Music

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Talking Time and Space With Steve Roach

The paucity of recent posting has been to due an exhausting January of freelance writing. Here’s one of the fruits and one of the most enjoyable, my interview with the great electronic musician Steve Roach, for Bandcamp.

Bandcamp Daily

steve-roach_1982-600-2 Steve Roach, 1982

Space music: the term implies an evocation of the unimaginable vastness of the cosmos, the slow synchronized movement of stars in the night sky, the incredible shapes and colors of nebulae. But look in the opposite direction, and space music becomes an exploration of the equally infinite and vastly more mysterious and complex world of the inner self. That is the space that electronic musician Steve Roach has been exploring since the late 1970s. Through seemingly disparate styles, like the tectonic pulse and crystalline shapes of the classic Structures from Silence, the ambient soundscapes of Quiet Music, and the sequenced bleeps and bloops of Skeleton Keys, Roach has been using music as a way to hold time at bay, and to weave a connection between the individual and the universal.

Working entirely outside of changing fashions in electronic music, Roach has made dozens…

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Bruckner Time

Anton Bruckner

Tonight, Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin bring the first performance cycle in American history to Carnegie Hall (I’ll be reviewing tonight’s concert, and Symphony Nos. 5 and 9 for the New York Classical Review).

Bruckner is a major symphonic composer, and in the eyes of some the greatest symphonist. That may see a bizarre claim, but that’s because there has been so little exposure to his music here. He has a reputation for being simplistic and dull. I thought that myself, but discovered that had more to do with the interpretations than the composing.

Given the chance to hear knowledgable, committed interpretations, Bruckner’s extraordinary virtues come through: the gorgeous forms that are like great Gothic cathedrals; the enthralling Adagios; the physical vitality of his Scherzos; the superb counterpoint and skill at modulation; the fantastically long melodies; and the transparent and sublime connection to the wonder and terror of his Catholic faith.

But there are aspects of his art that trouble people. Though he was composing in the mid-19th century, he mostly eschews the ideology of the era, development. Bruckner forms his symphonies out of beautifully shaped and intensely dramatic moments, connected by interludes. Then repeat. There’s some nod to sonata form, and he will use the old menuet-trio model, but his sense of form and especially time seems out of place with his tonal language. That is what I love about Bruckner. Coming to him in the late 20th century, he is more like Philip Glass than anyone else (Bruckner was important to Glass), and the last two symphonies are still New Music.

For a way experience the music, look to European musicians and orchestras, who have been playing this music for a century and a half, from the mighty Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics to myriad, regional orchestras. Bruckner is in their ears and hearts.

  • Barenboim has the rare distinction of having recorded three different, complete Bruckner cycles, all of which are at the top level of the Bruckner discography and all of which are worth owning. The pronounced differences come from the three different orchestras; the Chicago Symphony on Deutsche Grammaphon, the Berlin Philharmonic on Warner Classics, and the Staatskapelle on Barenboim’s own Perla label (2016 digital releases) or DG for the CD pressing (which from Amazon gives you a free download). The Chicago recordings are brass to the max, the orchestra’s famous section making a glorious sound throughout; Berlin plays with a much darker sound; and the Staatskapelle has a lithe, earthy sound. Interpretatively, the earliest set is full of thrills, the second cycle is closer in spirit to Fürtwangler, and the latest one has the most natural feeling, as if all the musicians are back in the 19th century, and the music is both new and part of their overall daily culture.
  • Eugene Jochum’s recordings are at the foundation of the Bruckner discography, but I confess here to not enjoying them. They are energetic and sincere, but to me they are superficial and the tempos are always a bit off. With that though, his recordings of the Masses 1 – 3 on Deutsche Grammaphon are marvelous; fluid, earthy, and touching on the mystical. They were formative to my interest in Bruckner, and I consider them an essential part of a good classical music library..
  • Günter Wand was a less well known contemporary of Jochum’s with masterful knowledge of Bruckner, and I prefer his recordings. He produced multiple statements, scattered across several labels, and if you don’t want to search, this bargain reissue is an excellent first choice. Wand’s Bruckner is measured and sane, with a solid large scale form. There is a partial cycle he recorded live with the Berlin Philharmonic later in life, and if is tremendous; the orchestra is superior, of course, and there is a palpable feeling of excitement, with the music building to climaxes that are glorious. Listen to that one loud. It is missing Symphonies 1–3 and 6, but everything else is as fine as you’ll ever hear.
  • Bruno Walter is single-handedly responsible for my love for Bruckner. His Columbia recording of Symphony No. 9 was the first Bruckner I listened to, and the profound beauty and metaphysical depths of it convinced me that the composer was worth exploring. It still stands up, from the intensely misterioso e poetico atmosphere of the opening, through the physical might of the Scherzo and the lush internal world of the Adagio. All of Walter’s Bruckner is great—as much as I love his Brahms, and as important as is his Mahler, he sounds most at home with Bruckner. He didn’t record the complete works, but every serious classical music listener should have this collection of his Bruckner and Mahler releases on Columbia.
  • Georg Tintner’s cycle is essential if you find yourself a Bruckner fan. His various orchestras—from Scotland, Ireland and New Zealand, for example—give the music their all, though of course they are not the finest ensembles. But Tintner directs the music with great pace, shape, and sense of meaning, and most importantly he not only includes all the symphonies (including the Study Symphony and the Die Nulte), but also Bruckner’s first complete editions, before the meddling of others. And Bruckner’s first thoughts were wonderful, especially in the 4th and 8th Symphonies.
  • Simone Young/Marek Janowski: two new cycles I picked up last year. Janowski is an old hand at this music, while Young has been making waves with her releases. I have not listened all the way through either of these, but my impressions are that Janowski is very well played and very straight, ideal if you’re not familiar with the work, but perhaps less of interest if you have several sets already. The Young I would recommend unreservedly, it is moving to the very top of the cycles I have heard. I love her pace, which is deliberate in the sense that she has things to say and she’s going to take the time she needs to say them; the tempos are objectively on the slow side but the music making is deep with emotional meaning and is very exciting to hear. Both have superb SACD sound, both clear and glowing. Everyone should get the Young set, wether you’ve heard 1 or 100 before.

Bruckner has been a part of European classical culture since the premieres of his symphonies. One measure of how deep he’s embedded is in how many orchestras that you have never heard of produce terrific Bruckner recordings. Many of these were trapped behind the Iron Curtain for decades, lost to Western ears, but they kept playing, and conductors in the East and West made careers out of traveling around Central Europe and leading a repertoire of Beethoven, Brahms, and Bruckner.

  • Cristian Mandeal: His cycle with the Cluj-Napoca Philharmonic is available through Abruckner.com, and there he has also made and excellent recording of Symphony No. 9 with the Hallé
  • Heinz Rögner: He contributes the bulk of recordings (along with Vávlav Neumann, Franz Konwitschny, and Kurt Sanderling) to a fine cycle on the Brilliant Classics budget label from the Rundfunk-Sinfonie Orchester Berlin.
  • Volkmar Andreae: An excellent, historic cycle with the Vienna Symphony, taped off radio broadcasts made in Soviet occupied Vienna. Andreae had by 1911 performed all of the Bruckner symphonies, so this is old-school in the best way.
  • Stanislaw Skrowaczewski: A fiery, powerful set, one of the best available with one of the best 9ths put on record, with the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern.

If you are interested in sampling individual recordings, there are some fantastic ones, profound and gripping:

2016: The Last Word In Jazz

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We critics have spoken, and here’s The 2016 NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll : The Record : NPR.

I am happily surprised to see Henry Threadgill hit the top of the poll—it is generally slightly more forward looking than the Downbeat polls, but still skews to the mainstream. While his disc was not my absolute favorite for the year, it’s superb and represents not only his achievements as a unique and formidable composer of modern music (Henry’s idiom goes well beyond jazz) but also as a mark of his stature. He has been at the forefront of contemporary music for decades, but the Pulitzer win seems to have impressed a lot of people, and if he’s become the recipient of some default votes, he more than deserves that.

I’m also happy to see that Wadada Leo Smith’s America’s National Parks turned up. This was not on my list because I have not had the chance to give it the concentrated listening it deserves, but his recent compositions have been hugely ambitious and successful, and his playing is ridiculously strong—again, this is a mark of his stature and he deserves every bit of attention.

Also nice to see Resonance earn so much attention for their excellent run of reissues.

Listening proceeds apace, and before the year came to a close I got to considerably more jazz (thanks to the lull in classical concertizing). My Top 10 list remains the same, but I also want to add these recordings to the list of worthwhile 11s:

You can’t go wrong with anything on my lists, or the one at NPR.

Things To Come

Things will not be great in 2017 if you are an ordinary person, especially if you’re not a man and not white. Things will be great for certain people, those who have the right balance of melanin and money. For example, things will be good for non-punk rock musician/Weimar-ignoramus/privileged emigrant Amanda Palmer. But not everyone can be Amanda Palmer, most of us could never measure up to her level of self-regard and selfishness.

Predicting what will happen in the arts is foolish. For every idea inspired by anger—and there will be many—there will be the corresponding obstacles of lack of money and increased social corrosion. But certainly artists will persist, the first step in resisting the swamping backwash of history. Musicians, ones who emphasize substance over social media skill, are already putting out some invigorating protest music:

Noah Preminger, an excellent jazz musician with a deep, personal commitment to expressing his values through his music, is putting out a new record on January 20 (you know what day that is), Meditations on Freedom. Check out this excellent sample track, and order the album at his website.

Stuff That Stocking

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Beethoven always makes a great gift, more reliable than anything else. And as the greatest artist of the human spirit, there’s no time like now to give Beethoven. Here’s some suggestions that are superb musically and real values money-wise:

Symphonies

This cycle from George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra is one of the very best, and the price makes it the best value of all the symphony cycles in print.

Piano Sonatas

Much tougher to make one choice here. Kempff is the ideal first choice, and his first, mono recordings are the finest set available. But his stereo versions are also excellent and cheaper.

Those are analog recordings. If you want digital (and well-recorded), Paul Lewis’ set is very good, beautiful played and sane all the way through, though not as deep or dramatic as some others. The price gives it high value.

 

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String Quartets

The final leg of the essential Beethoven tripod (itself fundamental to the Western art music tradition). Like the Piano Sonatas, there’s no clear single choice in terms of musical quality and low cost. This is compounded in that many of the best cycles seem to constantly go in and out of print, leaving the consumer at the mercy of the secondary market.

The early Tokyo String Quartet cycle is a bargain, and is fine, but not in the top rank of recordings. Their later one is superior, one of the best, but the prices are all over the place on the secondary market. The Quartet Italiano cycle is superb, one of the very best, and available at a moderate price.

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As for the rest, there are a lot of good ones that are expensive, and a lot of inexpensive ones that aren’t as good. Caveat emptor.

Stuff That Stocking

 

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I’ve been reading through apocalyptic fiction since summer 2015, inspired in no small part by the stream of reissued material from the great experimental collective Fossil Aerosol Mining Project. If the 2016 political year has got you feeling like you need an inoculation against dread, you can’t do better than to read A Canticle for Leibowitz.

As a companion and a link between this remarkable novel and the remarkable sounds from FAMP, read my article “Sounds of Futures’ Past” at NewMusicBox; a contemplation on what our future sonic archeology might be, and exactly what of civilization we might leave behind to be pieced together by a future Order of St. Leibowitz.

Best Reanimations 2016

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The depth and range of 2016 reissues and archival releases was not as great as previous that of previous, years (especially 2015), but there were a small handful of such releases this year that were of rare quality and importance.

The most notable was Decca’s release of their Mozart 225 complete edition of his works. I’ve gone into more detail on this release here, and the short version is that this is the greatest collection of some of the greatest music in human civilization. The choice of performances is superior throughout, and if there is an emphasis on the new thinking that has come out of the Period Performance Practice movement, there is also a generous selection of wonderful performances that are historically important due to their sheer, exalted, quality. Round that out with fragments, works with unclear provenance, a good, short, hard-bound biography, and a new Köchel catalog, and this is a cornerstone collection for a serious classical music lover. But yes, it is expensive, and even with that cost it’s not perfect—my copy has a misprint in the booklet for opera and theater music. At this price, that type of quality control error should not happen, and it’s unclear to me if Decca will replace it, they don’t seem to have anything in the way of customer service.

(Note: Amazon price as of this posting, $340, is the best I’ve seen since it was released, and very close to the best pre-order price that had been available)

(Billboard reports that this is a surprise best-seller, moving more CDs than anything else released this year. This is misleading because they are multiplying the number of boxes sold—6,000 or so out of a total of 13,000 in this limited edition—by the 200 CDs contained within.)

For those sensitive to their budgets, there are still some amazing releases out within a wide price range. My favorites are:

Classical

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There were some good Bruckner boxes out this year too, but I’ll be writing about them in January.

Jazz

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  • Miles Davis Quintet: Freedom Jazz Dance: Bootleg Series Vol. 5. On the surface this might seem to be only for the specialists—the complete tape from the session that produce the great Miles Smiles album. But that means you are there while arguably the greatest ensemble in jazz history puts together a classic recording on the fly. An indispensable look into jazz as process, full of invaluable insights into what made Miles such an unsurpassed band leader. It’s tremendously exciting and makes the original album sound even better.
  • The Complete Savoy Be-Bop Sessions, 1945–49. Savoy is best known as Charlie Parker’s label. But these 10 CDs from the vaults have everything else on the label from that period, vintage early bebop excursions from Dexter Gordon, Milt Jackson, Stan Getz, and many more. One marvelous track after another, complete with alternate takes and the typical excellent documentation from Mosaic.
  • Sun Ra, The Singles Volume 1. Sun Ra’s singles are more than just fodder for condescending hipster lifestyles, they are a Rosetta Stone that decodes American popular music. If you don’t already have the original Evidence collection, absolutely get this. And if you do have it, this new set from Strut has plenty of additional tracks recently unearthed.
  • UPDATED (Can’t believe I forgot this): Peter Erskine Trio: As It Was. This is a 4 CD collection from ECM, everything that this trio produced. Taken together, this series of albums from the 1990s make for a pinnacle of modern piano trio jazz, and the late English pianist John Taylor is simply outstanding on every track.
  • Arthur Blythe: In the Tradition/Lenox Avenue Breakdown/Illusions/Blythe Spirit. Four albums on two CDs, for $20. Lenox and Illusions are two of the greatest albums of the post-fusion era, testaments to the beautifully creative and vital music made on the Loft Jazz scene.
  • Searching for You: The Lost Singles of McVouty (1958–1974). On Resonance, Zev Feldman produced two important archival releases this year, covering Larry Young and the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra. He had his hand in this one too, and there’s little this year I enjoyed as much.

Everything Else

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  • Harry Bertoia: Complete Sonambient Collection. A marvelous box from Important Records. This beautifully remasters and documents the records sculptor Bertoia made playing his Sonambient sound sculptures. Hours of rich, mysterious, beautiful, and immersive sounds.
  • Machine Gun: Jimi Hendrix: The Filmore East First Show 12/31/1969. The complete first set of Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys. An amazing performance and unintended culmination of Jimi’s musical world: blues, soul, funk, and rock.
  • Led Zepellin, Complete BBC Sessions. While it might be hard to imagine you would want to hear five different performances of “Communications Breakdown” in the same collection, the playing here is so exciting and powerful that you will enjoy every one. Some spectacular moments in Zepellin’s history.
  • Hey Colossus: Dedicated to Uri Klanger. A compilation of fairly recent music that had limited release previously, this should serve as an ideal introduction to this noise band. Their sound is heavy and warm and completely exhilarating. Not a dull moment to be heard.

2016 Notes and Tones

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After listening to what is now close to 500 recordings with a 2016 release date, I feel like I’ve discovered some themes. Some of this is the elusive zeitgeist, what is on the minds of musical artists; some is longer term trends having to do with technology and pop culture; some may just be coincidence. But all were noticeable and satisfied my arbitrary criteria for a sample size.

Jeff Parker

Nothing sub rosa here, Parker has been around for a while and has been one of most interesting guitarists on the scene, creating his own niche in between jazz, rock, neo-soul, and improvised music. He’s living testament that there’s no real line between the popular and the avant-garde in African-American music, it’s all on a spectrum, and a pretty compact one at that.

His album The New Breed (International Anthem) made the most noise this year, and it is solid. I don’t love it though; the intentionally fragmented nature, while interesting, doesn’t really satisfy—the record wants to be both experimental and neatly controlled, and those are contradictory goals.

But there are two other recordings to his credit that are fine. One is a seemingly modest but actually deep solo record, Slight Freedom (Eremite), which has Parker exploring his own fascinating art. The other is drummer Matt Mayhall’s Tropes (Skirl), a tight, strong debut based around the trio of Mayhall, bassist Paul Bryan, and Parker (with various guests). Parker’s contributions are integral to the success of the disc, which is the best jazz debut of the year, and my regrets that I did not get this out of the pile for listening until after the deadline for Francis Davis’ Jazz Critics Poll. Both these are strongly recommended and on my extended list for best new releases.

Guitars

There’s been a longer term trend in the proliferation of terrific guitarists—and please don’t think of just jazz. Many of them play jazz, but they are playing in every sort of style and tradition Some are relatively new on the scene, others are established, and they keep putting out one solid record after another (or, like Parker, are important sidemen on other musicians’ records). Here are recordings from guitarists that I enjoyed this year and recommend:

Ask me on a different day, and any and all of these could be on my list of 52.

Singers

First, I want to express some disappointment. As someone with a man-crush on Kurt Elling, his appearance on Branford Marsalis’ Upward Spiral never captured my attention, and I find his Christmas disc hard going. But there were other fine releases from singers that had the balance of artistry and creativity that I seek—I want my singers to be good musicians! Try these, they are all terrific:

Seriously swinging, musical singing from all the above. Everyone should hear Bertault sing “The Peacocks“ in French.

Labels

This was a strong year for Sunnyside records. I have several of their releases in my top 52, and you’ll find a couple of the vocalists there. Other keepers are Andrew Cyrille and Bill McHenry’s duet album, Proximity, Dan Blake’s tough-as-nails The Digging, and two records with a south of the Trump wall flavor, Edward Simon’s Latin American Songbook, and Argentum from Carlos Franzetti.

ECM is by default one of the major labels, but their output this year took nothing for granted and was impressive even by their consistent standards. I do go against some of the consensus favorites, like Michael Formanek’s The Distance, which I found wan, but they had a run of fine records in that typical ECM style that carved out a space between improvisation and contemporary classical control. Along with the release on my best of list:

ECM also had several excellent classical and new music releases, those you will find in a forthcoming post.

The Hits Just Keep on Hittin’

Some late year miscellany before I post more on the year in music:

  • Already Dead Tapes was one of our recommended labels in the October issue of the Rail, and starting today they have a “Any 3 Tapes for $10” sale going on at the Bandcamp page. That’s three tapes for the price of two, and the label has 235 releases so far in its catalogue. Recent picks are the latest from Lost Trail, and a set of remixes of Public Speaking, who’s on our roster of recommended gigs for December.
  • The wildly quirky label Hausu Mountain is putting out an intriguing recording this Friday (digitally, vinyl comes in January). Mortal, from Quicksails, is some kind of combination of modular synthesis and free jazz, and I am dying to hear the whole thing after I got through the track below.
  • You can now read an article I wrote for New Music Box, “When Jazz Was Cool,” a look at the cool we lost, and how jazz was once the mass media soundtrack of the hippest of the hip. Of course, there’s Miles …

52 Pick-Up: Best NewMusic 2016

52 of the best new releases of the year, 52 out of the the 430 (as of this writing) new releases I listened to. Every year I fiddle with how to make and present these lists, and the idea here is obvious; one record to every week. For this I used the criteria of releases that I would gladly listen to, non-stop, for an entire week. That is, music that not only satisfied critical thinking, but that was a complete pleasure in the way it swamped critical thinking and just occupied the pleasure centers of my mind and body. Each note or sound was like a brick in a marvelous structure, and I wanted to hear it being built, piece by piece, over and over again. I could add an “honorable mentions” list with recordings that could move in an out of my 52, depending on mood, but I’ll that for the comments section, if anyone cares to discuss this.

I’ve placed this in rough genres that should be self-explanatory (“Popular” is any music that can be placed in a popular music category, from metal to hip hop; “New Classical” is music in that classical tradition that was both composed in the last generation or two and newly heard on recording). If you compare the Jazz/Blues below to my best jazz post, you’ll see some differences: the previous post was for Francis Davis’ categories, here I’m using mine, and I differentiate between musicians playing jazz and jazz musicians improvising in non-jazz idioms.

(Note that these are unranked because the criteria gives them equal value. Also note that I will have a separate list of for reissues and archival recordings.)

Ambient/Drone

Classical

Electronic

Improvisation

Jazz/Blues

New Classical

Popular Styles

Again, this list could be longer, but without limits I never would have gotten to the end. There are more worthy releases this year that I’ll get to in an upcoming post on notes and trends of 2016. Happy listening.