Sunday, June 13, 2021

Record Roundup: Novelty Is Not Enough


Some of the hardest work of writing AnEarful is choosing what to share out of the many, many recordings that come my way. As ever, the cream rises to the top, but when interrogating why the cream is the cream, I think I've settled on something: Newness is not enough. While it's certainly admirable to push music forward by organizing sound in a manner that seems to have never been done before, for me to truly love something it must go beyond the merely novel. For example, take The Residents. While I can certainly say nothing else sounds like them and I appreciate the opportunity to hear something so strange, I'm not compelled to make their music a part of my life. Their novelty is something on which we can objectively agree, it's what is lacking for me that shades into the subjective. That said, perhaps some of what I share below may not fit the bill on all levels for you - but I hope you will give it a chance to at least expand your conception of what music can be and do.

Sō Percussion and Friends - Julius Eastman: Stay On It One of the most riveting events of the current livestream era was when Sō Percussion presented their version of Eastman's pioneering piece of maxi-minimalism with a stunning, mind-melting video by MediaQueer (the duo of Phong Tran and Darian Donovan Thomas) as part of their Brooklyn Bound series. I was in the kitchen, listening the chats and music that preceded it while doing the dishes, etc., but when that video started up, I could not look away from their next-level collage of TV ads, street protests, and bits of cultural detritus. I also had the sense that the performance of Stay On It was special on its own, instantly treasuring how the repetitions seemed to build momentum while allowing other themes and sounds to emerge. Now that it has been released as a standalone recording, I'm delighted to be 100% RIGHT. The four members of Sō laid down the elemental groove that drives the piece and then invited some extraordinary guests to add to the flexible structure of the piece, including Tran and Thomas on electronics and violin respectively, Grey Mcmurray on guitar and vocals, Beth Meyers on viola and vocals, Alex Sopp on flute, piccolo, and vocals, Adam Tendler on piano, and Shelley Washington on sax - each one a player who brings their all to any project. What a joy to hear this piece in a committed, well-recorded performance, allowing all the layers of one of Eastman's most accessible and optimistic works to reveal themselves clearly. It's as fresh and revelatory as it must have been in 1973, when he wrote it. Simply put, they've set a new standard for Eastman's ensemble work, and one as high as Jace Clayton's sparkling take on his piano music. There will be more Eastman goodies to come, too, as Wild Up has announced a multi-year project, starting with Femenine - hear an excerpt here.

Kenneth Kirschner & Joseph Branciforte - From The Machine, Vol. 1 Greyfade is a new boutique label prizing sonic excellence on vinyl and in high-resolution digital formats (no streaming) and seeking to present music that arises from innovative processes. In this case, Kirschner and Branciforte have transferred algorithmic and generative techniques from electronic music into the acoustic realm, using software to compose two pieces of austere elegance. The first, April 20, 2015, originally an electronic composition by Kirschner and here arranged for two cellos (Mariel Roberts and Meaghan Burke) and piano (Jade Conlee) by Branciforte,  finds the instruments in dialog, if not quite conversation, sliding around each other in a series of brief phrases. The second, 0123, composed by Branciforte for "low string quartet" (Tom Chiu, violin, Wendy Richman, viola, Christopher Gross, cello, Greg Chudzik, double bass), has the players work their way up an octave by exploring the same four-note cell in a ruminative fashion. Both works generate a mysterious disquiet that I think would exist even if you didn't know there was code behind them and represent a planting of the flag for Greyfade, claiming impressive territory that I look forward to exploring further on their first release, which featured collaborations between Branciforte and vocalist Theo Bleckmann, and their next one with the JACK Quartet, coming in September.

Peter Gilbert - Burned Into The Orange No one could accuse New Focus co-founder Gilbert of using the label to promote his own music - this is only his second release and the last was over a decade ago. But his dazzling command of various forces, from string quartets (both the Arditti and the Iridium are featured) to electronics to solo tuba, makes me hope we don't have to wait that long for more. Each piece grabs the attention like a great storyteller, with Channeling The Waters for flute and percussion (Camilla Hoitenga and Magdalena Meitzner, respectively) being emblematic. Opening with a heavy metal fanfare, it leads you on a labyrinthine journey that never ceases to fascinate, which could be said of the album as a whole. Join the adventure.

Wavefield Ensemble - Concrete & Void This first album from an ensemble launched in 2016 and made up of new music all-stars, including Julia den Boer, Hannah Levinson, Greg Chudzik, and Dan Lippell, was recorded at a socially-distanced concert at a parking garage in Montclair, NJ in October 2020. But you would never know it's a live performance, such is the gleaming perfection of the sound. Presented are five meaty works (the shortest is just over eleven minutes) from composers, including Jen Baker, Jessie Cox, Victoria Cheah, Chudzik, and Nicholas DeMaison, who all collaborated deeply with the players. Pushing through the COVID era restraints (no in-person rehearsals, etc.), the group has arrived at a series of gripping, cinematic soundscapes, with Cheah's A wasp, some wax, an outline of the valley over us a fall being especially involving. Like all the pieces, the integration of electronics and acoustic instruments is seamless and her use of suspense brings to mind Bernard Herrmann's work for sci-fi television or tracks from Nine Inch Nails Ghosts, as she draws you through a series of images in sound. After all of Cheah's tension, Chudzik's Silo washes over you like a hymnal, with his cello surrounded by harmonics and drones. Concrete & Void firmly establishes Wavefield as a group to watch, and I hope I can get to their next concert, especially if it has free parking!

Chris Campbell - Orison Using an array of forces including members of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, "hybrid-music" violinist Todd Reynolds, and drummer Dave King from The Bad Plus, Cambell has created a seven-movement work that brings a sense of calm and reflection for its 37-minute length. Reminiscent of some of John Luther Adams' pieces, with high, whispery tones from the violin and swirling harmonics, King's drums (often played with brushes) and repeating piano figures lend forward motion to the piece. "Orison" is a perfect title, but "oasis" would work, too, for the way Campbell's music clears space in the mind. Although there are fewer daily shocks in 2021 than in 2020, this still feels just like what the doctor ordered. During the years of its composition, Campbell came to think of the piece as "a companion" and this listener feels the same. Keep it close.

Various Artists - A New Age For New Age Vol. 3 Eventually all genres of music, from the lauded to the discredited, come around for reconsideration. "New Age" music, which I used to view as sort of the strip-mall yoga center version of ambient, has been having a nice moment over the last few years, whether in the revival of Laraaji's career or ear-opening reissues like Pearls Of The Deep, the best of Stairway. Starting in 2020, the ever-expanding Whatever's Clever label began inviting artists to submit pieces that reinterpret New Age music and curating compilations based on what they received. The first two volumes (and Vol. 4, for that matter) were wonderful, but this is the one to which I keep returning. Partly that's because it has a NEW SONG from Elana Low, which is a precious thing indeed (full disclosure: I suggested she submit something!), but also for the sheer variety that somehow coheres into a satisfying journey. Opening with the supremely witty Serenity Now by shm0o0o, with its "dee-do-dee-do-dee-do...dah!" refrain, we are also given the rain-streaked chamber music of 4385650503, a collaboration between LLLL, Mitsuhiro Fujiwara, and DaisyModern, and the sun-dazed folk of Reliable Feelings by Adeline Hotel among other explorations in mostly electronic tones and textures. Considering Whatever's Clever has released four volumes in the series without repeating artists, they have obviously struck a nerve with creators. Don't miss out on what's exciting them - you may even find a new soundtrack for your yoga practice.

Ben Seretan - Cicada Waves This dreamy series of piano improvisations accompanied by nature sounds would have been HUGE during the original New Age era - it's also the most distinctive and assured music I've heard from Seretan, the founder of Whatever's Clever and a stalwart of the indie-rock/folk scene in the northeast. He just sounds so settled, spinning chords and melodies while rain washes down or crickets sing around him, and that sense of contentment is contagious. For full immersion, watch the videos he's created or commissioned for each song. Good luck getting a cassette, though, as he's already sold out two pressings. 

You may also enjoy:
Record Roundup: Electro-Humanism
Record Roundup: On The Cutting Edge
BOAC At MMOCA: The Eno Has Landed

Note: The cover photo includes a detail of Shoshanna Weinberger's installation for the Sunroom Project Space, on display at Wave Hill.

AnEarful acknowledges that this work is created on the traditional territory of the Munsee Lenape and Wappinger peoples.

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