Saturday, December 27, 2014

Henry Cowell: A Continuum Portrait, Volume 1

This compendium of wide-ranging works from the long career of composer Henry Cowell is titled based on the excellent performances of the collective called Continuum, which has released several recordings on the Naxos labels over the year.

Cowell, whose Smithsonian Folkways release of his own piano performances has been spotlighted here before, was an experimental composer who drew heavily on folk music, including that of Ireland, where his forebears were from, as well as other places around the world, but was also someone who combined his modernism with beautiful melodies and a strong sense of harmony, too.

These were qualities he shared with his friend, Charles Ives, as the two men, a generation removed from one another, helped usher in a distinctively American form of modern composition.

This record begins with Continuum co-director Joel Sachs performing beautiful solo piano renditions of four piano pieces that feature Cowell's trademark tone clusters and strumming of the instrument's strings along with plaintive melodies (especially on the gorgeous "Deep Color") and interesting explorations of sound, including a wild "Tiger."

A modern take on the Baroque instrumentation of flute, oboe, cello and harpsichord is featured on a quartet composition with the other co-director Cheryl Seltzer on the keyboard instrument.  A highly memorable melody and a fine collective performance by the ensemble are of note.

Humor and satire mark Cowell's "Three Anti-Modernist Songs" with Seltzer on piano and Ellen Lang, an excellent mezzo-soprano.   On "A Sharp Where You'd Expect a Natural," the lyric includes the admonition that "no rule observe but the exceptional" and that when it comes to sequencing the music "which [bar] follows which, you really needn't mind."  

With "Hark! From the Pit a Fearsome Sound," Cowell plays with the concerns of concertgoers unnerved by modern music "that makes your blood run cold" with "symphonic cyclones," a "muted tuba's dismal groan," and fancifully fictional instruments like the "sarrusophone," "tonitruone," and "heckelphone."  There's even a nod to Richard Strauss and his modern form of opera.

Finally, Cowell defends Stravinsky in "Who Wrote This Fiendish 'Rite of Spring'?"  The lyric is written from the perspective of a horrified attendee, presumably at the Paris premiere in 1913, who cries "what right had he to write the thing / against our helpless ears to fling / its crash, clash, cling, clang, bing, bank, bing?" and asks why the composer couldn't write bird-like melodies and "proper" harmony.

A contemplative and touching violin and piano suite by Seltzer and Mia Wu follows and is beautifully performed, as is a short Polyphonica for a small orchestra.  Finally, there is the Irish Suite, with Seltzer's piano and the orchestra conducted by Sachs performing the piece quietly and subtly.  This is a bit surprising, especially with "The Banshee," which Cowell played on the aforementioned Smithsonian Folkways recording with far greater volume, power and menace, as the strings are scratched and strummed to mimic the mythical banshee creature.

Henry Cowell was a true original, whose ideas of experimenting with sound, harmony and sources were exceptional in his time and remain so today.  This recording by Continuum captures many facets of the composer's long and varied career and the group and Naxos are to be given kudos for excellent work.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Landscape of the Highlands: String Music from Vietnam

This is a beautiful recording, issued as part of the Latitudes series of world music recordings by Music of the World, a North Carolina-based label, of five pieces on the dan tranh, a sixteen-stringed zither, performed by Tran Quang Hai.  Anyone familiar with the Chinese cheng, Japanese koto and Korean kayagum will recognize the beautiful and uplifting resonance of this gorgeous instrument, which also has some resemblance in places to the sound of the western harp, though the movable wooden bridges of nhan give that distinctive eastern "bent" sounds as the bridges are moved to moderate the notes.

Tran Quang Hai plays with emotion, sensitivity and virtuosity on the songs, the shortest of which is four minutes, while the others are roughly eight and nine minutes in length.  He makes great use of space, allowing the atmospheric nature of the instrument develop an environment that enhances the rich sound it can produce.  At the same time, he can utilize his prodigious technical abilities to hypnotize the listener with the cascades of ringing tones that the zither provides.

Tran Quang Hai is the fifth generation of musicians in his family and went to Vietnam's National Conservatory of Music in Saigon as well as studied with his academically-affiliated father.  In 1961, with his country in growing turmoil, he moved to France, which was the colonizer of Vietnam for decades before the French were defeated by Viet Cong forces in the mid-Fifties.  Expert on more than a dozen Vietnamese instruments, he has had a wide-ranging career composing, performing, writing and even acting and is still very busy as he moves into his seventies.

Landscape of the Highlands is a gorgeous recording, sure to please those who enjoy Asian music and, hopefully, one to entrance anyone seeking an entry to one aspect, string music, of this part of the world.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Sonny Rollins: A Night at the Village Vanguard (Complete)

As a composer of some of the best-known hard bop tunes of the middle and later 1950s and, especially, as an improviser with immense technical skill and creatively fresh approaches to harmony and melody, Sonny Rollins was in a class all by himself.  From his early work with such luminaries as Thelonious Monk, Max Roach and Miles Davis, to his first solo records, including the 1956 album Saxophone Colossus and the amazing Way Out West and then his courageous Freedom Suite, Rollins created one of the great bodies of work of the era.

For a variety of personal and professional reasons, Rollins quite suddenly withdrew from the scene in the early 1960s and was never quite the same in terms of recognition and accolades, compared to, say, John Coltrane, perhaps because jazz transformed so radically during that decade.  Yet, all these years later, the master is still very active, regularly touring and recording, generally to much acclaim.

But, if jazz is largely built on the framework of what is experienced in the live setting, then Rollins' 1957 recording of sets at the famed Village Vanguard club in New York, his first as a leader, really set a standard for how concert performances were to be recorded and regarded.  The first track featured the little-known Donald Bailey on bass and the somewhat under-appreciated drummer Pete La Roca (who worked with Coltrane for a time) and is an interesting version of the great bebop standard, "A Night in Tunisia."

But, with the tremendous rhythm section of bassist Wilbur Ware (known for his work with Monk) and drummer Elvin Jones, who really got his first serious attention as a result of this gig and went on to be Coltrane's poly-rhythmic dynamo, this album really took off.

With the complete two-disc version, released by Blue Note in 1999, a total of eighteen pieces showcase the greatness of this small combo, as Ware and Jones were supremely effective sidemen and Rollins came into his own as an improviser of amazing facility and invention (as well as a charming host introducing some of the songs in the coolest way possible.)

Highlights are so numerous, it's hard to pinpoint some over others, whether it is the evening take of "A Night in Tunisia," the excellent "Softly as in a Morning Sunrise," the surprising use of the old chestnut, "Get Happy," Miles Davis' "Four," Rollins' own masterpiece, "Sonnymoon for Two," or other standards like "I Can't Get Started," Cole Porter's "I've Got You Under My Skin," or Hammerstein and Kern's "All the Things You Are."

It's amazing to hear Rollins work his way through complex, powerful, inventive and alternately humorous and clever and then heartbreaking and serious soloing with what seems to be the most effortless ways imaginable.

Then, to have the solidly reliable and pliable Ware and the emerging force of nature that Elvin Jones was on his way to becoming as his bedrock, it's no small wonder that A Night at the Village Vanguard, presented here in the original sequence and with the leader's intros, is one of the great live recordings of jazz and a signal achievement for Rollins, one of its greatest musicians.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Cabaret Voltaire: 2x45

In 1981, Cabaret Voltaire was on the verge of a sea change.  For seven years, the trio of Chris Watson, Stephen Mallinder and Richard H. Kirk had honed their unusual sounds of manipulated and processed sound and developed something of a cult underground following from their signing to Rough Trade Records in 1978.  This yielded a series of EPs and albums that included such early classic pieces as "Nag Nag Nag," "Do The Mussolini (Headkick)," and other otherworldly electronic works that placed them in a category all their own.

Yet, there was a feeling among the members that new directions were needed.  For Watson, this had more to do with a change in occupation, as he was hired as a sound recordist for a British television network and then later went on to do notable work recording natural environments for the BBC, as well as working in the highly-esoteric band/project, The Hafler Trio.  In more recent years, Watson, as has been covered once her, has released a series of fascinating albums, largely based on his years of nature recordings, and which challenge established definitions of what music is.

As for Kirk and Mallinder, Watson's departure gave them an opportunity for reinvention of the Cabaret Voltaire sonic pallette.  To those fans who loved the early music, their move to strip down the sound, develop more defined melodic and rhythmic ideas, and engage in less manipulation and processing of instrumentation and vocals amounted to nothing less than a commercial sell-out.

On the other hand, asking creative artists to stop growing and challenging themselves is just not realistic.  Mallinder and Kirk clearly felt they had done what they could with their earlier sound and that it was time to chart different territory.  Their first efforts, however, were transitional and are documented in the remarkable 2x45, which title speaks for itself.

Six pieces originally released on two 45 rpm discs, hence the album title, include one set done with Watson and the other with Kirk and Mallinder joined by guest musicians.  On the first trio of tracks, recorded in October 1981, the group is augmented with drummer and percussionist Alan Fish, of the group "Hula" who also toured with Kirk and Mallinder when they became a duo in 1982.  These songs include "Breathe Deep," "Yashar," and "Protection." with familiar attributes like the harsh processed vocals of Mallinder, the vox continental of Watson and the processed horns and simple spiky guitar of Kirk joined by a stronger percussive presence from Fish.

"Yashar," which was remixed into something of an underground dance hit, is tamer and more subdued on the album version, but it does contain the memorable sample from a 1950s sci-fi film asking where the 70 billion people on Earth were hiding.  The metallic percussion, Middle Eastern synth lines, and catchy bass line from Mallinder are the hallmarks of this tune.

"Protection" puts an emphasis on Kirk's squawking clarinet work, interesting vocal samples, and Mallinder's trademark menacing echoed vocals, as well as a swirl of sound effects and steady percussion from Fish.

The big change comes with the second trio of tracks, which were cut in February 1982, and featured drummer Nort and guitarist Eric Random.  "War of Nerves (T.E.S.)" starts off with a sampled explanation of a horrific form of torture, complete with the nauseated reaction of the listener on the sample, before the band moves into a relaxed and, yes, even funky groove.  Then comes another of Mallinder's disembodied and processed vocals, as more vocal samples abound and Kirk and Random offer interesting guitar textures.  This is kind of a spooky, trippy tune for a band with lots of them.

"Wait and Shuffle" begins with a strange processed vocal sample and an echoed synth form before Mallinder's two forms of simple, repetitive bass are joined by Nort's effective drumming and washes of wild guitar lines, Kir's tortured horn work, and sampled sounds complete the interesting textures.

But, the album's most interesting track is the lengthy "Get Out of My Face,"which has a hypnotic synth intro with military-like sample shouting before Mallinder comes in with one of his better bass figures and the guitars again provide notable and varied expressive textures.  Mallinder's vocals are less menacing and more whispered, though offered with plenty of echo.  The opening synth undercurrent continues, with some of an arpeggio joining in early on and more sax wailing found throughout.

There is a complexity in layering sounds on this track and the other two from the early '82 session that provide a signpost for where CV would be going, albeit in a funkier, more groove-oriented direction by the time The Crackdown was recorded in 1983 after a new deal was signed with Virgin Records and the band left Rough Trade.

2x45 is clearly a transitional record for Cabaret Voltaire, but despite the shift in personnel and the expected variances in sound, it comes across rather well as a single listening experience and was an honest attempt by Kirk and Mallinder to confront the transformation after Watson's departure.  And, they lost no time, as they moved into a phase through 1985 that saw them release some of their most interesting music, albeit to the concern of the fans of their earlier, rougher sound.

But, a change had to come and, to this longtime listener, it was a necessary and successful one.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Richard Strauss: Also Sprach Zarathustra/Don Juan/Till Eulenspiegels Lustige Streiche

In his long life of eighty-five years, Richard Strauss worked his way through a strong Romantic influence inspired largely by Richard Wagner, but also composed works that had a pronounced "modern" sensibility, as exemplified by operas like Der Rosenkavalier, Salome and Ariadne Aux Naxos.

Strauss was enough of a modernist to incur the suspicions of Nazi leaders, even as the composer tried to use his international stature to champion his vision of music after the Third Reich was established in 1933.  While he never left Germany, Strauss was increasingly alienated from the Hitler regime while trying to keep his Jewish daughter-in-law and his son out of concentration camps.  He managed to survive the end of World War II by four years and composed his last works in that horrible turmoil.

In his earlier years, however, Strauss developed some remarkable "tone poems" that, on this recording by The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, drew inspiration from works by Friedrich Nietzsche (Also Sprach Zarathustra) and Nikolaus Lenau (an unfinished poem being the basis for Strauss' Don Juan) as well as the German folk tale of Till Eulenspiegel, which included comic elements that Straus reflected in his music.

Also Sprach Zarathustra has become famous for its opening theme reflecting the Persian poet, Zarathustra, arising to meet and talk to the sun and which was memorably utilized in Stanley Kubrick's path-breaking film 2001: A Space Odyssey.  There's no question that this is a stirring, striking and awe-inspiring opening, though less than two minutes long.  The rest of the piece, however, is full of richness, complexity, contemplative melodies and powerful bombastic themes.  It is a powerful work from a master composer, who was still a young man of 32 when the work was finished in 1896

Don Juan was completed even earlier, in 1888, and established Strauss' reputation when it premiered in late 1889 in Weimar.  It was based on an 1844 poem from Lenau and concerns the end of the mythical lover's life when, thwarted in his aim to find the ideal woman, he decides to will his death.  This is another work of great complexity requiring superior technical facility for the instrumentation over the course of just under seventeen minutes.

Finally, there is Till Eulenspiegels Lustige Streiche (Till Eugenspiel's Merry Pranks) a work from 1894-95, extending about 14 1/2 minutes and concerning quite a different type of legendary figure, one steeped in German folklore, though based on a real person, and possessing a comic and mischievous persona that fought against repressive authority figures, be they political or religious.  The music, comprised of themes for horn and clarinet, reflects a more playful and breezy style of performance than the other tone poems in this set.

This is another well-performed recording from The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras, in England and the quality of the recording is excellent.  The disc reflects the developing composer's efforts at building from the Romantic tradition but using newer compositional materials to provide a modern sound.  Future posts will cover some of Strauss' excellent operas.