Friday, November 30, 2007

Not enough listening

I realize that I haven't reviewed as many CDs this month. I seem to be a bit unfocused in my recent listening, and, based on recent posts, I seems to have spent more time reading. I hope to rectify this situation in the coming weeks. In the meantime, I have a review of a new dark ambient work, Music for an untitled film by T. Zärkkof by the Spanish artist Lngtché over at

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

A new classical web store

The venerable Deutsche Grammophon, premier classical music label for decades, has opened a web store that comes pretty close to doing everything a classical music store should do. First, the files are 320kbps mp3 files, without any DRM. The interface is pretty good, and when you buy an album (generally priced at $11.99), you can download the tracks individually or in a zip file. Finally, and best of all, many of the albums come with the original CD booklet as a PDF. This may not matter as much for Beethoven symphonies, but for new music, such as DG's excellent 20/21 series, the liner notes are very valuable. The iTunes store sometimes has digital booklets, but only for hot new releases. The 20/21 albums are available in iTunes, but at lower bitrates and without the booklets. The additional value here is tremendous. I wish all new music labels would include the liner notes with the digital releases.

In order to make the store really killer, DG should release their immense back catalog. As far as I can tell, they are only releasing items that have appeared on CD. Except for an odd track, such as Gerd Zacher's recordings of Ligeti's organ music (which were re-released as part of a bunch of Ligeti albums), I can't find any trace of the superb Avant-Garde recordings that DG released back in the 1960s. Other works which haven't had a CD reissue are not to be found as well. I had a record of two Luigi Nono works, Como una ola de fuerza y luz and Y entonces comprendio, one of which featured a hot, young, up-and-coming pianist named Maurizio Pollini. Como una ola... has been reissued on CD twice as part of various Pollini editions — both albums are in the web store — but Y entonces comprendio, which was for six female voices, chorus and tape and which didn't feature any stars, still languishes. Nevertheless, this is a great start, currently the best source for downloading classical music.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

As a matter of fact, it's all noise

The big event this fall in the classical music blogosphere is the October publication of Alex Ross's book, The Rest Is Noise. Ross has had a blog since 2004, and was one of the inspirations for this (and probably many other) blog. His book is extremely entertaining and not especially technical, a history of the twentieth century as told through its music. It's already made the New York Times's list of notable books for 2007. I can only add my voice to the chorus of praise. I found the book irresistable, and only put it down long enough to pull out the music that Ross discusses for another listen, or to search the internet for interesting sounding pieces that aren't already in my collection.

Although the book starts off on extremely well trodden territory with Debussy and Ravel, it quickly veers off into seldom charted backwaters of twentieth century music. In so doing, Ross uses several themes to structure his history. I especially loved the way he used Thomas Mann's fictional Adrian Leverkühn, from the novel Dr. Faustus, as a recurrent foil to the varioius trends of the musical century. The confluence of classical and popular music is introduced early, primarily through the influence of American jazz. Jazz was a critical component not only in American composers such as Gershwin, but through the American presence in World War I, for a number of European composers as well. From Darius Milhaud and Les Six through Stravinsky's Ebony Concerto and into the late 20th century with Steve Reich's acknowledged influence of Miles Davis, jazz and classical music played off each other in a myriad of interesting ways.

Another theme that Ross uses to structure his narrative is the interaction of politics and music. Politics comes to the fore in his central section on music from 1933 to 1945, in three superb chapters on Russia under Stalin, the USA under Roosevelt, and Germany under Hitler. But he continues the discussion even outside of this area. One of the interesting tidbits was about the founding of the international school at Darmstadt, which was funded by the American military operation in Germany after World War II as part of a psychological warfare and information control effort. This is the first time I've seen in print anything mentioning the hostility between the French and the German composers in the years after the war. I've always assumed that the teapot tempest between musique concréte (music made using samples of real world sounds, championed by Pierre Schaefer in Paris) and elektronische musik (music generated completely from electronics, championed by Herbert Eimert in Cologne) was a lingering hostility from the war, and Ross confirms this supposition. But what I hadn't considered was how much the severity of the Darmstadt music was seen as a moral imperative, an attempt to regain some kind of control after the devastation of the war. Stockhausen and Boulez were formative composers for me — listening to Hymnen all alone in front of a fire one night was akin to a conversion — and Ross provided new perspectives on this subject already close to my heart.

The last section of the book covers 1945 through 2000, and Ross is pretty successful in capturing the diversity of compositional approaches. One might consider it to be too diverse, since the only composer to get most of a chapter to himself is Benjamin Britten, while some of those I consider to be giants, such as John Cage, only get a couple of pages. But the book's subtitle, Listening to the Twentieth Century, provides the key. The Rest Is Noise doesn't pretend to be a reference work, but a subjective traversal of twentieth century music. Granted, Ross is in a privileged position. He's the classical music critic of the New Yorker magazine, so not only does he reside in one of the world's musical hubs, he's paid to attend all of the major concert events (talk about a dream job!). Classical music's major genre is opera, so opera is one of the recurrent themes of the book. Ross quotes Cage's comparison of contemporary music to a river delta, so many different streams that they can't be enumerated. Most readers will probably wish Ross had placed different emphases here and there, but I think of Ross as a consummate music geek, sharing some of his favorite music, connecting points between genres and with events in the world at large, and ultimately sending us all back to our record collections to listen again. Only now, we're hearing the music differently because of the way it fit into a larger story, which in turn helps us reflect on why we listen to music in the first place.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Extended jazz compositions

Several years ago, I hung out on a mailing list that discussed John Zorn and his various projects, including the various artists that he produced on his nascent Tzadik label. This essentially meant that we could discuss just about anything, since Zorn either played in or produced many flavors of jazz, classical, and the more outside forms of rock. I learned a lot about different kinds of music there, and have continued to follow other writers that hung out there as well. In addition to Brian Olewnick, whom I've mentioned before, one of the other seminal voices was Steve Smith, who has since graduated to the big time, writing for Time Out New York and the New York Times. Steve's tastes were extremely wide ranging; if I've finally learned that our tastes in metal don't always overlap, over the years he introduced me, through his entertaining and extremely literate writing, to classical works like the Shostakovich symphonies, as well as several creative improvising artists.

Steve also has a blog, and last week he posted an impassioned article about a forthcoming reunion of Tim Berne's group Bloodcount, where he reiterated his position that Berne is one of the leaders in extended jazz compositions. I've always been curious about jazz composition. I've played classical music most of my life, and dabbled in country and rock for a while in my younger days, but I have no experience performing jazz. My understanding of jazz composition is pretty much that jazz songs are pop tunes, and that performers generally play the song together once, then take turns improvising over the chord changes, and then make a final tutti statement at the end. But Steve always seemed to allude that Berne's compositions were somehow more than this, so I asked him for some additional information in a comment to the post above. But it's outside Steve's scope, and probably outside his interest, so I decided to listen again to one of the three Bloodcount albums that were recorded during a stint at Les Instants Chavirés, a tiny jazz club outside Paris (recently available again after being out of print for more than a decade) with an ear toward deciding what was composition and what was improvisation. Or really, since improvisation is simply composition on the spot, what part of these pieces did Berne compose alone in his studio, and what part got formed in rehearsel, and what part got formed the night it was recorded live?

The volume of the Bloodcount Paris Concerts entitled Poisoned Minds has two pieces: The Other, which clocks in at 27:29, and What Are The Odds?, which takes 41:28. The ensemble is Berne and Chris Speed on sax (with Speed playing clarinet on The Other), Michael Formanek on bass, Jim Black on drums, and Marc Ducret on guitars. Ducret plays a minor role on the album, never soloing, and not even audible until twenty minutes into The Other. So we're essentially listening to a quartet. I imagine that writing for a jazz quartet requires considerably less detail than for a larger ensemble; a horn section particularly seems to call for a more fully notated arrangement. The jazz rhythm section is probably never notated. Published "arrangements" in fake books and the like have a melody line and chords, nothing else. Presumably Berne's charts have no more detail than this, since the goal is to create a framework for improvisation.

The Other opens sounding like other jazz pieces. It's a slow, impressionistic melody in long phrases played by the group, led by Berne on alto, accompanied by a harmonic line on the clarinet and a bowed line in the bass. Both of the harmonic lines generally move more slowly than the primary melody, but I don't get a sense that the harmony is specified. Berne's music seems like it's based on melodic gestures and textures, and not a pop song structure. Berne probably composed the melody, or the opening melodic fragments in the studio, and the group may have composed the harmony lines in rehearsels -- it doesn't sound fully composed. A couple of minutes in, the rhythm section drops out, and we have a brief wind duet, but the other instruments come back to close the section. Then there's a bowed bass solo, with a sparse accompaniment on the drums, clearly improvised on the spot, but accompanied at the end by the wind instruments with a slow harmonic movement, which in turn gives way to another duet section that sounds more composed. The rhythm section gathers itself into a groove, and the wind lines build slowly to a climax, which disintegrates into two fast moving improvised lines. This section concludes with a unison statement from all the melodic players, then splinters off again into a drum solo. All of this takes about the first half of the piece.

There's not much point in describing the remainder of the album in detail, but it's probably safe to guess that Berne composes the melodic kernels and phrases, and the overall structure of the piece. This structure probably includes the textural character of the transition sections, where the solos occur, and how to get into and out of the solo sections. I don't imagine that each player would need more than a couple of pages of sheet music per piece, but I imagine that some sheet music would be present, at least for the melody players.

Berne's narratives come from the variety in the textures, along with hearing the melodic lines evolve and mutate over the course of the piece. The musicians in the rhythm section are equal partners to the melodic players, and Berne isn't afraid to rock out once in a while. Ducret is a great foil, and even if his role is fairly minor here, on some of Berne's other albums, such as Caos Totale's Nice View (with a full brass section of Steve Swell on trombone, Herb Robertson on trumpet, and Django Bates on alto horn) and his Julius Hemphill cover album, Dimunitive Mysteries (with David Sanborn on second sax), his noisy solos are an integral part of the experience. Part of what I like about Berne's albums (and after Steve's article, I've gone back and listened to every one I have) is that they don't sound like "jazz," but a hybrid where jazz is only one of the elements, sitting comfortably alongside classical and the occasional rock.

All of the albums mentioned in this post are currently available from Winter & Winter. And, as I discovered after this article was more or less complete, Berne's sells some of his scores from his label's web site, although not for any of the music I've discussed here. There's a sample page that shows notations for alto sax, guitar and keyboard, but which doesn't include any chord changes.

Friday, November 16, 2007

You're a genius!

Here's a fun little meme traveling around the blogosphere. It tells the reading level required for this blog. So congratulations, you're a genius!

Of course, it doesn't say what you have to be to write the blog. Excuse me while I consult with the twelve monkeys hammering away back here…

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Linear music explained

Karol Berger's book Bach's Cycle, Mozart's Arrow sets as its task the origins of musical modernity, specifically from the perspective of musical time. Berger carefully distinguishes modernity from modern music, where modernity is a fissure in a continuous historical lineage, generally located around the Industrial Revolution (with the French and American revolutions as the political counterparts). In pre-modern times, time was viewed as a cycle (e.g., of the sun and the seasons). By the end of the 18th century, time was viewed as progressive, a linear history moving from the past toward the future. Berger chooses Bach and Mozart as musical illustrations of these two perspectives, and Augustine and Jean-Jacques Rousseau for philosophical background.

His chapters on Bach deal primarily with the St. Matthew Passion (which it has been a pleasure to hear again), with a short interlude on the first fugue from the WTC. The most illuminating section on Bach was on the fugue, which points out that the events in the fugue do not depend on one another in any meaningful way. Given the subject of a fugue, a certain number of "demonstrations" of the way the subject(s) may be harmonized and combined, each demonstration being independent of all the others. The demonstrations are essentially in an unordered set. Bach of course does combine them in a meaningful way according to a tonal plan, but in Berger's estimation, this combination comes later, and is of lesser importance than the demonstrations themselves.

I was much less moved by his discussion of the Passion, where he shows how Bach musically represents the Christian belief that our finite human time is enmeshed in the infinite time of God. While I don't doubt that this was indeed Bach's intent, the Christian story was considerably more real in Bach's time than it is in ours, where it has become more metaphorical (this is part of the transition to modernity that is the overall subject of the book). I don't believe one needs to be a devout Christian, versed in the arcane details of 18th century theology, to appreciate this magnificant work.

Undeniably, by the time of the Viennese classics, a listener was certainly expected to remember various events that occurred in the course of a piece. The classic sonata form, with two themes, a development and a recapitulation, all on a fairly standard tonal plan, makes little sense without some kind of short term memory to understand the structure of the piece. Berger demonstrates musical linearity with detailed examples from Mozart and Beethoven, but in both cases already showing how the conventions of the sonata form become expectations to be subverted.

A long interlude in the center of the book describes in some detail the philosophical changes that underpin Berger's arguments. Both the theological arguments behind the eternal time that precedes and follows the insignificant human time scale, as well as a summary of Rousseau's philosophical positions on our rational self-determination, are presented in some detail. Berger's intent is to show the philosophical changes that were current during the late 18th century, and which informed both the composers and listeners. If the arguments seem a bit esoteric and irrelevant today, an awareness certainly can inform contemporary interpretations of the music.

Granted, the classical concert repertoire is often too heavily invested in the Viennese classics that form the primary focus of this work. But when Berger says that "the Viennese classics have shaped our musical expectations and values to such an extent that we expect these values to inform any music we encounter," well, I'm sorry, but Berger needs to get out more. Discontinuity and various kinds of nonlinearity have been part of classical music since Schoenberg and Stravinsky — are there corresponding changes in our views on time? What perspective change do we need to appreciate a mobile form work like Cage's Atlas Eclipticalis, where the linearity is subverted from one performance to the next? Unfortunately, Berger's steadfast refusal to consider modern music (as opposed to modernity in general) makes the book somewhat less interesting to the general reader.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Birthday swag

Birthdays are a time for renewal, upgrading, taking stock, making plans and goals for the year to come, and of course a celebration with appropriate snacks and beverages (yum!). Along with renewing the contents of the sock drawer, I also upgraded the top bookshelf with the long out-of-print The Time of Music by Jonathan D. Kramer. I've mentioned this book a couple of times in passing, and it will be a real treat to be able to refer to it at will, rather than having to trek down to the UA library, where the copy might be checked out, or worse, missing. All thanks are due to my loving partner, who gave me permission to track down a copy.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

The Hilliard Ensemble

November 1 was Hilliard Ensemble Day in Tucson. The renowned vocal group came to the University of Arizona, courtesy of UAPresents and performed a wonderful concert, consisting mostly of new music interspersed with a couple of 15th century songs, as well as some traditional Armenian pieces as arranged by the monk Komitas. Most of my experience with the Hilliard Ensemble comes from their work as part of larger groups (such as their wonderful recording of Arvo Pärt's Passio, but the spare textures of the vocal quartet were enchanting. The ensemble also spent some time with UA's choral conducting students in an afternoon session, which I was fortunate to be able to attend.*

The theme of the program was Arkhangelos, a collection of sacred texts with roots in the Greek, Russian, Roman and Anglican church traditions. Perhaps because of the religious subtext, most of the pieces were slow and majestic, but the group obtained considerable variety through different numbers of voices. The concert's opening was …here in hiding… by James MacMillan, a Scottish composer who has composed several sacred works, including a mass commissioned by Westminster Cathedral. The opening alarum of the work was probably the most dissonant chord in the entire program, like a trumpet call announcing a great prophecy. The text was from Aquinas, but MacMillan intermingles the Latin with an English translation by the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. The gradual appearance of English created a feeling of gradual enlightenment as the piece progressed. They followed this contemporary work with the oldest piece on the program, an eleventh century chant sung solo by David James, the group's countertenor. From there, they alternated between 15th century material, traditional Armenian chants, and more contemporary works (where the composers were Arvo Pärt; Jonathan Wild, a graduate composer from their Harvard residency in 2001 and Hilliard Summer School composer-in-residence in 2002; and Alexander Raskatov, a Russian composer born in 1953). The entire program, along with complete notes, is available as a PDF at the Hilliard site.

The discussion with the choral conductors brought some interesting topics to light, one of which was tuning (where tenor Steven Harrold took the lead). They universally decried using the piano (a "monster with white teeth") for anything other than to get the initial tuning for a single note because the piano's equal temperament corrupts the ear's best instincts. They recommended that choral conductors start with a single note, than build all of their intervals from there, culminating in a chromatic scale that is a combination of large and small intervals (the distance is different between D and D-sharp than between D-sharp and E, for example). They sing nearly everything in just intonation, except for Machaut and plainchant, which uses a Pythagorean tuning. The different intonation was quite audible during the concert, where some pieces had intervals that would never be heard on a piano. They also noted that when they rehearse with orchestras, tuning is one of the issues that inevitably arises (and generally resolves in their favor — as one would expect, given that just intonation is a more natural sound).

In a program like this, where some of the compositions are by seldom heard contemporary composers, it is sometimes difficult to grasp more than fleeting impressions on a first hearing. The ensemble has worked with Pärt on several pieces, but this new work (written in 2006) is the only piece he has written for the ensemble without other instruments or voices. His use of silence is exquisite, but the piece was also memorable because of the very simple materials from which it was built — a single phrase "Most Holy Mother of God, save us" — repeated over and over, taking on greater urgency as the piece progressed. Raskatov's multi-movement piece, which closed the program, was the most overtly avant-garde in the extended techniques, without being as dissonant as MacMillan's. It alternated several different kinds of vocal textures, incorporating sprechstimme (somewhere between singing and speaking), glissandi, and other techniques to provide texture variation. The entire program was a superb blend of early and contemporary music.

*Full disclosure: my wife and I sponsored the concert courtesy of a small foundation where I serve on the board.

The photograph of the Hilliard Ensemble is by Friedrun Reinhold.