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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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.

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 Janus-Faced Week

The year turns within the week, and at the New York Classical Review, Eric Simpson and I look back on the year it was in live music, and I look ahead with the January calendar. I’ll be covering the Hear and Now Festival, the Prototype Festival, Ekmeles, and concerts from the New York Philharmonic and the Chicago Symphony, and a few more.

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La Divina

I don’t believe in ghosts, because the stuff of the real world is far more more mysterious and haunting.

Think of sound recordings: they’re not just commodities to sell and deliver a listening experience to anyone who holds them, they are frozen pieces of the past. And because, contrary to the popular notion that we are visual animals, our most important sense is hearing. It’s the noise in the distance we cannot see that reaches immediately to a spot deep inside the brain.

We can read about the past in books, look at it in pictures, but nothing is so powerful as hearing the past. And in a year that has already seen an inundation of classical music CD box sets, an extraordinary one is bearing release: Callas Remasterd: The Complete Studio Recordings.

There’s no shortage of Maria Callas recordings, and this is not the first box set. What sets this apart is the 24-bit/96kHz, high definition remastering of the original tapes, done at Abbey Road Studios. Some samples I’ve heard are breathtaking, with an open high end that adds space to the sound field and life to her voice. The set comes with a 136 page hard-bound book and the librettos are on a CD-ROM.

What is important about this set is Callas. Unwrap the pop-culture obsessiveness with her life and personality, and you find one of the great musical artists of the recording era.  She had the exceedingly rare ability to project a dramatic personality in the simplest and most direct way through singing, and singing in a manner that turns the words into artifice. It is that human depth that made her so much more than La Divina—she has never been surpassed as a communicative artist.

You can hear it all in this set. With thirty-nine separate recordings, it has at least one version of almost every one of her most famous dramatic roles, save for Anna Bolena. There are numerous recital recordings as well.

(All the individual recordings in the set will be released separately, on September 23, October 28 and November 11)

… I've Got Another Theory …

Stop fussing with ‘grand opera’.

The 19th century model of the enormo-opera, specifically Wagner but including things like Aida, is an anomaly in the history of the form. There are so many great operas from Monteverdi to Rossini and from the 20th century on that aren’t ‘grand’ but merely great. And cheaper to do. If the Oakland Opera Theater can do an unforgettably brilliant production of Ahknaten in a garage, opera can work in San Diego.

Maybe reconsider the whole board made up of donors and the executive director who makes six figures and spend that money on the music, the musicians, and the composer. The makers, in other words:

Another theory: Only New York, Paris, Berlin, and Milan deserve quality operas. For the rest of us, there’s the MOOC model to arts appreciation: via high-definition simulcasts, operas appear in cinemas across America, well within reach of the casual fan. But if you want to sit sixty rows away from someone’s real, live, quivering uvula, pay up and head to a major city. This is the essence of the argument floated by the San Diego Opera’s longtime general manager, Ian Campbell. He didn’t send people to the movie theaters or to New York outright, but he cited fundraising pressures and said grand opera can’t be done anymore, not in this city. “The demand for opera in this city isn’t high enough,” he told the Los Angeles Times. Operas are falling left and right. Orange County. Baltimore. Cleveland. Spokane. New York City. In San Diego, the opera was known to be well run, despite its closure; if even a competently managed opera can’t survive, can we trust our theaters and other arts venues to be viable in the long run? This is a chapter in a longer story, the same story that tells of the merging of language and classics departments into “humanities” departments, the adjunctification of academia, the focus on educational ROI over the intrinsic merits of studying, say, Faulkner. The question becomes not “how can we stop this,” but “which city will lose its opera next?” A headline in the Chicago Business Journal asked: “Could it happen in Chicago?”



A third section of the commentariat contends that San Diego was swindled. It deserves and desires an opera—as proved by the success of its grassroots fundraising and its citizens’ collective refusal to watch the opera go quietly—but greed has prevailed. After the company announced it was closing, reporters uncovered evidence that Campbell and his ex-wife, Ann Spira Campbell, a fundraiser, were receiving robust paychecks, bonuses, and contract terms, even during the economic downturn. Some say his pay and pension are a fair exchange for managing the company successfully for decades. Others see his flush contract as another nail in the coffin, and many people have blamed him in large part for the closure. Campbell refused to consider the possibility of carrying on the opera with diminished production values—the classic “claim artistic integrity to save your cushy retirement package” line. He’s stopped giving interviews, but I’m curious to hear his point of view.

Ashley in the House




Thinking and writing about Robert Ashley has been an involved, major project for me the past many weeks, and I am close to tying it off. There’s no feeling of relief, because his work is extraordinary, and his loss—which was inevitable—is immense. There is such a dearth of new thinking in opera, exacerbated by the feeling that everyone seems to be working on a new one in the same old romantic tradition, it seems like the future is gone in some way.

Collected links to our Ashley pieces at the Brooklyn Rail are here:

It was gratifying to read the copy from my writers, Jeff Tompkins and Alessandro Cassin, who approached the pieces with open ears and minds and responded sincerely and powerfully. I was fortunate to see the world premiere of Crash, you can read my review at the New York Classical Review.

Yesterday, we were back in the Red Bull Studios to record our podcast for May. I’ll be editing it over the next week, and when done you’ll be able to hear the fascinating and moving conversation we had with Alex Waterman, who directed the Whitney productions, and Amirtha Kidambi, who performed in Crash. Ashley lives on through them.

Some of you may have recordings of the operas, but there’s more to his work. See this page at Amazon that collects not only the music but his published libretto for Perfect Lives, which reads like one of the great American novels, and for an upcoming book that Waterman and Will Holder put together with Ashley’s assistance: Yes, But is it Edible? The book collects two Ashley scores and also is a biography of the man, meant to be performed out loud by two or more readers. What could be more beautiful and humane? Don’t forget Kyle Gann’s essential musical biography, augmented with this page at his site.