Thursday, January 24, 2013

Best of the Rest of 12: Composed & Contemporary

The world of composed, orchestral, instrumental and avant garde music is a wonderful rabbit hole to explore - and explore I did in 2012.

Go Jonny Go
Even with Radiohead on a massive and brilliant world tour, guitarist and composer Jonny Greenwood somehow managed to put out two records in 2012. The first, a collaboration with his lifelong hero, Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki, features a kind of call and response between the two musicians. Penderecki's Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima is a signature work of the 60's and inspired Greenwood's Popcorn Superhet Receiver, which was also used in his score for There Will Be Blood. 48 Responses to Polymorphia takes off from Penderecki's Polymorphia, which was based on the brainwaves of people listening to the Threnody.
While it is certainly gratifying to see Greenwood realizing his ambition to work with his inspiration, as someone who is deeply engaged with musical modernism and the avant garde, I don't think Penderecki necessarily represents the best of the 20th Century. While Kubrick's use of his music in both 2001: A Space Odyssey and the Shining was highly effective, that may actually be a result of something lacking in the music when listened to on its own. That said, everything on the Penderecki/Greenwood album is expertly and passionately presented and is certainly worth a listen.
I have no such reservations regarding Greenwood's score for The Master, the latest Oscar bait from Paul Thomas Anderson. Greenwood shows his greatest command of instrumentation and texture yet on pieces that have spontaneously inspired my own emotional narrative to accompany them. He also slots in period songs seamlessly, such as the impossibly lush Ella Fitzgerald recording of Get Thee Behind Me Satan. It's Greenwood's most satisfying and accomplished soundtrack and he seems poised to join the greats of cinematic music. It's disappointing that he will once again go unrecognized at the Oscars. Like Mahler, his time will come.
New Music Cavalcade
Old favorites Brooklyn Rider, crowdsourced the production of their latest album, Seven Steps, and I was happy to pledge my support. It featured two great new compositions, the group-composed title track, and Christopher Tignor's wonderful Together Into This Unknowable Night, contrasted with Beethoven's String Quartet in C-sharp Minor, Op. 131. I'm no purist, but despite my early enthusiasm, in the end I remained unconvinced by their rendition of the latter. It seemed somehow less than the sum of its parts, although there were some fascinating parts. However, the new pieces make Seven Steps a worthy addition to their catalogue.

I discovered the fascinating Line Imprint on a trip to DC and picked up one of of their limited edition releases, Seth Cluett's Objects Of Memory. Like a lot of their releases, Cluett's work exists at the intersection of ambient music, minimalism, and sound art. This means that you sometimes can barely hear anything - but you want to. Further investigation required.

Over the summer, my daughter and I were lucky to attend Missy Mazzoli's River To River concert, which featured two pieces from her opera, Song From The Uproar. While the recording can't quite match the primal power of seeing Abigail Fischer sing the lead role in concert accompanied by Stephen Taylor's haunting projections, it's still an absorbing, dramatic listen, and shows further evolution in the work of this exciting young composer.

Mazzoli's work also featured prominently in Maya Beiser's "CelloOpera" Elsewhere, which premiered at BAM last fall. While not a complete success, it was a further demonstration of Beiser's outsized talents as a performer. Her playing is also flawless on her latest album, Time Loops, anchored by Michael Harrison's Just Ancient Loops, an absorbing and emotional new composition. The takes on the Bach/Gounod Ave Maria and Arvo Pärt's Spiegel Im Spiegel do not do much for me, but the album ends strongly with Harrison's Raga Prelude and Francisco Nunez's substantial and varied Hijaz, featuring the Young People's Chorus of New York City. Here's hoping Beiser's next recording is Salt, the Mazzoli section of Elsewhere, with Helga Davis, the astonishing vocalist who sang the premiere.

2012 saw the death of Elliott Carter, who was still composing as he neared his 104th birthday. Alisa Weilerstein released her take on his concise and explosive cello concerto just days before Carter died and, with the able assistance of Daniel Barenboim on the podium, this is likely a definitive recording. In pairing it with the Elgar concerto and Bruch's Kol Nidre, both of which have been recorded dozens of times, Decca seemed to be more concerned with business matters than musical ones, however. Here's a tip:  because the movements are short, you can download just the Carter from Amazon for under $7.

For All Seasons

Vivaldi's The Four Seasons is a warhorse if there ever was one - but it's given new life in Max Richter's "recomposition," featuring the stylish violin playing of Daniel Hope. It received a rapturous reception when performed late in 2012 at Le Poisson Rouge, and rightfully so. Encompassing minimalism, ambience, and paying homage to the dance rhythms of the original, Richter's piece more than stands on it's own.

Transcending FatCat
The estimable FatCat label (Breton, etc.) initiated a new subsidiary last year, 130701, to focus on "post-classical" music and as a first shot across the bow released the excellent Transcendentalism EP. Featuring gorgeous and adventurous new music from Dustin O'Halloran, Hauschka, and Johann Johannsson, it's an exciting introduction to their aim to bridge the gap between post-rock and contemporary classical.

Sax Stories
Matthew Silberman seems to see "jazz" not just as an opportunity for blowing his horn but as a method to creating a mood and telling stories through sound. His debut album, Questionable Creatures, features an unusual two-guitar line-up and fulfills that mission to a tee. Special mention to Tommy Crane, bringing the heat on drums.

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