Thread(ing) the Words, the World

Henry Threadgill DecJan2014 drwg

As a reader interested in the state of contemporary music, you’ve likely already seen that Henry Threadgill won this year’s Pulitzer Prize in music, specifically for his 2015 album on Pi, In For a Penny, In for a Pound.

Personally, I’m overjoyed. I’ve been following Threadgill since I first heard one of his records with his group Air, which was probably around 1980-81. He’s one of those musicians who’s work gives me immediate pleasure while at the same time I often can’t completely comprehend it, and so I follow with persistent fascination. There are many examples of his music that deserve this kind of recognition, and the award feels to me like an honor for his complete career. But the Pulitzer is interested in the idea of composition, and In for a Penny, In for a Pound is just that.

I interviewed Threadgill and Jason Moran, in the company of Raymond Foye, for the December 2014/January 2015 Rail (I have something of a history of writing about Thread for the Rail, and without his existence probably would not be editing the music section). We talked about the work, which was about to premiere at Roulette (UPDATED: Liberty Ellman has told me the recordings were made in the studio, the Roulette performances were recorded but not for release), and he described it as a concerto highlighting the members of his excellent band, Zooid. He plays, but he’s not featured—he’s the composer, which likely made it easy for the committee to see what this piece is.

Musically, it’s the culmination of a long, developing concept of organizing what is best described as contemporary chamber music along the historic principles of jazz. From Air, through the Sextett, and even the electric bands Very Very Circus and Make a Move, Threadgill has been looking for a new structural method on top of the foundation of African-American music: marches, rags, the blues. You can hear a march, whether up-tempo or a dirge, a rag, a blues, or all three, on every single record he’s produced.

What he’s been doing with Zooid, and encapsulates on In for a Penny, is combine those roots with a means to tightly organize harmony and modulation while also allowing for improvised solos and free group interplay and accompaniment in the manner of traditional jazz. (I discussed this with him a few years ago, and don’t want to try and get too deep into it in case I misremember, but Threadgill uses a central chord, then lists the allowable intervals from the notes in the chord, and the musicians are free to use those intervals to modulate, but they must remain within those limits.) With his trademark recursive themes and hip, funky pulse, you get music that has immediate physical impact, that is firmly tonal (though complex), and tremendously sophisticated. Great art, in other words.

(His newest release is also another composition, in an appreciably different style: Old Locks and Irregular Verbs. This is a very beautiful record, a tribute to his dear, departed, much-missed friend Butch Morris—the music carries a deep, elegiac quality underneath a compelling, almost diffident, surface.)

And great African-American art, I want to point out. Threadgill’s work is the fulfillment of the AACM motto, the one Joseph Jarman would announce at the end of every Art Ensemble of Chicago concert, “Great Black Music, Ancient to the Future!” As Henry said during our interview, “What a lot of people forget about is that historically black people in America are the latest things on the planet!” They are, and they have been giving us all sorts of the latest thinking in serious music for more than a century. Occasionally, people hear this.


For more Threadgill listening pleasure, here’s a recommended discography:

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Henry Threadgill: The Complete Remastered Recordings on Black Saint & Soul Note: a great bargain, and although not the most comprehensive collection, this is where you get Spirit of Nuff…Nuff, one of his most important records, the compositional ideas of Song Out of My Trees, and some decent (if not the best) Air, including a guest appearance from Cassandra Wilson.


Novus & Columbia Recordings of Henry Threadgill & Air: expensive, but worth every penny and pound. This has some, altough not all, of the Air records, the absolutely essential run of Sextett albums (You Know the Number, Easily Slip Into Another World, Rag, Bush, and All), the early X-75 compositional experiment, two Very Very Circus recordings, and Where’s Your Cup with Make a Move. That last band lasted all of two records, and is something of a sidebar, but Where’s Your Cup kicks ass all up and down the sidewalk. Get this if you can at all afford it, and even if you can’t (limited edition of 5,000 total copies, marked as running low as of the beginning of September 2016).

Pi Recordings: Henry’s label for the 21st century, with seven releases so far and, if the whispers I’ve been hearing are true, something else to come this year that is supposed to be crushingly great. This is where the Zooid band has been thriving. If you don’t need EVERYTHING Henry has made (why not?), and taking into account that Zooid has gotten better at Henry’s concept through the years, the records to get here are This Brings Us To, Vol. 2 through Old Locks and Irregular Verbs.

Deaths in Winter

Deaths come disproportionally in winter (in the northern hemisphere). There’s no sure explanation, but it seems to me the combination of cold and diminished sunlight direct the body towards a natural cessation of activity, and for one already approaching the end of life, it may be perhaps one subtle step to slip away.

Some important, irreplaceable musicians are now gone: Mark Murphy, Paul Bley, Pierre Boulez, and Elizabeth Swados. Read the obits if you want, they all give a good outline of each career, though I have some differing critical views on their individual importance. (UPDATE: Here is my own Boulez obit at the New York Classical Review.)

Mark Murphy

I miss Murphy particularly. The ultimate, true hipster, he gave up a promising career as a matinée idol singer to be a musical expression of the Beats, especially Kerouac. As careerism and consumerism has taken over the professional development of writers and musicians in America, the Beats have become easy to laugh at, in the sense that if one conforms to the crowd, numbers protect the ego with a sense of false courage. Murphy never let go of what is an essential American idea of individual freedom held within the values and morals of communitarianism:

His influence on the most artistically important contemporary singers was profound:

Paul Bley

Bley is a great loss too, although, unlike Murphy, his playing declined over the last decade or so, along with his health. You’ll find Bley’s records under jazz, and he was one of the greatest jazz pianists, but he was so much more—an exceptional improviser who could freely improvise coherent, linear structures, and was an exceptional listener. And he was an emotionally moving blues player. There’s substantial documentation to his career, on records and in books: I’m partial to this great solo CD, and this Black Saint/Soul Note box is the best single compilation (and if you can get one or more of the Life of a Trio CDs, you will have some of the finest small group improvisations ever recorded) . Bley’s own thoughts are important, and he had a capable amanuensis in Arrigo Cappelletti, but read Paul Bley: The Logic of Chance in the original Italian if you can, the translation is literal and un-idiomatic, a tiring read.

Elizabeth Swados

Swados may get lost in the shuffle. She had a tough end, but she left us with a lot of great music, and Runaways should remain a staple of high school and community productions as long as there are kids. Please don’t underestimate how important this is: the music we make and experience when young is the most important music in our lives, and Swados will be inside millions of people.

She also wrote books, including My Depression: A Picture Book, which is an important thing to read for those of us who find ourselves caught in the mental and emotional straight-jacket of self-loathing.

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Pierre Boulez

Certainly everyone will mention Boulez and Le Marteau sans Maître, and that is an important work, but in the negative sense. The piece marks the extremity of decadence of serial music. Schoenberg and his followers used the cool veneer of their music as pernicious, ideological propaganda, developing the idea that their method was objectively correct, the logical culmination of historical currents. Actual history, the accumulation of events, has shown serial music to be both an aberration—it’s heyday, though outsized, was short-lived—and the same as every other style, which first supersedes previous ideas, then grows increasingly solipsistic until it, in turn, is superseded by another. Le Marteau is about nothing more than a technique taken to the nth degree, past the point where it serves a coherent musical purpose.

Boulez was, in all, a notable composer, staking out a place in the continuum where he exerted beneficial intellectual influence and also created some fine pieces of music. Pli selon pli is one of my favorites, along with …explosante fixe… :

As a conductor, his recordings of Stravinsky, Bartók, Debussy, and Ravel should be in every classical music lover’s library (I think his Ravel is the finest on disc). His takes on romantic music are uneven, but at their best are refreshing and satisfying. The salient example is his Mahler: his readings of the Fifth, Seventh, and Ninth symphonies have brilliant moments but ultimately fall apart, while the vocal music comes of well, with a great pulse and understanding of Mahler’s continually forward development.


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Best Classical Recordings 2015

Another year in which classical music didn’t die, was not dying, was not suffering, etc, just like every other year. I attended easily over 100 classical music performances, spanning music from the Renaissance to something like last Thursday, and listened to over 200 recordings that were issued just this year—and one important caveat is that there is still about 48 hours of music I have not yet been able to get through. If you only read stories about economic issues in classical music (or jazz) you would only ever think that the music is vanishing. It is not so, never has been, will never be. Yes, it’s fucking impossible to make a living, much less a buck, but people are still doing it. Who are you going to believe, mainstream cultural writers/editors, or your lying ears?

The composition of these lists is something I still fiddle with, because of this historical tradition of classical music and the nature of recordings. This year, I have two main lists, Classical Recordings and New Music; the former is new recordings of previously recorded music, the latter is new recordings of music that is heard on record for the first time.

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Classical Recordings

An interesting year to say the least, a big year for Schumann (primarily thanks to Harmonia Mundi, with Isabelle Faust and Alexander Melnikov), and also for Morton Feldman and Fred Rzewski: two new recordings for each of Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello and The People United Will Never be Defeated! respectively. I’m not alone as a contemporary composer and critic who can never get enough of new music on recordings and concert programs, but as we get further into the 21st century, the actual evidence of performances and recordings tells me that new and contemporary is active and pervasive. It’s all one stream of time, and arrow pointing into the future, the vanguard supported by the centuries that came before. I like to spread things around, so it’s an indication of how fine the albums are that I put both new recordings of The People United on this list. Both Levit and Oppens are tremendous in this music, but Levit’s album is a better one because it also has the Golbberg and Diabelli Variations.

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  1. Isabelle Faust and Alexander Melnikov, Brahms, Schumann & Dietrich: Violin Sonatas
  2. Igor Levit, Bach, Beethoven, Rzewski
  3. Le Poème Harmonique, Vincent Dumestre, Coeur, Airs de cour Français de le fin du XVI siécle
  4. Ursula Oppens & Jerome Lowenthal, The People United Will Never Be Defeated!
  5. Aleck Karis, Curtis Macomber, Danielle Farina, Christopher Finckel, Feldman: Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello
  6. Dmitri Ensemble and Graham Ross, Shostakovich-Barshai: Chamber Symphonies
  7. Boston Modern Orchestra Project and Gil Rose, Lukas Foss: Complete Symphonies
  8. Orli Shaham, Brahms Inspired (Opus 117/118/119)
  9. New York Philharmonic and Alan Gilbert, Carl Nielsen: The Symphonies and Concertos
  10. Chi-Chen Wu, Nicholas DiEugenio, Robert Schumann: Complete Sonatas for Violin and Piano


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  1. RIAS Kammerchor, Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, René Jacobs, Mozart: Die Entführung aus dem Serail
  2. Boston Baroque, Martin Pearlman, Monteverdi: Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in patria
  3. Musica Aeterna, Teodor Currentzis, Mozart: Cosi fan Tutte
  4. Ensemble Pygmalion and Raphaël Pichon, Rameau: Castor et Pollux
  5. American Symphony Orchestra, Leon Botstein, Hindemith: The Long Christmas Dinner

Honorable Mention:

  • Momenta Quartet, Similar Motion
  • Jennifer Koh, Bach & Beyond, Part 2
  • Frederic Chiu, Distant Voices: Piano Music by Claude Debussy and Gao Ping
  • Alexander Melnikov, Isabelle Faust, et al, Hindemith: Sonatas for …
  • Jennie Oh Brown, Looking Back: Flute Music of Joseph Schwantner
  • Diego Ares, Soler” Sol de mi fortuna, Sonatas form the Morgan Library
  • Kim Kashkashian, Sarah Rotheberg, Steven Schick, Houston Chamber Choir, Robert Simpson, Morton Feldman/Erik Satie/John Cage
  • Sophie Karthäuser, Ensemble Correspondences and Sébastien Daucé, Lalande: Leçons de Ténèbres
  • Ensemble Signal, Brad Lubman, Steve Reich: Music for 18 Musicians
  • Jean Rondeau, Bach: Imagine
  • Movses Pogossian, Varty Manouelian, Susan Grace, Stefan Wolpe: Music for Violin and Piano (1924–1966)
  • Mark Kroll, Marina Minkin, Vitttorio Rieti: Music for Harpsichord and Instruments
  • New Budapest Orpheum Society, As Dreams Fall Apart: The Golden Age of Jewish Stage and Film Music 1925–1955
  • Jerusalem Quartet, Beethoven: String Quartets Op. 18
  • Karen Gottlieb, Music for Harp
  • Trio Settecento, Veracini: Complete Sonate Academiche
  • Melia Watras, ispirare
  • Matt Haimovitz, Bach: The Cello Suites

New Music

An extraordinarily difficult category to rank this year. Michael Pisaro’s release had the most acute effect on me as a listener, so I’ll put that at the top, but everything else was strong, involving, and fascinating in one way or another, together they made 2015 a notable year for new music.

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  1. Michael Pisaro, a mist is a collection of points
  2. Tristan Perich, Compositions 1–4
  3. ICE, Anna Thorvaldsdottir: In the Light of Air
  4. Konus Quartett & Mondrian Ensemble: Jürg: Chamber Music
  5. Yarn/Wire: Yarn/Wire/Currents Vols 1–3
  6. Boston Modern Orchestra Project: Andrew Norman: Play
  7. Conspirare and Craig Hella Johson, Joby Talbot: Path of Miracles
  8. Christian Wolff, Christian Wolff: Incidental Music and Keyboard Miscellany
  9. Parker Quartet, Jeremy Gill: Capriccio
  10. Joe Phillips, Changing Same

Honorable Mention:

  • Zooid, Henry Threadgill: In for a Penny, In for a Pound
  • The Sebastians, Night Scenes from the Ospedale
  • Steve Lambert, Zahskl’s Jukebox
  • Eric Nathan: Multitude Solitude
  • Mihailo Trandafilovski: Five
  • Lewis Nielsen: Axis
  • Nordic Affect, Clockworking
  • Richard Carrick: Cycles of Evolution
  • Dan Trueman, Adam Sliwinski, Nostalgic Synchronic: Etudes for Prepared Digital Piano
  • Elliott Sharp, The Boreal
  • loadbang, lungpowered
  • R. Andrew Lee, as if to each other…
  • Reiko Füting, names, erased
  • Trio Nexus, Alvin Lucier: Broken Line
  • Michael Vincent Waller, The South Shore
  • Noah Creshevsky, Hyperrealist Music, 2011-2015
  • James Moore and Andie Spring, Gertrudes


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  1. Stravinsky: The Complete Columbia Album Collection
  2. Ferenc Fricsay: The Complete Recordings on Deutsche Gramophone, Vol. 2: Operas & Choral Works
  3. Glenn Gould Remastered: The Complete Columbia Albums Collection
  4. Sibelius: Historical Recordings and Rarities
  5. Sviataslov Richter: The Complete Album Collection
  6. Leonard Bernstein Remastered Edition: Sibelius: The Complete Symphonies
  7. Ivo Pogorelich: Complete Recordings
  8. Stravinsky: Complete Edition (DG)
  9. Sibelius: Sibelius Edition (DG)
  10. Matt Haimovitz, Orbit: Music for Solo Cello (1945–2014)

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The Man Machine

(For the season, and my Winter Fundraiser, I’m reposting some old favorites.)

In the fall of 2009, Capitol/EMI issued a lavish and long-awaited box set, collecting the catalogue of recordings of one of the world’s most beloved, and most important, pop music groups. The music this group made was not only great in its own right but revolutionary and hugely influential. Whole genres of popular music of the last forty years are impossible to imagine, and would have been impossible to create, without the legacy of this band, arguably the greatest of all that came out of the rise of pop culture and mass media. That band is, of course, Kraftwerk.

I find the most beautiful lyrics in all of pop music are:

“Radioactivity/It’s in the air for you and me”

I’m neither exaggerating nor being facetious. That brief phrase fills me with a blissful, joyous feeling. Because of all the things in my life, one of my great loves is Kraftwek. Ahhhh, Kraftwerk . . .

If you hit that last link, you saw a good depiction of the group’s aesthetic, and when I say I love them, I love the entire package, the vision that goes beyond just music and conveys what I feel is a vision of the future. Kraftwerk doesn’t offer predictions of the future – they are from the future, coming back to visit us and tell us that everything works, and everything is going to be fine.

So it is some sense of comfort that I find so wonderful in Kraftwerk. The music certainly conveys it. I’m not going to make an objective, critical argument that it is great, but it is great to me. The timbres of the electronic sounds they use please my ear, as do the rhythms, and so I find their music very warm – their sense of humor adds to that. And their is a willful naiveté they embrace that I find utterly charming. You can see it in this early video for “Radioactivity,” which takes something sinister and gives it a bit of sweetness:

Almost 40 years later, they are perhaps wiser, certainly more sober and ‘professional’ in the way they present themselves. No longer time-travellers, they are technocrats, using technology to clean-up the messes made by misguided projects:

Despite the ominous opening, the performance is still uplifting. Radiation is still something to be made beautiful, or around which beauty can grow. In Chernobyl itself, nature is returning, adapting to a new environment rapidly in the absence of human activity. This touches on another Kraftwerk aesthetic, the idea of the beauty of lasting technology. If they are truly visiting us from the future, perhaps they are robots, and what they are telling us is that although mankind no longer exists, the earth abides, and we have left behind beautiful examples of our technology that await rediscovery, perhaps the alien finger hitting the “Play” button. It’s “Wall-E” with a human facade.

Kraftwerk also mark the nexus between technology, engineering, communications and the creative and applied arts. They have always been as much engineers as musicians, engineers of beautiful machines for making music. That idea was not new when they appeared, but it was new in the realm of pop music. Their aesthetic forefathers were the Futurists and their idea of the Art of Noises, and especially the American composer George Antheil.

I think of Antheil as an inventor and a revolutionary, and although he was not a great composer, he was an important one who produced one far-seeing masterpiece. His Ballet mécanique was an idea so far ahead of his era that it is only in the past few years that it can be realized appropriately. It’s a piece for machines, and Antheil envisioned mechanical control of all the instruments, the pianos, xylophones and drums. That was not technically feasible 70 years ago – it’s only with the advent of MIDI sequencing that a good performance can even be ventured, and I had heard enough mediocre realizations to think that the piece was nothing but a mediocre imitation of Stravinsky, with a bit of Varese tossed in.

I’m glad to say that I’m wrong. I saw a performance in the spring of 2008 that finally produced the work as Antheil imagined. It was entirely mechanical. The vital added feature was a number of robotic beaters, built by LEMUR, used to play the xylophones and drums. This were extremely well designed and built, and so the piece could be performed via computer control with a degree of precision that the human ear heard as unvaryingly absolute. And it was stunning, thrilling. It is the workings of machinery and manufacturing made into music, and it is an incredible work. It’s also a nostalgic one, because the factories that the Futurists thought were the cathedrals of a new age are essentially gone. The ones that are left are more and more populated by . . . robots.

And from Antheil, via Kraftwerk, we get to . . . Hip-Hop. Indeed, Hip-Hop is impossible without Kraftwerk, and here’s the Rosetta Stone which proves it:

And why not? Hip-hop is pop music that is pioneering the use of technology in the means of production. To a great extent, it is manufactured music, put together with physical pieces of raw materials (which used to be tape splices and are now digital files). Musicians and producers use machinery to engineer beats, which they sell like tools or cars. Americans are still making things, it seems, adapting the aesthetic of fine German engineering. Now that’s free trade we can believe in, my friends.

Culturally, the affinity between a bunch of pale toningenieurs and a bunch of B-Boys from the Bronx is closer than the skin color and clothing styles might suggest. Kraftwerk carved, via sound, carved out space in the popular imagination that the nexus of music and science-fiction fit into neatly and warmly. And science-fiction, from proto form in the theology of the Nation of Islam and the concepts of Sun Ra, to Rammellzee and the Jonzun Crew, is an important part of African-American popular culture. Again, why not? Imagine that you are born and raised in a country that your forefathers were integral in building, not of their own desire but because that had been taken from their far-away homes and forced into labor, and that, while nominally free and equal, your were regarded in general with hostility and suspicion by the majority population, the ones who engineered your existence here, and most of whom had roots far younger and shallower than yours (yet who claimed to be the true and natural citizens of this land). Wouldn’t you feel like an alien from outer space, wouldn’t you look to someplace off the planet, or some technology that would get you there, as your home, your heaven?

But back to the future. The enduring legacy of Kraftwerk is a utopian one, that the future will be good. It just may not be a human utopia – it’s a place where everything works, and perhaps better because we may not be around anymore. Of all the worthy Kraftwerk tributes out there, I think the best one to end with is this one:

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Who Among Us Does Not Love To Get Down?

(For the season, and my Winter Fundraiser, I’m reposting some old favorites.)

What makes a song? We’re used to hearing pop music on the radio or in our ‘phones, hearing the instruments and the beat, and mainly hearing a lyrical structure, some combination of verse and chorus. While ‘song ‘ has come to mean a lot of things, including a movement in a Bach Partita according to a concertgoer I overheard last week, song is about someone actually singing words in some kind of poetic or narrative structure. Pop songs are written by the likes of Harold Arlen, Bob Dylan and Elvis Costello.

Except when they’re not. There’s a particular style of pop music where the songs are primarily instrumental, where the lyrical content, if anything is as minimal as can be. They are clearly songs, and they often have the kind of verse and chorus the ear identifies, but it’s not necessary. This music is meant to have deep popular appeal but can often be free form in terms of structure and have a lot of improvisation. It’s not jazz, though, even though, like jazz originally, it’s meant to get people on the dance floor. And it’s not jazz, even though like that music it’s a true American invention, a synthesis of other fundamental American types of music into something that reaches out to people all across the globe. I am writing about, of course, The Funk. And here’s a classic Funk song:

Okay, are you sitting back down? Kool and The Gang, prior to hits like ‘Cherish,’ were sunk in the deep funk. The single was cut to a little over three minutes for radio play and 45 sales, but the song sounds like the band could just play forever. There are the four (!) words that make up the lyric, “get down” and “jungle boogie,” but they don’t make the song structure. There is the drum-beat, the syncopated rhythm guitar and the incredibly hip bass line, doubled in the horns. The rest is just ornamentation. It’s all about the groove, that’s all the song has and all it needs, and that groove is made up of three funky pieces that build the feeling that you want to go in so many groovy directions, always safe in that rock-solid beat. Toss in a blues flavor, and that’s The Funk.

There’s a close musical relationship between jazz and funk and so it’s no surprise that Kool and the Gang were originally a jazz band, or that you’d have a hard time finding a jazz musician who didn’t both love funk and enjoy playing it. They share common roots in Blues and Boogie-Woogie, and funk became the modern music we know as a result of the development of hard-bop. You’d also find a lot of jazz musicians who made livings in bands playing funk at parties and weddings. There’s nothing better to get a bunch of people having a good time, and the best professional bands like that have kept themselves in business by playing a steady diet of Kool and The Gang and, especially, Tower of Power:

Wow, that’s great music! Good humored, tough, smart, musically sophisticated and physically pleasurable, it comes in a massive variety of flavors, from the minimalist polyphony of James Brown, the intense complexity of the Tower, the countrified blues of Funkadelic and the free-form jazz of Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time. It was adopted by Felà and returned to us in the form of Antibalas and the Budos Band, and is being kept alive and proud in Brooklyn by the amazing and amazingly funky Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings:

More even than jazz, this is the Holy Grail of American popular music, something that brings together the hard head and the sentimental heart with the populism of the groin, cutting across all socio-economic classes. It has the right sort of social and political inclinations and implications. It’s the ne plus ultra of urban American music, the place where the polyglot culture comes together in comity, without the deadening homogenization of the supposed “melting pot.” This is what makes the debut CD from Abraham Inc., “Tweet Tweet,” so fantastic. It’s easy to describe it as a mixture of funk, hip-hop and klezmer, but that makes it sound like a gimmick when it is both deeply serious and utterly fabulous.

The organization’s principals are Fred Wesley, Socalled (Josh Dolgin) and David Krakauer; James Brown’s music director, hip-hop musician and classical/klezmer clarinetist respectively. Beneath the professional labels are the fundamental roots in urban blues. From that, in three different and completely sympathetic flavors, comes Abraham Inc. The CD is both simple and complex to describe. The tracks are mostly funk/hip-hop arrangements of traditional klezmer tunes, but that says nothing about the playing. This is real funk, music that lays down a groove and that is meant for cutting, burning and wailing. And what music wails more than klezmer? Maybe the blues, and that’s where it all comes together.

The fun starts after a short opening that sounds like a gritty 1950s Blue Note LP. It’s funky ‘Tweet-tweet,’ a klezmer tune that itself is a riff as simple as the lyrics for ‘Jungle Boogie.’ There’s the beat, the rhythms, the blowing and the rapping! C. Rayz Walz is featured on the recording (he also collaborated with Socalled on the fine original lyrics), and he’s excellent, as is the rest of the band, which includes Jerome Harris on bass, Michael Sarin at the drums and Allen Watsky on guitar. This is tough, poised, street-smart funk, full of joy but also the sense that something serious is being undertaken. Everything works. ‘Moskowitz Remix’ is the best, hottest improvising I’ve heard in hip-hop. It would seemingly be obligatory to have an arrangement of ‘Hava Nagila,’ and that’s what ‘The H Tune’ is, but the combination of a rolling, zydeco-flavored beat and the incredibly sexy singing is unbelievable. Mickey Katz’ ‘Trombonik Tanz’ becomes ‘Trombonik,’ a fast and furious feature for Wesley’s meaty trombone and Walz’s skittering, funny rap.

This is one of those records where everything is done so well and purposefully that the listener feels assured at every moment. One of the originals, ‘Push,’ seems for a moment that it might be a little too enthralled to a parody of Barry White, but that moment passes so quickly and the sense of being borne along this supple beat and lyricism, with great solo contributions from Brandon Wright’s tenor sax and Freddie Hendrix’s trumpet, is incredibly satisfying. The centerpiece track is ‘Baleboste: A Beautiful Picture,’ a traditional with added, new lyrics, with the most exquisite balance of klezmer melody, hip-hop beat, funky scratching guitar, and a tone that is both heavily bluesy and seriously sophisticated. And that’s the essence of the record. It’s burning music making with something more powerful than any argument or message; making music is the glue that holds civilized people together, on the streets and in their rooms, and these musicians are making civilization. It has a swaggering defiance about it, the sense that people can’t be told how to live and love together, they’ll do it as they see fit. That’s a beautiful thing.

Left-wing academics and Republicans may prefer their culture commodified and identity-politicized, but culture is non-material. It is ideas and values and they belong to anyone who commits to them. The more people hold a value the more that culture spreads, and that’s a good thing. The musicians, speaking from inside culture, convey the idea of what America is and how people are better than anyone paid to tell us how we think and act ever could:

Remember the 2008 election, when Obama had a Jewish problem? That idea could only have existed in the minds of people insulated from civilization, people who never ride the buses or the subways, who feel that Harold Ford is a regular person just like them and an excellent Senate candidate. They are people who not only cannot understand this record, but cannot even comprehend its existence. They have never actually walked the streets of New York City and seen, as I have, a burning funk band on the sidewalks off of Times Square, screaming through ‘Chameleon,’ a young black guy playing the sax, a young Orthodox Jew playing the bass. Be cosmopolitan, be real. Get down.

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Best New Music Albums 2014

Best Downtown Music 2014

Best New Music Albums 2014
This is the second half of the classical list, music that has common origins in the Western tradition, in the expansive sense of music that began with a social purpose and then developed an abstract movement that we generally call classical music. Since the turn of the 20th century, and especially since after WWII, that tradition exploded into myriad pathways that moved along several lines—experimental, avant-garde, gestalt world music, non-jazz/non-classical improvisation, instrumental rock-based music, electronic music—that have created a large-scale genre that, as a short-hand, I’ve started to call the “downtown international” style. It’s place where musicians coming out of multiple traditions meet through a common set of values. They are not there to make hybrid, synthesized music, but to add their own ideas to a general pool, out of which truly new music is constantly growing. This is also the music that first my personal taste and compositional and aesthetic values most closely, and is the hardest yet most exciting list to compile.
You can buy these albums here, except where otherwise noted
Post-WWII composing

  • Tyshawn Sorey Trio, Alloy. My personal favorite and overall best record of the year. One reason for that is the musical ideas inside it are so deep and powerful that they’re a little bit frightening, it’s a large universe in which to lose oneself. Alloy is on a lot of jazz lists, but I can’t put it on mine: Sorey is most closely and accurately defined as a jazz musician, but this is an album, like his others, of his compositions, and there is so little jazz concept and aesthetic in them that they are pretty much sui generis. One of the fascinating features of his music is that, while he can be heard at the drum kit, the sense of rhythm as time is almost nonexistent (except in “Template”). The music is full of space, a sense that notes and events are placed intuitively (which I deeply admire, it’s extremely difficult to develop the ear and confidence to write such sparse yet finely structured music), the feeling of an internal journey without beginning or end. Feldman is the heuristic commonly applied to Sorey’s composing, but that’s misleading. Feldman, especially his mature music, wrote scores that are dense with activity. Sorey shares a taste for low dynamics, but the sparseness of his music sounds closer to Cage, only with an entirely different idea of expression. Imagine a Miles Davis trumpet solo removed from a tune, with the space inside expanded by magnitudes, and you get some idea of both the manner of this album, and how great the music is.
  • Bora Yoon, Sunken Cathedral. Tremendously beautiful and involving. This is the audio portion of Yoon’s ambitious multimedia project that will appear at the Prototype Festival next month. The sound combines the purity of her voice. chant, electronic textures, folk instruments, spoke word, and more. Another concept that is fiendishly difficult to hold together, and the firmness of her form makes this exceptional.
  • Tristan Perich, Surface Image. Perich’s work combines imagination and process: as his pieces go along, or as you see them in an installation, the path connecting conception, process and execution is always clear. That alone is both important and satisfying, but the results, like this mesmerizing, new post-minimal piece for piano and electronics, are great music in their own right.
  •, Jürg Frey: More or Less. It’s a good year when I have to choose between this and Andy Lee’s album of Frey piano music, the difference being that I found myself listening to this set of amazing chamber pieces, in excellent performances, a little more often.
  • Harry Partch, Harry Partch: Plectra and Percussion Dances. Self-recommending. This is the first complete recording of the title work, and the CD includes a spoken introduction by Partch that he delivered in 1953.
  • Peter Söderberg, On the Carpet of Leaves Illuminated by the Moon. Söderberg plays the lute, and on this record he performs music by Alvin Lucier, James Tenney, John Cage and Steve Reich. That’s really all you need to know.
  • Flux Quartet, Morton Feldman: String Quartet No. 1. Utter masters of this music. Flux followed up what is now an almost routinely great concert of Feldman’s String Quartet No. 2 with this release. The finest recoding of the String Quartet No. 1, and the finest traversal of the complete string quartet music by Feldman.
  • Ursula Oppens, Bruce Brubaker, Meredith Monk: Piano Songs. Not songs, but piano music, with occasional shouts and yelps. Echt-Monk, the physical vitality of her music, the way the pianos sound like they are hopping and dancing, is a tribute to her compositional ideals. A little disorienting at first to hear her style applied to the keyboard, but it gets better with every listen.
  • Dai Fujikara, Dai Fujikara: ICE. This is simply one of the finest collections of music at the cutting edge of the classical tradition that I’ve heard in years. Fujikara renders the densest and most complex ideas with complete clarity and control of his materials, and ICE plays the music like they’ve been working on it for years. Which they pretty much have.
  • Sarah Cahill, Mamoru Fujieda: Patterns of Plants. Fujieda’s work is one of the most striking compositions in contemporary music. The music is literally organic, composed out of Fujieda’s recordings of electrical activity in plants. What comes out is music that has an uncanny feeling of belonging to every place and epoch, yet having no identifiable national or temporal features. It is truly strange and beautiful. Cahill plays it with the attention to detail and musicality that one usually hears pianists bring to Schubert. Not a complete set of this magnum opus, but the most extensive to date.
Pos-WWII playing

  • Nils Bultmann, Troubadour Blue. A set of musical rich and beautiful viola improvisations that delve deep into the history of western music.
  • Bernd Klug, Cold Commodities. A gripping, surprising, unique and accomplished album that combines found sounds, electronics and improvisation with tremendous rigor and expression.
  • Asphalt Orchestra plays the Pixies: Surfer Rosa. An amazing record. These arrangements are imaginative sonic adaptations of the classic Pixie’s album, transforming the originals into something more complex and more consistently satisfying.
  • Robin Williamson, Trusting in the Rising Light. A strange, entrancing disc from one of the founders of The Incredible String band. This is a collection of songs that, though originals, have deep roots in ancient memories and traditions. WIlliamson’s voice is ravaged with age, making the expression that much more effective. Fantastic accompaniment from Mat Maneri and Ches Smith.
  • Lumen Drones. Post-rock meets Hardanger fiddle. Difficult to describe, the music drone based, full of rhythm and improvisation, tough and delicate at once. Must be heard, it’s completely wonderful.
  • Carolina Eyck, Christopher Tarnow, Improvisations for Theremin and Piano. Much more than a curiosity, this is fascinating set. Eyck is a tremendous theremin player, with complete command of tone and texture. Mostly quiet and tonal, the playing is superb, don’t be thrown by the twee track titles.
  • Battle Trance, Palace of Wind. I have the privilege of experiencing a performance of this piece by this quartet of tenor saxophonists, and it was jaw-dropping and powerful. Imagine Colin Stetson times four, playing non-stop for about forty five minutes with a romantic conception of transcendence, and you have some idea of the depths of this album.
  • Travis Just + Object Collection, No Song. Downtown to the max, turned up to 11! The good natured aggression of this record adds a sense of fun, but the playing is purposeful, intense, and heavier than the doomiest sludge. (
  • Plymouth. The members of this band are Jamie Saft, Joe Morris, Chris Lightcap, Gerald Cleaver and Mary Halvorson. They play dense, lively, passionate, intelligent noise improvisations. Excellent in every way, and the best release so far from Rarenoise records.
  • Thurston Moore/John Moloney, Caught on Tape. Loud, but delicate. The muscularity hides what, underneath, is a severe, even ascetic aesthetic, a search for beauty in the midst of conflict, like the edge of razor blade, shining through a pile of trash. Pretty much Moore’s finest moments as a guitar player.
Electronic Music

  • Dave Seidel, ~60Hz. As pure as music gets. Seidel’s pieces are made by combing sine waves and letting them play. Engrossing and gorgeous.
  • John Supko, Bill Seaman, s_traits. This record is astonishing. I’ll refer you to Marshall Yarbrough’s article for the details, but this upends every idea of structure and form and makes it work. Hard stop listening to.
  • No Lands, Negative Space. A prime example of the possibilities of electronic music: this band’s debut (mainly it’s Michael Hammond), is as abstract as Ussachevsky and as appealing as Tangerine Dream. Excellent.
  • Guenter Schlienz, Loop Studies. A haunting exploration of looped acoustic instruments and electronics. The music seems to be coming from the type of future that the past imagined would arrive. (
  • Philip White, Documents. Plastic, complex sound produced from the raw musical data extracted from a series of well-known, popular recordings. (
  • Michael Pisaro, Continuum Unbound. Field recordings and instrumental music, listening across the three discs is a transporting experience. (
  • Rand Steiger, A Menacing Plume. Electro-acoustic works with a classical feel of modernism. Steiger is fine composer and the pieces, including the superb title work and Résonateur, are played expertly by Talea Ensemble.
  • Jacob Cooper, Silver Threads. There are many projects that combine voice and electronics, but they are rarely as accomplished as this set of electronic art songs, with the terrific Mellissa Hughes singing.
  • Juan Bianco, Nuestro Tiempo. Electronic music from Cuba that might have been a mere object of curiosity, but Bianco, who was unknown to me when this arrived, is a serious and excellent composer, with a sense of vitality.
  • Faures, Continental Drift. Like atmospheric haze composed of tiny, shiny crystals; pristine, warm, enveloping. (
This is not the type of music in which there are frequent reissues, but notable this year is a Cello Anthology, a box set of four CDs with a beautiful, thick book. This collects performances and biographical information of the new music cellist Charlotte Moorman, without whom the musical landscape would be very different and far more impoverished. 

Best Classical Albums 2014

First, a note on genres and categories: Like my jazz list, this one is defined by the genre, and like that jazz list I’m doing this to be inclusive. In terms of history and tradition, the accumulation of ideas, styles and forms through time, classical music (like jazz) had a long-expanding common language, then reached a revolutionary point where that splintered. What we have is, one on the one hand, a system of tuning, harmony and structure that has proliferated through epochs of style for hundreds of years and, after WWII, a tradition of experimentation and avant-garde exploration that takes discrete aspects of the old tradition and uses them as the foundation for the on-going, and still unfinished, creation of new systems.

That means this list is the first of two, one that is concerned with new recordings of the standard classical repertoire and new music that belongs to that tradition (including minimalism and post-minimalism)—today’s list—the other in the post-WWII tradition. One is the descendent of the other, but instead of going into the family business, decided to do something more … I don’t know, DIY. That list will come soon.

You can buy everything below through this list compiled at Amazon.

Best 2014 Releases of the Standard Repertoire (music that has been recorded before):