Friday, July 29, 2016

Karlheinz Stockhausen: Stimmung

This remarkable recording of Stockhausen's work for chorus, Stimmung, is one of those albums that should be heard with headphones to really appreciate the particular aural dynamics of how he composed for polyphonic singing.

As performed by Paul Hillier's amazing Theatre of Voices, Stimmung is an especially stimulating experience, one that, for some, might be worth hearing after listening to, say, Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares, a Latvian female choir album, or the male Rustavi Choir from the republic of Georgia.  There are also sections of overtone singing that are somewhat reminiscent of the Tuva throat singers of Mongolia.

Stockhausen composed Stimmung, which implies tuning voices but can also refer to a calibrating of the soul in a positive way, in early 1968 as his take on madrigals, using text, vocalizations, and his own particular style of composing to create something very different and new. While there is basically a single chord utilized, the use of six pitches and overtones provides a complexity that makes the piece move beyond the idea of that one chord.

Instead of a score, there is a "form scheme" with 51 models that the singers follow with instructions as to who sings, what pitches are employed, and the textual resources (including a selection from 66 "magic names" based on mythological fitures) utilized.  There is a call-and-response element to the work with variations and the use of some improvisation and a new lead singer takes over in each model, though the ensemble decided which model goes where within the general scheme.

Interestingly, Hillier stated that Stockhausen offered to assist with the recording, but schedules did not permit it, so a tape of a performance was sent and the composer returned "a detailed critique—whch we found challenging and extremely helpful."  This sounds very Stockhausenian, actually, as does the closing comment that the various recordings of Stimmung sound quite different from one another, which is probably to be expected given the extraordinary way the piece was worked out and the demands it places on performers to utilize their individual and collective personalities in the performance.

Finally, Hillier offers that, of all of the experimental works of the 1960s, he feels Terry Riley's In C and Stimming are most representative and that he sees these very different works as being related to the conditions of time (the Sixties) and place (the effects of California on the two men)

Stimmung is, especially heard with headphones, a particularly stimulating and compelling work by one of the most provocative and unique composers in recent decades.  The recording quality is also crystalline, which really enhances the effect.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Prasit Thawon Ensemble: Thai Classical Music

This 1994 release on England's Nimbus Records is a beautiful example of the classical music of Thailand, as rendered by The Prasit Thawon Ensemble.

Utilizing horns; percussion including bells, gongs, finger cymbals, and woodblocks; alto and soprano xylophones and vocals, the long tradition of music, whether the pieces are older or new, from the Asian nation is given excellent expression by the ensemble, anchored by the two long centerpieces of the album, the exquisite 23 1/2-minute long "Sumran Dontri Klong" and the nearly 27-minute long "Cherd Chin."

Interestingly, the latter dates from the mid-19th century while the former was newly composed by Prasit Thawon, the leader of the performing ensemble, when this recording was made.

The group was founded in the late 1950s as "The Ensemble of the Dramatic School" at Bangkok and it performed in concerts and for radio and television broadcasts.  After Prasit Thawon retired in the mid-1980s, the ensemble was renamed "Sitti Thawon" and then to The Prasit Thawon Ensemble as a further honor to the founder.

The recording was made as part of an international conference devoted to Thailand at a London studio and is a fine representation of the fascingting music of that country.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Wire: Send

After another lengthy hiatus, beginning in 1992, Wire reemerged a decade later determined to push themselves in an expected direction.  With 2003's Send, which followed from and incorporated some songs from the two Read & Burn EPs, the band blazed, blasted and blew (largely) through a blistering barrage of tunes that showed that they were as delightfully idiosyncratic and creative as ever.

Anyone who saw Wire live during that period, as this blogger did for the first time at a Los Angeles show, it was more than a surprising to be confronted with a level of volume that was as loud as any concert experienced before.

But, the songs worked well in that maelstrom.  "In the Art of Stopping," "Comet," "The Agfers of Kodack," "Spent," and more are just built for speed and noise.  The live album, The Scottish Play: 2004 (a neat little play on The Bard) gives some idea of what Wire's music of that period sounded like in person, though it's obviously not possible to replicate the sonic assault.

But, that's not all that Send and related recordings from those first few years of the 2000s was about.  For one thing, although there are electronic treatments added for color and adornment, especially on "Read and Burn" it was great to be able to hear Robert Grey (Gotobed) playing a real drumkit again and performing with his old metronomic reliability.  Not that the late 80s version of Wire wasn't great--there was much to enjoy there--but the driving intensity of Send would not obviously have been anywhere near possible without Grey's drumming.

And, of course, there's Colin Newman's ironic, Cockney-inflected vocals--often supremely sarcastic, witty and insightful, and sometimes bellowing, as on the staggering "Spent."  Occasionally, Graham Lewis's voice, though definitely cigarette-burnished (or burned), comes out particularly effectively, even if processed, in the raging, biting "The Agfers of Kodack."  Though to hear him sing the tune on The Scottish Play reveals painfully what the years of smoking had done.

Finally, there is the production, which somehow manages to sound raw and polished all at the same time, due to the care and consideration taken by Newman, who has mixed all of Wire's music since at his home studio, Swim.

Some bands maintain remarkable longevity by falling back on past glories; others build upon their history while adding new dimensions by looking forward.  Wire is definitely the latter, even after Bruce Gilbert departed in 2004.  Their subsequent albums have all been great and their latest release, the mini-LP Nocturnal Koreans, shows that they are still very much forward thinking.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Charles Mingus Sextet with Eric Dolphy: Cornell 1964

This 2007 release on Blue Note Records is another one of those happy musical discoveries--coming about when Sue Graham Mingus, the widow of the great bassist and composer Charles Mingus found a tape of a concert held at Cornell University in upstate New York on 18 March 1964.

The two sets make up the double disc offering here and the programming is, characteristically for Mingus diverse and different.  The first tune is a solo romp by pianist Jaki Byard, who creates a piece brimming with upbeat feeling based on stunning virtuosity.  Byard then comps quietly behind Mingus, who solos to great effectiveness on a piece by one of his heroes, Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady."

Then comes one of the centerpieces of this record and one of the most politically charged pieces in the leader's impressive catalog of original compositions: "Fables of Faubus."  This jibe at the governor of Arkansas, Orval Faubus, who fought the federally ordered desegregation of schools in 1957.  While the vocals decrying Faubus are important to hear, and certainly had a place in 1964, the piece is also a gem because of the way the remarkable sextet moved through the tune with its shifting tempos, excellent soloing, and remarkable harmonic interplay.  Byars, as just one example, takes a bit of "Yankee Doodle Dandy" and builds upon it in his great solo and Mingus quotes "When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again" in his solo.  But, this is a triumph of a band making the most of its ample and impressive resources and led by a composer at the peak of his powers.

"Orange was the Color of Her Dress, Then Blue Silk" is a beautiful ballad, in which we hear the phenomenal Eric Dolphy on bass clarinet, employing all of the explosive, technically imposing, and utterly unique elements of his playing, with Mingus clearly encouraging Dolphy on.

The great composer Billy Strayhorn's "Take the 'A' Train," another piece associated with Ellington, also gets a great workout and Byard's soloing takes in stride playing and other "older" styles in weaving a fascinating history-based performance.  Mingus's phenomenal bass solo, in conjunction with Danny Richmond's remarkable drumming, features the bassist talking, grunting, and otherwise having a hell of a time while the crowd laughs and roars in appreciation.  Dolphy offers another great solo while the band rumbles and roars behind him and the pieces closes to end a spectacular set.

The second set is anchored by another marathon piece, the mind-blowing "Meditations," which runs over 31 minutes.  While it does have its meditative moments, it also has its uptempo sections, where the band, firing on all cylinders, displays all of its stregnths and shows no discernible weaknesses, letdowns, or misfirings.  Hearing Clifford Jordan solo on tenor, while Dolphy backs him on bass clarinet, and the rhythm section churns and burns along with them, is really interesting and exciting, especially as the finish pits the horns against Byard's hard block chords and Richmond's stirring drumming and as Mingus can be heard directing the band where to go next.

"So Long Eric" has been taken by many to be a posthumously-titled homage to Dolphy, who died just three months later in Berlin, but it was actually given that title by Mingus as Dolphy left the band to take the tour to Europe that included his untimely passing.

It being the day after St. Patrick's Day, Mingus tossed in a version of "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" and introduced trumpeter "Johnny O'Coles" as the "only Irishman in the band."  The album closes with the Fats Waller gem "Jitterbug Waltz", a fantastic rendering that highlights Dolphy's flute playing and provides more of the leader's great bass work.

It wasn't long after this recording that Mingus' career took a downturn, along with his mental and physical health.   There were later highlights like Let My Children Hear Music from the early 70s and the Changes albums from the same period, but the unit he had the year that the Cornell concert was made was exceptional and perhaps the high point of his long and remarkable career.