issue 23 :: June 2014

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Modern Composition Reviews

John Zorn, Morton Feldman, 2 Israeli compilations, Harley Gaber, Nick Hennies, Wet Ink Ensemble, Pierre Bastien, Olivia Block, John Berndt, Rolf Julius, Chaya Czernowin
John ZornThe Book Of Heads (Schraum) CD

The second released version of this piece of 35 etudes for guitar originally written for Eugene Chadbourne. Marc Ribot tackled the first under Zorn’s suppervision. Composer and guitarist Christoph Funabashi has the verve to rebirth Zorn’s piece as his first release under his own name, after years of presenting chamber works and performing in obscure European rock bands. Here, Funabashi’s playing is all over the map, as Zorn intended; beautiful finger-picked sections sit along side percussive knocks, bursts of feedback, koto-like hanging chords. If you like guitar and its possibilities, Zorn wrote a series of odes to the instrument, deftly handled here.
Morton FeldmanOrchestra (Mode Records) CD

Of the many excellent Feldman CDs you could spend time with, this CD is notable for presenting five first recordings of large-scale works mainly from the composer’s middle period. The works are huge and ponderous, notes lingering in the air, the music cascading out of nothing. Beautiful brushstrokes of sound. The four works composed from 1961 to 1979 all sound like they are cut from the same cloth, each trying best to express a precise idea of tonality, form and morphology that forever betwixted Feldman’s imagination. During this time in Feldman’s life, especially the early 1970s, he strove to forge a personal, musical identity for himself, one in which he could impose the musical values he deemed important, as opposed to the very open grounds for interpretations he provided in the 1950s. This middle era explores form and style rejecting the John Cage-inspired radicalism, and, in my opinion, lacks the perfect, shimmering, hanging-in-air atmosphere of his last and triumphant era. This middle era feels too sealed up, too rigid, lacking the effusive je ne se quoi of the sound I think of when Feldman’s name is mentioned. The first piece, an orchestra version of 1951’s “Intersection I,” sonically sounds like early Feldman, but like Petr Kotik’s version of Cage’s “103” where the timings for the players were determined by the conductor instead of having the players make those decisions themselves in the act of playing as Cage wanted, so here, too, Samuel Clay Birmaher overcomplicates a simple graphic score, having players individually play and record their parts, which Birmaher then transcribes into traditional notation so that the players can then “recreate the original spontaneous performances, like actors.” The result is a beautiful listen, but I would rather hear the orchestra play the graphic score as written. That would have been more beautiful still. Could I have discerned this process had the liner notes not detailed the details? Maybe not, but there seems to be, either a leavening of the playing, or everyone is trying to play a “Feldman piece” and not the graphic score. Maybe I prefer it that way, but I don’t need to hear these early pieces, created in a spasm of joyous interest into indeterminacy and chaos, as a pre-echo of his later, more (much more) polished oeuvre.
Israeli Electroacoustic Music & Israeli Vocal and Instrumental Music (Smithsonian Folkways Archival) CDs

No scratched up, over-priced “rare” LPs for me, these two CDs were purchased directly from the Smithsonian Folkways collection, printed on demand for me. And they will do it for you, too, or sell you digital downloads from these and other recordings in their massive, vital collection. These two are collections of Israeli compositions from the 1970s and early 1980s. The Vocal and Instrumental release is particularly important as it is one for the few releases from composer Noa Guy I have been able to find. Years after a terrible auto accident, she has lately been composing and presenting low-key, intimate presentations of her music in New York City. I hope someday to provide more information about her, but for now there is a lengthy interview in the book Twenty Israeli Composers given before the accident. Here, her piece “Lost Hope” shows a mastery of 1960’s modernist art music; spoken sections erupting into operatic airs, flutes and strings weaving about. The mythological-like proclamations remind me both of an ancient Greek play and Stockhausen’s mammothly grandiose “Sirius” or Nono’s “a floresta...” The five other works here mine more neo-classical veins, with just splashes of the more abstract ventures that I prefer. They’re worth listening to, if a bit academic. The second CD highlights the intersection of chamber instruments and electronics, with an emphasis on the former. The big names here are Tzvi Avni and Josef Tal, neither of whom I think are known at all in America, but they were the big names over there. Avni’s work I swear begins exactly like the opening oboe part in Varèse’s “Octandre,” before primitive electronic explosions interrupt. It is obvious that these are capable instrumental composers of a certain mix of the modern and the traditional, and electronics are not large passions for them. They use electronics as afterthoughts, adding a sauce to an other wise fine entré. The electronics, in general, sound very dated and easy, at times out of place with respect to the capable instrumental music. It’s an interesting historical document, but the electronics used here, and the manner in which they are used, weren’t new in 1985, and they sound dustier today. But these two CDs are no worse than some of those Nonesuch “New Music” LPs, a bit too academic in feeling. Joseph Dorfman probably succeeds the most, constructing a noisy, soundscape of reverbed noises.
Harley Gaberi saw my mother ascending mount fuji (Innova) CD

Gaber was just starting to get the reissue treatment after a long break from composing music, including this CD and a release on Edition RZ (typically a sign of genius), when he committed suicide at the age of 68. Here, he reworks two pieces recorded in 1973 that he didn’t want to release due to excessive tape hiss. Hence, an artistic editing of them woven into a new tape work that hides the hiss within mists of reverb. The music is slow, coming from a distance, the violin tape doubled on top of itself like two players trying to match what the other is doing. Included are Gaber’s detailed notes about the reworking of the pieces “Chimyaku” for flute and “Michi” for violin into a new piece, and its emotional connection to his long dead mother and brother.
Nick HenniesPsalms (Roeba Records) CD

Nick Hennies, drummer for the Weird Weeds, percussionist in the Austin New Music Co-op, presents ultra-minimalist pieces written by himself and Alvin Lucier. Hennies’ three “Psalms” are repetitions of a single action, a struck note, on vibraphone, snare drum and wood block. Boring to describe, and therefore boring to listen to, right? Wrong. While Hennies probably would not make the connection with John Cage’s dictum “If you think something is boring, try doing it for two minutes. If you still think it’s boring, try it for four…”, that is certainly an approach to take here. One of the goals of these pieces is to build up subtle interactions in the air of the striking note and the previous sounding notes, creating interferences and superpositions of the same “note.” The results, upon close listening, are rarely the same. These pieces are related to, if not directly inspired by, Lucier’s “Silver Streetcar for the Orchestra” for triangle. In this piece the triangle is stuck in different places, building up a huge, complex ringing drone that sounds like multiple ring modulators and other electronics being used. But it is just a metal triangle and a small stick, which probably has a technical name. Le Petite Bangier or something. I’ve heard this piece performed by Nick in concert halls, and a murky tunnel on a jogging path. Live, it is a huge, immense sound; don’t give in to the temptation to turn down the volume when listening at home. The sounds are supposed to fill up everything.
Nick Hennies on bridge
Nick Hennies on Hays Street Bridge, San Antonio, 2013
Wet Ink Relay (Carrier) CD

Wet Ink is a decade-old ensemble of New York composer/musicians and their first release as a group will probably gain notice for their recording of George Lewis’ “Anthem.” It is difficult for me not to compare this loud, dense work with Anthony Braxton’s forays into chamber music. A pastiche of percussion explosions, unusual art singing, from ensemble member Kate Soper, clarinet and saxophone noises, peppered with electronic sounds, it is a much needed effort to expose Lewis’ compositional work. But the works of the performer/composers surprise with their bold inventiveness. The disc as a whole gets more rewarding upon repeated listens as I’ve tried to come up with words to describe it. The other pieces, due to Soper’s spoken utterances, also remind me of Braxton’s works in the vein of his Composition No. 173 or the Trilliam Dialogues, where the voice seems to be playfully describing the music as well as imitating it. This is especially true of Rick Burkhardt’s “Alban” (about composer Alban Berg?) and Soper’s own “Only The Words Themselves Mean What They Say.” [A video of this piece is here.) Eric Wubbels’ “Katachi” changes direction by focusing on kinetic piano and percussion rhythms, bringing to my mind images of gamelan and Chinese orchestras. It’s an exciting and dense music. The joy of composer/musician ensembles is that pieces can be written to highlight particular players’ unique abilities. Wet Ink joins such groups as SF Sound and Ensemble Pamplemousse to combine diverse and creative writing and performance.
Pierre BastienVisions of Doing (Western Vinyl) CD

Bastien is known for creating musical machines that play themselves in the tradition (I guess three people can make a tradition) of Jean Tinguely and Fluxus artist Joe Jones. Here we have nine works to accompany the films of Karl Doing, with whom he worked with on collaborative performances. The music is melodic and strange; there are some parts that sound like machines, and others that sound like a cadre of percussionists, parts sound like repetitions, and parts sound like live playing. As soundtrack music, it has a jazzy ambience, like a gamelan ensemble playing jazz.
Olivia BlockKarren (Sedimental) LP

Yes, of course Block’s latest release is a very worthwhile listen, and perhaps my favorite recorded work of hers since her stunning solo debut Pure Gaze. “Opening Night,” a lush flowing of chords performed by the Chicago Composer’s Orchestra, reminds me of parts of Ligeti’s “Clocks and Clouds” (the clouds parts) or “San Francisco Polyphony.” In the middle of the piece I had to double check the LP label to confirm I wasn’t playing the wrong record. Bits of crumbly noises lurk underneath the beauty, the dirt under the cathedral. “Foramen Magnum” focuses more on the noises, the orchestra sounds like it is in another room, or tuning up while people chat in front of the microphone. The noises overwhelm, here I had to check dust hadn’t clogged up my cartridge needle, but no, it was just Block’s electronic prowess.
John BerndtThe Private Language Problem: New Electro-Acoustic Compositions, 2001-2007 (Sort Of Records) CD

Like the work of Dimitri Voudouris discussed in previous issues, saxophonist and instrument builder John Berndt gives us 8 unique experiments into sound and the electronic processing of sound, including using recordings of fire to control sine waves, invented instruments, a “biological-interface synthesizer,” and triangular speaker panning systems. Developed over six years, these pieces present a huge variety of sounds and textures. “Older Now” is an acoustic guitar playing olde timey blues through a unique convolution process in which a signal is gated with a itself from a certain point in the past, so what is heard is what is common to the current signal and its past presence. The results sound very strange, like Holland Hopson’s banjo-triggered electronics discussed elsewhere in this issue. The computer blender sound of “Evolutionary Biology Determining the Possibility of Its Own Conceptualization” uses Peter Blasser’s Shinths which processes sound through the human body; it’s a bubbly, staticy trip that sounds like oceanographic data converted into a sound file. “For Lois Vierk” makes long tones at times sounding like an organ or trumpet from “approximately matched mathematical curves” which decay and sputter in unusual ways.
Rolf JuliusMusic for a Distance (Western Vinyl) CD

“Music for a Distance” is nearly forty minutes of bubbling static, hums and what sounds like heavily processed shards of sound, the latter possessing a particular unnatural computer-music feel about it. Occasionally a louder unrecognizable squeal or tone will pop out of the stream of music. It’s similar to playing a dozen Francisco Lopez or John Hudak recordings at once. A tension develops between the overall stasis of the piece, and its constant flux of small scale details. The closing piece on the disc is a recording from a 1983 installation piece called “Music in a Corner” which could be the first piece sped up 600%; the gurgles are now regular, cricket-like chirpings with irregular deep crackings, like something is knocking against the microphone stand. Again, it is a notable post-Industrial feel, and again I’d believe it came from one of the two noise masters listed above.
Chaya CzernowinShifting Gravity (Wergo) CD

Saving the best for last; six new works for small ensembles from one of the most interesting composers working today, carrying on with the modernist mission of expanding what instruments can do. Czernowin’s previous releases on Mode are equally compelling collections. This is beautifully interesting, and interestingly beautiful chamber music, mostly based on string quartets (including a piece for two string quartets). Subtle and interesting electronics appear as well, as on her previous releases. The use of space and a sense of something outside of Western culture reminds me of Scelsi’s works, and some of the loud angular jags brings to my mind Xenakis, and like those two, every note here seems to fit in a startling and necessary unity. It’s dynamic, mysterious, exquisite. Anyone reading this column needs to be familiar with her work.

Excerpt from “Anea Crystal” for string quartet.
Reviews by Josh Ronsen.
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