Recording of the Week: Spektral Quartet, Serious Business

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Spektral Quartet; Serious Business

Clara Lyon & Austin Wulliman, violins, Doyle Armbrust, viola, Russell Rolen, cello

Comedy isn’t pretty. Nor is it easy. And humor in music might be the hardest of all.

I’m not introducing Serious Business (release date January 29) this way to dismiss it or say it’s bad, but to begin to point out that there is a gap between what Spektral Quartet argues about the record and what it actually does. This is not per se a negative gap—although that depends on the listener—but the difference between what a work claims for itself and how it reaches the listener is what criticism is all about.

Violist Doyle Armbrust’s liner notes begin, “This is not funny.” True, there’s nothing to make one laugh, but it is humorous. Half of this album is built around music that upends expected notions in light and dark ways—call it slapstick—and the other half has an explicit imprint of comedy.

The former, musical, humor comes via Sky Macklay’s Many Many Cadences and Haydn’s String Quartet Op. 33, No. 2. Macklay’s piece is terrific—I’m partial to the concept, which it seems to me originates in baroque ornamentation, of musical lines moving energetically towards a cadence but never quiet getting there. She breaks her’s up with staggered rhythms, and the music disintegrates into an infighting and sniping. Well though, well made, I’d love to hear more music like this.

Hayn’s quartet is known as “The Joke,” because in the last movement it has several false endings. He never imagined the possibility of recordings, and the joke comes across better in person (location joke?), but it’s a wonderful piece, well-played by Spektral.

The latter two pieces are the ones that don’t come across as planned. David Reminick’s The Ancestral Mousetrap is a series of fragments that has the members of the quartet reading/singing absurd text by Russell Edson. Spektral handles this decently, but the music comes off as a bizarre and distant-feeling narrative. I imagine the tension that this type of performing puts into performers is part of Reminick’s conception, but more skillful speaking and singing might make the piece funner. Comedy is hard.

The closer is Hack, by Chris Fisher-Lochhead. Apparently, the foundation for the music is the composer’s transcriptions of jokes and routines by sixteen different commedians, from Lenny Bruce to Robin Williams to Rodney Dangerfield to Sarah Silverman to Tig Notaro. Apparently, because there’s no way to hear this, it just doesn’t come through. What you get is an abstract piece made up of a lot of small fragments. It feels vaguely like Webern, but the tonality is different: dissonant, at times sonically dense aphorisms. This is not bad music at all, in fact it’s tightly put together and all the playing is top-shelf. But it is serious business.

Serious Business comes in a two-disc package, one audio CD and one Blu-Ray Audio DVD that also holds mp3, WAV, and FLAC versions of the recording


Hot Weather Music

No songs-of-summer-commercial-pap-to-get-you-to-buy-beer here, but Summer music, music old and new that I listen to in the hot weather. This is a pretty personal list, it comes out of how I want music to make my mind feel in the middle of a heat wave like we just had, and it’s inseparable from my NY City days of early summer manhood, when summer was also a time to discover new things because I wanted to spend as little time as possible in my hot, horrible, SRO room. Music that offers cool clarity or the galvanizing energy and hope of youth.

  • Don Cherry, Home Boy. I can’t say this enough, avant-garde jazz musicians make the best funky music, and this is one of Cherry’s finest recordings. “Avenue A Avenue B Avenue C Avenue D / Ain’t no E now.”
  • Max Goberman conducting the Vienna State Opera Orchestra, The Symphonies of Haydn. This is an excellent set from a conductor who is now essentially forgotten, but was instrumental in bringing more life and attention to these great works. He died before he could record all of the symphonies, but this is a substantial selection, and the thinking and playing exceeds the famous Dorati set.
  • Billy Bragg and Wilco, Mermaid Avenue, The Complete Sessions. A fundamental component in a good music library.
  • Grant Green, Idle Moments. Cooler than cool, hipper than hip. Beautiful and soulful.
  • Wes Montgomery, In the Beginning. A terrific find. A set of recordings from live dates with various musicians lost to time, but the music is swinging and strong. Montgomery is undervalued in our era, and these dates catch him in his youth (1949-58), and his playing is terrific, exciting and pleasing. Sound quality is a little stuffy but the music exceeds that.

  • Jordi Savall conducting La Capella Reial de Catalunya, Monteverdi: L’Orfeo
  • Helmut Koch conducting the Kammerorchester Berlin, Monteverdi: L’Orfeo
  • August Wenzinger conducting Orchester der “Sommerlichen Musiktage Hitzacker 1955”, Monteverdi: L’Orfeo
    • A Monteverdi kick? Not really. I have been thinking a lot about opera, trying to finish writing something, but I listen to L’Orfeo every month, and everyone who claims a love for opera and/or a desire to write operas should be doing the same. L’Orfeo does everything that operas do, from the beginning of the form, and does these things better than everything but a small handful of other operas. The piece is also open to important interpretation, and so it is rewarding to have multiple versions on hand. Of these, Savall’s is newly released, though was recorded several years ago, and is terrific. Even better, in my opinion, are the two historic recordings. The playing and singing don’t have the same knowledge and skill that you’ll hear today, but in the 1950s Monteverdi was essentially unknown, and Koch and Wenzinger’s recordings have the fulfilling sensation of discovery, and are just fascinating and moving to hear.
  • Sonic Youth, Daydream Nation. The real last word on the Tompkins Park riot, and the death of an era.
  • Nordic Affect, Clockworking. Brand new, cool and brilliant. A fascinating and involving set of new chamber music with that particular, contemporary Nordic touch: ineffable yet steely.

  • Egberto Gismonti and Nana Vasconcelos, Duas Vozes. A special record from two unique musicians, a series of duets, loosely formed, that are soothing and dream-like, then coalesce into substantial song. One of my all-time favorites.

Playlist, the Week of Zorn

A crowd to hear Zorn at Met Museum
A crowd to hear Zorn at Met Museum

A long, strange week that began with the socially and musically grand opening of the Met Opera’s Eugene Onegin and ended with several miles of wandering with a crowd through the galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, catching a broad range of the music of John Zorn. In between, gripping and illuminating concerts of Zorn’s chamber music and game pieces at Miller Theatre (as of this posting, mine are the only reviews of these concerts available anywhere). In the few moments of downtime I had at home, this is what I was spinning:

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May Playlist

Recommended recordings, new and old:

Jacob Garchik, The Heavens: The Atheist Gospel Trombone Album – hate to be a tease, but you’re going to have to wait until July 31 to get your hands on this wonderful recording, but do get your hands on it. This is a solo disc from Garchik where he overdubs on trombone, sousaphone, baritone and alto horn and slide trumpet, playing all original pieces. In the brief notes he writes of his deep love for gospel music, and the set of nine tracks — making a loosely connected suite — has a sound deep in the sanctified music of Africa-American churches. But as the subtitle might indicate, there’s less liturgy here and a lot more Lester Bowie. This sounds to me like a personal and very strong response to Bowie’s Brass Fantasy, respectful but not imitative. Like Bowie, the music goes back to the pre-jazz brass band tradition and brings out the sweet, sweating stew of funk and soul and blues from that. The sound is rich and mellow, and Garchik’s ability to articulate on each horn adds a rhythmic kick that obviates the drums of a string bass. It’s fun, truly soulful, quite beautiful, really touches the heart and the feet. The essence of tasty and satisfying music and one of the best discs of 2012.

Look for the release at his site, iTunes, Bandcamp and CD Baby, and in the meantime download his free album, At Play. And mark your calendars for the July 25 CD release show at Shapeshifter Lab. Garchik will be joined by Josh Roseman, Curtis Hasselbring, Matt Musselman, Alan Ferber and Curtis Fowlkes, plus brass and drums rhythm, and it’s gonna be ‘bone heaven.

Public Image Ltd, This is Pil – Fresh, renewed and same as they ever where. The promo video only gives the slightest hint of how great this record is.
Ravel, Daphnis et Chloé, Bernard Haitink, London Philharmonic Orchestra, John Alldis Choir – Haitink is a musician for whom I needed to develop the proper maturity to appreciate. That’s no knock on him, but on me. Sane, sober, with intellectual and musical control over large scale structure and pace, he’s at his best in music that is inherently full of orchestral color. Where his Beethoven might be solid but not earth-shattering, his Shostakovitch, Mahler, Bruckner, Stravinsky and Debussy are usually excellent, the conductor seeming to step aside and allow the music to unfold, when of course he is actually guiding that direction and clarifying the textures. This concert recording from 1979 is an example of him at his finest, and one of the finest archives of Ravel’s masterwork (it has almost entirely supplanted my previous favorites from Boulez and Dutoit). The circumstances make it ideal, perhaps, with the excitement and passion of the live setting enhancing the clear and pleasingly upfront engineering. True to his strengths, there is a great feeling of pace here, everything flows, neither dragging or rushing. Haitink doesn’t indulge anything but the composer’s wishes, which means that a structure that under other conductor’s batons can seem illogical and arbitrary hear sounds airtight. This is ballet music, and this is the first pure recording of the piece I’ve heard that gives it the rhythmic clarity and spring that one can imagine dancers moving to. Intense moments are powerful without be brittle, and the exhalation of the “Lever du jour” is both magical and earthy. A first choice for this piece.

Here’s some older footage of Wolfgang Sawallisch and Philly to whet your appetite:

Haydn: Complete Symphonies — Because it’s been feeling like summer lately, and summertime is Haydn time. Essential works in Western classical music, never a dull moment across 100+(!!!!) symphonies. The two sets from Antal Dorati and Adam Fischer are each absolutely masterful, get them both if you can, flip a coin or go by price if you can’t.
Byron Janis, Chopin Collection – brilliant and mesmerizing playing from this great pianist. He ravishes you with discipline and entices you with what he withholds.

The Music of the Spheres


Music and space have gone together since, if not the dawning of music and astronomy, then since the dawn of civilization. One of the things that keep us looking up at the night sky is the cyclical regularity of the planets and stars, and music is based in that same sense of regularity. The fundamental unit of music, sound, is a wave that flows through cycles, just as the planets, moons and stars fall eternally through their own – you can listen here. It is the regularity of sound waves that makes music coherent and it is the regularity of the stars and the seasons that make the daunting heavens seem almost comforting.

So it should not be unusual or surprising that space music has existed for a lot longer than Hearts of Space. Space music landed in New York City last month in exciting and imaginative ways, and turned the premiere place for space into a music venue and the premiere concert hall into a place for an extraterrestrial journey.

The Hayden Planetarium at the Museum of Natural History is the place to travel through the heavens, and itself seems like an object that has descended from space, it’s calm grey sphere seeming to float in it’s enormous glass case. It was in the Planetarium that Gotham Chamber Opera presented a lively and imaginative production of Haydn’s opera Il Mondo Della Luna. The piece was an imaginative choice to being with, as Haydn is not known for his operas, which are mediocre at best. Il Mondo Della Luna is an example of his both his better operatic work and the problems with the genre. Basically, as a composer he was a genius of the abstract forms of the Classical era but not able to speak expressively in the characterization in music that opera demands. This work is full of charming music and overall verve and is more acceptable because the demands it makes on drama are barely existent. It’s the story of a fake astrologer (a redundancy) Ecclitico (sung by Nicholas Coppolo) and his friends Ernesto and Cecco (Timothy Kuhn and Matthew Tuell) who trick a patriarch, Buonafede (Marco Nisticò), into thinking he has travelled to the Moon, where a fake ruler, Cecco, declares that Buonafede’s daughter’s, Flaminia and Clarice (Albina Shagimuratova and Hanan Alattar), and his maid, Lisetta (Rachel Calloway), must be married to their love interests. Everything is fake; everyone lives happily ever after – opera!

Pictured (left to right): Matthew Tuell (back), Albina Shagimuratova, Marco Nisticò, Hanan Alattar; Photo by Richard Termine

But even the slightest material can be done well, presented with energy and ideas, and Gotham Chamber Opera did this extremely well. The idea of putting an about a supposed trip to the moon inside a sphere was both gimmicky, in an attractive way, and smart, it was singing under a rotating sphere of stars. A small opera company working a short season has limited resources, so how do they stage such a trip? By using a combination of the video resources inherent at a planetarium and adding appropriate touches of stagecraft; Buonafede travels to the Moon through a moving field of stars, while wearing a NASA-type spacesuit, a brilliant touch (all the costumes, both representations of 18th century dress and stylized space outfits that showed the influence of 1960’s go-go culture, were smartly and attractively designed by Anka Lupes). The video and production design, by Philip Bussmann, was often spectacular and at times dazzled so much that it briefly overwhelmed the rest of the proceedings, and those, the direction and the performances by the singers, were the things that made Il Mondo Della Luna a complete delight. The stage, as it were, was the space on the floor from which the Zeiss projector ascends, surrounded on three sides by audience seating and on the fourth backed by the orchestra (they played modern instruments under Neal Goren, with Lydia Brown’s harpsichord as the recitative continuo, and sounded very bright and thin under the curvature of the dome, which lacks reverb and is not the best acoustic environment – the only drawback to the space). The performing space was tiny with the audience small and close by. Diane Paulus’ direction made use of it as much vertically as horizontally, characters clambered up and down rolling ladders and on and off tables and it was the kind of simple and committed exploitation of a limitation, turning it into an advantage, that marks the best direction. There was a bit of trite Supremes-style grrl-power choreography, but mainly the staging made everything interesting, the singers were active and the characters were alive. This was also opera as close-up as one is likely to experience, and having people in costume singing that close is both tremendous fun for the audience and does a tremendous service to the work. Without having to apply resources towards projecting from a broad, deep stage, across an orchestra pit and into a multi-tiered hall, the singers were free to move and act as well, to perform the roles, and the quality of characterization from the entire cast was excellent and one of the pleasures of the production. Coppolo was witty and charming as Ecclitico, who one wants to root for, Nisticò expressed the right balance of buffoonery, dignity and sympathy as Buonafede and Rachel Calloway was the finest of a fine cast, singing beautifully and also expressing a vivacious sex-appeal. Il Mondo Della Luna is not a great opera but this was a great production, one of the most consistently pleasurable opera performances I’ve seen. Gotham Chamber Opera deserves a lot of praise as an organization. They had the good taste to choose a comic opera (it’s my contention that comic operas are not performed enough, when they are frequently skillful works that bring out the best in performers and the imaginations of directors), and the brilliant gimmick of using the Planetarium. There is a gradually and steadily building audience for opera, and small companies putting on performances in unexpected places is a part of that; by doing so they attract curious patrons interested in the novelty of the setting, and the quality and sheer fun of productions like this will bring them back.

Another way to bring people into the concert hall is to show a movie, and that’s what the Houston Symphony, led by Hans Graf, did at Carnegie Hall. The centerpiece of their concert, just a few days after Il Mondo Della Luna, was a performance of Holst’s The Planets accompanied by a beautiful high definition film by Duncan Copp using images from NASA, which toured the planets of our solar system. The twist is that Holst’s music, especially the first movement “Mars, The Bringer of War,” or derivatives of it, has been used countless times as accompaniment to movies. The piece vies with Carmina Burana as the most frequently ripped-off classical music used in the movies.

The Planets is also one of the few pieces of classical music popular outside of the classical world, and deservedly so. It is colorful, energetic, entertaining and inventive and it belies what Ravel said about his own Bolero, that it was a masterpiece that contained no music, in that it is a great piece of music in its own right, with some of the finest orchestration in the literature. That evening, the entire program was an exercise in the colors of sound, as Graf opened the concert with Stravinsky’s Scherzo fantastique, Op. 3, from the time when the composer was a successful protégé of Rimsky-Korsakov, with all the “Oriental” flavors that implies. He finished the first half whith Henri Dutilleux’s beautiful and mysterious Timbres, espace, mouvemet ou La Nuit étoilée. His orchestra has a finely etched, lean sound, a little less powerful than the biggest name American orchestras, and they played this music well. The opening piece was lively, crisp and clear, with good shadings of color and dynamics, the second work was impressively well-tuned, which is vital in this music where color is produced through the combinations of different types of instruments playing at precise intervals from each other. Dutilleux has the ability to create weightless and timeless forms that are captivating, and while his style clearly comes from origins in the music of Debussy, he’s an individual and a Modernist, and an exceptional artist. He makes complex, non-traditional music sound alluring to the ear, and that’s a special sensibility, not unlike Stravinsky’s. Graf emphasized, to my ears, the elements of the Russian’s Agon found in the first section of the Frenchman’s piece.

The weight of the orchestra was balanced fully in the main piece, which at times should be, and was, satisfyingly loud. From the opening threatening quintuple meter the combination of music and film was exciting, even thrilling. The music moved forward malevolently while on the screen the image of Mars rushed towards us, and the animation of the Mars Rover mission landing in its bundle of comical balloons, then bouncing and rolling was invigorating. The movie continued in this vein, with dramatic fly-by scenes of the planets; a gorgeous false color depiction of Venus, the stately grandeur of Jupiter and it’s fascinating moons Europa and Ganymede, the mesmerizing grandeur of Saturn, then the growing mysteries of the outer gas giants, Uranus and Neptune. The music is an imagined travelogue from an Earth-bound composer, based in human mythology, but the combination of this with the actual images of the celestial bodies reinforces what a great imagination Holst had. Venus may be not be a hottie but truly an inferno, Mercury an obstinate hard ball, but the gentle beauty of the music matched the lovely image on-screen, and there’s nothing so mercurial as the orbit of that planet. The gas giants are more protean, literally without cores in some instances but also enticing and inscrutable, canvases on which to paint or own imaginations. Holst gives us his, and Copp has given the composer the honors. The experience of this event was not like watching a movie with soundtrack; it was that of listening to the performance and savoring the accompanying images. The nature of the event clearly brought a lot of new faces into Carnegie Hall, always a good thing for orchestral music, and the collaboration between symphony and scientists is polished and impressive. Excellent music making from conductor and musicians, and an excellent idea, especially appropriate for this year of 2010.

Summer Music

This is a good month for exciting new music – I’ll be following up the previous post with reviews of the new Sonic Youth, Jim Black and Alas No Axis, Renee Jacobs Idomeneo, the new Steve Lehman disc and the latest from Kurt Elling. Right now, I want to emphasize a great reissue and bargain; Decca is re-releaseing the complete Haydn Symphonies led by Antal Dorati, and it’s available at a great price at CD Universe, less than $2 a disc.

Just as an avid reader should have a good dictionary, so should a music lover of any and all genres have a set of the Haydn Symphonies; they are a cornerstone of the last 250 years of music, laying down a structural and stylistic path for the symphonic form that survives still. And the music is simply great – pithy, transparent, witty, subtle, lively, passionate. It cleans out the ears with each listen as it refreshes our knowledge and experience of how music works. As for the actual recordings, this is a landmark project that has possibly been equalled but never surpassed. The performances are sharp, incisive and musical, with a bright sound. During the summer months I find myself listening to this set again and and again, and you will too.