Sunday, August 24, 2014

Technicalities: ACO's Orchestra Underground

The first flowering of what would come to be known as punk rock encompassed such diverse sounds as the cerebral bubblegum of Talking Heads, the streamlined girl-group pop of Blondie, the artful interlocking explorations of Television, and the sped-up Spector of the Ramones. Soon enough, after a transatlantic crossing or two, punk became codified into a studded-leather jacket and safety-pinned cul de sac of loud fast rules.

Did something similar happen in the world of "new music" or the classical avant garde? Did the seismic blasts of The Rite of Spring and Schoenberg's serialism blow things up to a degree that composers can draw on a limited palette of structures and sonic semi-innovations and still get across as "new?" Can you just deploy some additional percussion, amp up the orchestral clangor and dissonance and call it a day? And what do those European referents have to do with the American tradition? 

That's not to say that all contemporary American composers are beholden to an outdated notion of new-ness. You have artists like Julia Wolfe, Mario Diaz de Leon, Daniel Wohl, Anthony Chung, and even legends like Alvin Lucier who continue to push the envelope of what's heard in the concert hall. It's also not to say that some of what might be called the "retro avant garde" doesn't make for good or even great listening, it's just that it doesn't do it any favors to present it as something earth-shattering.

I put these passing thoughts down to give an idea of some of what I was working against when listening to the American Composers Orchestra's new album, Orchestra Underground: Tech & Techno. Right from the start, without even reading the liner notes, I was dealing with the word "techno," which starts a post-Kraftwerk thumping in my ear as I recall the sounds of Detroit dance music from the late 80's and early 90's. Let's clear that up quickly: there is almost nothing on this collection that sounds remotely like Detroit techno. And much of what we do hear strikes those "new music" chords without being hugely innovative. But it's still damned fine listening.

Justin Messina's Abandon, which was inspired by the above mentioned Motor City music is instead a pensive slow-build that more readily calls to mind the excellent television music of Bernard Herrmann. Its alternating and interacting motifs, driven by a clanking cowbell, effectively build tension over a concise nine minutes. He expertly uses the full range of orchestral colors, with winds, brass, strings and percussion seeking dominance but finding parity, until the witty ending featuring a ticking high hat and a bass glissando. Prior to this, I was only familiar with Messina via his memorable arrangement of John Cage's In A Landscape for Brooklyn Rider - now I'm even more interested.

The album begins with Edmund Campion's Practice, and a quick scan of his bio leaves no doubt that he has completed enough of the titular activity to "get to Carnegie Hall," or at least Zankel Hall, where this was recorded. Also about nine minutes long, Practice starts with a vaguely Spanish fanfare, with muted trumpets, tinkling triangles and skirling flutes, before settling into a calmly relentless forward movement propelled by a slow ostinato from bassoon (I think) and bass. The computers are so seamlessly merged into the orchestra that, to be honest, I didnt really hear them until the end, when a what sounds like a triangle's ting is distended, distorted and eventually flattened into almost white noise. Regardless of how cutting edge it is or isn't, Practice is a brilliantly colorful piece with loads of drama.

Tender Hooks by Anna Clyne is next and it kicks off with a very Stravinskian sound, tension and release happening simultaneously, and a very active drum section. Almost following a sonata form, it quietens down to a brooding segment, enhanced by rumblings, ratchet noises and other electronically-produced accents. Lyrical flutes, brass and piano intertwine with more computer-generated sounds until a snare's hard thwack seems about to kick off a climax. Instead the sound opens up wondrously and then gets progressively darker and stranger. For the last minute, Tender Hooks is quiet and searching, bringing this very satisfying piece to a close.

The final two pieces are each about twice as long as the first three, starting with Neil Rolnick's cleverly titled iFiddle Concerto, which was also included on X10D, the ACO's last Orchestra Underground album. Todd Reynolds is the soloist, playing the "iFiddle,", which "combines the computer and violin into a single musical instrument," according to the composer. At the start, it almost sounds as if the acoustic and electronic impulses are at odds. They seem to go head to head, with the computerized sounds a fractured reflection of what the violin is doing. The orchestra plays a strong supporting role, providing a bed of rhythm, harmony and, especially from the trumpet, counterpoint.

About a third of the way in, we get an amusingly louche and jazzy second section, with Reynolds's line sounding fabulously rich and assured, while also spitting out some wacky electronic shards. There's a pizzicato segment where you can't tell exactly what's acoustic and what's electronic and the last few minutes have a wonderful swagger and a head-nodding rhythm. Some sounds bring to mind the outlandish funk of Jimi Hendrix's wah wah, and the piece ends on a literal high note. The iFiddle Concerto is an entertaining and quick 18 minutes, managing to be both crowd-pleasing and a bit novel.

The final work is by Mason Bates, who's definitely on a hot streak this year. Besides this one, other 2014 releases include his four-movement Alternative Energy, on an album of the same name by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Riccardo Muti (Anna Clyne's Night Ferry is also included), as well as a album of his compositions called Stereo Is King. I hope to have the opportunity to explore those more in depth at another time as Bates is definitely on to something.

The piece here, Omnivorous Furniture, features a drum pad and computer alongside the orchestra, and was (we are told) "heavily influenced by down-tempo electronic with roots in the British hip hop movement." OK, that must have been fun to write, but I don't really hear anything over which Tinie Tempah or Roots Manuva would be inspired to spit a few bars. What I do hear has an American swagger and energy, an amped up Aaron Copland vibe that struts in on giant steps. The computer and drum pad are not so seamlessly integrated, instead they are delightfully obvious, snickering and clacking across the soundscape and daring the orchestra to keep up. An actual four on the floor rhythm does eventually develop for a while, just before a lushly romantic interlude, all plangent strings and warm brass. The final section features bass drum drops like depth charges amid some angular aggression from acoustics and electronics alike, until it all comes to a thrilling halt. This is good stuff, whatever Bates happened to be listening to while he composed it.

In fact, it's all good stuff, and if they had called the album "Reasonably Fresh Sounds from Young-ish American Composers," I would have nothing to complain about. But, I suppose that would be like advertising Volvos as being "boxy but good." Don't let the marketing get in your way - some great listening awaits you.

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