Tuesday, December 30, 2008

2008 highlights

It's that time of year again, where we enumerate the year's highlights. Here's my top 20, in chronological order of acquisition, so there is no guarantee that they were issued this year. The Calefax Reed Quintet's version of Bach's Art of Fugue was released in 2000, but it has quickly become my favorite rendition of that work, well worth tracking down. I posted about a couple of these albums during the course of the year, but I didn't get to review as many CDs here as I would have liked. I have also made no attempt to delineate by genre. My reissue of the year is unquestionably the Bernard Parmegiani box set.

  • Katatonia, The Great Cold Distance (Peaceville)
  • Gavin Bryars & Philip Jeck, The Sinking of the Titanic (Touch)
  • Huntsville, For the Middle Class (Rune Grammophon)
  • Earth, The Bees Made Honey in the Lion's Skull (Southern Lord)
  • Mark Wastell, Amoungst English Men (Absinthe)
  • Werner Durand, Remnants from Paradise (Absurd)
  • Brendan Murray, Commonwealth (23five)
  • The Necks, Mosquito/See Through (ReR)
  • Erik Enocksson, Farval Falkenberg (Kning)
  • Morton Feldman, The Viola in my Life (ECM)
  • Frank Bretschneider, Rhythm (Raster-Noton)
  • Mathieu Ruhlmann & Celer, Mesoscaphe (Spekk)
  • Darshan Ambient, From Pale Hands to Weary Skies (Lotusspike)
  • Janek Schaefer, Extended Play (Line)
  • Kalte, The Lanthanide Series (stasisfield.com)
  • Stray Ghost, Losthilde (Highpoint Lowlife)
  • Parts & Labor, Receivers (Jagjaguwar)
  • erikm & Thomas Lehn, Les Protorythmiques (Room40)
  • Jacaszek, Treny (Miasmah)
  • J. S. Bach, Art of Fugue (Calefax Reed Quintet) (MDG)

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Drone Classics — What??

Back in the vinyl days, the Wergo label was a treasure trove for new music fanatics, and for a while I picked up everything on the label I could find. One of these Wergo releases was probably the first drone record I ever heard, a split record with two productions from the Electronic Studio of Swedish Radio, Stockholm, Folke Rabe's Was?? (What??) and Bo Anders Persson's Proteinimperialism. Each piece occupied one side of the LP. Both pieces are long and static and date from 1967, but they sound much less dated than most electronic works from the period, and completely different from the usual Darmstadt-oriented Wergo productions.

Persson's work is more of a loop experience than a drone, although it ends up sounding a lot like Alvin Lucier's landmark piece I Am Sitting In A Room. Inspired by the work of Terry Riley, the piece is basically the two words "imperialism" and "protein", strung together and run in a loop for twenty-five minutes, subjected to layering, reverberation, echo, various filtering and other sundry sound altering devices that were available in 1967. Although the words are comprehensible at the beginning of the piece, they mutate into its resonant frequencies by the midpoint, becoming clear again by the end. 1967 was an extremely political time, and Persson chose the words in response to imperialistic food practices from the big Western grain companies.

In the late 1960s, Persson was the guitarist in a trance-rock group Pärson Sound, whose long drone jams recall the classic krautrock groups Faust and Can. Live recordings from 1967 and 1968 surfaced a few years ago on CD, also available on emusic. Pärson Sound evolved through a few other incarnations to end up as Träd, Gräs och Stenar (Trees, Grass and Stones), whose glory years were in the early 1970s but who still concertizes periodically. In the last decade or so, they have played to support guitarist Oren Ambarchi and Japanese freak-out group Acid Mothers Temple, touring with the latter in Japan. Persson, born in 1937, has recently retired from the band that occupied so much of his musical energies. Proteinimperialism was his only foray into sound composition, and is unacknowledged on any of the web sites relating to Persson's rock bands.

Rabe's piece is a more pure drone, and for various reasons, has had a more favorable reception history. For one thing, Rabe was more active in electronic and classical music than Persson, serving on the staff of the Swedish Institute for National Concerts and the Swedish Broadcasting Corporation for more than thirty years. He plays jazz trombone and operates as a freelance composer, with several choral, instrumental and symphonic compositions to his credit. He also toured What?? at various times over the years, and in 1997, Dexter's Cigar, a reissue label curated by David Grubbs and Jim O'Rourke, reissued the piece on CD. The reissue included not only What?? its original form, but also a half-speed version, and therefore twice as long, that Rabe used occasionally in performance.

At first hearing, What?? moves in similar sound worlds to Eliane Radigue. Both composers use electronic sound generation to maintain a purity of tone that is completely different from field recording drone artists like Michael Northam and Jonathan Coleclough. They are both from the same generation (Radigue born in 1932, Rabe in 1935), and they both have connections to the early state-sponsored electronic music studios in Europe. Both composers examine miniscule changes unfolding over long periods of time and were inspired by such practices in non-Western music. But while Radigue's work focuses on meditational aspects, Rabe's work, while not oblivious to the peaceful nature of the results, is specifically harmonic, melding enharmonic partials to reinforce their inner hierarchies and produce certain sonic illusions. Each overtone in What?? is individually composed, resulting in a shimmering mobile of sound, climaxing in a glorious chord that fills the harmonic spectrum, with the higher partials gaining prominence for the first time in the piece. The half-speed version operates like a fractal, permitting a closer examination of the details in the original, but at the same time exposing a completely different set of sonic crevices.

Since the original Wergo LP is long out of print, the Avant Garde Project has released Proteinimperialism in lossless FLAC format on a compilation of Swedish electronic music. What?? is available directly from Dexter's Cigar as well as other online vendors such as Mimaroglu, Aquarius, or Forced Exposure.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Cathedral reviewed in Vital Weekly

Frans de Waard has this to say about Cathedral in a recent issue of Vital Weekly:


There is no relation, family that is, between Caleb Deupree and Taylor Deupree, other than a musical one. Deupree recorded this work over the period of one year, using piano, field recordings and processing. Hard to believe that is a piano at work here, but well, of course, its processed. That explains thing a bit. Its slowed down, torn apart, ripped to pieces, and then glued back together, using the computer as its concrete, and the various sound blocks as its building stones. One majestic piece of drone music, made from all of these piano sounds and nocturnal crickets, moulded into a piece of dark atmospheric ambience. Music that is not unlike its peers, say Monos, Mirror or Andrew Chalk, more than say all things microsound. Its there, its present, its thick, its layered, its audible - all those things that a lot of microsound isn't. Having said that this is a nice work, clocking at the cool twenty minutes, which I think is the right length, its also a work that hardly holds surprises for the lovers of the genre. Perhaps they don't want any, in which case they can start downloading right away. They won't be disappointed.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Friday Canyon Blogging

Today we hiked up Romero Canyon, a very popular destination in a nearby state park. Although the trail goes all the way to Mt. Lemmon, site of the southernmost ski resort in the United States, we stopped at these lovely pools, where the water flows pretty much all year.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Happy birthday, Deutsche Grammophon web shop

Last year around this time, I wrote a short post about the Deutsche Grammophon web store. For their one-year anniversary, the store has upgraded several features, and gotten a new look, showing a continuing commitment to a superior download experience.

The feature that probably excites the DGG marketers the most is an album cover browse feature. Similar to iTunes' cover flow view, the album covers are displayed at the top of the page and scrollable with a mouse wheel. It's a nice feature if your computer has the appropriate hardware and processing power, but for old laptops with touchpads, they still provide an album list view as well. And, like iTunes, some covers are missing, typically on the older releases. Nevertheless, it's a slick enhancement. Another new feature is the ability to stream a release for a week for a fraction of the cost of the album, which DGG will include toward the whole album price if a user decides to purchase the album, either download or physical release.

One of the common complaints from audiophiles about download releases is inferior sound quality. DGG addresses this complaint by making some of its releases available in lossless FLAC, at a slight premium. For the moment, this only applies to fifty releases, mostly classic albums with a heavy selection of their download-only live releases. It also applies only to entire albums, although users can still download individual tracks or multi-movement works as 320 kbps mp3s. There aren't any standards yet on downloads for better than CD quality (AFAIK, only Trent Reznor has taken this path on the recent Nine Inch Nails album The Slip), so for the time being, this is as good as it gets.

For me, the most positive aspect of the enhanced web store is the presence of some formerly out-of-print releases, which was one of my issues the last time I wrote about the DGG web store. Although my example from last year, Luigi Nono's Y entonces comprendio, is still unavailable, there are some signs that the archives are opening. Some old LaSalle Quartet pieces (the Ardittis of the 1970s), Mauricio Kagel's Exotica, the Kontarsky brothers' Bartok and Stravinsky album, are all now available as download-only, 320 kbps mp3s. The out-of-print releases aren't only the 20th century pieces, but extend to many of the classic performances of standard repertoire and the wonderful DGG Archiv releases of early music. I would have liked to see the original album notes included, even if they are simple text or html files (the Naxos approach), but this is a great first step.

Recent years have been tough for the record industry, but the enhanced DGG web shop gives me some signs of hope. The simple fact that the storefront has been upgraded shows a continuing commitment to a future where downloads form a greater part of the revenue stream. FLAC and streaming show a flexibility with regard to user's differing requirements, and I imagine the DGG executives will be watching to see which options positively impact the bottom line. The download-only releases of out-of-print albums is an investment in the long tail, a feature that only a company with deep archives can provide (and DGG was founded in 1890, so their sound archives should be extensive). Most importantly, if their efforts are successful, one can only hope their sister labels at Universal (especially ECM, which Universal distributes) start high-quality download shops, complete with all of the cover art and liner notes.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Post Reich

Despite the occasional report of classical music's demise, the term is growing in popularity to describe hybrids with other genres of music, which often get tagged as "post-classical". Without trying to insert myself into the debate, some of my recent musical discoveries seem independently to take inspiration from the music of Steve Reich, in particular his tendency to work with repetitive motifs, clear compositional strategies, relatively simple harmonies, and looping structures.

Walled Gardens by itsnotyouitsme was recently on the New York Times' holiday gift guide for classical music, a staggering head-scratcher seemingly based on the performers' resumés rather than the music on this album. The group's two performers, Caleb Burhans and Grey McMurray, are both stalwarts of New York's new music scene, and Burhans is a charter member of the new music ensemble Alarm Will Sound which performs Reich's music regularly. Three of the four pieces on Walled Gardens are loop pieces, similar to Pedaltone, but primarily for violin and electric guitar, with a little bit of Burhans' countertenor voice discreetly doubling the violin.

On Throne Built for the Past, a gently arpeggiated guitar line sustains a violin lead over an irregular meter, as the duo aggregate little electronic noises in the background, growing to quite a squall. Great Day starts with a four-bar rhythm on pizzicato violin and chordal guitar fills, growing into a full band sound. A Moment for Nick Drake is more fully notated (it also exists as a solo piano piece), based around a fingerpicked guitar with a violin lead that grows in complexity as the piece continues. The stunning finale (with a great title, We Are Malleable, Even Though They Seem To Own Us) grows from a short minor-key pizzicato motif to a majestic mass of drones. I am continually astonished by the variety of textures that loopers can get from a small number of performers, so even though I wonder about the NYT review's bewildering categorization, I have to concur with its positive assessment of the album.

Classical music is also a reference point for certain new ambient musicians who use more acoustic instruments and share the same fondness for repetition and loops. One such composer is the Polish musician Michał Jacaszek, whose recent album Treny seems to share with itsnotyouitsme a common inspiration in the music of Steve Reich. Treny has eleven pieces, most in the five-minute range, that share a common structural paradigm, setting up some kind of simple ostinato, then adding other instruments in layers. The originating patterns can be short melodic lines, two-note oscillations, or even a succession of nearly identical downbeats. Much of the album's beauty comes in the layers, where Jacaszek uses piano, harp, violin, cello, and wordless female vocals, sung by Maja Sieminska. But what makes Treny unique is the electronics, which go way beyond the simple treatments often associated with acoustic instruments in the ambient world. For example, on Powoli (Slowly), he uses perfectly timed piano samples, some of which may have the attack completely stripped, and each of which has its own resonance. The changes in background noise become an additional timbre that defines the rhythm of the piece. On Lament, dry clicks combine with little sounds played backwards to create subaquatic effects that support the lush foreground music in the voice and strings. Treny translates to 'Trains'*, perhaps a reference to one of Reich's most famous pieces, Different Trains, but certainly quite different from the fast-paced, railroad-running, comin-around-the-mountain music typically associated with trains, but gorgeous and tranquil chamber pieces with electronics.

Walled Gardens is released on New Amsterdam Records and is also available on iTunes and emusic. Treny is released outside of Poland on the Norwegian label Miasmah and is available for download from Thrill Jockey and Boomkat (the latter in either mp3 or flac). The webcast of Steve Reich's 70th birthday celebration at the Whitney Museum, including several pieces performed by Alarm Will Sound and Caleb Burham's piece Amidst Neptune, is available here.

*Couldn't have been more wrong on the translation. See comments for details.