A Month of Listening: January 2016

This is a record, embedded below (or downloadable here), of my January month of listening. It’s not everything I heard, but it is all the new and recently released recordings that I listened to. Everything on this list passed by my ears at least once, and there are several things I listened to many times; Blackstar got five separate spins, and I listened to some of the symphonies in Daniel Barenboim’s new Bruckner cycle more than once—these are examples.

Bests of the Month of Listening

Everything on here is at least decent—the only way to get through close to 60 new recordings in a month is to quickly abandon recordings that are bad, they don’t end up on here. The Recording of the Week series is an implicit selection of the bests from the month, but there’s only so many weeks, so here is a further list of my favorite new recordings, and these are the ones that I deeply, personally, loved:

  • Ludovic Morlot, Seattle Symphony, Ives: Symphonies 3 & 4. Stunning. Symphony No. 3 is excellent and the performance of Symphony No. 4 is extraordinary, full of careful detail and an understanding of the overall design, direction, and aesthetic effect. Morlot’s pace is not just ideal, but a means to build, moment by moment, a kind of exalted tension that culminates into a glimpse of the Great Oversoul.
  • Jeremy Flower, The Real Me. The tastemakers are likely going to give this the dreaded “indie-classical” label. Maybe they’re right, but that means nothing. What this is is a terrific rock album, with great song-craft and playing. Do the songs revolve around some central meaning? Maybe. Is it a song-cycle? Sure, why not, whatever. It’s just great.
  • Look to the North, 5,000 Blackbirds Fall Out of the Sky. Since I received CD #37 out of a total issue of 40, there’s not way you’re going to be able to find this one (one track is available through Bandcamp). But maybe a friend has it. The record is a combination of field recordings and ambient/drone electronics. It’s sonically deep, and tells fragments of stories that hint at profound personal and social loss. This has a real wallop.
  • Jaimeo Brown, Transcendence: Work Songs. A beautiful conception with exceptionally smart and musical execution. Brown has taken recordings of works songs, including famous ones from Parchman Farm and others from South-East Asia, and used them as ostinatos underneath his own material. The musical style is a tangy stew of blues, jazz, soul, and funk, and the balance between immediate physical pleasure and entertainment, and wrenching and angry questions about work, power, and exploitation, makes this great popular art, without pandering in any way. J.D. Allen is the feature horn player here, and his playing is in line with the veiled power of the record (release date February 12).
  • Robert Ashley, Crash. I’ve written a lot about this work already. What you need to know is that this is a recording made from the run of the opera at Roulette in April of last year. Ashley’s late works are his greatest, and this one is a real culmination of his life’s work.

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Maverick Media

American Mavericks is in full swing here in New York City. I have some mixed feelings about Monday’s San Francisco Symphony concert — I’m not sure what John Adams was thinking when he made Absolute Jest, and it’s hard to square Jessye Norman’s substantial career with a performance of John Cage’s Song Books — the audiences have come out, and the orchestra continues to impress me as the finest in the country. The precision, blend and weight of their sound in Ameriques was astonishing. The Tuesday program was one of the great events of the year, with Carl Ruggle’s Sun-Treader, Morton Feldman’s Piano and Orchestra and Henry Brant’s orchestration of Ives’ Concord Sonata. From weighty, dissonant Neo-Romanticism to spacious, still, delicate pointillism and the polyphonic riot of Ives, played with such musical expression — there’s no other orchestra that can do this. Top flight groups like this play the classics beautifully, but Tilson Thomas, his imagination, curiosity and his knowledge and understanding of the range of musical concepts means that a program like this not only works, but astonishes. Sun-Treader is a great work, and has been recorded exactly two times, both under this conductor’s baton. This group also made a tremendous recording the of Ives last year, and I have never heard a finer performance of the Feldman piece, with Emmanuel Ax at the keyboard, hauntingly shadowed by Robin Sutherland. When an orchestra can play the quietest sounds with a exactitude of attack and pitch and fullness of sound like this, the silent spaces in between grow broader, deeper, more profound. Rare playing and a truly rare program, all of us in the hall may never hear these pieces again in concert.

San Francisco is one of the pioneers in matching their content (their programming and playing) with digital media (their own record label, the Keeping Score program), and this festival has lots of extras for those who can attend and even for those who can’t. Go to Q2 for archived audio, check out the above documentary or one about MTT’s grandparents, who were leaders in Yiddish theater, and, if you’re patient, wait a few months, because the orchestral concerts are being recorded for release on the SFS Media label, meaning brilliant, beautiful discs of Adams, Ruggles, Cowell and more.

We're An American Band

We Americans may not know much about history, but we love it nonetheless. Without a basis in facts, that love boils down to the same messy, insoluble arguments people have about things they like. History becomes nothng more than a matter of competing tastes — some of the major genres are The Founding Fathers, the Civil War, The Greatest Generation, I Like Ike, Camelot, The Summer of Love, Fear and Loathing and Richard Nixon, The Apotheosis of Saint Ronnie and Permanent 9/11 — which is dreary enough in normal circumstances but truly abrades the soul every four years.

We also like to think that Americans are some special race, sprung up from the soil of North America after careful, diligent tilling, planting and watering from the Christian God himself. We’re special, there’s never been anyone like us, no rules for me but many for thee. We’re not the end of history, because history never ends, but we act as if we are from someplace outside of history. Is it any wonder that Scientology can be invented and achieve such success here, where it’s all about finding the ideas that the most suckers will spend the most money on?

This is the culture war, but that label is misleading, because it implies that those fighting it aggressively give a shit about culture. Their atavism is that, through most of human history, a small group of men with money and power have ruled society, and that’s how everything should remain. If it’s difficult to reconcile the American conservative claims to both freedom and restrictions on personal liberty, realize that conservatism is about preserving long-standing, inherited power and privilege, nothing more, and that holds true for Andrew Sullivan as much as for Jim DeMint. They have no ideas, all they have is fear that someone, somewhere, might end up with the advantages they have. This is culture as commodity and limited resource, to be defended from interlopers.

Want a good, mordant laugh? Imagine the culture warriors reading Hawthorne or Whitman, watching Martha Graham or Merce Cunningham, listening to something other than Christian Rock — or imagine them realizing that the creator of popular American classical music was a gay, cosmopolitan Jew. They accept music as something that reinforces their prejudices and preconceived notions, which perversely makes them the same as people who listen to and write about pop music without realizing that music is an art that encompasses an almost incomprehensible range of styles and ideas, and that it’s as old as human beings.

There is so much American music, though, and it survives despite the ignorance and abuse of political anger and market depredations. American music as a product and expression of the true, fundamental elements of this culture is as messy and wide-ranging as the history of the country itself. One of the most important keepers of its flame, Michael Tilson Thomas, is bringing it to Carnegie Hall this week, on the tour of his revived American Mavericks idea. MTT put together the first such festival at the beginning of his tenure in San Francisco, and if it’s legacy would have been nothing more than the memories of the concert-goers, it would have held an indelible place in American musical history.

The Mavericks idea is essential to the full flowering of American music as the force in the 20th century, supplanting the long and deserved influence of Central Europe. Schoenberg’s creation of atonal compositional technique and his decamping to Los Angeles are more and more clearly, in retrospect, the last gasp of the supremacy of German musical culture, with a final spasm, after that country itself had been destroyed in WWII, of international ideological influence akin to that of Communism. American music has styles but it has never been much of an ideology, because at the core of it is the specifically American cultural idea of the crackpot, the person tinkering at the margins of whatever field they are in, oblivious to conventional wisdom and accepted norms.

The first notable American crackpot was Louis Moreau Gottschalk, the wild man from Louisiana (a place in the American imagination that always seems foreign). The greatest and most important was Charles Ives, one of the handful of people without whom this country would not be what it was. Ives of course was featured in the first Mavericks festival, the symphony playing his extraordinary “Holidays Symphony, while Lou Harrison read Ives’ introductions to each movement from a chair on the stage. Ives will be in Carnegie Hall too, in Henry Brant’s orchestration of the Concord Sonata, a compendium of the composer’s musical and social values.

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It’s those values that make Ives so important. Musically, he was the son of a crackpot band leader, but Yale tried to iron that out of him, as it currently irons democratic and egalitarian values out of our political leaders. American writing had made it’s national mark early, but musical culture looked to Europe for everything, and had for over a century — there is a fascinating collection of 18th century overtures on the Naxos label, weird early classical pastiches of Mozart, “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” marches and other popular tunes of the era, not great music but great to hear for a window into the ideas and values of the time. 100 years later the leading composer was George Chadwick and the avatar was Brahms. Ives wrote some solid but uninspired Brahms while at Yale and after, but when he finds his own, true American voice, it’s by becoming a crackpot. While he at times struggled with the technical challenges of conveying his ideas in compositional language, his thinking was unbound. By looking at his country as it was and as he wanted it to be, and by both loving and fighting the legacy of his father, he became Prometheus, freeing the song and music in all men in a profoundly democratic way.

To get from there to here took time, effort, thought, obsession. There’s a visual cognate in the reopened American wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The bourgeois objéts of the 18th and 19th century mix with important portraits in a European style, the lovely, delicate Impressionism of Childe Hassam and the great genre paintings of Homer and Eakins. Those two artists mix a sense of American muscularity in physical, intellectual and commercial activity, an encompassing Whitmanesque sense of what they see around them but with more diffidence and sober demeanor than the poet. There’s a quality to the canvasses, especially Eakins, that seems to confront the viewer, to stare back with an implicit sense of pride and challenge, as if to say “you didn’t think these were good enough, did you? And now I care not what you think.”

Eakins, Champion Single Sculls, 1871

To Ives, family man, church organist, businessman, living in the world, society was what mattered, and music was inherently a social activity. His multiple musics in “Central Park in the Dark” are the sounds of the noise that all sorts of different people are making, and when he made all those voices musical, like in his String Quartet No. 2, there are multiple songs in the same space in time. JACK Quartet played that Sunday, along with pieces from two other true crackpots, Ruth Crawford Seeger and Steven Mackey, in a neighborhood concert at Abrons Arts Center, in a great performance. They found the underlying values in the music, giving the discontinuous form a continuity of musical thinking, and it’s also no small thing to hear Ives played with so much technical assurance and such a big, beautiful sound. That’s one of the strengths of Hilary Hahn’s disc of the Ives Violin Sonatas, some of his finest pieces. It’s one of those recordings that gets better with every listening. I had some reservations about what sounded like her reticence or discomfort with some of the music, but with more exposure that turns out to be a very personal way into Ives’ mysterious mind and sensibility. She teases out bits of memory she understands, and plunges through those she doesn’t — this is no criticism, there is really no one who could understand the whole scope and scale of Ives’ mind, and that makes the music so fruitful to perform and record. One thing that is clear, and was clear in her lovely performance at the Stone last year, is that she appreciates music as a social activity. When I studied Ives in graduate school, we sang several of his favorite hymns and patriotic songs before we listened to a note, and with composer and Ives biographer Jan Swafford leading, we did the same before Hahn’s performance. This puts you in the mind of the composer, where making music with your neighbors, even badly, is an inherent part of American life.

America has been singing for centuries. There were two discs of American vocal music issued last year that tell the story in both reach and detail. on Rose of Sharon , Joel Frederiksen and the Ensemble Phoenix Munich tell the story in social, liturgical and political music from 1770 to 1870, a century that put this country on the cusp of what it was to become. Beyond All Mortal Dreams collects a cappella choral music from roughly the last 100 years, works in the liturgical tradition that reflect the ritualistic aspect that is really the main outpost of social music making in contemporary times. They are great recordings in their own right, an have the added cultural depth of European’s looking towards these shores and showing us how much they love our music,.

I hope all this comes across as sympathetic, and not academic. It’s not hard to find faculty members who look down on the music for its technical problems and general non-conformity, The professionalization of creative careers has been a weird curse of the 20th century. Some of the greatest composers in America taught, and some of the most important teachers were able composers, or some combination of the two. I love the Neo-Romantic/Modernist music of William Schuman, Peter Mennin and David Diamond, Roger Sessions was an important teacher and symphonist, Howard Hanson ran the Eastman School of Music, conducted American music on many recordings and wrote solid, lovely and utterly predictable symphonies — all of which have been given excellent recordings by the Seattle Symphony, and Naxos has been reissuing that series. Walter Piston wrote some great pieces, many acceptable ones and important textbooks. Some of them have Ives’ force, none have his wonderful mess. There are limits in the academy.

So students should be thrilled to hear, amidst the thrilling programming of Cage, Meredith Monk, John Adams, Morton Feldman, Varese, Henry Cowell, and even Harry Partch (and others), Carl Ruggles great orchestral work, “Sun-Treader.” Ruggles, rivaling Partch as the crank among crackpots, wrote little more than a dozen pieces in his life, lavishing obsessive patience on each. He wrote what he wanted, proudly dissonant works that are deeply human, exuberant, brilliantly crafted and full of the rough edges that can make even the most sonically challenging works compelling. “Sun-Treader” was the opening piece for the entire 1996 festival. I was excited that night, and even more so when I got to Davies Symphony Hall. I had been living in San Francisco since 1992 and had been seeing the Symphony at least a dozen times a year, and was sensitive to both the makeup of the usual crowd and its variations. It was stunning to see so many new faces heading to their seats, faces I recognized from new and avant-garde music events in the Bay Area. Everyone was champing at the bit, thinking, like me, that they never imagined that they would be hearing Ruggles in person in their lifetimes, and also knowing that MTT is a master of the music. The opening burst from the stage like artillery fire, and no one in the audience made a sound, everyone seemed to be holding their breath. It’s a masterpiece, the music, the kind of thing that reaches into an essential part of the soul and makes you glad to be experiencing life in all its ups and downs. After the last notes, there was that marvelous, and rare, moment when the audience sat in silent contemplation of what they had experienced. Then, not really an ovation but a throaty, passionate, sustained roar. A barbaric yawp, from all of us to all of us.



Recommended further reading and listening:

So Percussion is kicking off American Mavericks tonight with a concert focussing on John Cage, I interviewed them at ClassicalTV

Carnegie Hall has a worthwhile blog, with some interesting infographics and a good rundown of all the things you can see and explore, outside of the music

George Whitefield Chadwick, Symphony No. 2, Symphonic Sketches

Cypress String Quartet, The American Album

Quator Diotima, American Music

Jazz Nocturne, American Concertos of the Jazz Age

Gerswhin, Concerto in F, Rhapsody No. 2, I Got Rhythm Variations, Orion Weiss, JoAnn Falletta, Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra

2011 Year's Best Classical

Because it was a good year, another Baker’s Dozen …

1. Matt Haimovitz and Christopher O’Riley, Shuffle.Play.Listen/Todd Reynolds, Outerborough: Tied because they are so closely related and so very fine. There are musical and stylistic differences, but the underlying values are shared, making these ideal companions and, most of all, discs you should own.

Reynolds’ release is a disc of him playing his own compositions and another where he plays music written for him by Michael Gordon, David Lang, Phil Kline, David T. Little, Nick Zammuto, Paul de Jong, Ken Thomson, Michael Lowenstern and Paula Matthusen. As a solo player, Reynold’s works with the looping, structuring and processing features of tools like Ableton Live and Max/MSP, and the works written for him make creative use of electronic means as well, building multi-tracked parts, rhythms and electronic sounds. The overall sensibility is at the pinnacle of pop-inflected Post-Minimalism, from Phil Kline’s gorgeous, intense “Needle Pulling Fred” to the chattering flow of de Jong’s “Inward Bound” to the thrashing crunch of Lang’s “Killer,” a piece that combines the best of Bang on a Can classics “Industry” and “Lying, Chearting, Stealing.” It’s fundamentally all Reynolds, the playing and the view. It’s his ecumenical view and smart, refined taste that brings the pieces together, and it’s his tremendous musicianship that is at the core. Across both discs, there is a sense of freedom and spontaneity that come out of his skill and expression as a musician and that gives everything the feeling that it is unfinished in the best sense, that when you hit the repeat button (and you will) you will hear something you didn’t the last play.

Outerborough is the best example of the restless, creative relationship between composition and pop music going on in contemporary classical, as is Shuffle.Play.Listen. Where Reynolds is pioneering original work, Christopher O’Riley and Matt Haimovitz are mixing together a wide range of superb modern classical music with O’Riley’s transformative arrangements of current pop music. The result is densely packed with great sounds.

The first of the two CDs is structured through a suite of music from Bernard Herrmann’s exceptional score for the movie “Vertigo.” In between movements, there is Janacek’s “Fairy Tale,” Martinu’s “Variations on a Slovak Folksong,” Stravinsky’s “Suite Italienne,” (a reduction of his ballet Pulcinella), and “Le grand tango” from Astor Piazzolla. The playing is voluptuously fabulous, chamber music-making of the highest order. O’Riley has great touch and is a sensitive accompanist, while Haimovitz brings his unique ability to vocalize melodic lines to each piece, and everything sings, even the non-vocal compositions. The sequencing of the music is fascinating and rich.

The second CD traverses Arcade Fire, Radiohead, Cocteau Twins, Blond Redhead, A Perfect Circle and Mahavishnu Orchestra-era John McLaughlin. Like with Reynolds, O’Riley and Haimovitz accept as a given the quality of the songs and the play the shit out of them. Haimovitz’s ability to shape lines with the types of catches, fall-offs and the illusion of breathing that comes from the voice pushes these to an urgency of expression that makes the originals all sound a little cooler, and little more withdrawn. “The Pyramid Song” is haunting and plangent, “Melody” is ravishing, “Heaven or Las Vegas” is a flowing pastoral. The exception to this fullness they add to the pop music is the refined focus they give to “The Dance of Maya,” in a superb arrangement. The original is crushingly intense, here it’s quieter but just as provocatively obsessive. This great recording closes with “A Lotus on Irish Streams,” in a beautiful improvisation that rounds off all the music but leaves, like Outerborough, tendrils of questions and possibilities that will have you playing the music all over again.

3. Simone Dinnerstein, Bach: A Strange Beauty: Exquisite Bach playing, and refreshingly intelligent thinking about the composer.

4. Vincent Royer, Scelsi, The Works for Viola: Of all the avant-gardeists, Scelsi is the most deeply strange and, surprisingly, the most accessible. Audiences that know little to nothing of classical music find him compelling for the same reasons the classical world has been slow to turn to him: he speaks without guile and without any interest in the accepted protocols of craft directly from his soul to ours. The voice of his soul is in achingly beautiful microtonality, usually best expressed through string instruments. This collection of his works for viola is completely stunning. I’m thoroughly familiar with Scelsi’s work, yet the intensity of Royer’s playing was unexpected. If Scelsi’s music is a direct communication from the most abstract, non-verbal part of his mind and soul, then Royer seems to be communicating directly with the composer, or acting as a purely transparent vessel between Scelsi and us. It’s rare, even with the finest musicians, to hear such unmannered dialogue and expression with and from the the music. This is music-making on par with Uchida playing Schubert and is at the top of what is a growing Scelsi discography.


5. Chaya Czernowin, Shifting Gravity: I first heard Czernowin’s music at a Composer Portrait in April of this year, and it was enticing, so the release of this CD was a welcome balm for my curiosity. This is more than information, though, this is a terrific, vibrant collection. The music is for string quartets and chamber ensembles, at times enhanced with electronics. Czernowin’s language is right at the sharp point of contemporary classical tradition, making use of dissonance, atonality, gestures of timbre, the sonic power of rock and, always, a careful placement of musical events through times. Her structures and rhythms are subtle but so finely crafted that, as mysterious as the music can be, there is always the sense that something logical and meaningful will happen next, and it does.

6. Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony, Ives/Brant: A Concord Symphony: Charles Ives’ body of work is unfinished. When he reached his compositional maturity, his work became restless, searching, striving, sounding at times like it was putting itself together on the fly. He stopped writing music long before he died, leaving an unfinished and expectant quality about his career, and he rarely finished a piece, in that he frequently went back to printed and published works and revised them. The notes on paper were a start, not an end.

Consider the symphonies — how many did he write? There are numbers 1 through 4, then there are the four orchestral movements that, when put together, become the American Holidays Symphony. He left behind sketches for another symphony, suggesting that someone put them together, and that become the Universe Symphony which exists in more than one, widely different, version. And there’s this, Henry Brant’s orchestration of Ives’ ‘Concord’ Piano Sonata. The ‘Concord’ is the single work that represents Ives’ aesthetic, intellectual, spiritual and moral values (expressed in the composition and also in his book length essay, “Notes Before a Sonata”). Brant’s adaptation turns this into another, true Symphony, and a great one, the most coherent profound of the bunch. The density of the piano writing opens up into clarity, and so the depth and complexity of the thinking can really be heard. Ives wrote all the notes, and of course it sounds like him, but with Brandt’s superior orchestral craft, and sounds like better Ives, as if Brandt was the editor that the older man needed all along to realize his ideas with the greatest expression.

It’s extraordinary music, and in the hands of the best Ives musicians of the current era Tilson Thomas combines intelligence and insight with the demanding technical skill the music requires, and the orchestra responds, in this live recording, with the type of energy and fervor that borders on agitation, and is really exciting. The paired piece, Copland’s cerebral, cool Organ Symphony is played with just as much commitment. The usual exquisite recording quality from the SFS Media engineers. This is some of the finest orchestral playing you will hear, and perhaps the greatest work from America’s most important, perhaps greatest, composer.

7. Marty Brabbins, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, William Walton Symphonies: Is it a lie if you believe it’s true? Walton’s Symphonies are solid works, this CD makes them sound like extraordinary ones.

8. Joel Frederiksen, Ensemble Phoenix Munich, The Rose of Sharon: A great survey of American music up to and through the Civil War, revelatory in some ways, and beautifully sung and recorded.

9. Pacifica String Quartet, The Soviet Experience Volume 1: Following on their great Shostakovich Cycle at the Metropolitan Museum from 2010 – 2011, the Pacific Quartet is starting to release their studio recordings of the music, filled out with quartets by Shostakovich’s contemporaries (in this first set, the Miaskovsky String Quartet No. 13). If my memory is still reasonably functional, the studio results are even better than the concerts. This first volume spans Quartets No. 5 – No. 8, and the performances have a sinewy toughness and a real understanding of psychological and aesthetic shifts, both quick and subtle, inside the pieces. I really like their lean sound in all this music, and their convey a special haunting quality when the composer calls for con sordino playing. One of their great strengths as a group is violist Masumi Per Rostad, who is one of the finer quartet violists in classical music, and the beauty and musicality of his voice — so important to Shostakovich — really makes these recordings sing.

10. Matthew Jones and Michael Hampton, Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet (arr. Borisovsky): I find Prokofiev’s beloved ballet score has its longuers, but not on this recording. The arrangement, by the composer’s colleague Vadim Vasilyevich Borisovsky, is excellent, preserving and emphasizing the melodic inventiveness, and the performance by Jones and Hampton is tremendous. They play the music as if it’s the finest they’ve heard, and want to tell us the good news. Hampton is a sensitive and powerful accompanist, and Jones is a tremendous violists, with a beautiful, powerful and flexible sound. A real pleasure throughout.

11. Marek Janowski, Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, Henze Symphonies 3-5: Amid the fertile plains of Twentieth Century symphonies, Henze’s work stands out. His fascinating idiom constantly wrestles with the legacy of Romanticism in music, in a constantly shifting pas de deux of rejection and reconciliation. That gives his symphonies a compelling mixture of unsettling thrills and soothing moments of clarity and introspection. His own recordings of these works are an essential part of any classical library, and the thinking and playing from Janowski and orchestra are even better here. These works are no longer new, yet they are still fresh, and the time they’ve had to marinated in musicians minds and under their fingers pays off here. I hope these musicians will be recording the rest of this body of work, and if so the project will rival the current Edward Gardber Lutoslawski project as monuments to the most important music of the previous 100 years.

12. Chiara String Quartet, Jefferson Friedman: Quartets: These are fine pieces, Friedman’s voice is a really welcome exploration of what Romanticism means and how it sounds after post-Minimalism. The combination of ferver and agitation, and the balance between tonality and dissonance, the overall clear-speaking, is reminiscent of and and worthy addition to the great, important legacy of George Rochberg (see any and all of the Naxos and New World discography for his wonderful music), and, since this is New Amsterdam, you get remixes from Matmos!

13. Carlos Kalmar, Oregon Symphony, Music for a Time of War: I missed this program at the Spring For Music festival at Carnegie Hall in May, and it was the consensus pick as favorite concert. So it’s been a treat to listen to this SACD, from a series of life recordings from the orchestra’s home. It’s a great selection of music, pieces that have questions about existence, how we treat each other, how we view the future during times in which we may think there is none, from Ives’ existential “The Unanswered Question” to Vaughan Williams’ blistering Symphony No. 4. It’s not just a polemic — these are great pieces that stand on their own as works of beautiful art — but as a whole it does remind us that, despite the relative comforts of our lives, our country is not only at war but committed to being at war for … well, forever. We’ve become the very model of a Nineteenth Century decadent empire, and if the musicians are the only ones to ask the questions we need, then so be it. A riveting, moving way to get the mind racing with thoughts of how things are, and how they might be.

Honorable mention: Quatour Diotima, Agrippina, Ezio, Edward Gardner and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Kepler Quartet, Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Brad Lubman and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin

Speak, Memory

If it’s difficult at all to think of what to memorialize this Memorial Day, then start with Walt Whitman – today is the poet’s birthday.  The holiday began as Decoration Day, specifically to honor the Union dead in the American Civil War.  Whitman, who tended to so many wounded and dying soldiers, and created an essential American voice, is the ideal place to start.  And as the scales of DADT may actually be falling away from institutional eyes, it’s worth noting that Whitman was gay and a great patriot, a man on the side of the Republic against treason, a man on the side of American values against the right to forcibly enslave human beings because of the color of their skin.

Whitman also understood the idea of liberty far better than the so-called ‘libertarians’ and ‘conservatives’ who plague us in this country, people whose idea of liberty extends just to the dollar and no farther.  Liberty is this unpublished poem:

To What You Said (Whitman/Bernstein, sung by Thomas Hampson with Craig Rutenberg)

To what you said, passionately clasping my hand, this is my answer:
Though you have strayed hither, for my sake, you can never belong to me,
Nor I to you,
Behold the customary loves and friendships, the cold guards
I am that rough and simple person
I am he who kisses his comrade lightly on the lips at parting,
And I am one who is kissed in return,
I introduce that new American salute
Behold love choked, correct, polite, always suspicious
Behold the received models of the parlors –
What are they to me?
What to these young men that travel with me?

What are they to me?  Indeed, that is the essential question of liberty.  Money, the means to command others, to condemn anything that is different than me, to own other human beings, these things are nothing for anyone who believes in liberty, but those received models of the parlor are all to those who are cramped and choked in morals and values, to those who grasp only at material and secular power (and yes, wielding religion as propaganda in service to political power is as secular a goal there is).

So on this day, to truly honor memory, exercise liberty.  Ask, what are these things to me?  And if you want to listen to this idea of memory, then Charles Ives, another great and patriotic American who cared for his fellow citizens and gave them, those far less able and fortunate them him, the means to enjoy the reward of a lifetime of hard work (or what those opposed to liberty would call a socialist), has prepared a piece of music for you:

Man And Ives At Yale

Well . . . I minored in history. Not that I was going to be an historian, but I felt at the time a little understood desire to have some context for the things I hoped to look at and listen to in life. It’s made things more interesting and fulfilling for me, given experiences greater texture and pleasure, and helped me understand Charles Ives.

Not that anyone can truly understand Ives; his own context is self-made in an important way. He made his memories into a myth of his father, his boyhood and of America, and then made an American music out of those myths. His music is often bad and great simultaneously, full of things that don’t quite work and that don’t quite make sense musically. But the quality of his art, which is frequently full of exalted power, is almost secondary to the concepts, the attempts. Hearing Ives is hearing an artist who is trying to be like Zeus, and force his own Athena of American musical art out of his head and into the world.

He did this in part through, and later against, Yale, and Yale has abetted the honor through the work of Vivian Perlis and her Oral History of American Music project at the University. Forty years ago, Perlis interviewed Ives’ business partner Julian Myrick, and that began a career that has produced some of the most important histories of American composers, the stories they tell about themselves. By speaking with composers and those who knew them, Perlis has been able to produce biographical works about Ives and Aaron Copland, and the recent “Composers’ Voices from Ives to Ellington,” a collection from the OHAM archives and a beautiful document that includes two CDs worth of audio excerpts. The archives themselves have over 2,000 interviews collected from more than 900 subjects.

It’s a happy accident of history that Perlis came along in the 20th century, an era that saw the fast and deep maturity of American music and the growth of the technology that could record it. The music that composers make is in constant dialogue with history and Perlis’ work with living composers like Copland, Carter, Lou Harrison, Eubie Blake, Bernstein and Ellington made that conversation a piece of recorded history. A few weeks ago at Zankel Hall, the Yale in New York music series presented both those dialogues in honor of Perlis’ achievement.

The music on the program, curated by Artistic Director David Shifrin, all came from these subjects, American composers from Ives to Steve Reich. And for all but the first piece the performances were preceded by short video that both introduced the composers and showed portions of their interviews. Everything was well chosen. Historians of music may be familiar with Bernstein’s anecdote about how he would clear the room at parties by playing Copland’s Piano Variations, but to see the two men sitting with each other on a couch as Lenny tells the tale is enthralling. And while music lovers enjoy reading composers explaining their ideas and pieces, having them talk to someone about them, and to us, is fascinating and hones the anticipation for the performances.

The audience greeted Perlis with a standing ovation, and then the concert proper began with Ives’ From the Steeples and Mountains, capably played by a graduate student ensemble. Honed by the sense of occasion and history, the music sounded in this performance like a proto-version of Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten. Conductor William Purvis let the final tubular bells frequencies disappear completely into ravishing silence. After the film, the Piano Variations were next. The piece is a great example of the lesser-known, Modernist period of the composer and is a great work. The style is intellectually bracing, and Copland’s ideas and the way he works with his material is always completely transparent. Music like this, where the ear can follow exactly what’s happening, is fundamentally friendly, and Wei-Yi Yang gave a vibrant performance. The classical introduction was rounded out by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s Lament for Cello and Piano, a simple, expressive and very beautiful piece, played with a gorgeous tone by Lachezar Kostov, accompanied by Viktor Valkov.

Willie Ruff then carried his bass onstage and explained that his scheduled partner, Dwike Mitchell, had been involved in a little accident with a pizza deliveryman on a bicycle, and although was not seriously hurt was unable to perform. Fortunately, Richard Stoltzman was already on hand, and the two played an easy, elegant rendition of Blake’s Memories of You; bluesy and swinging. The clarinetist led off the second half with the finest performance of Steve Reich’s New York Counterpoint I’ve heard. He played with great freedom of pulse against the audio track, added subtle variations in phrasing to music where no such variation would seem possible, and swung and wailed through the last section. Stoltzman brought out the jazz in Reich.

The modern vein continued in very different directions with Dance with Shadows, a brass quintet from Jacob Druckman, and John Cage’s Third Construction for four percussionists. The Druckman piece starts off slowly, but develops a dancing, expressive style and has a vocalized language, full of humor. When it ends you wish it had gone on longer. Cage’s piece is one of his good actual compositions, with nimble, dancing rhythms and an irresistible playfulness. The score produces a great deal of melody out of the instruments, and graduate student ensemble played the piece with great verve and pleasure, tremendously fun to hear and watch. At the end, Perlis, greeted with a fanfare was saluted once again, with Fanfare for the Common Man. A sentimental choice, certainly, but appropriate. At times the trumpets seemed a little exposed in the ensemble, but the full sound of the brass was as resonant and powerful as the music requires. Part concert, part celebration, this was a great program of music and memories.

It is Ives I need to return to again, because this all starts with him; Yale, Perlis, American music. Everything about the program depends on Ives. And if any music fundamentally is about personal histories, those of the composers and those of listeners, it is songs, and Ives wrote a large number of songs, many of them great, most of them important. He put together a collection of those he thought best, 114 of them, and the music and recordings are easy to find. But he wrote many more, and Naxos, as part of their indispensible American Classics series, has recorded every one of them, divided in chronological order into six CDs. The large cast of singers are young and unknown, most more than capable. This is not for the casual Ives fan, of course, but at their budget price the recordings are essential for fans. There is so much of the composer’s own foundation in Brahms in the songs, and while the earliest ones may be derivative, there are no clunkers.

There’s also a fascinating recent recording from the singer Theo Bleckmann, with the group Kneebody. They take a dozen songs from Ives and arrange them in a style that’s a mélange of pop, jazz and rock. This kind of thing has been done just a bit and needs to be done more; Ives’ music is begging for someone to play around with, and I think the composer would approve. Not of every part of the CD, though. Sometimes the musicians play the songs fairly straight, the arrangements taking an obvious course, like on “At The River” and “The Housatonic at Stockbridge,” and everything in Ives’ biography screams that he would have wanted someone to mess around a hell of a lot more with his work than that. There is a lot of messing around, though, and the results can be extraordinary. The opening “Songs My Mother Taught Me” begins with some enticing radio noise, runs through a deceptively plain rendition, then marches through a sustained, plangent vamp that is powerful and satisfying. The short, angular songs “The Cage” and “The See’r” are fantastic, revealed as pieces of proto prog-rock, and the piano introduction to “The New River” is twenty seconds of the best, most idiomatic Ives’ playing on record. A little inconsistent, but this recording is so full of great ideas and music and is one of the most interesting things released in years. It makes the case that Charles Ives belongs in the Great American Songbook.

Updated: Video embed was lost in first posting.

Update II: Corrected a name and some details.