Monday, August 31, 2015

World Saxophone Quartet: W.S.Q.

This amazing collective of St. Louis-bred musicians recorded their third album, and second release with the Italian Black Saint label, in March 1980.  The eight pieces, with contributions from all four members, display their dazzling dexterity, strong sense of rhythm, complex harmonic interplay, and daring approaches to composition to great effect.

Over time, altoist and tenorist Julius Hemphill received more attention for his songwriting and it is true that his remarkable gift for creating compelling and complicated pieces were on full display with tracks like "Connections" and "Pillars Latino."  A centerpiece of this recording is the four-part suite, "Suite Music" by Hamiet Bluiett.  Lake's "Sound Light" is also highly effective, as is Murray's closer, "Fast Life."

Really, though, what made this great group so memorable was their mesmerizing way of melding their talents on several instruments, including clarinets, along with the range of saxes, to develop highly original approaches to saxophone-based music that didn't need standard rhythm instruments (piano, bass, drums.)

It took a real sense of synergy, a downshift of ego, and a commitment to truel collaboration that made the World Saxophone Quartet a truly special ensemble.  W.S.Q. is an especially strong release from one of the finest jazz groups of the 70s and 80s.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Ohm+: The Early Gurus of Electronic Music (Special Edition)

While the Ellipsis Arts label was best known for its "new age" and "world music" releases during its 1990s heyday, it did issue, in 2005, an interesting and notable triple-disc, with a bonus DVD, anthology, Ohm: The Early Gurus of Electronic Music.  Bad puns aside, this is an impressive collection spanning pre-1980s performances mainly from the so-called "classical" world, though there are contributions from some composers outside of that generalized genre.

There is quite an array of composers represented here, from well-known figures like John Cage, Terry Riley, Iannis Xenakis, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Steve Reich, La Monte Young, Milton Babbitt, Edgard Varese, Olivier Messiaen to lesser-known, but important, pioneers like Pauline Oliveros, Alvin Lucier, the MEV collective, Morton Subotnick, Pierre Schaeffer, Luc Ferrari, and those outside "classical" and academic circles like Holger Czukay, Kalus Schulze, and Brian Eno.  Even the inclusion of a 1999 version of Reich's "Pendulum Music," in which suspended microphones are swung in pendulum movements to generate sound, by noise-rock legends Sonic Youth is something of a bridge between "serious music" and the pop-rock world.

Obviously, music like this is going to have a polarizing effect on most people, a great many of whom would find this unlistenable noise.  There is, however, a range of material with some pieces moving more towards some form of accessibility than others.  For example, the haunting excerpt from Tchaikovsky's "Valse Sentimentale" pairs piano with the strange and wonderful sounds of the theremin, as played by its greatest exponent, Clara Rockmore.

Messiaen's "Orasion" is also other-worldly, with its "ondes martenot,"a keyboard that provides pitch changes through a ribbon and a ring, and which is also linked to traditional music.  Babbitt's "Philomel" blends the human voice with the electronics in an appealing way.  Oliveros's stunning "Bye Bye Butterfly" skillfully wends excerpts from "Madama Butterfly" into her improvised electronic stew.

Subotnick's "Silver Apples of the Moon" had the distinction of being the first commissioned work by a major label, Nonesuch in this case, for an electronic composition.  Riley's looped piece "Poppy Nogood" [really, "Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band"] is an amazing work using soprano saxophone, inspired by the great John Coltrane, and organ to develop a time-lag effect with a patch cord.

Czukay's mesmerizing "Boat-Woman Song" has medieval choral singing with the over-dubbed samples of simple and haunting folk singing to give it a highly memorable effect.  Paul Lansky's computer-generated "Six Fantasies on a Poem by Thomas Campion" has a warm and enveloping sounds of vocalizations of the poetic works that is quite beautiful.  Another computer-geneated piece, Laurie Spiegel's "Applachian Grove I" has a quiet, ambient approach to creating something that has melodic associations.

Alvin Curran's "Canti Illuminati," one of the longer excerpts, is a fascinating aural experience with a sequencer, a VCS3 (used by some "progressive" rock groups in the early 70s) and the addition of bass tones and the addition of falsetto vocalizations at the end softens the electronics.  Lucier's unplanned excursion "Music on a Long Thin Wire" has a droning, ambient quality that builds off a tuning from an oscillator and seems like a possible precursor to so-called "isolationist" electronic music.

Hassell's "Before and After Charm (La Notte)" has an eerie and compelling repetition of percussive sound accompanying keyboard drones in varying tones and his highly effective in giving an "Eastern" vibe, thanks to the composer's interest in Indian music.  Finally, Eno's "Unfamiliar Wind (Leeks Hills)" is a characteristiclly understated, yet warm, ambient piece that closes out the CD portion nicely.

The DVD is a great bonus, especially the filmed footage of performances and interviews, including one with Rockmore talking with her sister, nephew and Robert Moog, inventor of the (in)famous synthesizer, about her work with the theremin and its inventor, as well as a snippet of a performance with her and her sister pianist.  A great, though very short, clip of Paul Lansky being shown how to play the eerie instrument by an aged Leon Theremin in the latter's Moscow apartment in the waning days of teh Soviet Union is remarkable.

Milton Babbitt gives an entertaining and informative 1987 interview about his early associations with experimental electronic music, including the Mark I and II synthesizers.  A lengthy performance on film from Lucier dating to 1965 is of his incredible "Music for Solo Performer."  Here, Lucier is hooked by electrodes to several types of percussion, including a trash can, and uses his brainwaves to send waves in varying speeds and energy to play the percussion instruments.

A 2005 performance of "Bye Bye Butterfly" by Oliveros with visualizartions by Tony Martin is also something to behold--gorgeous musical conception with a visual accompaniment that fully supports the performance.

Finally, there is a six-minute segment from a documentary on Robert Moog, to whom the DVD is dedicated and who died in 2005, just prior to the release of the special edition.  This interview with Moog about his creation is an excellent capstone to a superb anthology (provided that the listener has any inclination towards electronic music to begin with, that is.)

One last word about the package:  Ellipsis Arts outdid itself (and it was at the end of its tether at the time) with a beautiful box for the discs in a clear plastic sleeve, while the 112-page booklet is chock full of commentary by the composers and others about the excepted pieces and a wealth of great photos.  It really is a work of art that fully complements and serves the amazing sounds found on the four discs.

Monday, August 17, 2015

The Hugo Masters: An Anthology of Chinese Classical Music, Volume 1

In 1992, the Tucson-based Celestial Harmonies label (yes, it does sound very "new age") issued a 4-disc anthology of Chinese classical music from the Hong Kong HUGO label called "The Hugo Masters."  Each disc focused on a classification of instrumentation, with the first dealing with bowed strings, the second with plucked strings, the third with wind instruments and the last installement concerning percussion.

The first disc is 67 minutes of amazing music from thirteen tracks with top-flight musicianship and virtuosity, as well as remarkable production and sound from the HUGO label, founded by Aik Yew-goh, who was a musician, engineer and producer.  Their release through Celestial Harmonies marked the first time this music had been heard outside of Hong Kong.

By "bowed strings," what is meant for this recording is various forms of lutes accompanied by percussion, plucked strings and others.  Some of it is vigorous and lively, others contemplative and plaintive, with strength and sensitivity often going hand-in-hand or leading from one to the other.

Chinese music often reflects beloved stories and tales from history and one can imagine, even without knowing the details of the narratives, how the music is composed to accompany the tales.  As importantly, the music often features imitative qualities, in which instruments are played to mimic human conversations, the sounds of animals, and natural features like the wind or flowing of water.  Human emotion is put forward in interesting ways, as well, reflecting martial qualities, pensive attitudes, cheerfulness, sadness and others.

As noted above, the playing is very impressive and the recording quality is top-notch.  HUGO and Celestial Harmonies created a memorable and very affecting package that gives a brief glimpse into the rich history of Chinese classical music.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

The Mars Volta: Frances the Mute

Virtuosic guitar, dexterous drumming, classic organ, high-pitched rock screaming, usually- incomprehensible lyrics, sometimes in Spanish--these and other aspects made The Mars Volta one of the most interesting groups of the 2000s and one of the few rock bands this blogger has listened to over the last twenty-five years.

It is a mash up of instruments, styles, and sounds that could easily be judged as excessive, chaotic, strange and confounding--but that can all be said in a good way.  The ambition of the group's leaders, guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and lyricist and vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala, is such that, even if some of the pieces are lengthy, the experimental sounds bizarre, and the lyrics strangely impressionistic, their ability to create a fascinating melange of sonic experiences is without question. And, there are times when this band is so tight, powerful, propulsive and precise that their peak moments are sheer exhilaration.

The band's second album Frances the Mute is, in some ways, an expansion of the sonic palette develolped on the debut De-Loused in the Comatorium.  Suites, electronic interludes, abrupt shifts in time signatures, quiet passages exploding into intense and rapid sections, squalling guitar solos, and Bixler-Zavala's keening singing and visceral wordplay are all given greater expression.  Latin rhythms and percussion, mournful trumpet solos, multi-tracking vocal harmony, and other effects broaden and deepen the rich stew of sounds that abound on the album.

The lyrics are printed on the multiple panels of the insert with striking photos that defy explanation, so it may or may not be helpful to be able to sing along with words that aren't really understandable (same for the titles and subtitles), though bits of meaning might be teased out.

It's really the melange of sounds that are something to behold and this is where Rodriguez-Lopez comes off as a Svengali with a pretty rare gift for pulling directly from punk, metal, Latin music and other styles but in a highly-personalized fashion.

The band including drummer Jon Theodore, bassist Juan Alderete de la Peña, keyboardist Isaiah Ikey Owens and percussionist and keyboardist Marcel Rodriguez-Lopez is top-notch and they were joined by a host of guests including John Frusciante of Red Hot Chili Peppers tearing off some great guitar solos of "L'Via L'Viaquez", his bandmate Flea performing on his original instrument, the trumpet (rather than the bass that he is known for), and a slew of violinists, trumpeters, horn players and other musicians.

De-Loused was exciting because it was new and heralded the arrival of a duo and band with tremendous talent.  Frances may be excessive, but spectacularly so and the conception seems more assured and tied together.  While the rest of The Mars Volta's catalog features a lot of higlights, this album is, to this listener, the peak.  But, the remainder of the group's output will be covered here, because it was all interesting, if not quite at the level of the amazing (and confounding) Frances the Mute.