2016 Classical Releases—The Last Word

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In the course of a year, I listen to more jazz on record and hear more classical music in the concert hall. That’s a matter of circumstances; I would prefer that were reversed, but there are few opportunities for me to write about live jazz, and jazz venues are generally unwelcoming to the those without prestige credentials.. The New York Classical Review, or the other hand, gives me the opportunity to cover classical music performances, and before I started writing there, classical music venues were always been open to me as an independent critic.

This is the context for my relationship with recordings. While I’d prefer to get more of my jazz live, recordings are necessary to hear new musicians, and hear what players who aren’t getting gigs are doing.

For classical music, recordings can be puzzling. For new music, recordings are a logical and necessary means to document expansion of the tradition—likewise recordings of obscure but worthwhile music (there is still a lot of stuff like that from the Renaissance and Baroque eras). But for the standard repertoire, it’s often unclear why recordings are made. Do we need more recordings of the Beethoven symphonies, more Chopin Preludes, more Vivaldi Concertos? No, we do it. But we get them anyway.

This is the staple of the last vestiges of the big record labels, like Deutsche Gramophone sign a new a star performer and put them through the cycle of recording all the appropriate standard works. It makes sense for unique talents like Daniil Trifonov, who has many new ideas about older pieces. It makes less sense for even spectacular talents like Yuja Wang, who gives music unbelievable life in concert, but is it not rethinking anything. For solid but unsurprising musicians like Yannick Nézet-Séquin, it makes no sense.

This is because classical music, despite common perceptions, is a living art. Like plays from the past, the art needs to be performed and experienced in the moment. The sense of occasion, community, and time in the concert hall is entirely different than in the living room, and music is also made an entirely different way in the recording studio. Nézet-Séquin, at his best, leads performances that are exemplary renditions of what’s on the page. At his best, this makes for another fine recording. but the classical music discography general is clogged with fine recordings, and reissues are the best recordings from the past are plentiful and cheap.

So again, why make these, and why listen to them? Because Trifonov appears to be a musician of historical greatness, and it is exciting to witness him discovering his own thoughts about the tradition. Same is true for Murray Perahia’s CD of Bach’s French Suites-not only is his playing superb but his thinking is fresh (this recording was made for Sony as part of Perahia’s exploration of Bach, but the label dropped him without release it, and DG picked it up).

But even with exciting musicians like Trifonov and Igor Levitt, most of what comes from the big labels is exactly what you expect: more Brahms, more collections of arias, more cross-overs. Classical music is where the independent labels are more interesting, and more important, than in any other genre. Here are my continuing favorites with their best releases from 2016 and early 2017.

Harmonia Mundi is the home for some of the finest musicians in classical music and well-chosen repertory. This is where you’ll find recordings of Monteverdi’s and Mozart’s operas and Bach’s Passions, led by René Jacobs, that are among the finest and most important ever made and that should be part of your music library. The label is also where you’ll hear the fresh intelligence of musicians like fortepianist Kristian Bezuidenhout, violinist Isabelle Faust, pianist Alexander Melnikov, baritone Matthias Goerne, harpsichordist Richard Egarr, the Jerusalem String Quartet, and cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras. They put out a substantial number of period performance practice recordings, and also the beautiful contemporary choral music of Craig Hella Johnson. Here are some of the finest recent releases:

Bridge, founded by guitarist David Starobin, maintains a catalogue of under-represented common practice period composers, and specialized in comprehensive series from modern and contemporary composers. The most important of these is their recordings of music by Stefan Wolpe. Wolpe’s music comes out of early 20th century European modernism, but is really unclassifiable. He could write atonally, he could use popular music, theatrical elements, pretty much anything. His work is imaginative, expressive, made with refined, strong structures, and full of surprises. He was one of the finest composers of the 20th century, and had an important influence as a teacher once he emigrated to America. Other recommended series and 2016 releases:

ECM, while not originally a classical label, has now pioneered a new music style that is predominantly tonal, and mixes pre-baroque, minimalism, and improvisation, either as a collection or as a synthesis. And through contemporary composers like Steve Reich, Meredith Monk, and Arvo Pärt, they’ve used their New Series to explore both modern and common practice period repertory. While the results have been inconsistent—there’s some recordings of 19th and early 20th century music that are surprisingly poor, while Andras Schiff’s Beethoven Piano Sonatas cycle is full of fascinating thinking and draws one back again and again, and Gidon Kremer’s two collections of music by Mieczyslaw Weinberg have made an extraordinarily strong case for the composer—the label has completely filled the classical music niche that Nonesuch used to fill, and continues to expand in both the standard repertory and such extra-classical composed music as by Anouar Brahem and Tigran Mansurayn.

Winter & Winter is an addendum, but worth noting. Their classical releases are few but extremely well-chosen. They’ve produced interesting, but non-essential, recordings of modern and avant-garde music played by accordionist Teodoro Anzelotti, but of late have become the home for two major artists, Barbara Hannigan and Hans Abrahamsen. Their two Abrahamsen releases, Schnee and let me tell you, and Hannigan’s recording of Satie’s Socrate are must-haves.

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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.

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.

(Not So) Simple Music for a Complicated Time

Ram—on Casas Erik Satie (El bohemio; Poet of Montmartre), 1891 oil on canvas, 198.8 x 99.7 cm (78 1/4 x 39 1/4) Northwestern University Library
Ram—on Casas
Erik Satie (El bohemio; Poet of Montmartre), 1891
oil on canvas, 198.8 x 99.7 cm (78 1/4 x 39 1/4)
Northwestern University Library

No composer is as loved for all the wrong reasons (there must be a German word for that) than Erik Satie.

Now that we are in his sesquicentennial year (May 17, 1866 – July 1, 1925), promiscuous love is erupting all over. This listicle is indicative; no need to look past the title “Composer Erik Satie Was So Much Weirder Than You Realize”—Satie as an object for those who make a fetish of an eccentricity or quirkiness that stands in opposition to their consumerism.

I imagine Satie would have enjoyed that attention, though in his particular irreverent and ironic way. Quite the opposite of eccentric, he was acutely aware of his audiences and his social milieu, and had the calculating self-consciousness to present himself to differently to each audience asthe bohemian, the mystic, the bourgeois master. Those were guises, uniforms, and they continue to effect those who lack the curiosity to hear the music itself. And I do mean hear: another complete misapprehension is that Satie created simple background music, like a naïve outsider artist.

Satie was a skilled composer who put in the hard hours. His music is made with exceptional rigor—the apparent simplicity is a challenge to pull off. Repetition of minimal material is the easiest thing to do as a composer and one of the hardest things to do well, and to make interesting.

He is both graced with and suffers from music that Virgil Thomson said “…can be enjoyed and appreciated without any knowledge of the history of music.” The result is that millions and millions of people have heard and loved the Gymnopédies, or an arrangement of the Gnossiennes on the soundtrack of Diva, and maybe a few tens of thousands of people have heard one piece beyond that (His catalogue is substantial. Maybe a few thousand have listened through all this works).

Satie, the pop-cult figure, was also Satie, the serious and important artist. As anniversary seasons tend to do in classical music, this one has seen a good number of new and collected releases that treat his legacy seriously and show many different facets of his work. (I recommend the Erik Satie volume in Reaction Book’s Critical Lives series as a fine, compact biographical and critical introduction.)

Because we all know them, the Gymnopédies are the place to start. Even already interested listeners will likely be surprised to find that there is an interpretive argument over this music, that seems so lovely and simple. The nub is captured by the title of a relatively recent release, Satie Slowly.

Satie Slowly

This is a fascinating collection of piano pieces put out by Philip Corner, who makes the argument that musicians, like the great Aldo Ciccolini, have been playing Satie too fast for decades. And technically he’s not wrong. The tempo most commonly heard from pianists is moderato, a kind of slow stroll. Yet the markings for the Gymnopédies are, respectively, lent et douloureux, lent et triste, lent et grave. Faster tempos brighten the music, and while that is pleasing in and of itself, Satie wanted sadness and seriousness, there can be no argument over that.

 

 

The flaw in Corner’s recording is that he is not that good a pianist, he can demonstrate the argument but he can’t quite make it work; playing slowly is more difficult than playing quickly, it means phrasing, not agility, has to work, and phrasing is the thing that separates the greats from the also-rans.

Jeroen van Veen is a great pianist who has no such problems with Satie. He has recorded all of Satie’s piano music on the Brilliant Classics label, and it is fantastic, superseding all previous collections, including those from Ciccolini (yes, I have loved it too) and more recent ones from Jean-Yves Thibaudet, et al. At $8.99 for digital (CDs are also available), it is also the finest value in the Satie discography.

Van Veen plays the music slowly, more slowly than Corner, with exceptionally graceful, limpid phrasing. Each line and the accompanying counterpoint flows along like a gentle, mesmerizing country stream, rippling steadily. In great sound, this set is utterly gorgeous and completely fulfilling, making and winning the implicit argument that this is all great music.

Van Veen has also accomplished the seemingly impossible, of producing a complete recording of Vexations, all 840 repetitions, sitting at and playing the piano straight through for 23 hours and 51 minutes.

This may seem a stunt, the piece a gimmick, and some people think so. An article at Hyperallergic, “Why Composers Make Music to Drive Us Insane” takes as its premise that the music is nothing but an effect. But it’s a report on a rumor, something someone heard about, like taking an urban myth seriously. It’s about an attitude about Vexations, because the writer has never experienced the entire work.

If the music was ever to drive anyone mad, is was Satie himself. Written in the difficult aftermath of a failed love affair, it is tonal but unsettled, packed with diminished chords and with a solo theme that hints at constant modulation. This harmonic ambiguity, free of Wagnerian drama and without inherent meaning, is the epitome of Satie’s art. The command of 840 repetitions is a natural part of his irreverence, and there is more than a little wisdom in the idea of constant repetition of a harmless, meaningless task as a way to soothe the mind and soul. It turns out to be surprisingly easy and pleasurable to have Vexations playing for 24 hours—the music not only is lovely, but the constant flow makes for an actual realization of the musique d’ameublement concept, especially because the digital files are played from an object that is part of our contemporary furniture.

There are other excellent new recordings of Satie. Noriko Ogawa’s first volume of Satie’s piano music (on the Bis label), has something of a superficial gimmick: she plays the music on Satie’s own piano. But like Corner and van Veen, she has thought this through.

Her approach is the fast one, and it is superb and absolutely convincing. Ogawa’s approach to rhythm—different than any I’ve heard with Satie—shows how to make a quicker pace work. Like van Veen, her phrasing is terrific, and Satie’s piano turns out to be far drier than the one’s contemporary ears are used to, as well as far drier than those heard on other Satie recordings (you’d think that Satie indicated reverb in all his scores for the way they are engineered). All these elements combine in a view that is a revelation for the composer’s construction of rhythm and pulse; his scores often eschewed bar lines, and Ozawa’s is pretty much the only playing I’ve heard that makes the music sound that way. This is essential as Van Veen’s take.

Satie also wrote songs, many of them stepping out of the classical tradition and into the popular styles as they existed in the theater and dance hall in turn of the century Paris. He also wrote Socrate, a work for voice and piano (or voice and orchestra) he ironically called a “Symphonic drama.” It may be better known as the springboard for John Cage’s Cheap Imitations (Cage was a deep admirer of Satie and made a two-piano arrangement of Socrate).

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Soprano Barbara Hannigan has recorded the piece, accompanied by Reinbert de Leeuw, and it is another exceptional new release in the Satie discography (Reaching this point, I’ve reached the conclusion that there was a consensus in the musical zeitgeist to rethink Satie, go back to his core, and present him anew, and van Veen, Ogawa, and Hannigan have made that happen). This is a lovely recording all around, sung and played with simple grace, and it filled out by two other sets of songs and by Hymne. Absolutely recommended on its own qualities, not just for the value of hearing some of Satie’s vocal music.

These new recordings don’t invalidate the older ones, Ciccolini and Pascal Rogé still deliver pleasures. And Sony has dug through their considerable back catalogue and put out a superb 13 CD collection, Erik Satie & Friends – Original Albums Collection. This is one of the most enjoyable archival releases of the past few years. It is Satie, with a generous helping of piano, vocal, and orchestral music, and friends (or at least colleagues); there are pieces by Debussy, Ravel, Ibert, Milhaud, and others, with the special highlight being Francis Poulenc. Poulenc was indeed a true friend, and he is represented both as composer and artist, playing his own piano music and that of Satie.

Those albums are particularly wonderful, but so is everything else in one way or another. There is something special about hearing the great pianist Robert Casadesus and his wife Gaby playing Satie, or Regine Crespin singing his songs. Those performances represent how at one time the composer was at the core of the modern, and especially French, repertory. The new thinking noted above should bring about his return.

If you’re in New York December 13, you can catch Anthony de Mare and other pianists presenting “The Velvet Gentleman: Eric Satie at 150,” at the Sheen Center

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

Opera

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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

Reissues

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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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Einstein On The Beach

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

The complete Einstein on the Beach in the production seen at BAM in 2012. You’re welcome.

One Two Three Four

One Two Three Four Five Six

One Two Three Four Five Six Seven Eight

[These are the days my friends these are the days my friends]

Two Three Four Five Six Seven Eight

Four

Three Four Five Six

Three Four Five SIx Seven Eight

[Will it get some wind for the sailboat] Three Four Five Six Seven Eight

One Two Three Four Five Six . . .

. . . We sit in the audience, and watch and listen to Einstein play his violin. The sound comes to us in waves. Einstein sits at the beach, playing his violin, producing waves of sound. He sits at the beach, Einstein, playing the violin as the waves come in. The waves come into the beach as Einstein sits there, playing the violin. The waves come in, and the waves come out. And the violin. And Einstein. And the beach. And we sit in the audience, watching the waves come in and Einstein waving the bow and the waves and sound come into us in the audience. And we sit in the audience and see this all in terms of waves, just as we hear this all in terms of waves, just as the waves come into Einstein on the beach. . .

It’s not easy to experience Einstein on the Beach, that grand collaboration between Philip Glass and Robert Wilson, live on stage, and I mean that in both senses. It premiered in 1976, and then was revived twice at BAM, in 1984 and 1992. It’s fortunate then that I’ve moved back to New York City, where as a surprise the Philip Glass ensemble gave a concert performance of the work at Carnegie Hall in December 2007, roughly marking its 30th anniversary. The performance was wonderful, and left me not so much curious as why it’s such an infrequent event – opera is an enormous and enormously expensive undertaking, after all – but why, a generation later, this work stand so much alone.

It’s puzzling. Glass is arguably the most well known living composer on the planet. He has enormous appeal outside of the world of contemporary classical music, with fans and followers who ordinarily are only interested in rock music. He’s got an increasing number of scores for an increasing number of increasingly popular and well-known films. He’s produce a rock band, Polyrock, and recently collaborated, wonderfully, with Leonard Cohen on the excellent Book of Longing. And, while his work can be uneven and certainly repetitive (no, that’s not a joke; when Glass is weak he falls back on repeating too much previous repetitive material) his operas are a substantial body of work, the first three especially are stunning masterpieces, and Einstein on the Beach is one of the most important works of music for the dramatic stage ever created and one of the most important artistic achievements of the previous century. It opens the door to many areas of exploration and innovation, even more now than 30 years ago, yet no one working in classical music drama, in opera, seems to have gone through any of those doors. A mystery.

Now seems the time for composers to open those doors. What Glass and Wilson did in creating Einstein, and what they could not have realized they were doing at the time, is create a work for operatic stage that demonstrates the strengths and possibilities of art in the digital age.

No, the opera is not made or performed with computers. One of the pleasures of the concert was the ensemble coordination and energy, the dramatic feeling of change when the human voices of the chorus enter, singing something as simple as a sequence of numbers, the physical pleasure of a sustained tenor saxophone solo over pumping keyboard arpeggios, the dry calm of Lucinda Childs and Melvin Van Peebles recitations and Tim Fain’s passionate violin playing in the various “Knee Plays.” The Philip Glass Ensemble is based around electronic keyboards, but his work is completely made for human performance. It’s the style and content of the opera, it’s structure, that matter. Glass’s composing style can also be described as digital in nature. He works with discrete loops of melody, counterpoint and chords and builds small and large-scale pieces by fitting those blocks together – on top of each other, next to each other, cantilevered. His rhythmic augmentation and diminution changes only the relative duration of these blocks, their contents are constant (this gives his work an episodic structure that is not unlike Bruckner, although with a very different sense of time and activity). Digital processes work in a similar fashion; software performs its functions by accessing instructions sets built into a computer’s microprocessor. These sets include instructions for performing operations based in arithmetic, logic, data or program control instructions, and depending on the complexity of a particular action they can be chained together in discrete units to function as directed.

Einstein himself is a figure in the opera, not just in the title, as he sits on stage, playing the violin. Superficially, the work seems to have nothing to do with Einstein’s great breakthroughs in theoretical physics. But the nature of the opera does elide with one of the most important contributions of the scientist. Not the Theory of Relativity, without which the man would never have reached the height of fame from which operas are made, but his conception of light as both particle and wave, simultaneously.

We hear sound as a wave, which is what it is, cycles rolling through the air to tickle our ears, just as we watch waves themselves roll in from the ocean to meet us at the beach, the place where land and sea occupy the same space simultaneously. And if what we hear, from our computer speakers for example, or through our ear-buds, is a wave then what we see is also a wave, one that conveys quanta of particles to our eyes. In terms of what comes off our computer monitors and our television and movie screens, the waves and packets of light from the former are produced via digital technology, through a process of the quantization of discrete bits of information. The words I am just this moment writing, via my keyboard interface, onto the simulation of a piece of paper on my computer screen, are translations in digital quanta from the interface to an image, which recreates them into a simulation of something that I am familiar with, words on a physical page. Until such time as I produce this information on a physical page, these are not really words, but it’s necessary for my computer to interpret my desires to produce these exact words in such a way that I can read them and recognize them, so that I can know if I have actually executed what I intended. The screen is the wave, roughly, of my own production of digital quanta.

This digitization means that I can also take words I have written, or am writing, or will write, and copy them to other locations, move them forward or back, cut them from here and put them there instead. I can even create blank space going forward, down the page, or into the future, if you will, since I need to advance from one particular point, the present, into a point further along, the future. Through the means of digital technology, I can take the idea from my head which is ideally conveyed and best understood in a linear sense, in the logical and orderly presentation of one thing after another, as in a clear plot in a story, and make the same passage discontinuous. Does that necessarily destroy the meaning I mean to convey?

I cut them from here and put them there instead. I will write or, have written, or am writing, and copy them to other locations, passage discontinuous. Does that necessarily destroy the meaning I mean to convey? Move them forward or back I can take the idea from my head, digitization means that I can also take words can even create blank space going forward, down the page, or into the future, if you will. This, which is ideally conveyed and best understood in a linear sense, since I need to advance from one particular point. Through the means of digital technology, the present, into a point further along, the future, in the logical and orderly presentation of one thing after another, as in a clear plot in a story, and make the same.

It doesn’t read in a standard way, but it does express the idea, both in content and in style, even though that style would not ordinarily be accepted as successful. That is, not only does the discontinuity of the altered passage convey the same idea, but also the fact that it conveys the ideas through discontinuous means integrates the content and the style and proves the argument. Einstein on the Beach does this same thing musically, although I don’t believe that Philip Glass and Robert Wilson intended to demonstrate that an opera could be made based on the ideas of information theory. However, that this work can be seen even more effectively through the perspective of the next generation of audiences is a great measure of its artistic success and value.

The opera does not present drama in any conventional sense. There is no story. There are essentially no characters, although there are people who speak, dance and sing. The work presents a rotating sequence of set pieces, repetitive in the nature of Glass’s music. The pieces themselves begin at a particular point and end, since time argues they must, but the opera as a whole has no beginning and end. It starts, has duration, and then ends. But that doesn’t mean that Einstein is empty. Rather, it is full of content, or what in this case is better to call information. It is full of dramatic information, although it makes no arguments towards the meaning of that information, or even they way that information could be considered. The scenes come in discrete quanta, and this structure says more about Einstein then even the title or the work, or the crazy-haired figure with the violin. How we take these quanta is up to us. Every member of the audience can replace and reorder the particular scenes in our own preferred way, and then reorder them at will up to the limits of our memory and our interest. Einstein on the Beach is a means to convey dramatic information to the audience, and the audience has the responsibility, for good or ill, to determine just what the drama is. Fellini’s “Nights of Cabiria” produces a similar result, with a narrative of events that seem to follow each other at random, until the final scene ties the entire skein together with emotional concision and power. But that is a movie, and absolutely constrained by the physical limits of film spooling through a projector. And whether it is a movie or the opera, this is by no means easy to accomplish. The order of the work can be rearranged and yet the structure is never anything less than ironclad.

While that is a way the opera can be experienced in performance, and a way which Glass and Wilson encourage audiences to experience it by suggesting that, during a complete performance, people should feel free to wander in and out of the theater as needed during the five hours or so it takes to run through the entire work. Not everyone will actually experience the work this way, however, not all opera-goers want the responsibility of imposing their own structural order on the work they are encountering. Since this is now the digital age, however, anyone with a computer, an internet connection and an account at the iTunes store can indeed experience it just this way, they can literally impose their own order on the work by downloading or importing the work and making their own playlist out of it. The iTunes software is really nothing more than a database, and the flexibility and power of a relational database on a digital platform, even one as minor-league as iTunes, is an astonishing technological change from 30 years ago. It’s a new context which brings out so much more of the inherent quality and power of Einstein.

The iTunes database really begs the question of what composers are doing, or not doing, or missing, when it comes to the possibility of structuring dramatic pieces. iTunes, as a free application, is everywhere, and millions of users have music loaded, or downloaded, into their database. Millions of users/listeners can, at will order and combine individual tracks in any genre available digitally into absolutely any order and structure they desire. It is the mix tape on steroids, crystal-meth and peyote. The means of making the highest quality mix tape – choosing a variety of music and its order, and ensuring that the duration would fit into each side of a 60 or 90 minute cassette, and then taking real time to record that exact duration of music on the tape and most likely having to repeat the process, LP and CD by LP and CD, for each copy of the mix tape – ensured a frequently overly-obsessive attention to the details of song content, style, genre and aesthetic flow from track to track, with the ultimate didactic point of the track order losing focus and direction around the end of side A, never to be recovered . . . With iTunes, a playlist of hundreds, thousands of tracks can be created within seconds or minutes by dragging and dropping tracks, dragging tracks to reorder, listening to fragments of the beginning, middle and end of each track to discern the content and context. Or, with properly obsessive attention to each detail of the database of each track of music in iTunes, a ‘smart’ playlist, which contains every track that contains one or more pre-determined criteria, can be created almost instantaneously. Whether the contents and the results are mundane or thrilling, the technology makes each user/listener an all-powerful impresario of their own database of digital music. Contemporary composers have all the same tools, especially the conceptual ones, to consider their own dramatic materials with the same power and ruthlessness.

Outside of opera, however, there is music that is specifically meant to be re-thought and reordered by each listener, independent of other listeners. This is possible because the music was created for reproduction on a ubiquitous bit of digital technology, the iPod. International Cloud Atlas is a set of pieces for performances by Merce Cunningham’s dance group that were composed and recorded by Mikel Rouse. In performance, each audience member was given an iPod with the music pre-loaded and encouraged to listen to the one hour set with the shuffle feature on, so that the iPod would randomly choose among the ten tracks, and ideally do so in a different random order for as many listeners as possible. Each listener thereby gets a different listening experience from the same piece, and so a very different concert and performance experience within the same context. The same music can be reordered again, at home, via the iTunes database, so that a specific re-ordering can be created out of the listeners’ desire. Rouse’s music is certainly not opera, and his idiom is very much a popular one, with a progressive rock flavor, but International Cloud Atlas is a work for the stage and one that consciously exploits the opportunities available with current music making and reproduction technology, and is a descendant of close relatives of Einstein on the Beach.

Another contemporary musician working with the some of the ideas Einstein suggests and which have become more familiar and pervasive through time is John Zorn. A large part of his work is specifically narrative, though not in any traditional sense. His particular aesthetic sense is filtered through his full-throttle embrace of contemporary culture, with all it’s obviousness and paraphilia, and he has produced a number of abstractly narrative works that use procedures borrowed from and inspired by his love for his cultural environment, like Godard/Spillane , in which the titles say it all. These two works feature brief and highly varied bits of music that follow one in another in rapid and immediate succession, without any consideration of musical transitions of any type.

Unfortunately, each is recorded to a single track and so there’s no way to parse out the subsections into an iTunes database and then reorder them at will, or at the whim of the applications shuffle function. This seems a bit of a shame, since Zorn’s music seems to call out for this treatment, but then again perhaps the random sound world of the pieces is a result of an exacting idea of order and structure. So we are back, not unhappily, at taking the explicit and non-variable and re-creating our own sense of narrative and drama. He takes the film editing of Godard, the tough-guy writing of Mickey Spillane and a musical style and structure learned directly from the slap-dash-bang turn-on-a-dime quick change of cartoon music. Writing about Carl Stalling, the composer of Warner Brothers cartoon music, 1936-1958, Zorn has this to say: “Separating the music from the images it was created to support, it becomes clear that Stalling was one of the most revolutionary visionaries in American music – especially in his conception of time. In following the visual logic of screen action rather than the traditional rules of musical form (development, theme and variations, etc.), Stalling created a radical compositional arc unprecedented in the history of music. . . . No musical style seemed beyond his reach – and his willingness to include them, any and all, whenever necessary (and never gratuitously, I might add) implies an openness – a non-hierarchical musical overview – typical of today’s younger composers, but all too rare before the mid-1960s. All genres of music are equal – no one is inherently better than the other – and with Stalling, all are embraced and spit out in a format closer to Burroughs’ cut-ups, or Godard’s film editing of the 60’s, than to anything happening in the 40’s.” It’s not opera, but he does craft a style of musical juxtaposition and discontinuity that belongs explicitly to the aesthetics of the digital age.

Zorn has not applied this technique to opera, though, and while Rouse has written several hybrid rock-contemporary music operas, they have a linear narrative and musical structure. In the classical field there are contemporary composers who are working with some mix of ideas of dramatic music, contemporary experiences and the ideas and the means of digital technology. Some of this even makes explicit claims to be opera. However much the individual pieces or complete bodies of work may succeed on their own terms, or succeed in laying claims to the contemporary milieu, they fail in terms of opera, and thus fail the results that this argument seeks.

It’s the cut-and-paste idea that, for good or ill, is missing from opera. It’s a musical idea, a technique, so not inherently better or worse than other styles of 20th century music; Neo-Classsicism, Serialism, Aleatory. We’re in a new century now, and digital technology has become so pervasive that it’s easy to overlook the larger, conceptual possibilities it affords. It’s perhaps a human inclination to concentrate on the large-scale, the surprising and the extraordinary. Those certainly grab our attention, and do so dramatically. But we have computers everywhere in the contemporary world, and we use them constantly for personal ease, interest, pleasure – not to mention how many of us have been earning our living with computers and technology. That too should prompt our attentions.

Digital technology gives us portability of media, but, like most computers and their applications, there is a high ceiling of untapped power and possibilities. This portability also has important implications for the structure or opera, again showing a way towards ideas that have yet to be exploited in opera but that are ubiquitous in the experience of contemporary life. If the digital world is one where anything – a photo, a CD, this essay – can be chopped into discrete bits and rearranged so that the same elements have an entirely new effect, then opera can be structured to take advantage of this. An opera of discrete elements, interrelated but each self-contained, can take advantage of digital technology in two important ways; it can be re-ordered at each performance so that the experience and drama could differ without any loss of coherence, and it could be presented to the audience through digital media so that they may re-order the same material in their own ways, recomposing the same structure to find their own meaning and satisfaction in the composer’s material and ideas. This is music as information technology, and the stage – whatever or wherever it may be at this point – is the information media. The new tools of digital technology make this feasible and even easy, but the idea itself should not seem startling because music itself is a form of information, and music notation on manuscript paper is nothing but information technology; it conveys a set of instructions with which musicians produce music. Digital technology is not a better form of this for music, but it is a different one, and just as useful. If Richard Taruskin can write a valid history of music that begins with the start of notation – a means to share musical information beyond hearing in both space and time – then this age awaits the understanding of just how much more musical information can be shared in so many more ways.

First in a series of several articles

The Artist, Hero

 

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Gustave Courbet, Self-Portrait (The Desperate Man)

 

Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony, the “Eroica,” premiered the night of April 7, 1805. And thus began Romanticism, with what sounds, still, like cannon fire.

If the Classic style of Vienna presents the composers thoughts on music in the form of a Haydn Sonata or a Mozart Serenade, the Romantic style presents the composers thoughts about . . . everything. It is not, “listen to my music,” but “listen to me.” A command, an imperative. And Beethoven begins not at the periphery of this idea, but at the core. In the “Eroica,” Beethoven demands that we consider what he means, and what he means he does not exactly know – he means many things, all at the same time, and many of which disagree amongst themselves. In other words, Beethoven is the artist not as Platonic ideal, but as human being.

This is a part of the “heroic” style which begins with him. Another component of it is the endurance, but not always the triumph, of the human spirit against general adversity and especially internal conflict. The title of the work tells the tale – a crisis of belief without a neat resolution. Beethoven was no admirer of France, but did see in Napoleon Bonaparte the possibility of an Enlightenment Revolution sweeping across Europe. He initially thought of dedicating the work the work to Bonaparte, but as his biographer Maynard Solomon relates, he began to have his doubts when that meant losing a fee from one of his patrons, then was further enraged by Bonaparte declaring himself Emperor. That story is well know, as least apocryphally. The tale continues, though. After completion, Beethoven still considered calling the symphony Bonaparte, and the work did not received the title Eroica until 1806. It had become the symphonic depiction of an abstract “Hero.”

This matters, because the work presents a world of musical, intellectual and emotional conflict; sensation, hope, turmoil, questions without answers, a conclusion but not necessarily a resolution and, most of all, it juxtaposes life and death and describes a journey from one to the other and back again. Romanticism! It is a hero’s life and thoughts, and we can think of that hero as Bonaparte. I had been thrilled by the verve, pathos and passion of the symphony, but it didn’t mean much to me until I read Anthony Burgess’s incredible Napoleon Symphony, a novel that is quite faithfully modeled after the music. The marcia funebre takes on a new life when the narrative depiction is of a group of freezing French soldiers trying to make their way back alive from the gates of Moscow in 1812.

But what Beethoven ultimately felt about Bonaparte was ambivalence, and the symphony is anything but that. It is conflicted to the nth degree. It’s an internal portrait of a hero who is really just a man. Beethoven easily fits that, but so can we all. This heroic idea has nothing to do with power, fame or notoriety, or even the current decadent idea of heroism that ‘conservatives’ are so enthralled by. This is heroism as the daily struggle between human impulse and indulgence and our ethical and moral sense, the struggle to find our place in the community and the universe, and at least do no harm.

The work bursts with energy and seems to wander into traps and travails, falling into extremely unstable dissonance almost at the beginning, and following nothing like Classic harmonic structure – it smashes materials against each other which cannot fit together in any way, and then stands briefly, looking at their shards, before turning with a sigh towards some random direction and, hopefully, some light. And that’s just the first movement. The funeral march is heavy with the tread of pall-bearers accompanying the casket, carries some wistful memories of happier times, before falling apart in grief. The scherzo is a wild, almost drunken peasant dance, interrupted by the distant hunting horns of the aristocracy. The finale is Beethoven himself, impudently making fun of a peer, turning the other’s banal melody into a moving finale via a dazzling set of variations. Musically, this comes through clearly in an excellent new recording led by Andrew Manze with the Helsinborg Symphony:

I find the tempos ideal. There is a tremendous effect at the opening, where the opening chords are played with the force that implies a fast pace, and one is left anticipating the second chord, which builds immediate tension. This is a reading where the music really speaks for itself, and the small size of the orchestra allows clarity of internal detail. I’ve never heard the kind of delineation of dissonance in the internal voices as with this performance. Manze seems to be viewing this work from a point in the Classic period, and is full of subtle wonder about the shift in possibility the symphony produces. The newness is there.

Michael Tilson Thomas also covers the work in great musical detail. Between the two conductors, one can get quite an education into what makes the Eroica revolutionary. My own thought is that with this work, you have an idea that becomes essential to Romantic music, which is of music as a memory art. The Classical style, generally, describes a musical journey from a home key and back again. It is the journey of a technique. The Romantic style describes a personal journey, mainly between degrees of light and dark, and frequently between life and death. The territory covered is internal, and the method is through memory – the hero can only return to life by recalling moments, experiences, joys and sorrows, and by that means reconstitute himself again. This is true in Berlioz, who could not exist without Beethoven, and in the art of Courbet, who himself only cares about telling you what he thinks, whether in the famous self-portrait above or this wonderful one of himself as a Communard, rueful and self-mocking:

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The terrific Courbet exhibition at the Met includes the famous portrait the painter did of Berlioz, and relates that the composer did not like the painter at all. Two willful artists together, not surprising. It’s a great picture though, the composer full of the same type of creative conflict and turmoil that Beethoven used as his fuel. We admire, even exalt their work, and frequently disparage their personalities, expecting some kind of easy, shallow psychological correlation between the ‘goodness’ of art and that of the people who produce it. But this is based on a strange idea of goodness – a combination of saintliness and agreeability. Beethoven was not a saint, and often not particularly agreeable. He was a man, and that makes him the artist, Hero.