Improvisation

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.

Recording of the Week: Bloodmist, Sheen

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Bloodmist: Sheen

In a way, I’ve been waiting for a record like this since I first heard the Last Exit debut album back in 1986. The record was notable for being free improvisation played in the style of metal and hardcore. It opened up a door that John Zorn, most prominently, went through, with bands like Painkiller. But it also promised a push toward abstraction that never really materialized, except in the general sense with Sunn O))).

Bloodmist has fulfilled this dream, and more, with their debut release. The band is clarinetist Jeremiah Cymerman, guitarist Mario Diaz De Leon (both of whom are developing promising careers as contemporary composers), and bassist Toby Driver. The band’s name and the record title implies dark metal, a sense of malevolence, and the music doesn’t disappoint in that regard, but the style is not at all what you are expecting. The atmosphere is indeed dark and heavy, but the actual music-making is full of space.

This is a particular kind of space—this is free improvisation, and each of the musicians concentrates more on listening to each other than on playing. The space, which is substantial, is fibrous, woven out of echoes and reverberations of previous sounds, stitched with the anticipation of what might come next. And what comes next is consistently surprising and satisfying. The playing is so full of care, so intelligent, so refined, that the music is extremely beautiful. This is not only one of the heaviest records I’ve heard in years, but one of the most beautiful ones.

The final track, “The Mad Road,” has the kind of pretentious, clichéd, obviously dark spoken narrative that I commonly find puerile and embarrassing. It’s a measure of how much I love this record that I gladly listen through the whole thing, and start it again.

Sheen is available on CD through 5049 Records, or digitally through Amazon or iTunes.

Recording of the Week: Ches Smith, The Bell

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The Bell

Ches Smith, percussion

Craig Taborn, piano

Mat Maneri, viola

The first sound is a bell, to which the piano responds subtly. The immediate feeling is ritualistic, an event that will take place outside of the normal flow of time, whether from one point to the next during the day, or from beginning to resolution in music.

What follows is a series of improvisations that are either free or draped around structures that are as minimal as a single phrase. Smith is known for his powerful drumming, but here he uses the kit impressionistically, and also plays some tuned percussion. He does lay down some flowing rhythms, but this record isn’t about tunes and songs, it’s about working with space via musical responses.

This is high-level group group playing, with Smith, Taborn, and Maneri working together and together work with silence. Everyone has interesting things to say, and everything is musically succinct and dense with information. The music is not necessarily pretty but it is beautiful, because it’s so full of ideas and makes such solid, though fleeting, structures out of thin air. Comparable in quality and effect to the great Paul Bley/Jimmy Giuffre/Steve Swallow records on Owl, this music is less outgoing but still completely engrossing. From those first chiming sounds flows a steady sequence of imagination. Superb in every way.

Catch this group at the Rubin Museum of Art, March 25

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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Personal Best: 2015

I’ve done my official list of the best classical and jazz recordings of 2015, and now here’s my personal one—the records that as a non-critical listener I simply enjoyed the most. That’s out of 600 or so new recordings I listened to in 2015. 600. Actually more …

There’s an arbitrary, top-12 separation, one for each month of the year, and then forty more releases to follow, which all means that I’d be glad to listen to one of these, and nothing else, for an entire week.

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Personal Best—One for Every Month

  • Charenee Wade: Offering. I am mystified why this record got so little critical attention. This is Wade’s tribute to Gil Scott-Heron, which she realizes through elegant, musical arrangements of his songs. This is affecting music with a terrific band (some of the names are Lonnie Plaxico, Dave Stryker, and Stefon Harris), perhaps the trouble with it is that no one expects Scott-Heron’s songs to be so fine and so powerful without his inimitable delivery. Well, the songs are that good, and Wade’s singing clothes their substantial force in loveliness.
  • José James: Yesterday I Had the Blues. This record grew on me. What at first seemed to be polite, slightly rote renditions of songs Billie Holiday made famous revealed iteself gradually to be a record of depth and individuality. James voice is beautiful, and his expression is subtle and plangent. Then there are Jason Moran’s scintillainting voicings underneath. A mesmerizing record that both comforts and abrades.
  • Le Berger: Music for Guitar and Patience. A barely describable of long, quietly jangling pieces for guitar with sound processing. Free to some extent, but ordered around specific explorations of space and timbre. Completely transporting and effective.
  • Hieroglyphic Being & J.I.T.U. Ahn-Sahm-Buhl: We Are Not The First. The antidote to The Epic. The strange thing for me is that after the exuberant structural and formal freedom of To Pimp a Butterfly and You’re Dead, Kamasi Washington’s album would be so aesthetically and musically staid and conservative. This recording, with contributions from Marshall Allen to Shelley Hirsch, is wild, exploratory, leaping off a platform of funk into the uncharted future of African American music. Further confirmation that Sun Ra’s The Singles is the Rossetta Stone of American vernacular music.
  • Fossil Aerosol Mining Project: The Day 1982 Contaminated 1971. No one can say who will be left to hear the voices we leave behind, but Fossil Aerosol Mining Project has, for many years now, been exploring the possible sounds of the future’s past. Enveloping, both disturbing and comforting, it’s exciting that this mysterious ensemble has returned to making new music.
  • Pyramid: A Northern Meadow. My tastes in metal are admittedly specialized: I want a solid wall of deep sound and something other than thudding four-square drumming and cookie-monster style vocals. That’s surprisingly difficult to find, but this superb record checks all the boxes, and does so much more.

https://bandcamp.com/EmbeddedPlayer/album=462904211/size=small/bgcol=ffffff/linkcol=0687f5/track=2219665286/transparent=true/

  • C. Duncan: Architect. One of the most sheerly beautiful pop records I have ever heard. Duncan’s song-craft and production are excellent, and his musical phrasing and vocal timbre are gorgeous. You can get the CD or LP soon from Amazon, or get the digital now at Bandcamp.
  • Kill West: Smoke Beach. Something like Pyramids, but different; psychadelic drone-rock from Brazil, with a darkly warm shoegazy sound, insinuating vocals, and a real groove on every track.
  • Jon Mueller: A Magnetic Center. Experimentation that is impossible to pigeon-hole and is exciting. Mueller’s record is made with nothing more than percussion and his own voice. He produces a multi-tracked glossolalia that, combined with the mesmerizing, repetitive beats, creates the feeling of an ancient ritual buried deep within the mind. Odd, abstract, and obsessive in the first few minutes, the experience becomes deep, stunning, and transformative.

https://bandcamp.com/EmbeddedPlayer/album=2875186250/size=small/bgcol=ffffff/linkcol=0687f5/track=3138450192/transparent=true/

  • Alessandro Cortini: Risveglio. The development of cheap, powerful CPUs has produced a parallel development of powerful music and sound production software. Cortini, one of the most interesting contemporary electronic musicians, instead used what are now vintage pieces of hardware—the Roland 202 monophonic synthesizer/sequencer, and TB303 bass synthesizer/sequencer, combined with a delay. As with all great music, what is seemingly a limitation turns out to be a vast resource of imagination.
  • Aine O’Dwyer: Music for Church Cleaners Vol. I and II. A series of serene and expressive organ improvisations, made after-hours in the presence of the women cleaning the churches. O’Dwyer’s playing seeks its own statement while she also accepts the requests of her accidental audiences to not, for example, “stay on one note for a long time.” The music is lovely on its own, and the atmosphere gives it a unique frisson of live performance.
  • Brian Harnetty: Rawhead & Bloodybones. Not the usual archival release from Dust-to-Digital, but new music from composer Harnetty. He combines samples of music and spoken audio from both the Berea College Appalachian Sound Archives and the Sun Ra/El Saturn Creative Audio Archive, and to the prerecorded music he adds original, acoustic touches. This is a dialogue between past and present, memory and action, grisly, strange, and compelling.

https://bandcamp.com/EmbeddedPlayer/album=3328528751/size=small/bgcol=ffffff/linkcol=0687f5/track=1931696979/transparent=true/

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Personal Best—Music for Every Week

  • Adoption Tapes: Walks on the Beach.
  • Aidan Baker: Ecpliptic Plane.
  • SONAR: Black Light.
  • High aura’d & Mike Shiflet: Awake.
  • Lucia Roberts: I’m Just Dreaming.
  • Chris Pitsiokos Trio: Gordian Twine.
  • Craw: 1993-1997.
  • Kristoffer Oustad: Filth Haven.
  • Kate Carr, I had myself a nuclear spring.
  • Makaya McCraven: In the Moment.
  • Stephan Mathieu: Before Nostromo.
  • David Torn: Only Sky.
  • Steve Roach: Skeleton Keys.
  • Anouar Brahem: Souvenance.
  • Patrick Higgins: Bachanalia.
  • Steve M. Miller: Between Noise and Silence.
  • Tim Coster: Where to Be – Vol. 1.
  • Various Artists: Excavated Shellac: Reeds.
  • Laddio Bolocko: Live and Unreleased 1997-2000.
  • Andrew Weathers Ensemble: Fuck Everybody, You Can Do Anything.
  • Premature Burial: The Conjuring.
  • William Ryan Fritch: Revisionist.
  • Maxfield Gast: Ogopogo.
  • Wume: Maintain.
  • Dommengang: Everybody’s Boogie.
  • Kreasi Gong Kebyar: ASTI-Denpassar-Bali.
  • pjs: Harvest.
  • Head Dress: Recordings for Ensoniq Fizmo Vol. 1.
  • Boduf Songs: Stench of Exist.
  • Bill Seaman: f (noir).
  • Rafael Anton Irissari: A Fragile Geography.
  • 300 Basses: Tria Atoma.
  • BOAN: Mentiras.
  • Kim Cass: Kim Cass.
  • Andrew Bernstein: Cult Appeal.
  • William Basinksi & Richard Chartier: Divertissement.
  • Josh Mason: Alone in the Kingdom.
  • Mogador: Overflow Pool.
  • Schnellertollermeier: X.
  • The Sebastians: Night Scenes from the Ospedale.

 

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Best New Music Albums 2014

Best Downtown Music 2014

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

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

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

  • Dave Seidel, ~60Hz. As pure as music gets. Seidel’s pieces are made by combing sine waves and letting them play. Engrossing and gorgeous.
  • John Supko, Bill Seaman, s_traits. This record is astonishing. I’ll refer you to Marshall Yarbrough’s article for the details, but this upends every idea of structure and form and makes it work. Hard stop listening to.
  • No Lands, Negative Space. A prime example of the possibilities of electronic music: this band’s debut (mainly it’s Michael Hammond), is as abstract as Ussachevsky and as appealing as Tangerine Dream. Excellent.
  • Guenter Schlienz, Loop Studies. A haunting exploration of looped acoustic instruments and electronics. The music seems to be coming from the type of future that the past imagined would arrive. (https://sinkcds.bandcamp.com/album/loop-studies)
  • Philip White, Documents. Plastic, complex sound produced from the raw musical data extracted from a series of well-known, popular recordings. (https://philipwhite.bandcamp.com)
  • Michael Pisaro, Continuum Unbound. Field recordings and instrumental music, listening across the three discs is a transporting experience. (http://michaelpisaro.blogspot.com/2014/05/continuum-unbound-fall-2014.html)
  • Rand Steiger, A Menacing Plume. Electro-acoustic works with a classical feel of modernism. Steiger is fine composer and the pieces, including the superb title work and Résonateur, are played expertly by Talea Ensemble.
  • Jacob Cooper, Silver Threads. There are many projects that combine voice and electronics, but they are rarely as accomplished as this set of electronic art songs, with the terrific Mellissa Hughes singing.
  • Juan Bianco, Nuestro Tiempo. Electronic music from Cuba that might have been a mere object of curiosity, but Bianco, who was unknown to me when this arrived, is a serious and excellent composer, with a sense of vitality.
  • Faures, Continental Drift. Like atmospheric haze composed of tiny, shiny crystals; pristine, warm, enveloping. (https://homenormal.bandcamp.com/album/continental-drift)
This is not the type of music in which there are frequent reissues, but notable this year is a Cello Anthology, a box set of four CDs with a beautiful, thick book. This collects performances and biographical information of the new music cellist Charlotte Moorman, without whom the musical landscape would be very different and far more impoverished. 

Best Music 2012: Outside-The-Lines

There are times when you put a CD into your computer to rip it into iTunes, and it shows up in your library as the genre Unclassifiable. The databases behind iTunes are pop oriented so they’re easily confused by something that might need an artist and a composer in the tables. But there are times when the music has a slippery style, with familiar elements but a quality that can’t be succinctly pinned down. That’s when music is often at its best.

Genre categories are both meaningless and useful: they tell us little about the music but give us a way to frame the idiom. This is a list of music from this year that I think is great but that doesn’t either fall into the large categories of jazz and classical. There are familiar pop styles, and it’s something like the “beyond’ category that downbeat magazine has us critics vote on. In my case, this is music that I tend to listen to with broadly similar ears, with the expectation that there’s going to be the type of direct, physical impact that is an essential part of good rock music.

http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?lt1=_blank&bc1=000000&IS2=1&bg1=FFFFFF&fc1=000000&lc1=0000FF&t=thbicibl-20&o=1&p=8&l=as4&m=amazon&f=ifr&ref=ss_til&asins=B008DWFZOI 1. Tin Hat, the rain is handsome animal. The artists formally known as the Tin Hat Trio, augmented with great Bay Area clarinetist Ben Goldberg, have put out a record of songs (with instrumental interludes) that set poetry of e.e. cummings. The poet’s work has been popular with twentieth century composers, including John Cage, Ned Rorem, Leanord Bernstein, Aaron Copland and Luciano Berio; a formidable group of and an equally formidable body of work. It may initially seem unfair to add this record to that company, but I’m sure the legacy of those composers will survive, because these are the finest settings of cummings I have ever heard. This is a record of vernacular art songs, a rare combination of coherent poetic abstraction, musical lyricism and a physically pleasing and exciting sound. Any reader not familiar with Tin Hat should not imagine the music as stiff and structurally complex. These are songs in the pop sense but with the highest musical and intellectual sophistication: counterpoint, swinging tango rhythms, hot solos and plangent emotionalism. Smart, strong and often deeply beautiful, especially “Buffalo Bill,” which has the power of a rock anthem, with Carla Khilstedt singing from new heights of richness and confidence. Not only the top recording on this list, but the best recording I heard of any kind in 2012, bar none. Fantastic in every way.

2. The Crooked Jades, Bright Land. A very close second. One of the finest bands in the country, their new record is on the same high level as 2010’s exquisite Shining Darkness. Bluegrass of a very free style, with more than a little post-punk rockabilliy, the band makes music that carves out paths to the future, which is sorely needed in a landscape of indie-groups enthralled by a mythical past of ‘authentic’ white roots music. Bluegrass itself is a synthetic style that was created in the middle of the last century, and that is the true roots of American musical culture, creating something out of nothing other than the confidence that anything is permitted. By writing their own material and seeking to discover the things that might be possible, Compared to the wan ‘lite’ beer of their idiomatic peers, Wilco, this band is fine, high-proof rye whisky with a dash of tabasco. One of the great American bands and an excellent record.

3. Elliot Sharp’s Terraplane, Sky Road Songs. Simply no drop-off in achievement with this modern blues record, which I admit is in this arbitrary spot to satisfy a vague notion of fairness, as Sharp has a record in my top ten jazz list and will have one in my top ten classical list as well. Modern in the same way that Bright Land is modern: music that has a foundation of a familiar, even clichéd style. but is made by terrific musicians who also know how to play, and love, rock and jazz and funk and punk and even experimental music. The music has Sharp’s rare balance of muscular power, wit, love and irreverence and absolute clarity. There’s a great, satisfying swagger to the playing, a lot of it coming from Tracie Morris’ hard-edged vocals. Excellent as well.

4. Iron Dog, Interactive Album Rock. This trios’ previous record, field recordings 1, showed up unbidden in my mailbox a year or so ago. That this is the first I’ve written about it is because of how unusual and strong it is, and the excellent of the new disc has confirmed and clarified my initial response. This is an improvising group, with Sarah Bernstein playing violin and singing, Stuart Popejoy on bass guitar and Andrew Drury at the drums. They play with a specific kind of freedom, unchained by pop and even jazz notions of melody, harmony and phrasing, but their is a structural and sonic focus, a point, to every sound they make, and that point usually goes straight for the gut. It’s clear they listen closely to each other and think both quickly and imaginatively, and it’s also clear that they absolutely know what they are doing and what they indeed, there’s no existential angst. But this is all fancy talk, you have to hear this for yourself, because the music they make is a platonic ideal of experimentalism and punk-rock attitude. They start where Sonic Youth leaves off, and actually they start far beyond where Sonic Youth leaves off. Some of the most exciting and accessible abstract music you’ll find.

5. Neneh Cherry and The Thing, Cherrything. A close companion in a way to Interactive Album Rock, further proof that avant-garde jazz musicians (see: Don Cherry, Lester Bowie, Conjure) make the best pop music. A set of mostly covers that put the originals to shame: there is literally no comparison between the electronically overproduced pop and the gutty, sweaty, swaggering, sexual swagger of Neneh and the raunchy, raucous funk of The Thing. A dangerous record for dangerous times that are normally inundated with the safest kind of faux-transgressive pop.

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6. Public Image Limited, This is PiL. My feelings about this great new PiL record are much like the ones above, just replace the sex with a deep and necessary irreverence for the faddish musical consumer product that is the commercial arm of the ruling Establishment class. Music for those disaffected but still with hope and determination, tinged with adult loss and regret, built on that classic heavy beat.

7. Luce Trio, Pieces, Volume 1. John Potter’s Downland Project CDs have always beguiled and frustrated me. I love the tradition of idiomatic improvisation, and the possibility of approaching Dowland’s songs as if they are ‘tunes,’ with a fine singer and musicians who can do creative things within the possibilities of Elizabethan forms, yet with a modern sensibility, hints at a new universe of music-making. The results are constantly disappointing, though, as Potter, Barry Guy and the rest end up indulging in little more than atmospherics — they sound like a band that’s faking it. The Luce Trio is not faking it. This seemingly modest record is a real accomplishment, and the difference is that this group understands the music they are playing, whether it’s Bach or John De Lucia’s originals, and they maintain a clear musical focus. The players are secure in their idiomatic styles and say things that are surprising and make sense. Instead of wallowing in an infantile enthrallment to Bach, they make Bach new.

8. Maya Duneitz, John Edwards, Steven Noble, Cousin It. An appropriate bookend to the Iron Dog Interactive, this is another disc of refreshing, surprising improvisation. Acoustic where the other is heavily electric, and with a quiet and impish sense of subversion as opposed to aggressive iconoclasm. It sneaks up on you quickly and grabs your attention with it’s spaciousness, focus and wit. Admirable in every way.

9. William Brittelle, Loving the Chambered Nautilus. You can call this contemporary classical music, and you would be right, but I like this disc a lot, and I like it on this list even more because Brittelle is so interested in, and successful at, setting up the context of a formal and stylistic convention for his work and then demolishing that context before he gets to the final bars. Full of life, intelligence and questions, it’s out-of-the-ordinary music. And there’s a good song too.

10. Tim Hecker/Daniel Lopatin, Instrumental Tourist. A given for fans of both these musicians — and I’m a fan — this is a wonderful record of electronic music. The structures and abstract and without beats, but full of pulsations and physically palpable sounds. Each is an accomplished solo artist already, and they each bring a particular quality to this collaboration beyond their distinctive sonic signatures: Lopatin adds the plangent melancholy, and Hecker the sensation that the sounds begin in your brain-stem and explode, slowly, outward.

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Voting Often

If not early enough for some editors … One of the polls I take part in an annual one for the Spanish site El Intruso, and since it covers a cross-genre range of creative music it’s one of my favorites (and also since it is made up of a pretty tiny pool of critics, my oddball choices have greater weight). The poll will be published early next month, but here’s the ballot I sent in, with brief annotations. Everything on here is highly recommended for your listening and collecting pleasure:

Musician of the year – Elliott Sharp; Aggregat, Sky Road Songs, Cut With Occam’s Razor, and the publication of Foliage speak for themselves, with distinction.

Newcomer MusicianMariel Roberts; her excellent and excitingly varied debut recording puts her in the ‘cello goddess’ club.

Group of the yearTin Hat; their disc of e.e. cummings songs was the finest release of any kind in 2012.

Newcomer group – Maya Dunietz/John Edwards/Steve Noble trio; their Cousin It is outstanding improvisational music.

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Album of the year – Tin Hat; the rain is a handsome animal

Composer – Elliott Sharp

Drums – Mike Reed; two superb recordings under his leadership in 2012

BassJohn Hebert, the finest and most consistent ensemble partner I heard all year

Guitar – Shane Perlowin, of Ahleuchatistas

Piano – Kris Davis, in a way, a legacy pick, since her recent series of recordings make a far-reaching and beautiful body of work

Keyboards/synthesizer/organ – Sean Wayland; just listen to this

Saxophone – Hafezh Modirzadeh, breaking new ground with Post-Chromodal Out

Trumpet/CornetNate Wooley; seemingly on every creative recording of 2012

ClarinetBen Goldberg, great playing with Tin Hat, looking forward to his upcoming releases

TromboneJacob Garchik
Violin/Viola – Carla Khilstedt

Cello – Mariel Roberts

VibraphoneJason Adasiewicz; the Nate Wooley of the vibes

Female vocalsChristine Correa

Male Vocals – Kurt Elling, this holds true pretty much every year he puts out a record, and 1619 Broadway is one of his best.

Best live band – Henry Threadgill’s Zooid

Record LabelClean Feed, unsurpassed quality, unbelievable quantity

Against The Prevailing Order

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Joan La Barbara, © 2009 Mark Mahaney

Music inherently creates order out of, if not chaos, then nothingness. Whatever else a piece of music may do, or be about, it always has a structure of some kind, even if that structure is as minimal as starting at one point and ending at another; it delineates a segment of time and separates it from the endlessly broadening stream of life. Even the works of John Cage, which challenged established and artificial distinctions between music and sound, always develops a sense of order and are never entirely random. His aleatoric pieces are tightly structured, with chance used as a means to remove decisions about aesthetic details within a predetermined structure, and 4’33” is a work that succeeds, or fails, to the extent that the audience can apply their own order to the experience.

Improvising musicians know this. While they may cast about for material, like diviners, their art is about shaping that material in the moment into a structure that best expresses it. They are composers, laying out their process to an audience, willing to endure the experience of revealing the failures that are necessary to ultimate success. Improvising is the secret history of 20th Century Western classical music, something that was previously a feature of music making for centuries and then went underground. Up until seemingly the advent of recording the ability to improvise idiomatically, to make something up within a piece, if even just embellishment, was a fundamental part of being a competent musician. One of the pernicious side-effects of recording technology was the inadvertent codification of particular performance ideas, that other musicians sought to emulate slavishly over the years (an example is the rise of string vibrato, which is actually not a traditional technique), and that made improvisation into something ‘wrong;’ in graduate school I discovered a welcome and refreshing two bar interpolation by Alfred Brendel in the slow movement of the Mozart K. 488 Concerto, and was told by a theory teacher that he shouldn’t have done that. After World War II, the extreme extension of Schoenberg’s Serial technique into all aspects of composition, which developed into an overarching dogma, pushed improvisation further into the dustbin of history, or at least tried to. Musicians kept improvising, helped along by the development of free jazz, and composers like Earle Brown made music that could be both identifiable and different in every performance. An interesting ghetto of new music was created, populated by the lineage of Brown, Morton Feldman, Albert Ayler and Giacinto Scelsi, and including musicians like Robert Dick and Derek Bailey, the latter who exclusively improvised in performance.

Although improvisation is returning to the classical mainstream, especially through the work of Early Music practitioners like Jordi Savall, it’s still a small segment, even of new music. Younger composers seem, to a great extent, still preoccupied with standard ideas of order, which is understandable in that the great musical movement of their formative period, Minimalism, is highly structured on a microscopic level. It’s possible to pick a point on the spectrum between the extremes of musical ideas of order and then gauge where certain works lie. And it’s a constructive way to look at a disparate collection of new music, including some works in progress, presented recently at Le Poisson Rouge and Roulette.

The MATA Festival returned to LPR this year, with music from April 19 through April 22. Last year’s had a problem with order, a collection of good pieces that, when put together by the organizers, conveyed a disappointingly homogenous idea of new music. This year, variety was the thing, and it was refreshing to the ears and the reason for the festival’s aesthetic success. I ducked through the doors just as the music began on the 21st, and was truly stunned and delighted to hear the quiet, scattered, focused chattering of Ensemble Pamplemousse. It was the beginning of their exciting and fantastic set, a series of pieces from Rama Gottfried, Natacha Diels, Andrew Greenwald and David Broome. The pieces were different, but they concentrated on similar values and ideas of order; pointillism, active listening and response from all the musicians, controlled binding of seemingly random events into a directed purpose, and especially the sense that anything could happen, even failure. The sound world the music came out of is that of Varèse, Brown, Stockhausen and Helmut Lachenmann. It’s a style and concept that bridges the gap between the earliest conscious sounds humans made together and the most up to the moment exploration of musical possibilities. There may be discernable moments of tempo, rhythm, melody and harmony but those are secondary to the qualities of timbre and immediate communication with musical gestures; the briefest note on the violin is answered in the flute, and the space in time between the two looms like a singularity, the event horizon of each sound describing a moment with infinite possibilities, including infinite duration. Details in this music matter so much and are heard so clearly, a pitch held for a fraction of second longer than expected is heavy with meaning, an exhalation of breath is almost erotically moving.

Each of the composers worked within this aesthetic through different means. Diels’ Symbiosis II combined strictly notated rhythms with variously specific and generally notated pitches and timbres. It was enthrallingly delicate. On Structure II, by Greenwald, very closely coordinates the instruments of the ensemble while offering them various opportunities of choice in pitch material and timbre in a score that is carefully organized in terms of density of activity through time, with specific moments for pauses. Rama Gottfried’s Nest takes those techniques and to them adds sections of temporal freedom for the musicians and tosses in a Max/MSP patch played in a laptop, and David Broome’s The Grid is just that, a piece notated as a matrix of boxes, from which the musicians choose different actions to perform. Conceptually and technically, these means are not new, but they are incredibly fruitful and still underexplored and it’s exciting to see young composers making their way down this path. All musicians and composers fail while they practice or sketch out ideas, but very few are willing to make music that specifically allows for the opportunity of failure as part of its very structure, and the vivid concentration and relaxation it takes to play works like these kept the audience in rapt attention, waiting for the very next moment, wondering what might happen. And while it’s easy to surprise listeners and upend their anticipation, these pieces added the prized quality that everything made sense, and that success was inevitable.

Other musicians have been exploring this territory for decades. One of them, John King, has a new opera and a new CD on Tzadik with a release party at Roulette on May 15. The opera, Dice Thrown, is based on Mallarmé and has a structure that is organized by chance, and designed to be rearranged for each performance. His recording, 10 Mysteries, is also produced with chance techniques. King wrote the music for string quintet and he plays the viola in addition to the all-star Crucible quartet. The title piece, curiously in nine movements, is organized with multiple layers of chance; the instructions King gives the players are determined and ordered via an I Ching-based symbol generator, and the live electronic element also is guided by chance. The results are a combination of strictly composed phrases and events, improvised music and randomized material. Like the work of the Pamplemousse composers, this is music that relies on musicians who understand and are comfortable in this language, especially in King’s complex and sophisticated system, and these players are completely at home here. This is music that does not conform to any expected notion of how things should go, has an exhilarating strength of improvisation, and demands active, interested listening. Every moment of sound is clear to the ear, and even though the idiom is unique, there is always the sense that King has a coherent idea to express. Under the seemingly chaotic surface is a structure and a direction, the sound of a constructive argument being made among the musicians, and there are well-placed moments of contrast and even familiarity, like in the muted chorale of “Movement 5” and the cross-rhythms of “Movement 6.” The electronics toss the music back at the players, add density and complexity to the sound. There is something new to hear in each playing. Closing the CD are two additional pieces, Rivers of Fire and Winds of Blood, each more concentrated on a single idea than the larger work, but each still using chance, improvisation and the complex colorings of electronics as part of the process. These pieces, like the recording as a whole, straddle an evocative line between an Expressionistic sensibility and an experimental technique, and the results are attractively disorienting and gripping.

One of King’s peers, Joan La Barbara, presented an opera in progress, Angels, Demons and other Muses, with Ne(x)tworks as part of the Interpretations series at Roulette last week. Her stated goal is to produce an abstract work that conveys the struggle and process of artistic creation. How this will ultimately play out is not clear, as without knowing what might be currently missing from the piece it’s impossible to fairly judge it as a work that succeeds or fails at its goals, but the performance was involving and mysterious, with a sense of time and motion that seem appropriate for the subject and moments of dramatic music. The playing seemed to be about producing a dream state, or revealing one in a way that involved the audience, who were seated around various stations around the floor, surrounding the musician located at each. The score at violinist Cornelius Duffalo’s stand was a mix of instructions, set in a particular sequence, along with a few passages of specifically notated pitches and rhythms – a minor key scale here, a series of sustained notes there. La Barbara, wandering dreamily through the crowd, vocalizing into a hand-held mic, led the musicians through their cues. Her voice was reproduced on a surround sound speaker system, and the sense of her being both right there and everywhere tickled alluringly at the base of the neck.

Opera is drama, and because the experience of people singing their drama is artificial and abstract, interior drama is an ideal field. The interior artistic process is as abstract a human drama there is, perhaps even impossible to convey, and so Angels is a tremendously ambitious and challenging idea, and what was heard hints that it may work. It began with what could pass as an overture, with a crescendo of voice, percussive playing of the piano strings and a lamenting, minor key phrase passed around the strings. An audio file of sounds that could have represented both an interior and exterior environment bridged the piece to a quiet, pixilated part; this all could be heard as an interior journey. The emphasis was on texture and moods, extremely dreamlike, an effective representation of the wandering mind seeking insight. The sounds of the piece – and it is the timbres that mattered most – seemed to be excavated from the recesses of memory and imagination; the ensemble includes bells and a glass harmonica, and those instruments already have a mysterious psychoacoustic power to evoke memories, even false ones, and La Barbara adds some particular features, including the string players blowing into their F-holes and a striking moment when the players put down their instruments and pick up hats. They stage whispered into the crown, opening it up like a plunger mute on a trumpet, and with this technique wandered through the audience, whispering into people’s ears. I thought I could pick out the words ‘nemos’ and ‘fish,’ but perhaps that was my imagination playing tricks with me, which may indeed be the point. It was tantalizing.

After this, the music made a transition to a series of microtonal chords, the returned to the lamenting quality heard at the start. This sounded like a natural ending, a circumscribed expression of the essence of Romantic poetry, but the performance continued for a few more minutes, although with a loss of focus and invention. The structure of the music was best served when it was wandering and developing a landscape, while repetition seemed to add the weight of a frame that didn’t quite fit. The ideas and the music were involving, though, and this is a work that deserves a full performance.

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Yael Acher-Modiano

Angels was followed by more dramatic music that worked out ideas of structure and improvisation, an involving and powerful duet performance from flutist Yael Acher-Modiano and Irina-Kalina Goudeva, who danced, sang and played the bass, at times simultaneously. From the first vocalization by Goudeva from behind a curtain, the music and performance went without pause through a series of pieces by Acher-Modiano, Julia Tsenova and Bo Jøger, comprising Two-Walk: A Multi Media Electro-Acoustic Performance. The playing was committed and accomplished, but the music expressed a difficult aesthetic. This was, fundamentally, ritualistic but without the context of known ceremonies to gain some insight into significance and meaning. Goudeva caressed and seduced the bass in a soliloquy, then sang while accompanying herself with bowed and plucked notes. The ease of her playing was deeply impressive, but what she was playing seemed at a tangent to my experiences and comprehension. Acher walked in slowly from the wings, wearing a catlike mask and playing the flute; that it had a meaning was clear but the meaning itself was opaque. Her sound was frequently processed and in particular stretches she played along with a buzzing, beeping, burbling electronic accompaniment. Both women improvised expressively, seamlessly integrating their playing into the idiomatic structure of each piece. There were familiar sounding elements, especially a bluesy little flute line in Acher’s Audio Mirage, and a repeated fluttery figure she fell back on. Goudeva improvised on her instrument, her voice, and appeared to be making up text and abstract narrative on the spot during Shoshana Shelli (The Flower). But these elements were as disturbing to me as they were attractive and admirable; the flute sound was processed in such a way as to create a timbre that had a strong touch of the unnatural, the bass playing, singing and movement seemed to belong to a culture so alien as to be unearthly. The music was overwhelmingly affecting, but in an almost horrific way for me; I thought of Artaud, Huysmans, and a particular short story by Brian Evenson, which, in it’s combination of inventively baroque language and nightmarish subject, is constantly compelling and frightening in equal measure. An extraordinary performance, but not for everyone.

At LPR, there was also music with a more familiar sense of order. Tristan Perich took the stage after Ensemble Pamplemousse for qsqsqsqsqqqqqqqqq, for toy pianos and 1-bit chips. It was lively, intentionally naïve music, made simply with a slightly twisty, carefully structured melodic phrase and a basic harmonic structure. It was music for play. Lisa Moore followed at the common piano, playing pieces by Sam Adams, Timothy Andres, Julian Day, Missy Mazzoli and Paul Swartzel. These were all different in style and quality. Adams’ Two Step was interesting in that it seemed influenced by the playing of Brad Mehldau, and explored how a melody and structure can be taken apart, but didn’t go far enough. The opening fanfare hinted at disintegration, then the piece organized itself in standard ways with melody, harmony and rhythm. What was built was less interesting than hearing it being taken apart, however, the possibilities of disorder and destruction were the most interesting parts of the work and the least explored.

Day’s Bad Blood was standard post-Minimalism, repetition with a rock-ish attitude. He varied his rhythmic material a bit, but without enough imagination for a successful composition or with enough energy for a successful rock song. The Honky Tonk Toccata of Swartzel had a promising start, with the pianist clapping her hands and stamping her feet, then opened up into a very modern jazz tonality. The music was active and technically challenging, with the quality of a notated solo, but there was nothing honky tonk about it, and ended up a bit flat. Andres and Mazzoli’s works were very fine. The former, who has a CD coming out, has an intriguing piece in How Can I Live In Your World Of Ideas?, which seemed a response to Beethoven’s Op. 111. It opened with a beautiful harmonic cadence that was then interrupted by seemingly scattered music. This idea of an attempt at recreating Classical music and then interrupting it had an artful and intriguing self-consciousness about it. There was lots of good material that could have even been developed more. Mazzoli’s Orizzonte is another in a line of her works that continue to impress. The means are simple; piano with audio, the keyboard in harmony to the tonic of the audio, an emphasis on chords in the phrases. Her interest in harmony is a consistent feature of her music, and something that sets her apart from many of her peers, but fundamentally she has a rigorous focus on her ideas. She knows what she wants to say and how she wants to say it, and there’s no waste, no distractions, her music is self-contained and organic in how it works and leaves a pause in the mind after the last note is played. She makes time skip for a beat while you return to reality.

The previous night at the MATA Festival was all strings, as the Calder Quartet played music from Lisa Coons, Fabian Svensson, Nathan Davis and Daniel Wohl. It was a split decision, right down the middle. The first half was problematic, with Coons Cythère (a trauma ballet in two parts) followed by Singing and Dancing from Svensson.

Coons capably expressed ideas of trauma through the instruments; she uses a repeated, aggressive rhythmic figure and pushes almost sadistically at the limited pitch material. The sound, even at its quietest, is severe, abrading, it succeeds as a literal depiction of trauma, but that’s the problem. This is music, an abstract art, and a poor one for actual documentation. It may be the times we live in that suggest that such literalism is artistically successful, but Schubert, Schumann, Brahms and Mahler managed to express the depths of trauma while still making art. Singing and Dancing was strangely stiff considering the title. A descending major scale seems to invert Pachelbel’s canon, then Davis modulates the scale and breaks it up. The music is quiet and repetitive, with different instruments occasionally commanding attention and trying to stamp out the other music, but not very songlike. The dancing was jauntier, more songlike, but there were too few interesting beats and too much unvaried repetition; the music become predictable quickly and remained so, although the ending was a witty surprise.

The music in the second half was excellent and seemed to bring out the best in the excellent musicians. Davis’ Skrzyp Skryz, based on the Polish name for the violin, had the satisfying effect of something nebulous coalescing into something concrete. The squeaking, rattling and chirping sounds, the harmonics, crescendos and glissandi – all played with great articulation – slide down into a definite pitch, a defining moment. As the music turns to a quasi-bluegrass feel, and almost a I-IV-V blues progression, there was the exciting feeling of hearing something being created in your presence, notated music with an improvisatory feel. The craftsmanship came through in the simple, compelling details, like the cello dropping to its lower range, creating a resonant group sonority. The music slows down, following the laws of thermodynamics, gas to solid to loss of energy to final stasis. The final piece, Wohl’s four movement Glitch, sets the string quartet against the inadequacies of technology, represented by the glitchy, woozy electronic track. The music is dense with ideas and emotional expression. The writing clothes the strings in activity, gestural ornaments, an “oo-Blah” along with every “di,” and while this could be fussy in other hands, Wohl always has something forceful and concrete to convey; the activity keeps the ear poised and interested, the idea sucker-punches you. The intensity is built on such simple structures as two bar phrases, contrapuntal lines and straight four-four time. There’s lots of Arvo Pärt inside the music, which contribute to the exhilarating sense of clarity and focus.

This was a feature of Jefferson Friedman’s excellent String Quartet No. 2, played as part of another concert at LPR, this one by the Chiara Quartet. Friedman has a voice a little like George Rochberg, combining contemporary and Romantic language and with an overriding concern with communicating. The three-movement work will be appearing on a New Amsterdam CD next year, and I’m looking forward to hearing it again. It opens with a nervous fanfare, then generates great energy and pulse through a virtuosic cello toccata. The music then turns into a slow, achingly Romantic section, before the toccata returns. It’s simple and tremendously effective. The second movement is diaphanous, slow, lyrical and moving, the inner voices providing sympathetic comments to the melody and harmony. There’s a symphonic heft to the scoring, and it closes with a rapturous major chord. The final movement dances to a Spanish beat, reminiscent of Falla, and again uses the simple, effective structure of a lyrical, introspective “B” section before the dance music returns. Friedman’s has a lot to say and his writing is well crafted expressive, and the Chiara’s know and love this music.

The pieces that followed were a bit of a letdown after this great opening. The quartet gave a charmingly Romantic reading of Webern’s Five Movements for String Quartet, Op. 5, with beautiful tone and clear structure, but without the severe, crystalline precision that others often choose. Webern can be heard as a fundamentally lyrical composer, and that’s whom the Chiara’s hear. Their playing of Steve Reich’s Different Trains was disappointing. They seemed stiff and not completely coordinated with each other, fighting the music a little. Reich needs to move and swing a little, and the Chiara’s phrasing was more vertical than horizontal, and very clipped. The music needs a balance of pure technique and emotional expression, and neither was fully there. The final “After the War” section began to loosen up a bit, but the recap of the pervious material brought back the stiffness. This was a case of too much order for order’s sake (this concert will be available for listening at Q2 in the near future).

Improvisation, Idiom and Neuroscience

This recent article picks up things I had recently discussed and is welcome to me especially as it indicates more classical performers are (slowly) returning to the use of improvisation in performance. This is not classical music as free jazz, but a sense of both embellishment (adding ornaments and transitional phrases to a sparely written melody in the slow movement of a Mozart piano concerto, for example), and creating original material (a cadenza) which comments on the style and language of the composition and is in that style and language, which is a rough way of describing what I mean by idiomatic.

This study mentioned at The Daily Dish misses one critical aspect for me, which is the study of the brain as the musician listens to himself improvise. A jazz musician may suppress inhibition in order to solo, but that musician (and any other idiomatic improviser), is not suppressing taste and judgement they are listening to themselves and tossing aside what doesn’t work while finding things that do and developing them. Good improvisation has a structure that is defined by the improvisation itself, not unlike a worked-out cadenza, and this is true even for free jazz (and also one of the reasons why free jazz is so hard to do really well – playing free isn’t the same as playing well). The classic study piece is Sonny Rollins blowing on “Blue Seven,” but the recorded literatures spans Armstrong’s “West End Blues” to Jarrett’s “The Koln Concert,” before and beyond. What would their brains look like, in neuroscience terms, during this self-listening, after they have taken the step to improvise and while they are making it work? I think that is the essential question.

Anyone interested in improvisation as a practice, and each and every musician who improvises, should read this book, again and again. Beyond essential.