Play It Again, Glenn


The other day, I listened to Glenn Gould record the Goldberg Variations.
Not play them—that’s easy enough with three recordings available—but record. Sony Classical has released a new multiple CD set that is the entirety of Gould’s 1955 Goldberg’s session: Glenn Gould—The Goldberg Variations—Complete Unreleased Recording Sesssions June, 1955.

The master release, again, is easy enough to either own or stream. This was Gould’s debut on the major commercial stage; at the time he was a prodigious young talent who was much talked about by critics but had yet to be exposed to the type of mass audience that Columbia had at hand. And an artist could not dream of a better debut—this began his notoriety, which made him a subject of public fascination even before he left the concert stage and began side projects like his documentaries for Canadian radio.Detested or beloved, the album launched his career.

Sixty years later, it’s still an astonishing recording that remains outstanding in the discography of the piece (it stands out from his 1981 recording, itself unique in the discography but for different reasons). The tempos seem ridiculous—the overall duration is 38 minutes, as opposed to a common one of an hour or more—and I still find myself laughing in disbelief when I listen, but they are neither frenetic or senseless. Gould’s playing is always under control, always clear—it is his ability to parse each contrapuntal voice and play them all clearly that separated him from every other pianist in the 20th century—and always has the foundational certainty of purpose that comes from thinking through every variation and passage.

And now you can hear him put it all together. Five of the seven CDs are the recording session (spanning June 10-16), which began with the Aria and proceeded in sequence through every variation. What you hear is very different than the usual collection of complete studio takes; though there are moments when Gould starts again after playing a bar or two, there is nothing like the false starts, incomplete takes, and exploratory versions you hear on complete sessions from Charlie Parker or Bob Dylan. What predominates is Gould playing a variation, then playing it several more times, before moving on to the next.

While that probably seems dry and tedious as hell, it’s the opposite; it’s immersive and often exhilarating. What the session tapes do is amplify the pleasures of the original recording. If you put on the album and marvel at the beauty of the Aria and the thrill of the variations, then you will marvel over and over again at each. It not only is never dull, but it has the effect, just like the Miles Davis Bootleg series release of the entire Miles Smiles recording session, of making the the finished recording that much more exciting, wonderful, and satisfying. The process at these sessions was Gould playing each Variation until his hand realized exactly what was in his head. This is thinking made into sound. And while it’s a given that the Goldbergs are one of the real masterpieces of classical music, hearing each variation multiple times reinforces Bach’s genius as much as it does Gould’s.

Despite the overall duration of around five hours, this set is lean as a whippet—there is very little studio chatter, almost all of it is calling out the takes and Gould asking to hear a playback. The one extended section of discussion is itself a joy to hear; Gould explaining the origins of the Qoudlibet and then playing his own. He relates how it came to him in the bathtub, harmonizing the Star-Spangled Banner and God Save the King together. Better put, though, is that there is nothing superfluous here, instead there is what I find in the takes of Variation 26: Gould plays it twice at an amazing tempo, then starting with the third take, he plays it…faster!

Gould pissed of a lot of people with this album, and continues to be a troublesome figure to those who try and hoard the past for themselves. And Gould is troublesome, in the best sense. There is nothing shallow or show off-ish about his tempos. He could play fast because he could think fast, and he could think fast because Bach holds together at the speed, and becomes something else, something real, unusual, meaningful, and 100% Bach. That is what Gould gave us.

Beyond what this set is, there’s the question of it’s worth—it’s $90. The package is substantial, and not just because it weighs close to nine pounds. Along with complete sessions, there is a CD of conversation between Gould and Tim Page from the 1981 session, and both a CD and LP of the final 1955 album. There is also a nice poster and a hardcover coffee-table style book covering the session that’s full of pictures of Gould, many of them showing him with a young man’s unselfconscious joy in the music—he’s dancing—and for the nerds like me that are excellent pictures of the hallowed 30th Street Columbia recording studio.

Is it perfect? In my copy, it’s difficult to keep CD 5 secure in it’s spot. Is it worth it? That question can only be answered by those who can spare the money, obviously. My answer, since I find myself listening to the session more than I listen to the album, is an unqualified “yes.” This is not just Gould’s Goldberg Variations album, it’s something different, and something more—it’s art being made and preserved.


Jazzical Jewish Culture

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Ty Citerman, guitarist; Ken Thomson, bass clarinetist; Ben Holmes, trumpeter; Adam D. Gold, drummer

The shadow of John Zorn’s Radical Jewish Culture imprint on his Tzadik label looms large over Bop Kabbalah, from guitarist Ty Citerman. That the music is being issued as part of the series is not too obvious to point out, because there’s a certain self-determining solipsism that seems to be at work here.

Citerman is one of the founders of Gutbucket, a band that’s essential for both their musicianship and their sense of irreverence. This is his debut as a leader, and while there’s plenty of strong music making from him and his ensemble, the success of the music is constrained by the concept: Citerman is exploring his Jewish roots via music, in the style of the Radical Jewish Culture series and—the thought is inescapable—doing so in order to get the record released on Tzadick. Whether this was a direct strategy or a context (music like this gets released, so let’s give it a try), is unclear, but the slightly stiff, slightly didactic quality to so many of the tracks is unmistakable.

There’s a lot of time spent stating this Semitic scale or that traditional rhythm, sieved through the aesthetic of a band that can swing, groove and rock. The point is proved, but there are too few moments when the group gets beyond the argument and just starts playing, where the music making transcends the self-consciousness of the style. “Snout” reaches the kind of heights that have the listener lost in the music, but the consistent experience is to observe what the band is doing, rather than enjoying it.

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Alon Nechustan, pianist; Donny McCaslin, saxophonist; Chris Lightcap, bassist; Adam Cruz, drummer

Much more successful and completely enjoyable is Alon Nechustan’s new CD, Venture Bound. Nechustan is one of the finest pianists in contemporary jazz, with a discography that ranges from 2012’s superb Words Beyond to the electronic experiments of Dark Forces (2012). The new disc is something of a departure, or better yet an addition, to his style, which exemplifies both current ideas in jazz and through depth of the roots from which they grow.

Like Citerman, Nechustan uses music with a clear Jewish sound, yet unlike Citerman there is no sense of ideology on his new album. Phrases, scales and harmonies are interpolated into the overall compositions and arrangements. There are also no arguments about jaw-rock-punk, etc, this is totally a jazz CD, and Nechustan’s music is for the group to play and then mine for material for their solos.

The pianist has developed a distinctive, rich sense of harmony. He seems like he’s constantly substituting alternate chords in his own arrangements, and the music modulates frequently, always with logic and purpose. This gives the heads of tune a highly improvisatory feeling, and the accompaniment for the solos is complex enough to sound like Nechustan had worked it out, painstakingly, with pencil on paper.

Highlights are sufficiently abundant to be meaningless—everything sounds great, every moment leads the ear to the next, each track demands more listening. The run in the middle of the record of “Dark Damsel,” “Sneak Peak” and “Haunted Blues” is particularly strong, and McCaslin matches Nechustan for expressive power, imagination and fluidity. Terrific all around.

Young Men (and more) at the Keys

A lot of young dudes playing the piano to varying results … and don’t forget the ladies:

I have not seen Conrad Tao in the flesh, but reliable reports tell me that
he is an actual person, and not the artifice of the classical music marketing
departments. He’s a valuable figure for several reasons, none of them musical.
He’s a reminder that the hunger for celebrity is nothing new, especially for supposed prodigies. And the classical music business can all all over itself chasing youth just as shamelessly as pop music does with Lorde and Sky Ferreira.

Youth is Tao’s calling card (he’s nineteen this year). Youth is why he has a
record on EMI, his own music festival and commissioned compositions (that,
because of the limited amount of time and money available from classical
ensembles, crowd out other works). With the evidence of his debut recording,
Voyages, the time and money can either be seen as wasted or an investment in the future that he is lucky to earn and that many more musicians deserve but won’t be getting.

Voyages displays Tao the pianist and the composer, he’s far more advanced as
the former, but still has a long way to go. He, and EMI, haven’t gotten past the
prodigy problem: there’s a hell of a lot more to playing music than getting the notes to fit correctly into the tempo and rhythm. Tao opens the disc with Meredith Monk’s “Railroad (Travel Song),” tackles five preludes from Rachmaninoff’s Op. 23 and Op. 32 sets, and plays Gaspard de la nuit. His own pieces are vestiges and iridescence for piano and iPad synthesizer.

He’s not a good composer. The first piece shows that he practices his Ligeti
Etudes and maybe a bit of Phillip Glass; there are semi-interesting derivations
of both composers, nothing skillful, and no meaningful structure. The second
work is a mediocre melody, dull electronic sounds, nothing but drift. A composer
first and foremost has to organize their music and ideas, and Tao simply doesn’t
do that. And his ideas sound like a young man fiddling with the superficial
features of the work of other’s.

His playing is more skillful but forgettable. The Monk is capable, but
heavy-handed. Rachmaninoff wrote music that challenges physical dexterity and
does a lot of sensational hand-waving as a substitute for meaning, so it’s
perfect for Tao. Ravel’s composition is a modern masterpiece, technically and
aesthetically demanding. Tao’s playing is dutiful and plodding, there’s no
rhythmic expression, no touch, no ideas about the mysteries inside the music.

But he’s on to bigger and better things. It makes me wonder if anyone points out
the gap between the packaging and the musical success. He has the talent to
become a first rate musician, but if one money-based success just leads to more,
he’s going to end up as a well-compensated curiosity, a hipper David Helfgott.
Young and much more musical is pianist JP Schlegelmilch, a member of a fascinating group called Old Time Musketry and also an interesting blogger. He’s got a solo disc out this year called Throughout, a surprising, focussed and rewarding collection of interpretations of tunes by guitarist Bill Frisell.

Surprising because it’s hard to hear Frisell as a composer, his now pervasive
and monumental influence on a generation of guitarists camaflouges the fact that
most of what you hear Frisell playing is his own musical thinking. As a composer
he’s a creator of Americana, ranging from the ersatz Nashville to the to the deep-rooted This Land. Schlegelmilch rightly hears a broad range of compositional techniques, from severe rhytmic angularity to an old-time melodic expressivity. His arrangements for the piano are accomplished, he makes the inherent verticality of guitar composing into an idiomatic combination of chords and horizontal flow, and his pedalling seals the results into an affecting book of piano music.

He gets substantial depth out of the music, taking apart and rebuilding “Resistor” into a more ragtime-feeling reel, and revealing the unsentimental loveliness of “This Land.” He reaches deep into the back catalogue for “Hangdog,” from the great, early Lookout for Hope album: it’s a good measure of his seriousness and his taste.

What brings everything together into a coherent whole is his excellent playing. Along with chops, he has a winning way with the dynamics and harmonic rhythm of a melody, and Frisell crafts fine melodies. His touch and thinking move
everything into a sound that is part ragtime, part Debussy. This is an excellent CD, it reaches the head and the heart is one and is one of the most touching releases this year.

Greg Kallor’s A Single Noon is a set of integrated pieces that Kallor, the composer and pianist, describes in the liner notes as “a tableau of life in New York City, told through a combination of composed music and improvisation.” It’s also been pitched in comparison to Brad Mehldau’s jazz composition record, Elegiac Cycles. That’s true in the most general sense, but it doesn’t indicate anything substantial. And this is a substantial record.

Kallor’s music is totally unlike Mehldau’s ersatz Schumann, and it falls in that sweet spot between jazz and classical music that is the place for the meaningful pleasure of sophisticated song-making, a la Gershwin. These pieces are clearly songs without words. There is just as much Ligeti (Kallor, like Tao, has clearly played the Etudes) as jazz, and his playing is true to itself, expanding his own ideas with the same stylistic flavor with which he wrote them. You can read his own description of what each piece is supposed to be about, but the music succeeds completely on its own terms and I’d much rather listen to “Straphanger’s Lurch” as an intelligent exploration of how one can take an idea that a great composer like Ligeti had and expand and improvise on it. Confident playing from the pianist adds to the pleasure of this record, which is fine through-and-through.

Bobby Avey has a solo disc out: Be not so long to speak. Avey is one of the more exciting and physically powerful young pianists on the jazz scene, and those two qualities have been his own worst enemies in the past; his playing and leadership have emphasized propulsion and a pounding left-hand bass over all over musical features, and those inevitably wear on the ear.

This new recording is something altogether different from what I’ve heard from him in the past, and here’s hoping it’s a sign of things to come, because this is one of the best recordings of the year. It’s a set of seven originals, with “P.Y.T” in the middle and Hoagy Charmichaels’ “Stardust” at the end.

It’s been clear what Avey can do with his hands and his heart, and now we know what he can do with his head; he takes apart his own style of playing in detail. There is an overall feeling of creative antagonism, the pianist listening to himself play and questioning the reason behind every rhythm and phrase. His hands often seem to be at odds, wrestling over which has the superior set of ideas. It’s invigorating and fascinating.

Each track is music as process, he is constantly shaping his material and honing it through improvisation and interrogation. His power is still there, but it’s in the form of a stiletto rather than an axe. On the long, thrilling “Late novembe” he lays down physically intense polyrhythms, takes them as far as they can go, then finds himself in the middle of a set of gorgeous chords. The way out is through some compelling, driving, emotional playing.

He dismantles the Michael Jackson song in a loving and irreverent way that recalls how Jason Moran shapes “Planet Rock” on Modernistic, and “Stardust” is stunning. Coming at the end of the musical and emotional wrangling, it balances on the fulcrum of wisdom and curiosity.
This is not just about the men, though. Myra Melford, one of the more important jazz and improvising musicians and composers of the last generation, has a new solo disc out called life carries me this way. It’s a good companion to Avey’s as it shares his values of inquisitiveness and exploration but achieves them through almost entirely different means. Melford plays the piano, not to take things apart, but put them together.

Her main tool is a sophisticated sense of harmonic rhythm, putting together large scale structures that can be simple or complex from small parts. It’s a concept that she shares with Cecil Taylor. Their general aesthetic is quite close, despite the seemingly vast difference in the sound of their musics. They are both bluesy and lyrical. Melford is consonant rather than dissonant, and she stays longer with a steady tempo. She also quotes from Taylor’s playing, a specific phrase that extends upward and downward simultaneously. But she slows it down and reveals the beguiling beauty. A good, strong recording from an important, deep-thinking musician.

Returning to classical music, the Harmonia Mundi label has taken the exceptional step — one I hope continues — of releasing recital discs from the winners of the 2013 Fourteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. The music on the discs was assembled from selections during competition recitals from gold medalist Vadym Kholodenko and second (silver) and third (crystal) place finishers Beatrice Rana and Sean Chen.

These are each fine records, and there’s an intriguing intensity to the playing, an exciting and slightly brittle quality of make-or-break in the performances, which of course was the case. The music is also a concentrated and satisfying survey of great piano pieces from the early to late romantic era: Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms, Liszt, Ravel, Stravinksy and Bartók.

The differences between these enticing young musicians are not much more than slivers (and the recordings can only give a partial picture of the overall competition). Kholodenko is vibrantly powerful, Rana lyrical, Chen has a contemplative edge that I personally find appealing. Rana’s Gaspard de le Nuit is excellent and so far superior to Tao’s in both technique and thinking that it damns the business side of classical music. Chen audaciously tackles the “Hammerklavier” sonata and it turns out to be a suit he doesn’t quite fill, but it should look excellent on him in a few short years. Kholodenko is stunning and slightly exhausting in the Transcendental Études. Altogether strong and recommended discs, notable for the promise of the musicianship and the learned judgment in repertoire. Rana herself is barely older than Tao, so let’s call her a real prodigy, and one to follow.

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Martial Music

Culture, civilization, humanity: all these things are far too important and sensitive to be left to the judgement of the endless parade of smug, amoral assholes who, somehow, have an opinion on every conceivable thing that might briefly dazzle their eyes or vibrate their smart phones. Yet there they are everyday, in the papers and magazines, on the computer and television screens.

Twelve years ago, men who had found a cause greater than themselves — terrible as it was — flew planes into the World Trade Centers and the Pentagon. Shortly afterward, men whose causes were exactly themselves began a program to spy, torture, murder and destroy. For a short time, there seemed the chance that the terrible cause of 9/11 might be answered with a far greater one that would triumph both strategically and morally. But it took only the slightest bit of thinking things through to realize that George W. Bush, who spent that day in hiding after showing the world the face of abject fear, was a coward, and he had surrounded himself with fearful old men and courtiers like Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and Condoleeza Rice. The establishment class believes in the corporate-hierarchical structure of organization, and when the boss is terrified witless, even those who don’t emulate him sure as shit are not going to stick their necks out. When his cause is revenge, it becomes theirs.

Of course, Bush et. al. were just our rulers, with a minor and ephemeral effect on culture and civilization. It’s our asshole class who do the permanent damage. Ever notice how everyone in the Political-Media Industrial Complex uses that stupid word “folks” for “people?” That came from Bush, but without everyone repeating it on CNN, MSNBC, Fox and everywhere else, it would have left with him. Now we’re stuck with it. Just as we’re stuck with Afghanistan, Iraq, Gitmo, kidnapping, torture, the NSA security state. We are stuck witnessing the end of the American experiment in representative democracy, we are left with the maimed, the dead.

There’s been nothing in mass culture to point this out, respond to it, say “no,” say there are other things. In the culture of words, there are of course the obvious criminals like Bush, Rummy, Cheney, Rice, Colin Powell, Judy Miller, Michael O’Hanlon, Anne-Marie Slaughter, but their profession was the simplistic, orgiastic celebration of the destruction that could be reaped by high explosives and high velocity projectiles, so they are guilty of fulfilling their own inhumanity. The culture or writers who get paid money because of their personal relationships with certain editors is guiltier. People like Ezra Klein, Matt Yglesias and George Packer claim a greater ability to think critically than you or I, and on the most important question they faced, they somehow could not find the caloric energy to turn one more newspaper page, look at one more source or story. No one was paying me to write or talk in 2002 and 2003 when I was seeing how the IAEA kept asking the CIA for the WMD sites to inspect, and the CIA kept not telling them. But my words come free of charge, so what do they matter to the business of journalism or media?

The point of the Iraq war, the political and strategic goal, was put clearly and eloquently by, of course, America’s foremost foreign policy pundit, Thomas Friedman:

Revenge, bullying, intimidation. Kill a bunch of people so they’ll be scared of us. Such a goal would have been properly effected by killing such massive numbers of Iraqis that the population would have been cowed like slaves. The only thing that prevented this was Rumsfeld’s wet-dream of high-tech warfare and reluctance to spend money on soldiers rather than machines.

There was no other goal. There were the slogans about WMD and Saddam and torture rooms. Just slogans, catchphrases. If they had been set to music by some enterprising right-wing Hanns Eisler, they might have even been hummable. And there were the Kleins, the Yglesias’, the Packers, and the horrible, repulsive Christopher Hitchens and Andrew Sullivan, stroking their chins with one hand and their dicks with the other, both spurring and quenching their bloodlust (as long as it was non-White, non-Christian blood), quivering with the combination of their fear and their self-importance. They dreamed of being big, important voices amidst important events, but they were and are small, forgettable, and they have diminished our era.

You don’t respond to this successfully with words, which is why the surprisingly quick release of anti-war movies (and the fascinating one-season series Over There never had a strong or lasting effect — the Political-Media Industrial Complex had the monopoly on words, and the exhaustion of hearing them over and over again on the twenty-four hour news cycles left no room to turn them back around.

There has been, amazingly, little music with any reach that has tried to counter the losses of the last dozen years. I’ve heard and seen a few things during that stretch but nothing that was any better than agreeable sentimentality. Yes, war is bad, it’s worth saying but doing so doesn’t guarantee compelling music. The problem isn’t that war is bad, the problem is that the war was launched in part by cultural forces who then turned their backs on it, like a ship shoved out to sea, adrift and inevitably to run into something and crush it. But that would be someone else’s problem, not worth airtime and column inches. Saying war is bad doesn’t cut it, because the usual dreary suspects will agree and drop the rest down the memory hole. Music needs to say something different and do something else.

And now it has. There are two CDs out this year that are about how we get to wars and how we end up after, these wars and all wars, the music on them coming out of very different ideas and means. Together they make a dialogue with each other and the listener. One recording is Vijay Iyer and Mike Ladd’s latest collaboration, Holding it Down, and it is utterly great, the other is David T. Little’s dramatic composition Soldier Songs, for baritone and chamber group, and while it’s not as consistent, it achieves points of important, profound greatness.

Holding it Down is the third work from Iyer and Ladd, following In What Language? and Still Life With Commentator. These are all records, but they’re also music drama works that are meant for the stage, hybrids of jazz and pop styles, poetry, rapping and singing that are quasi-operas and also some sort of new form. We need more observation and evidence before that can be identified, because these are the only examples of it, and the progress from the first to the newest disc and shows that Iyer and Ladd are still exploring the possibilities.

In What Language is a great work concerning the place and status of Americans not blessed by the accident of birth with white skin, living in a country that is suspicious and fearful of anyone with a funny name, a funny accent, a funny religion, political views not mirroring the non-existent range between the numbing pablum of Sunday talk shows and the flop-sweat idiocy of Fox News. It grows in power with each listen, not only because its themes will be vital as long as America endures, but because Ladd’s libretto is beautifully, skillfully evocative and elusive. He has had a middling hip-hop career, mainly because he is too fine and complex a writer to be contained within the simplistic rhyme schemes and the materialistic, egocentric pop culture concerns the genre demands in what is turning out to be a long decadent phase.

Holding it Down is even better, musically and lyrically, and is some kind of necessary masterpiece. In What Language had Ladd writing for multiple voices, the new work is made by multiple voices, with the veterans Maurice Decaul and Lynn Hill joining Ladd. The subtitle is “The Veterans Dreams project” and that’s the subject, dreams of war before, during and after: kids playing at war, the hallucinatory experience of war, the dreams that come ever after. Decaul and Hill wrote and perform the bulk of the material, and the range of experiences and attitudes pushes the weight and depth of the piece to the sad limits. Iyer’s music is unobtrusive, simple, subtle, blending genres rather than crossing them. It’s a thematic focus with a quiet, inexorable power.

The plainspoken language is its core strength, and along with Phil Kline’s great Zippo Songs affirms for me that in musically depicting war, plain language is a necessity. Holding it Down although an entirely different genre, joins a universe that includes Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem I am an apostate in stating that Britten’s piece is a failure, and it’s a failure because it uses the incredible poetry of Wilfred Owen. The poet found his voice in World War I, and wrote about the unspeakable and the horrific in plain, exacting language set in simple, formal structures. It can’t be improved upon, and the distortions that come in when setting words to musical line in art music damage and weaken the point, the meaning.

What Holding it Down does is set the language of the memory of war, plain spoken language of everyday people with metaphors about neighborhoods, friends, pop culture, to music that sounds like you might hear from a passing car or open apartment music. It’s the sounds of everyday life, except the people who are living that life next to yours went through an extraordinary experience that the Political-Media Industrial Complex (including the supposed ‘good guys’ at MSNBC) don’t want you to know about. If we all knew war was murder and maiming and destruction, or if we were all conscripted like in the past, and got to experience the stupidity and incompetence of the men and women in suits and uniforms that we are supposed to respect, then war might not be such a casual, telegenic thing for America, it might be a serious thing, meant for the worst possible occasions. And everyday Americans might find that there really isn’t such a things as an existential threat from terrorists, that it’s just the fearful chatter of cosseted cowards.

The language of Soldier Songs is very different, but belongs to the same universe. Little wrote the words himself, based on conversations he had with veterans of five wars — think on that, in the supposedly enlightened contemporary era there are Americans who are veterans of five wars. Little may not think of himself as a librettist, but his text is superior in content, expression and musicality to what Royce Vavreck supplied him for the recent opera, Dog Days. It’s also, in context, superior to the War Requiem, because it’s made to be sung out of spoken words. Like Holding it Down, the record comes out of direct personal experience. Unlike it, it is dramatic music in the Western Classical tradition, and so has a deliberate artifice. This sometimes hurts the piece. Little at times gets caught in the accepted styles of classical art songs, which in this context come off as arch and weak. This is a centuries old problem composers face when making songs with forceful content, and I think Little would have been better served to trust his usual instinct for immediacy. His roots are in hardcore music, and when he sticks with them, as he does for the most part, they serve the meaning vigorously.

It’s a sad, angry, clear-eyed piece, unsentimental. The long epilogue that layers the voices of vets trying to talk about their experiences over a dark drone reaches into the body and squeezes the soul. The highpoint is the tenth song, “Two Marines,” the song of a father who sees two Marines come up his walk and knows they have come to tell him his son is dead. So he goes out the back, pours gasoline on their car and sets it on fire. The few minutes this takes encapsulates the moral offense and outrage, the necessary fury that we should feel about people who send others to kill and die so they may feel a vicarious sense of power and purpose. From the ancient Greeks to us, from before and beyond, there is no way to explain, justify or apologize for that crime.

What this music can’t do, what nothing can do, is bring back those dead. Perhaps it might soothe the maimed, I have no idea. This music doesn’t soothe me and I sure as hell don’t want it to, I don’t want to be soothed, I want the notes and words and sounds to run like razor blades through my mind, to fuel a hard center of anger at the people who turned this country into just another place defined by borders, color, language and blood. Thanks to you, Rummy, we’re old Europe, really fucking old Europe. Thanks to you, Dianne Feinstein, for telling us we should be grateful that our every communication is being gathered by the NSA.

I hold no illusion these things can be fixed, made better. The dead can’t see our anger and tears, hear our apologies. How can we apologize anyway? We sent them to kill and die and destroy. That’s what war is, what it has always been. It’s also something that seems to come easily to men and women in suits and sinecures, Ivy League grads and affirmative action legacy hires who have to live with the enduring shame of not having actually earned their place, of not having to test their abilities and maturity through events. And so they lash out by proxy because, being fearful cowards, it makes them feel tough. This music won’t help them, because they are deaf and dumb and blind. All they have is their war toys, and all they are is children, and the world must suffer from their narcissistic infantilism.

UPDATED: fixed the name Decaul and a typo.

The Dude Ambles By

John Adams, *City Noir,* Gustavo Dudamel & the Los Angeles Philharmonic

Gustav Mahler, *Symphony No. 9,* Gustavo Dudamel & the Los Angeles Philharmonic

Gustavo Dudamel & the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Avery Fisher Hall:

  • March 27, 2013; John Adams, The Gostpel According to the Other Mary
  • March 28, 2013; Claude Vivier, Zipangu, Claude Debussy, La Mer, Igor Stravinsky, The Firebird

It’s not that I believed the hype about Gustavo Dudamel, it’s that I figured that anyone who had gone so far, so fast, had some real promise, some unpolished talent that the LA Philharmonic saw and wanted to have for themselves as it grew, like what the Washington Nationals see in Bryce Harper. Harper was spectacular at times during his rookie season, and less than ordinary at other times, but the former meant that there might be more often in the future. I assumed that was the case with Dudamel, and now that I’ve heard him on a handful of recordings and seen him lead the LA Phil at Lincoln Center in an intriguing program of Stravinsky, Debussy, CLaude Vivier and John Adams, I realize that, as the saying goes, I’ve made an ass of myself.

VLA 10049 byMathewImaging 12965Dudamel’s new Mahler 9 recording is superficial and schematic. He handles the musical traffic skillfully and the LA Phil is playing at a high technical level, but those qualities amount to watching a machine run, the music-making doesn’t seem to have any particular ideas or to be done for a particular reason, other than habit. The opening bars are perfunctory, there is no musical statement made with the stumbling rhythm, no tension, and so the two-note descending string line, which is a musical manifestation of the exhalation of acceptance that begins life’s final journey, is totally flat — it’s one of the key moments of the symphony! After that, there’s no feeling that one phrase leads to another, that the point of Mahler’s writing out the notes was to get the musicians to go from the beginning to the end. Everything is episodic, with one phrase and section clipped to the next. Mahler organized the work, but Dudamel seems to find it arbitrary. I have no idea what he thinks about the music, intellectually or emotionally, because he doesn’t lead it as if he was thinking of anything.

This was a strength with *The Firebird* because it’s an episodic piece, the short sections juxtaposed for dramatic and narrative purpose, and so his ability to handle textures, dynamics and rhythms is important. The audience broke into spontaneous and deserved applause after a breathtaking “Infernal Dance.” *The Firebird* almost plays itself, though. *La Mer* doesn’t, and this was the first performance of this beautiful, profound, involving masterpiece I had ever heard that was so … indifferent. Conductors like Charles Dutoit, Michael Tilson Thomas and David Robertson give you their understanding of the music’s colors, drama and important structural innovations, but Dudamel offered no ideas. It was pleasant enough in a boring way and completely forgettable and meaningless.

For the afficianando, the draw of this program was Claude Vivier’s *Zipangu*. Vivier’s music seems to be undergoing a slow and very welcome rediscovery, in no small part due to the promotion of his publisher, Boosey & Hawkes. He was a pioneer of the spectral movement and easily the most accessible and powerful proponent of the style, fixing magical sonorities to gracefully strong structures. Vivier wasn’t just exploring the possibilites of microtones and diaphanous harmonies, but expressing ideas through them. Dudamel marked each moment of the piece with an excessively vertical attention, getting the notes write and missing the point that they existed in the context of others. The latter pieces confirmed to me the impression this opening work left, which is that he is didactically focussed on making sure each moment is technically right and has no idea why each moment matters.

It’s a sad change from the Salonen years. Under him, the LA Philharmonic was frequently a rough ensemble, but they played with ideas and a tremendous commitment. There was a performance of the Beethoven Symphony No. 7 that almost set my hair on fire, and while that may not be every person’s idea of how the music should go, it was an idea, it was something! The excessive palaver of the Dudamel style turns art into baubles for the bourgeoisie to collect as signifiers of their cultural prestige. It’s awful.

His lack of personal art leaves me at a loss to judge the qualities of John Adams’ *The Gospel According to the Other Mary*. It’s an Easter companion to his brilliant Christmas oratorio, *El Nino*, and not nearly as accomplished. The libretto, put together with Peter Sellars, is ungainly and drives the structure, which has a first half malformed by an endless scene involving Lazarus’ death and resurrection. Once that passes, everything starts to move. But nothing much moves for the character of Mary Magdalene, who steadily laments and regrets throughout, and at times the music goes for effect rather than meaning, eviscerating Adams’ strength as a composer. Taken together with his awful copy and paste pastiche of Beethoven, *Absolute Jest*, I think he is cursed with being too busy as a composer, and is taking shortcuts. But perhaps there is more to the music than Dudamel can give it, which I feel is also true for *City Noir*, which does everything that Adams does well: it’s smart, irreverent, sincere and even a little hip, but the one performance available is unfulfilling.

Dudamel has a jejune touch, and it effects the music he leads. Considering the clamor that greets him when he steps out onto stage, the yelling and cheering, and that he’s got a long contract, that seems to be what audiences and trustees want. It’s classical music as upper-class lifestyle accessory, and that’s nothing new of course. Nonetheless, I hate it.

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Music I Loved – February 2013

For the shortest month, February was packed with new and upcoming releases that I loved. Taken together with music that was released or previewed in January, I already have a short-list for finest recordings of the year, and my pleasure in listening to these recordings assures me firmly that I will be enjoying them just as much, if not more, by the time the day light starts to wane:
Atoms for Peace, Amok. This recording confirms that Radiohead is Thom Yorke’s band. The only constant with Radiohead is Yorke, but this record sits at the foundation of the Radiohead aesthetic, which combines beauty, power, supple rhythms and an irresistible forward flow. It grooves, shimmers, and surrounds the listener with evocative stimulation. Yorke’s voice floats atop the textures, which balance space and rich colors. A fantastic record.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Push the Sky Away. Equally fantastic. This is a departure in style for Cave, but one that suits his ideas and sensibilities so well that it is not only welcome, but seems the point that his career has been moving in. The narrative lyrics and metaphors are still there, rooted deep in Anglo-American folk traditions, the voice is as seductive as ever, but the music not longer holds to song forms. Instead, the vocals are delivered over a beds of looping patterns, making this just as much an ‘electronica’ record as Amok. This doesn’t diminish Cave’s songwriting, but rather focusses it on the things that matter: the words, the rueful, intimate delivery, the sense of the sublime.
Barbara Govatos, violin, Marcantonio Barone, piano, Beethoven, the Violin Sonatas. Did you think I only listen to pop music? This actually had a release date of December 2012, but the promo did not reach me until last month. These are, of course, great pieces of music that sit at the center of the Western Classical chamber music tradition, and these are exceptionally fine performances. Govatos and Barone literally ravish each phrase with musical attention, everything is done with meaning and purpose, and they have a complete understanding of the architectural aspects of the music and how they serve the emotional content. Govatos has a tremendous violin sound, one of the best I’ve heard, and the entire recording has been beautifully captured. Great interaction, lustrous phrasing throughout. This has displaced the formidable set from Gidon Kremer and Martha Argerich as the first choice.

The rest of the list:

Colin Davis, London Symphony Orchestras, Nielsen: Symphonies 2 & 3. There’s a Nielsen revival going on and that’s exciting. This release finishes up Davis’ live cycle, which has been personal and quirky and rewarding.

Steve Coleman and Five Elements, Functional Arrhythmias. Dense, complex structural and rhythmic patterns from Coleman. While I miss Jen Shyu’s voice his previous two releases, this is an advance in the sophistication of Coleman’s concept of applying structures found in nature to music. Mysterious, sometimes opaque, but compelling.

Gloria Cheng and the Calder Quartet, The Edge of Light: Messiaen and Saariaho. Beautiful chamber music from two great composers. I love the way Cheng plays Messiaen’s “Huit Preludes” like it was Ravel, and the stark aesthetic of Saariaho’s music is a natural for the group.

Matthias Goerne, Schubert: Erlkönig. From one of the finest contemporary voices and singer, a performance that emphasizes the music and underplays the Romanticism, to great effect.

Richard Egarr, Bach: The English Suites. Egarr has been recording the Bach keyboard works on harpsichord, and his series is one of the finest there is.

Nadia Sirota, Baroque. Perhaps it is, but unlike Bach. This second recital disc from Sirota on co-produced by New Amsterdam and Bedroom Community (UPDATED) is less immediately surprising, but repeated listening shows power and depth to the pieces from Judd Greenstein, Missy Mazzoli and Nico Muhly, and welcome respites from Shara Worden and others. Very fine.

Jace Clayton, Julius Eastman Memory Depot. This is a major release, ambitious and accomplished. Eastman’s music is exciting, important and neglected, and on this disc Clayton presents both “Evil Nigger” and “Gay Guerrilla,” two piano works that display Eastman’s virtues of irreverence, seriousness and forceful thinking and expression. Clayon uses electronics to rework the instruments sounds in something of an elegiac haunting of his own work by the composer. It’s terrific.

As always, you can support this site by purchasing any of these release through the links in the post, or donate below.


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. 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.


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.