Sunday, January 31, 2016

Ludwig von Beethoven: String Quartets, Vol. 1 (Op. 18, Nos. 1 and 2)

Reading John Cage's remarkable book Silence currently, it becomes very obvious that the famed experimental composer had a particular dislike for Ludwig von Beethoven.

Much of this may have been particularly musical, but a good deal seems also to have been because of the arch conservatism in the classical world that kept the fires burning for the standard composers from Bach to Mozart to Beethoven to Brahms to Wagner and so forth.

It is understandable that innovative modern composers, such as Cage and Harry Partch, were concerned that there was not enough opportunity given to those looking to move beyond traditional composing methods.  This listener is fascinated with the music of both of these amazing figures, along with other modernists whose work has been highlighted here.

At the same time, there is admiration for the stunning work of the earlier masters, as well, and there is no reason that Beethoven and other giants of the pre-modern world cannot be enjoyed just as much as later-day experimenters.

Anyway, this Naxos recording from the early 1990s presents the first two of Beethoven's string quartets.  Composed between 1798 and 1800, while Beethoven in his late twenties, as he was straining to move beyond the teachings and influence of his tutor, the great Franz Josef Haydn, these works show a composer who was already creating rich, complex and beautiful music that showed the way beyond Haydn and Mozart as a new century dawned.

The theme in the first movement of the first quartet, in F major, is a well-known one and it takes the listener into a very lively, dramatic and bright environment.  The second movement is subdued, slower and achingly beautiful and was said by the composer to have the famed burial vault scene in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet as inspiration.  The short third movement has another famed theme and has a notable rhythmic component to it, as well as a series of memorable melodic statements.  The concluding allegro movement is an amazing technical exercise that bursts with all kinds of remarkable interplay among the instruments and is a stunning finale to a remarkable first quartet by the master.

The second quartet, in G major, sounds simpler and was named "Complimentary Quartet" after its resemblance to the late works of Haydn because of its light and graceful touch.  This blogger is a great admirer of Haydn, so it is easy to enjoy this work, which abounds in gorgeous melodic statements and sprightly rhythms.  The economical presentation of this piece, at about 23 minutes, compared to the roughly half-hour length of the first quartet, is also worth noting, as it moves along with effortless pacing between the faster and slower movements and the fine formalistic interplay among the instruments.  The beauty of slower second movement is also something to behold--more gorgeous melodic work and harmony here.

To this untutored ear, the Kodaly Quartet from Hungary perform this music with great sensitivity, passion and telepathnic interplay and the recording quality is very good.  This is another stellar release from Naxos, though a  recent purchase of Beethoven's complete string quartets, spanning eight discs from the British Nimbus label, is being listened to now and it also presents this amazing music beautifully.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Peking Opera/Dalian Troupe: The Forest on Fire/The Princess Hundred Flowers

This 1994 release from the French label, Musique du Monde, presents two pieces of Peking Opera, a form of music and theater that began in the late 18th-century, including "The Forest on Fire," a 28 1/2 minute work, and "The Princess Hundred Flowers," which spans some 46 minutes.  This excellent performance was recorded at Dalian Opera in Liaoning province in March by Francois Picard, who also provided the informative liner notes.

As with any type of performance that marries music with visual theatrics, including acrobatics as well as speech, singing and instrumental work, recordings can only provide some approximation of the experience, but the music is remarkable and striking.

Percussion is a major element, unlike in much of European opera, with drums, clappers (guban), various-sized gongs, and cymbals employed to vivid effect.  Strings include the jinghu, a Peking fiddle, the erhu, another fiddle, and a few types of lute-like instruments.  Wind instruments include mouth organs (sheng), the dizi, a flute, and the suona, a flared shawm, a distinctively high-pitched dual reed horn.

The vocalizing is. of course, just one element of the amazing work done by elaborately dressed and masked characters, being Zhang Dingbian in "The Forest on Fire" and the title character of Princess Hundred Flowers.  Volume, tonal control, and the emphasis on dramatic phrasing are key to the purely musical aspects of the performance, because the acting, including facial expressiveness, very precise gesturing and body movement are key.

In fact, to some ears, much of this music, both instrumental playing and singing, can be jarringly  shrill, tonally and harmonically foreign, and melodically off-putting.  It does take some time and effort to reorienting the Western ear to the sounds of this amazing music, just as it does for other forms of "world music," whether this be the Indian raga, African tribal music, gamelan, sufi music, Turkish mevlana, and many others.

Repeated listenings bring out the complexity, dynamic range, expression and variety of sounds that make Peking Opera a truly enriching experience and the virtuosity of the musicians and performers is stunning.

Performances of this art form are still offered, though there have been changes in recent years after outright bans during the cultural revolutions under Mao Tse Tung, but opportunities in America to see authentic operas are rare.  Perhaps some day, this blogger will get the chance to attend a performance and move from the detached musical appreciation to the immersion of a fuller experience.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Son House: Delta Blues

One of the masters of the acoustic blues tradition from the Deep South, Son House was born outside of Clarkdale, Mississippi (fans of Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page and Robert Plant will recognize that reference) in 1902 and then spent much of his early years in Louisiana.  He was a Baptist preacher as a teen and didn't start playing guitar until his later twenties, working with Willie Brown, who is heard on some of these recordings.

Quickly, House became a name in the blues world and had an influence on such legends as Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters. It is said that Johnson's remarkable transformation as a guitar player was due, in no small measure, to his keen and close observation of House's technique.  Another master bluesman, Charley Patton, made a connection for House with Paramount Records, which recorded eight tracks with House in early 1930.

It was more than a decade, though, before House got another session, this time with Alan Lomax, who found him in Mississippi in summer 1941.  Getting together with his old partner, Brown, House recorded the first five songs on this 2003 Biograph disc with assistance from Fiddlin' Joe martin and Leroy Williams on four of the pieces.

Lomax came back the following year with a partnership with the all-black Fisk University of Nashville, and recorded more of House's performances, including the nine that close out the album.  Unlike the first session, the 1942 dates find House working solo and, it being wartime America, he even added a new tune, "American Defense" to the selections, all of which were attributed to him.

With the 1930 and 1941-42 sessions constituting the body of his recorded work, House moved to Rochester, New York, where he lived after 1943, but it was another twenty years before he got back into a recording studio.  As the folk revival exploded in the late 1950s and early 1960s, a rediscovery of blues artists, including those who played acoustic, took place.  In 1965, Columbia Records recorded an older and more wizened House in a series of sessions that are captured in a two-disc complete box that will be featured here some day.

With his career brought back to life, House kept busy for several years until health problems slowed him down, though he lived on until fall 1988 when he died of complications from throat cancer at the age of 86.

This "Delta Blues" compilation of what is now referred to as "The Original Library of Congress Sessions from Field Recordings" from 1941-42 are full of fleet guitar performances, House's powerful county blues vocalizing, and on those early pieces, some fine accompaniment on guitar and harmonica.  Though the conditions were far more primitive-sounding than what he put down on tape in the mid-Sixties, the passion and soulfulness of these fourteen gems are among the greatest of blues recordings.

Friday, January 15, 2016

David Holland Quartet: Conference of the Birds

Master bassist Dave Holland has had a remarkable career, starting in England and flowering when he was recruited to play with Miles Davis in 1969.  His speed, power, flexibility and tremendous sense of time made him one of the greatest bass players of his era.

He has had, however, relatively few dates as a leader, but his 1973 (recorded late 1972) ECM album Conference of the Birds is an exceptional recording and a true classic of experimental jazz that has the rare virtue of employing two of the giants of modern saxophone: Anthony Braxton and Sam Rivers.  Any fan of these two knows this was the sole recorded meeting of these venerable figures and they make the most of it, thanks to the stellar rhythmic support of Holland and drummer Barry Altschul.

Holland very simply explains that the title came about because of a regular "conference" of birds singing in his apartment's garden early in the mornings and the spirit of these performances were to be shared with other musicians and people broadly.

The opening tracks "Four Winds" has a nice, memorable melody and then the quartet takes off with a tight and telepathic performance that features an angular and elliptical solo by Rivers, whose sense of timing in working with the deep grooves established by Holland and the precise timekeeping of Altschul is really something to behold.

Rivers may have been seen as "far out" in the "free jazz" sense, but he also was masterful in working with rhythm sections in his playing, as aptly demonstrated here.  Braxton joins in toward the end, the two rephrase the theme, and then Braxton works his way with some melodic expression before taking off into the stratosphere, taking Holland and Altschul with him in some very powerful moments.

Braxton's playing has been depicted as cold, intellectual, and forbidding, but with Holland and Altschul hewing to a steady groove, his playing meshes well, just in a very different way than that of Rivers.  Towards the end, Rivers jumps back in for some spirited back-and-forth with Braxton and the theme is restated to close out a staggering display of performance.

After that blazing opening, "Q & A" starts off more quietly, but with a particularly inspired choice in having Altschul demonstrate a broad tonal range of percussion.  He's been accused of being too busy and showy, but this is an excellent example of how a great drummer utilizes the full resources of a kit.  The horns enter with Rivers on flute and Braxton on clarinet and the combination works really well in the context of the call-and-response format the title indicates.  Holland goes arco in some of his playing, as well, moving the piece into more of an atmospheric evocation of sound, but the piece never meanders unnecessarily, partially because that rhythm section keeps the proceedings well grounded.

Holland takes a solo turn on the title track and, invariably, many people shudder at the thought of listening through another interminable bass solo.  Holland, however, keeps it short and then gets into a nice strumming groove with the melodic statements offered by Braxton and Rivers on clarinet and flute.  Altschul mainly keeps things simple on cymbals for color.   The overall effect is a beautiful and classic piece.

"Interception" moves things back into speedy territory, much like "Four Winds" and Rivers takes the first solo, followed by Holland's strong and nimble solo.  After a restatement of the theme, in comes Braxton for his distinctive voice as he utilizes a variety of resources, including overblowing, long sinuous runs and voice-like statements in his amazing work before the ensemble returns to the theme and closes out with an Altschul solo.

"Now Here (Nowhere)" begins with a subdued intro and interplay between the horns and bass with some percussive effects and is another example of emotion, economy and interplay that shows that "free jazz" can also be highly melodic, atmospheric and imaginative.

The closer is "See Saw" and Rivers begins again, with his solo another example of how well he integrates with the bass and drums--just a gorgeously executed performance from a greatly-underappreciated master.  A brief evocation of the theme then leads to Braxton and it is another broad expression and a roaring solo at that.  When Rivers joins back for the end, there's a sense that this remarkable recording, being the only meeting between these two giants and supported and promoted by a sterling rhythm section, is a truly rare example of how experimental jazz is at its most successful.

Holland may also be somewhat underappreciated, if not for his playing, then at least for his ability to compose excellent material and then recruit some of the finest musicians in jazz to execute a stellar album.  Conference of the Birds is a summit of selfless musicians at their best and ECM, a new label at the time primarily formed to record Keith Jarrett deserves all praise for recording it.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Iannis Xenakis: Phlegra/Jalons/Keren/Nomos Alpha/Thalleïn

This selection is not only because Iannis Xenakis, a Greek born in Romania and long based in France, was such a compelling and fascinating composer exploring the boundaries of music, but becaise one of these compositions, "Jalons," was dedicated in part to the conductor of the piece, performed by the Ensemble InterContemporain--this being Pierre Boulez, the great composer and conductor, who died last week at 90.

Xenakis began his work, in the early 1950s, as Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen and other composers were working to change so-called "classical music" from its orthodoxy in harmony, melody, time and other aspects to what has often been referred to as "avant-garde music."  His training as an engineer and architect led him to develop a mechanism for adopting mathematics into his composition, including some of the earliest uses of computer programming for scores.

As a trained engineer and architect, however, Xenakis did not utilize the formal training of even some of the most modern of composers, such as Boulez, who was critical of Xenakis' lack of technical knowledge and expertise, and it was about a decade before the latter conducted a work of the former that he commissioned.

Xenakis once said that his musical outlook was directly related to the horrible experiences of his days in Greece during World War II and the revolutionary aftermath in that country, during which he lost an eye fighting during the civil war.  Much of his output, to this untrained listener, is atonal, dissonant, dark and riven with tension, though it was assumed this was more about the intellectual and aesthetic aspects of the boundary-pushing efforts the composer pursued.

This 1992 release of material recorded by the Ensemble Intercontemporain and soloists from two years prior has a fine sound, complementing challenging and rewarding material from Xenakis and tremendous performances from the group and its soloists.

"Phlegra", written in 1976, is fascinating with its shifting harmonies among eleven instuments in a chamber orchestral setting, reflecting a sort of abrasive order among chaos.  There is a fascinating, undulating beauty, though, in the crests and descents of the score and energetic use of polyphony and the musicians of the Ensemble Intercontemporain do a fantastic job with this complex, layered and mesmerizing work, which has to do with fighting between the Titans and the gods of Olympus from Greek mythology.

"Jalons" was commissioned in 1986 and whatever conflicts had existed between Boulez and Xenakis seemed to have dissipated somewhat by then.  The complexity of "Phlegra" is very much present, but there is a richer, broader sound to this untutored ear, due probably to the larger ensemble size of fifteen musicians.  Shifting masses of sound distributed throughout the instruments of this "mini orchestra" are always interesting and, like in "Phlegra" there is no soloing--this is all about the wonders of ensemble interplay.

By contrast, "Keren" (Hebew for "horn") is dedicated to a solo for one of the instrumnets that so rarely is spotlighted in that format: the trombone.  Last June's post on Luciano Berio's Sequenza series brings to mind that one of the fourteen works in that set was also for trombone.  Benny Sluchin does a superlative job of demonstrating the range of what the instrument can do as conceived by Xenakis, including guttural  sounds, glissando and all kinds of expressive dynamics, as well as melodic lines.  After the intensity of the first two pieces, "Keren" is a nice break, even though it is characteristically experimental and searching in its development.

1965's "Nomos Alpha" moves into another solo spotlight, this being for Pierre Strauch's wonderful cello, as worked out in mathematical formulas that take the cello beyond its typical use into stunning displays of dynamics, including a "doubling" effect that is really something to behold.  Like the trombone, the cello is not usually thought of as having a wide range of application in sound, though it is a foundation of string quartets.  In the hands of Xenakis and Strauch's enormous efforts, the cello becomes as expressive an instrument as any.

In 1984, Xenakis wrote "Thalleïn" ("to burgeon" in Greek) and here is another exercise in employing masses of sound, complex displays of polyphony, but with the difference from other pieces in this set in using some percussion, such as a gong early on and then maracas later along with more standard percussive elements.  There is also piano throughout, though the work really is about the dense intreplay of woodwind and brass instruments.  The variety of tonal, rhythmic, harmonic and melodic resources do, in fact, give a sense of "burgeoning" as the title notes.  The Ensemble Intercontemporain again is extraordinary in this piece, as in the others.

Pierre Boulez's reputation now is mainly as a conductor, but his earliest work especially is part of the important development of music in the post-World War II era.  While he was critical of Xenakis' lack of formal training in music, the latter became more renowned in the composing side.  Boulez eventually worked with Xenakis' compositions on occasion as part of his rich legacy of conducting and "Jalons" is a great example of this.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Musicians of the National Dance Company of Cambodia: Homrong

All praise to Peter Gabriel for founding Real World Records and putting out a slew of great recordings from musicians from around the world.  An example picked up on cassette by this blogger in the early 90s was the excellent and timely Homrong by the Musicians of the National Dance Company of Cambodia.

Years passed and the recording was forgotten until very recently when a conversation with a hairstylist from Cambodia stirred memories of having this great album nearly a quarter-century before.  So, a CD version was acquired recently and it was fantastic getting to rediscover this gem.

Gabriel and his cohorts released this album to not only spotlight Cambodian music, but to heighten awareness of the tragedies wrought upon its people by the phenomenally brutal regime of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.  This adds a degee of poignancy to the recording, which is full of wonderful and beautiful music, encompassing orchestral, special event and folk stylings.

Some of the folk tunes almost have a bluesy feel to them, especially the opening track "Breu Peyney" and "Nor Khor Reach," both anchored by excellent lute-like playing and a particularly-enthralling vocalizing by a female singer on the former and a male on the latter.

Also a standout is the excellent "Luok Phsar", featuring a keening wind instrument, percussion, and a nicely-harmonized vocal ensemble working with a beautiful melody.  Similar is "Leng Suan" which has another distinctive vocal and melodic concept.  The title track is a religious piece with a fine male vocal, a pair of wind instruments, one in reedy higher register than the one that is more in the background at a lower register.

"Tep Monorom Dance" is carried along by its wind instruments, percussion and, especially, the stately vibraphone, which also feature in "Preah Chinnavong."  Speaking of stately, that aptly describes the gorgeous "Tropangpeay," which moves along at a leisurely pace and has fine melodic statements by its dual wind instruments.

Percussion is a dominant instrument along with a single wind instrument in "Bohrapha," which also has a great male lead vocal with group backing--this is another highlight on the record, especially the ululating-like trills offered in the piece.

A delicate and emotive lullaby sung by a woman is a gorgeous and apt way to conclude this remarkable recording, showing so much of a cultural revival that started in the 1980s and was still underway when the album was released.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Trojan Dub Box Set, Volume One

Anyone with more than a casual interest in dub, the effects-laden form of reggae music that puts the emphasis on the instrumental portion as a "version" of a track, has to have some experience with the amazing catalog of the form put out by Trojan Records.

The label was an imprint of Chris Blackwell's Island Records back in the late Sixties, founded by an associate of Blackwell named Lee Gopthal, and produced recordings of some major reggae figures, like its namesake "Duke" Reid, who was often called "Trojan" early in his career, as well as the Upsetters, Jimmy Cliff, and Desmond Dekker, among many others.

The association with Island ended after a few years, but Trojan soldiered on, though it struggled for years until the early 80s ska revival gave a brief resurgence to the label.  In 1985, an accountant and fan named Colin Newman (not the singer of the great British band, Wire) bought Trojan and put a focus on its voluminous and rich back catalog.

The major label, Sanctuary, paid a pretty price for Trojan in 1990, and it was under that owner that a series of budget, three-disc box sets mining the catalog were issued.  The first of the dub sets came out in 1998, with a second following two years later.  In 2007, Sanctuary was acquired by Universal Music Group and then the Trojan label went to BMG, where it now resides.

The first volume is packed with 50 prime dub tracks from such figures as legendary drummer Sly Dunbar and The Revoluntaries; the Aggrovators, the Upsetters, Gregory Isaacs, Scientist, King Tubby, Roots Radics, the Observers, and more.

All the hallmarks of great dub are here--the prominence of largely deep-grooving bass as the melodic centerpiece, the particularly distinctive use of drums and other percussion to ornament the bass with remarkable rhythms, and the heavily distorted remixing of these instruments and guitars, horns and others with often otherworldly vocal samples.

The version of the box owned by this blogger is a demo one, so there was no cover art, just cards for each disc that provided part of an overall story of Trojan's history.  It's very brief and general and could be useful for those coming to dub for the first time or with limited experience.

Dub is one of the few forms of music for this listener that can accompany so many different activities--at work, driving, doing work out in the yard or in the house, exercising, or whatever.  When it comes to some of the choicest examples of the genre available at a great price and providing such a great overview, it's hard to imagine something topping the Trojan Dub Box Set series.