nicely; Rolf Schulte, violin, who is on three pieces; Martin Goldray, also on piano on the aforementioned "Duo"; and guitarist David Starobin, whose showcase, "Changes" was written for him by Carter and who founded and still leads the Bridge label with his wife Becky, executive producer of this disc.

Filling 78 and 1/2 minutes, the album is a phenomenal overview of forty-five years of Carter' diverse portfolio of contemporary classical music.  The liners by David Schiff include a concise summary in one paragraph of Carter's composing philosophy, including the observation that the music "often suggests an argument, sometimes between many parties, at other times an internal dialogue."  With the composer's polyphonic approach, this is an interesting way to interpret the music, especially the basic concept of dialogue, with instruments speaking to one another and/or to the audience.

For something this modern, there is still lyricism, soulfulness, emotive expression, and accessibility to so much of what Carter has composed, even if approaches to harmony, rhythm, and time reflect experimentation that mark his music as quite different from earlier composers.  Certainly, listening to Carter's music through the solo, duet and trio forms helps isolate the qualities noted above, which can be more difficult with larger ensembles and orchestral settings.

Eight Compositions (1948-1993) is, in any case, a great listening experience, representing a broad overview of pieces from a true American original.

Elliott Carter:  Eight Compositions (1948-1993) (Bridge Records, 1994)

1.  Gra  4:35
2.  Enchanted Preludes  6:30
3.  Duo  21:27
4.  Scrivo in Vento  5:55
5.  Changes  7:46
6.  Con Leggerezza Pensosa (Ommagio a Italo Calvino)  5:17
7.  Riconoscenza por Goffredo Petrassi  6:30
8.  Sonata for Violoncello and Piano  19:55

P.S.--though this blogger doesn't own any of his records, a recent flipping of the channels late at night came across a documentary on Pete Seeger, who died today at 94.  May he rest in peace. 

Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Silk Road: A Musical Caravan

The Silk Road Project is an extraordinary undertaking--founded by cellist Yo-Yo Ma in 1998 to foster cultural understanding, dialogue and creation in those parts of the Middle East and Asia along the fabled Silk Road trade route.

After fifteen years, it continues along a successful and distinguished path producing remarkable projects of all kinds, including, of course, musical endeavors.  One of the early outcomes of the project was the 2002 double-disc The Silk Road: A Musical Caravan, issued by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.  The label's description for the album asks, "What if Marco Polo had owned a tape recorder?" 

There are forty-seven pieces totaling over two hours and twenty-five minutes of spellbinding music from Turkey to Japan, including areas not well-known to many people, including the Central Asian regions of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and others.

It is impossible, really, to select highlights because the music is uniformly good throughout.  Instrumentals and pieces featuring vocals are given a good balance and there are Tuva throat singers, Japanese shakuhachi (flute), Persian musicians, the amazing Chinese pipa master Wu Man, and street performers. 

The first disc is given over to professionals playing the classic music of the several countries featured under the heading "Masters and Traditions," while the second is for "amateurs" in folk settings on the disc titled "Minstrels and Lovers," with the latter having sub-categories of "The Nomadic Sound," "Traditions of Festivity," and "Spiritual Music."

Playing the entire album at one sitting can understandably daunting, particularly if the listener has little or no background in the music of the varied places, but this blogger, having had some experience with Chinese, Japanese, Persian, and Tuvan/Mongolian music, was captivated and listened straight through spellbound by the diversity, beauty and talent represented.

Unfortunately, this set was purchased without the 47-page booklet with extensive notes by Ma, Jean During and Ted Levin, the latter two producers while Ma has served as artistic director of the project since its inception.  Presumably, the liners have plenty of good information about the project, the various countries, the musicians, the instruments and the pieces. 

In any case, The Silk Road: A Musical Caravan is a mightily impressive compendium, easily one of the best music anthologies this listener has heard, and one of the best "world music" recordings, as well.  While it might be too much to digest at one time, its many pleasures can be sampled in small doses and be very effective as a tool for discovering parts of the world little or not known to Americans raised on Western forms of music only.

For those who have sampled "world music" somewhat extensively, this should be an indispensable addition to a collection.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

John Coltrane: Live at Birdland

The death of Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones) a few days back was a good time to reflect on the remarkable and controversial ferment that erupted in the 1960s over black militancy, so-called free jazz, battles between jazz critics and writers, and a host of other issues.

Just last year, this blogger read Jones' ground-breaking and provocative work, Blues People, which was the first work by a black person to look at the history of jazz music, but also seeking to place that in the context of the history of black Americans as oppressed peoples expressing themselves through a music they created, despite all of the obstacles in their way.  This isn't a place to discuss the book, necessarily, certainly not to review it--there's plenty of material out there to search out for that.

But, whatever one thinks of the man who made a strikingly radical transformation from LeRoi Jones to Amiri Baraka in 1965, after the assassination of Malcolm X and of Medger Evers and other events, and continued to provoke and be the subject of controversy for decades afterward, this seemed a good time to commemorate the man via his contribution to the liner notes of John Coltrane's 1963 album Live at Birdland.

Which album is many things, actually, not always consistently expressed.  For example, while the first half of the record is comprised of three pieces from a performance at the famed New York club on 8 October 1963, the second portion is from three works recorded in the studio in March and November of that year.  The performance at Birdland also captured the return to the classic Coltrane quartet of drummer Elvin Jones, who had spent time in prison on a drug charge.  Finally, the album closed a chapter in Coltrane's career that was marked by critical tumult and a carefully crafted program by Coltrane's savvy producer, Bob Thiele, to blunt the criticism with a trio of recordings.

In essence, the problem was the jazz was changing from years of hard-bop orthodoxy to a freer conception as embodied in the work of Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, Coltrane and others.  Those critics who were aghast at the move (some of whom, in fact, championed bop when it was new in the late 1940s versus the so-called "moldy figs" who had promoted big band and swing) came out forcefully against the "free jazz" musicians. 

In Coltrane's case, he was labeled as promoting "anti-jazz" because the work he was performing in 1961 with Dolphy was a sea change from the hard bop sound that predominated before and which was featured on the Live at the Village Vanguard album and, in particular, the leader's showcase, "Chasin' the Trane," which didn't even feature Dolphy (yet, this sadly underappreciated multi-instrumentalist was put through the wringer nonetheless.)

While Coltrane claimed that the abrupt change in direction that followed 1962's excellent Coltrane recording was due to a faulty reed on his sax and teeth problems, Thiele revealed that he deliberately drew Coltrane towards ballads and more melodic music to counter the raging critics and give the saxophonist a forum for demonstrating his amazing gifts in those settings. 

What followed were collaborations with the legendary Duke Ellington, the smooth, silky singer Johnny Hartman, and an album of standards, simply called Ballads.  These albums are usually bypassed when people talk about Coltrane's body of work, but there is much to recommend them.  This is especially true when hearing how Coltrane accompanies and complements Ellington and Hartman and to hear how truly integrated that classic quartet of Jones, bassist Jimmy Garrison and pianist McCoy Tyner were.  They all proved to be tremendous with ballads and contemplative material, not just with the up-tempo and powerhouse works that the band had been singled out for by those contentious critics.

In any case, Live at Birdland marked the end of that phase, yet provided examples (as really, all Coltrane records had to date, anyway, despite the critical carping) of how the band could really cook and sizzle and then settle into beautiful melodies and mellow moods on a dime.

The record also captured the obvious joy with which Jones expressed himself after leaving federal prison and releasing his pent-up energies (energy never being a problem with the protean percussionist anyway!)  The opener, "Afro-Blue," a concert favorite for Coltrane, but never recorded in the studio, has excellent playing by the leader as well as Tyner and Garrison, but Jones is front and center here, by a country mile.  He thunders, crashes, rolls and roars through this tune like a veritable force of nature. 

While this blogger was flabbergasted by the performance and can vividly remember hearing Jones blasting through the piece when first hearing this tune on vinyl, circa 1990, and, in fact, smiling and appreciatively calling out the drummer's name through virtually the whole thing, it can be readily understood if the playing was too propulsive, too powerful and so overwhelming that it sacrificed the ensemble for the sheer joy and relief of Jones being free to play after months behind bars.

Which is all the reason to be understanding of where Jones was (which, certainly, the band and the audience were) at that moment and appreciate that the performance was, indeed, a reflection of joy and relief.  In any case, it's a wild ride, still raising hair on the back of the neck and bumps on the skin after many listens and almost a quarter century after first hearing.

Then comes "I Want to Talk About You," beautifully played by the ensemble and with Jones sensitively accompanying and not at all playing too hard.  The piece is played almost as per usual (it was another popular repertoire piece for the band) until Coltrane goes off into a phenomenal unaccompanied solo.  This solo, to this listener, is on a par with "Chasin' the Trane," but didn't have the impact and drama of having something like this done the first time, as was the case of the other work.  Still, the performance is terrific, with Coltrane exploring variation and variation and demonstrated masterful technique, invention, and soulfulness.

After these two pieces, "The Promise," another 8-minute tune, doesn't get as much attention, but the theme is excellent and there is a strong swinging accompaniment by the band behind Trane's tenor.  Tyner performs a stellar lengthy solo, anchored by his trademark strong block chords with the left hand, and Jones percolates, keeps strong time with the cymbals, and hums along enthusiastically, while increasing his intensity towards the end to drive things along.  Garrison is steady, as always, holding down the bottom with his usual aplomb.  Then, Trane comes swooping in with his top-flight solo that is thrilling with its higher-end note flourishes and runs (one can hear on this song why the soprano wound up becoming so important to Trane in terms of finding higher notes to play) and, after restating the theme, the band goes out with a flourish.

Of the two studio pieces, "Alabama" is flat-out one of Coltrane's masterpieces.  A solemn remembrance of the horrific Montgomery church bombing the claimed the lives of several young black girls who should have been safe in the sanctuary of a holy place, the piece has a rich and powerful theme, evocative of the thoughtlessness of the terrorist act performed by white supremacists, played over Tyner's simple repetitive phrase and what may be Garrison's bowing on the bass. 

Then, about 1:45 in, the piece transitions to a mid-tempo blues, almost as if suggesting the resilience that the blues has always symbolized in the lives of black Americans.  After another minute, the theme returns and Jones' mallets add weight and dignity to the sound as the tune comes to a close with the tenor taking the ending to higher scales on his instrument and ending the piece beautifully.   Coltrane would further develop the structure of "Alabama" in classic pieces in the great Crescent album and on the masterpiece A Love Supreme during 1964.  But, "Alabama" stands on its own as one of the great pieces in music, period.

"Your Lady" comes in with a nice Garrison line and Jones' always present swinging and "polyrhythms" before Trane's lyrical theme comes in, much like other, somewhat like "The Inch Worm" from the Coltrane album, at least to this listener.  The keening, soaring sound of the tenor is another excellent example of the leader's peerless playing, especially some great runs about 4 minutes in.  And, as always, Jones is there to propel the piece with his driving and penetrating style.

Finally, there is a bonus track on the CD version called "Vilia," a reworking of a standard that seems a little out of place, like "Bessie's Blues" on the otherwise meditative and somber Crescent.  It's bright and it swings, especially during Tyner's fine solo when Garrison and Jones are in a beautiful groove.  After Coltrane solos, the song seems to come to an abrupt end, for which there may have been a reason.  In any case, it's a bonus and that Tyner solo part is quite good.

As for LeRoi Jones, he starts his notes provocatively with, "One of the most baffling things about America is that despite its essentially vile profile, so much beauty continues to exist here."  Jones, as many have done, equates the nightclub as a microcosm of vileness and the playing of a master as the beauty.  And, then Jones offers that "his music is one of the reasons suicide seems so boring!"

It is cool to read Jones describing Elvin's playing as a "mad ritual drama" that taunts the other musicians, as it is that LeRoi "got up and danced while writing these notes, screaming at Elvin to cool it," a sentiment shared to some degree by this blogger, except that asking Elvin to hold back was not among the thoughts.

Jones also utters an unexpected paean to the name of the state of Alabama, observing that "I didn't realize what a beautiful word Alabama is."  Continuing that Thiele asked Coltrane if the title "had any significance to today's problems," the leader didn't address the bombings (which might, perhaps, have opened up to further critical commentary?) with directness, stating that "it represents, musically, something that I saw down there translated into music from inside me."

Finally, Jones does not that, actually, "all the music on this album is Live, whether it was recorded above drinking and talk at Birdland, [or] in the studio," which is true, except, perhaps, that the atmosphere in each are entirely different and the results could be accordingly.  But, the essayist concludes in another cool evocation:  "this music will make you think of a lot of weird and wonderful things.  You might even become one of them."

Amen to that and may LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, for all of the controversy and the directness and the penetration and the evocation, rest in peace.  Whatever one thinks of him and this blogger is ambivalent, for sure, he encouraged honest and critical thinking and the fact that he dug Coltrane and the quartet and this album as much as he did is worth celebrating on its own terms.

John Coltrane:  Live at Birdland (Impulse Records, 1963, 1996)

1.  Afro-Blue  10:53
2.  I Want to Talk About You  8:11
3.  The Promise  8:06
4.  Alabama  5:08
5.  Your Lady  6:39
6.  Vilia  4:36

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Equations of Eternity: Equations of Eternity

Recorded over a year in 1995-96 at the personal studios in Milan, Italy; Birmingham, England; and Brooklyn, New York by the trio of experimental electronic musicians Eraldo Bernocchi (electronics, programming, treated guitars), Mick Harris (electronics, drum programming), and Bill Laswell (bass guitar and what is listed as "interstellar influence," whatever that may entail), Equations of Eternity is a fascinating excursion into a world of electronic ambience, solid programmed drumming, fluid and dubby bass playing and the occasional sampled voice.

Bernocchi, a collaborator with Harris on some notable albums on the Sub Rosa label during this period, produced and mixed the record, almost certainly after Harris and Laswell established the rhythms, and was likely the prime mover on the project, which spawned another excellent album, also on the WordSound label, in Vevè (1998).

The varied elements offered by the collaborators are excellent, enticing and intriguing.  Laswell's bass playing is particularly essential in holding down a reliable groove in tandem with Harris's spare, but well-chosen beats, while Bernocchi adds all manner of interesting textures, along with what are presumed to be contributions from Harris, as well.

Adding to the mysterious musical vibe is a quote from British mystic Aleister Crowley from his Book of Thoth:  "Pour water on thyself:  thus thou be a fountain to the universe / Find thou thyself in every star / Achieve thou every possibility."  Might be gibberish to some and profound truth to others, but this album has enough to recommend it with the well-organized layers of sound and Laswell's consistently-excellent bass playing that you could almost certainly take or leave the mysticism and just enjoy the electronic-ambient-dub grooves that flow unendingly from this fine recording.

Equations of Eternity:  Equations of Eternity (WordSound, 1996)

1.  The Collector  6:48
2.  Eons Geography  5:51
3.  5th Element  5:35
4.  Loa  6:31
5.  Stream  5:52
6.  Shadow Sewer  7:43
7.  Fifty Gates  4:34
8.  Descent  5:47
9.  Slow Bleed  5:52

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Edgard Varèse: Arcana, Intégrales, Déserts

The short description to this blog offers the simple premise that "music is organized sound."  This is outside of any subjective qualities like "beauty" that are often associated with "music."  Though this blogger has had this wonderful Naxos disc by the amazing Edgard Varese for quite a number of years, it was with blissful unawareness that the composer termed his music, from the 1920s onward, as "organized sound."

Moreover, Varese described himself as "a worker in rhythms, frequencies and intensities," which sounds very different from how most composers would be identified (if not self-identified.)  In fact, he elaborated that "a composer . . . is an organizer of disparate elements" and went on to suggest that "noise is any sound one doesn't like."

Now, in reading Partch's fascinating, if technically difficult (especially for a rank amateur) Genesis of a Music, it seems that, in many ways, he and Varese were not that far removed in spirit in terms of their fierce individualistic and rationalistic approaches to making music far different than the orthodoxy founded on equal temperament. 

A lack of understanding the depths and details of the musical process doesn't preclude this blogger from at least having the ability to discern that expanding the palette of musical resources beyond traditional form, or, certainly in Partch's case, instrumentation is a cornerstone to what innovators like Varese or Partch (or Cage, Cowell, Reich, Harrison, Ives, Crumb, Stockhausen, Xenakis and many others) have tried to do.

What these new approaches do force the listener to do (or try to) is recalibrate their listening away from the reliable structures of equal temperament to something more challenging, less certain (and safe) but, potentially, highly enriching and thrilling.  The "organized sound" found in the several works on this disc give a nice overview to the highly varied tones, sonorities, tonalities, rhythms, colorations and other elements of sound-as-music that Varese explored and exploited in his long, if not particularly prolific, career.

Four of the five works here, performed by the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Christopher Lyndon-Gee, date from the 1920s, when the 40-ish French-born Varese, who'd moved to the U.S. in the mid-1910s and became a citizen in 1926, poured himself into the development of "organized sound" with acoustical instrumentation.  "Arcana," dating to 1925-27, "Octandre" from 1923, Offrandres (1921), and Intégrales (1924-25) show a breathtaking array of instrumental and vocal combinations, explorations into percussive elements, evocations of various manifestations of timbre, densities of sound masses, tinkering with form and other means to find new ways of expression.

For a variety of reasons dealing with professional disappointments of various kinds, Varese was far less productive from 1930 onward.  The remaining piece on this recording, however, shows what the composer was able to do with the advancing technology of electronics, specifically an Ampex tape recorder he received from an anonymous admirer in the early 1950s. 

"Déserts" from 1950-54, brings together fourteen wind instruments, piano, several percussionists and the two-track tape machine with an open format, in which the ensemble could either play the four movements, or sections, alone or add three electronic interludes.  While it has the same keening and yearning desire for novel expressiveness that characterized Varese's earlier works, "Déserts" also reflects the mighty changes that were underway after the Second World War and with the new directions championed by such figures as Cage, Stockhausen, Xenakis and many others.  As noted by Peter Quinn in the liners, "Déserts" had about the same kind of reception accorded to Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring" a little over four decades here--something highlighted here not long ago.

Someday, another recording of Varese's music, which includes "Arcana" and "Déserts" but also features the early "Amériques" and the late twenties/early thirties "Ionisation" and conducted by Perre Boulez with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, will be highlighted. 

It has been quite an adventure delving into modern "classical" music over the last quarter century, starting from the Kronos Quartet's version of George Crumb's spellbinding "Black Angels" back in 1990 to Cage's Indeterminacy and Reich's early work with edited tape and Riley's In C and Harrison's Koro Sutra and Cowell's phenomenal tone clusters and Stockhausen's wild experiments and Xenakis's computer-assisted composing, among others.  Not being musically educated may or may not be a handicap, depending on whether the goal is to enjoy or understand or both, but it has been enriching nonetheless to go on the journey and be open to various ways creative musicians have developed "organized sound."  Varese has proven to be one of the more interesting innovators this listener has found.