Common Cause

These two recordings, coming from opposite directions, hit the sweet spot where contemporary classical and progressive rock meet, a place fairly broad, amicable and resonant. There’s a lot of confirmation bias at work, but the discs tell me that my view of the importance of prog-rock on the contemporary classical scene is just growing deeper and firmer roots.

Neither of these recordings is fully classical nor fully prog, but each is more heavily one than the other. Zuckerman (who I previously wrote about as a member of Existential Pilot) is a young composer in the Post-Minimalist vein, using repetitive structures and systems that connect to the music of Steve Reich and Philip Glass but as a means to an end, not a process in and of themselves. He’s releasing a new CD this April 11, a large scale piece titled Music in Pluralism.

This is a fascinating record, it’s got an aesthetic that makes it a sympathetic instrumental companion to William Brittelle’s great Television Landscape, itself a disc built on genres that somehow becomes it’s own genre. Call this an unintentional sequel, a second brick in the developing edifice of the new classical concept album. Zuckerman’s music is fully integrated as a whole, but separate pieces and tracks would stand on their own just fine.

His electrified ensemble sounds like a smaller scale version of the large ensemble on the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Apocalypse album, the mix of strings and woodwinds sounding right in place with the electric guitar, bass and drum set. Zuckerman emphasizes the audible beat, but it’s never too heavy, like in rock, or stiff, like it can be in a lot of composed music. One of the surprises is how perfect the light drum part sounds in his “Passacaglia,” a creative riff on a Baroque theme with a saxophone solo that makes the piece an astonishing mix of cultural history, new music via Bach, jazz, Ennio Morricone’s film scores and, of course, probably a touch of John Zorn in there somewhere. It’s one of the high points of the piece, which begins with a “Prelude” that rises from somnolence to muscular strength and is a clear statement of the directness and clarity of Zuckerman’s thinking and writing. Every section of the piece has, though not pop music itself, has a cognate in the experience of listening to and loving pop music, including ballads, touches of Stan Kenton and Sufjan Stevens. The final stretch is something of a self-contained suite, the six part “Subcutaneous Salvation,” which is one of the best examples of a composer thinking like both a classical musician and a rock song writer that I’ve heard. Enjoyable in the moment and fully satisfying at the close.

Zuckerman will be leading his ensemble in this music at Merkin Hall on Wednesday, as the opening performance in this year’s Tribeca Music Festival. Buy tickets here.

Loop 2.4.3, the duo of Thomas Kozumplik and Lorne Watson is an ideal example of what you get when musicians hone their skills in the classical manner and then go out and play what they want. And what these guys want is a refreshing combination of rigor, complexity and force. They have a great sound, the combination of the skillful, resonant percussion playing with crunchy guitar is attractive and exciting, and the band clearly has a lot of power that they keep just under the surface, giving them a slight flavor of threat that there should be a hell of a lot more of in rock and pop music.

Their songs are well balanced between lyrical expression and the open space that purely instrumental music needs to develop and expand and leave its mark. The first full cut, “Sakura (We Must Love),” has the purring lope of a panther, an involving, steady forward flow. With two percussionists at the center, the band excels at feel, pulse, beat and rhythmic structure, and they also have a great ear for timbres and moving from untuned to tuned percussion. The heavy use of marimba and steel drums gives everything color and an emotionally rich expression. Their musical thinking and playing is intelligent and full of careful listening and judicious choices, and that makes their purely instrumental track, “American Elder,” the best thing on the disc, gripping and mysterious, with both an ominous atmosphere and a diffident stance (there are many moments that would be comfortable alongside some of John Cage’s early percussion music).

Where the disc is flawed is in the vocals. The male singers, one of whom is Kozumplik, are not strong and they don’t have well cultivated timbres. Shara Worden appears and her voice stands out for its quality, but her and the other voices fit uneasily into the mix. The instruments sit slightly back in the sound field with some air around them, as they would in a live performance, but the voices are uncomfortably up-front and sound close enough to each other that there is the uncomfortable feeling of being serenaded by severed heads. It’s distracting, the mind keeps trying to figure out why the singers seem to be in a different part of the world from the instruments, and it’s at times hard to fight through them to hear both the words and the rest of the music.

That quality is very much a matter of taste, though, and anyone may react differently to the mix than I do. And in that case, they will clearly hear and impressively made, imaginative record from a unique and intriguing band. American Dreamland hits the streets April 24.


Author: gtra1n

I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.