Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Further Noise

My first review in the webzine has been published, about an American now living in Scotland, Bill Thompson. Even from the first listening, Thompson's new work of electronic drones caught my attention as something a little different from a lot of the drone music I've been hearing lately -- an unabashed acceptance of electronics. Coming off a steady diet of layered, field recording drones for the past couple of weeks, Thompson's direct approach is refreshing. Remarkably, Thompson also spent time in Austin, Texas, which was also a formative location for Michael Northam, Seth Nehil and John Grzinich, notable drone artists about whom I've blogged recently. Like them, Thompson layers his sounds, but the analog electronic drones, without the added white noise from the environment, are purer, and there's a fair amount of skronk in Thompson's music as well.

Check it out here, including additional links and sound bites.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Do big cities inspire musical timidity?

When we lived in Ohio and wanted a big-city experience, we went to Chicago. The symphony hall has a top-notch piano series every year, and we saw Maurizio Pollini and Krystian Zimerman give recitals there. The CSO tracked us from Ohio to Arizona, and we received their new season brochure today in the mail. Again, a great looking set of piano concerts, including a recital by Marc-André Hamelin, a pianist whose recordings have almost singlehandedly brought a large number of worthwhile but otherwise unknown piano works to light. Even though the concert blurb emphasizes his adventurous and courageous progams, Hamelin's concert in Chicago will include sonatas by Haydn and Chopin, and Debussy's second book of Preludes. I'm sorry, and with all due respect, but this is neither adventurous or courageous. Do pianists get all super-stuffy when they come to Chicago?

After we had gotten tickets for the Zimerman recital a few years ago, we discovered that he was coming to a university just down the road, and that we didn't need to go all the way to Chicago to hear him at all. Well, we had tickets already, and reservations at Charlie Trotter's, so we didn't change our plans, but my piano teacher went to the local concert so we could compare notes. IIRC, the program was the same in both venues, Mozart, Ravel and Chopin. In Chicago, Zimerman was all business, playing the pieces on the program, but no conversation with the audience and no encores. (Of course, he played exceptionally well. His Chopin was highly idiosyncratic, very strange, and extremely moving.) At the concert in Oxford, Ohio, two days before, he changed the program on the fly (Mozart out, a big Beethoven sonata in), got all friendly and chatty with the audience, and played two encores. Perhaps in smaller venues, performers can relax a little bit and have some fun, but in the top-ranked cities, it must be so important to play as perfectly as possible. But the people in Oxford probably had a more interesting and memorable concert.

Hypothetically, if we were going to go to Chicago for a single piano concert this coming season, it would probably be Pierre-Laurent Aimard, playing The Art Of Fugue.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

From the Seven Days

Jeremy Denk is celebrating a birthday with seven days of blogging on the Allemande from Bach's fourth partita. It's an amazing tour de force, and opened my eyes to new ways of listening to Bach (and I still find myself compelled to start every day with an hour of his preludes and fugues). Start with day one and keep hitting the Newer Post button at the bottom to read the whole thing.

Monday, May 14, 2007

My own wikipedia misinformation

A while back, Kyle Gann posted an article on the difficulties of trusting wikipedia in scholarly matters. I have my own episode of bogus wikipedia knowledge, albeit on a much smaller scale, which I found in its article on Beethoven's Archduke Trio. The article mentions that the trio "features prominently … in the mystery novel A Traitor to Memory (2001), by Elizabeth George." My wife read this novel a while back, and since it was still sitting on the shelf, I thought I'd give it a spin.

First, the novel is over 1000 pages, which is long for a mystery. It's highly psychological, and therefore a bit slow moving, but I did finish the book. But as for the Archduke figuring prominently, well. (Caution: small spoiler ahead.) One of the main characters is a violinist who has recently had a panic episode during a performance of the Archduke, and it turns out that a recording of the Archduke was playing during a traumatic event from his childhood. The music itself isn't discussed at all, and the work in question could have been anything.

If you want a novel where classical music is "featured prominently," check out Sleeping with Schubert, by Bonnie Marson. It's an implausible but entertaining novel about a New York attorney who finds her body inhabited by the spirit of Schubert, leading her to previously unimagined heights of musical ability. But I'm probably mistaken about how much Schubert is actually in the novel — it's not mentioned in wikipedia at all.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

A British orchestral program

As the fine arts season in Tucson winds up (and as the snowbirds go back east), the Tucson Symphony Orchestra played their last regular classical concert this weekend. Guest conductor David Lockington led a program of British composers, playing three works, none of which I had ever heard before. Stepping outside the standard repertoire is a refreshing approach, which I find much more enjoyable than the often-repeated Beethoven, Mozart and Brahms.

The concert opened with a contemporary work by Philip Sawyers, a concert overture entitled The Gale of Life. Sawyers was present at the concert and gave a few opening remarks, along with a somewhat superfluous introduction by Mr. Lockington. The piece had some gorgeous moments, especially during a reflective part in the middle for strings and glockenspiel, and an exuberant finale. Although Lockington mentioned an influence from the second Viennese school, there was nothing overtly serial about the piece, or at least it wasn't as spiky as the influence suggested.

Second on the program was Ralph Vaughan Williams' Fourth Symphony in F minor. I have only a passing familiarity with Vaughan Williams, having inherited some recordings of the second, sixth and ninth symphonies, and of course the Tallis fantasy. In retrospect, this symphony seems characteristic of the 1930s when it was written, with its powerful and dark opening chords. But the end of the first movement, transitioning to the second, is slow and peaceful. The second movement is a big duet between the winds and the strings, with each section taking a turn in developing its contrapuntal themes. The flute and oboe play the main theme over pizzicato strings, followed by a similar play between the violas and violins. The scherzo brings together many of the themes that have been presented so far, and is followed immediately by the finale, where the primary motif is used for a big brass fugue, alternating with a oom-pah brass band section and sections in a strange, jerky rhythm. The fugue subject is built from the same material as the preceding sections, but in its full glory here is recogizable as the B-A-C-H melody, using Bach's name as musical material (and using the German spelling for B-flat = 'H'). This is a wonderful, big symphony, and a real treat to hear live.

The second half of the program was Edward Elgar's violin concerto, played by the TSO's concertmaster, Steven Moeckel. A beautiful, late romantic work, the concerto was played with great balance from the orchestra, and Moeckel performed the demanding solo part with great passion. The cadenza was a bit unusual in that it was accompanied by quietly strumming strings, which created an ethereal effect. All three pieces on the program were lovely and well worth hearing again. Congratulations to the Tucson Symphony for an unusual and delightful program.

Holy Grail Batman!

During a routine pre-caffeine check of my email, I find not one, but two long-sought-after items now available. First, I received an email from the composer of one of my favorite new piano pieces, who has graciously offered to provide me a score. I'll have more to say about her music in a future post. And second, Alejandro Jodorowsky's two great films, El Topo and The Holy Mountain, have finally been released on DVD, and are available through Netflix. Seeing El Topo was one of the defining film moments of my youth, and the Holy Mountain has existed in semi-nebulous, completely unlocatable, dark mists of time. I'm so excited about these two events I can't even practice!

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Songs from the Wood

Seth Nehil and John Grzinich worked together in the early 1990s on creating soundscapes where field recordings play a major role. In addition to a number of solo projects, they released a CD of archival recordings of their Alial Straa project from the mid-1990s and two companion CDs, Confluence and Stria, in 2002. Last year, they released a new recording, Gyre, on Jason Kahn's Cut label. An early mix of Gyre was presented as a four-channel sound installation.

Whereas their earlier releases present fairly massive drones and larger collective recordings, Gyre is both a more sparse and more textured work. For example, the track Weald starts with single percussive sounds (which could be wood cutters) before adding birds and other ambience. When a big boom (from a resonant water tank?) starts a passage of deep bass a little before the half way point, the wood cutters are still audible in the background. I hear tiny clattering sounds and a couple of ominous crashes, but the fade out is as rough as the introduction. The opening track, Cast, is most similar to their previous work because of a deep underlying drone that is sustained across most of the piece, but there is an insistent rustling in the foreground that sets the track apart. The texture extends to the final track, Glaze, where the foreground sounds composed and man-made, over a whirling metallic background that fades out, leaving the sound composer at work with his devices.

In all three pieces on the CD, Gyre plays with the spatialization of sounds. Some sound events are heard across a great distance. Their origin is diffused throughout the environment, and the resonance is stronger, making the specifics of the originating event more ambiguous. Contrast this background with very specific, detailed sounds that move perceptibly around the listening environment. These small sounds are no less ambiguous. I can't tell whether the rustling on Cast is from raindrops or the woods, at least until the end when the drone drops out and leaves only some metallic sounds.

Gyre is similar in many ways to the work of Michael Northam, whom I've written about before. Northam has released two collaborative CDs with Grzinich and contributes some source recordings for Weald on this album. Sometimes I wonder whether working so much with field recordings is an attempt to defer the listener's attention back to the environment and away from the artist. I would be hard pressed to identify characteristics of this album that are unique to Nehil or Grzinich, but I don't believe that they are trying to make a recognizable niche for themselves. Regardless, these recordings are immersive and timeless, qualities that I find tremendously appealing, and which I continue to seek both in recordings and my own music.

Listen once...

We rented a John Cage video from netflix, and it includes an interview where Cage says that when he has a choice about seeing a concert of new music or a concert of old music, he'll always choose the new because he likes to hear music he hasn't heard before. This is one of Cage's defining aesthetics, and is at the source of many of his indeterminate pieces. Perhaps that applies to my CD collecting as well — I want to hear music that I've never heard before (and will never hear again). This way, a CD is like a concert, a one-time listening experience. Hmmm. Well, after one listen in a darkened room, I don't think I'll ever play my Diamanda Galas Plague Mass CD again....