Tim Brady: Music for Large Ensemble


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Starkland ST-230

Two years ago Starkland released Instruments of Happiness which was this writer’s introduction to this artist.  As a result I traversed the wall of artistic apartheid and ordered more of his work through the Canadian Music Centre.  This is an important and well organized site for anyone interested in Canadian classical artists.  (Hint: there are a lot of good composers up that way.)

Tim Brady (1956- ) is a Canadian composer and musician who is best known for his work with multiple guitar ensembles (from 4 to 200).  Of course knowledgeable listeners will logically place him in the category of “composers who write for lots of guitars” category.  Rhys Chatham and the late Glenn Branca come to mind as probably the best known in this genre.  What is important is that, in the same way that Branca sounds very different from Chatham, Brady has his own sound developed over years of playing and composing.  In addition to his compositions for guitar ensembles he writes for more traditional classical ensembles including chamber music, concerti and symphonies.

This latest release to storm the bastion of artistic apartheid known as the US/Canadian border is Brady’s second release on an American label and it appears to be a quantum leap.  Here we get to hear Brady’s chops in handling a large orchestra.  He can no longer fit only into the category of “composers who write for lots of guitars”.  The two works on this disc are Desír (2016-17), a concerto for electric guitar and orchestra and Songs About Symphony No. 7 (2016-17).  Both works were written for the Victoriaville Festival.  Both reflect his development as a composer.  And that is why you want this disc.

The concerto Desír is in a pretty standard three movement format.  This is not his first concerto for the instrument.  Perusing his substantial list of works one finds two other concerti for electric guitar and ensemble.  It is Brady’s principal instrument and one he clearly knows from it’s acoustic components to all its electric extensions.  What is a revelation for this listener is hearing how skilled Brady is at writing for traditional classical instruments as well.  At one time the electric guitar was pretty much anathema in the classical world but Brady and his ilk have pretty much made it into simply another addition to the orchestra by creating a large and fascinating repertoire.

Desír presents a challenge for both orchestra and soloist but manages to be both contemporary and eminently listenable.  Brady’s palette is basically tonal with nods to rock and minimalism as well as references to the larger classical world.  And it is the larger classical world with which Brady is concerned in the second work on the album, Songs About Symphony No. 7.  No, this is not about Brady’s 7th (it looks like he is on his 8th, going on 9th symphonies himself) this is about Dmitri Shostakovitch’s 7th and its first performance in Leningrad on August 9, 1942.  It was the Leningrad premiere and it took place in the midst of the actual siege of Leningrad.

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Poet Douglas Burnet Smith

The text is by one Douglas Burnet Smith (1949-), a Canadian poet.  His text reflects the thoughts and impressions of various people in reaction to the Leningrad premiere of this major work.  This work demonstrates Brady’s extreme facility for vocal writing.  A quick perusal of Brady’s works list confirms that he has produced operatic works before and his skill in this area is unquestionable.

This piece is essentially an orchestral song cycle and can be favorably compared to works such as Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde and Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony.  The major difference is that the text of this work is clearly anti-war.  The various characters describe the horrors of war from their various perspectives and what holds these commentaries together is that they all make reference to the performance which took place in the midst of the awful siege of Leningrad.  The “Bradyworks Large Ensemble is ably conducted by Cristian Gort.  This is complex music but he manages to make it all work as a listenable whole.

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Cristian Gort

Shostakovitch’s work, despite it’s lack of vocal settings, is clearly an anti-war piece and, like many of his works, is concerned with social justice and human rights.  Brady’s work uses that historical performance as a context to share the various characters’ impressions in a sort of kaleidoscopic fashion and his writing here is stunningly good (meaning both text and music).  The two soloists, soprano Sarah Albu and baritone Vincent Ranallo, are clearly up to the task from spoken word to full blown operatic power.  It is not clear if the arts can affect social justice but this is one damn good try.

Having listened to Instruments of Happiness and a few more of Brady’s Canadian CDs it is fascinating to hear his development as a composer.  It is not clear if he has reached his peak but he is certainly up there showing no signs of anything but the progress of a major artist.  Bravo, Mr. Brady!  Keep it coming.

Jacob Greenberg Putting Debussy in Context


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New Focus FCR 192

Well it’s been 100 years since Claude Debussy (1862-1918) left the earthly plane and anniversaries are good times for a re-evaluation.  Usually this just means issuing recordings of a given composers works, mostly the composer’s most popular.   Jacob Greenberg has chosen to record Debussy’s Preludes for Piano Books I and II (1909-1913).  But that alone seems a bit pedestrian so he adds in Alban Berg’s (1885-1935) Op. 1 Piano Sonata (1909), Anton Webern’s (1883-1945) masterful Variations for Piano (1936), and Arnold Schoenberg’s (1874-1951) “Book of the Hanging Gardens” Op. 15 (1908-9) as well as a few additional Debussy pieces.  Greenberg is a sort of refugee from the International Contemporary Ensemble.  For this recording he also conscripts the fine soprano (and fellow ICE refugee) Tony Arnold.  These two have already amassed quite a few recordings of repertory from this era.

This mix provides a context for the listener which shows where the Preludes fit historically and demonstrates some of the similarities in sound between these early 20th Century works.  We hear music written between 1908 and 1936 by four composers.  Hearing these works together gives the listener a sense of how some of the best “contemporary” compositions of this brief era sounded.  Indeed there are similarities here and one can see the emerging style which would become known as “expressionism”.  It is clearer how this emerged from Debussy and Ravel’s “impressionism” when you hear related works from the same era.

This reviewer had not been familiar with Schoenberg’s “Book of the Hanging Gardens”.  It is one of the less performed of his works.  These songs have a militantly atonal sound. Vocalist extraordinaire Tony Arnold puts real muscle into her reading of these songs.  The disc is worth acquiring for her performance alone.

In some ways this cycle appears to have been Schoenberg’s “Tristan und Isolde” meaning that he had stretched the limits of tonality and, unlike Wagner, he chose to develop a method which would ensure that there is no tonal center in his music.  He developed his method of 12 tone composition and rolled out his first example of this new method in 1925.

What is striking is that this Schoenberg song cycle dates from pretty much the same time as the Debussy Preludes and Alban Berg’s Piano Sonata.  One gets a sense of some of the tensions involved here.  Try to imagine being in the audience and hearing the wide stylistic differences between these two works and realizing that they are essentially from the same era.  Add in the much later Variations by Webern and one gets a sense of how far music could go, stylistically, based on Schoenberg’s methods.

Obviously the Debussy Preludes are the main focus here and these are acknowledged as classics of the repertoire.  They are most ably performed here but what struck this listener the most was the sound of those preludes in the context of the other pieces here which were part of that same 30 year span.  One can begin to hear perhaps some affinity between the Debussy and the later thornier harmonies and rhythms that typify the expressionistic style which would dominate much of the mid-twentieth century.

This is a fabulously entertaining recording and a sort of music history lesson as well.  Greenberg is a strong and assertive musician with an obvious feel for these pieces.  His choice of repertoire makes this a particularly good choice for the listener who is just beginning to explore this musical era and an eye-opening program for the seasoned listener.  Great set.

Missa Charles Darwin: The Chicken or the Egg?


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This is one unusual disc, not specifically due to the musical content actually but rather its back story.  Gregory W. Brown is a composer with a significant body of work to his credit.  He also happens to be the younger brother of author Dan Brown.  Yes, THAT Dan Brown, of DaVinci Code fame.

Now, at first glance, one notices that the CD states, “as featured in the Novel ORIGIN by Dan Brown.”  This reviewer’s initial assumption was that this music was written subsequent to the novel as a sort of “tie in”.  Well the fact is that the music preceded the 2017 book by some six years and was heard by the author who then incorporated it (initially unbeknownst to the composer) into a chapter of his novel, ORIGIN.

So what we have here is a sort of “tie in” but, more importantly an inspiration in part for the work which now incorporates it.  This reviewer has only read a brief summary of the elder Brown’s novel, enough to understand that one of the themes in the complex web of the story includes characters who are against organized religion.  This Missa Charles Darwin (2011), structured in the classical (or should I say, ecclesiastical) manner but incorporates texts from Charles Darwin’s writings into the conventional Latin texts.

Like his brother Dan, Gregory feels free to incorporate things heretical.  The fight between the Holy Roman Catholic Church and supporters of Darwin’s theories is well known and indeed ongoing.  By incorporating Darwin’s words amongst the ecclesiastical proclamations and adorations of the mass texts Brown creates a sort of philosophical critique to both provoke thought and entertain.

His choice to utilize a vocal quartet and his harmonic choices gives this work the ambiance of medieval and renaissance mass settings.  The younger of the Brown brothers utilizes a mix of past, distant past and present to create a sort of philosophical fiction not entirely unlike the techniques in Dan Brown’s novels.  The music is very listenable and never trivial.  It simultaneously transports the listener to the mystical feeling of an unnamed Cathedral in the 14th or 15th Century as well as to the 19th/early 20th Century science v. religion squabbles that plague us still.

Comment must be made about the beautiful presentation of this recording.  It is a box containing the CD and cards containing both art work and texts.  Included is a nice a photo of the two brothers.

Not having yet read the novel it is difficult to say with certainty what impact the music ultimately has on the experience but, like soundtracks that enhance the experience of a given film, this finely crafted music can only add to the experience.  Of course both novel and music will be able to stand alone on their individual merits.

This writer is given to wonder if further collaborations between these two may happen and the next Robert Langdon story might be heard in an opera house.  Go for it guys!

 

 

Louisville Orchestra Reboot on CD: All In


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The Louisville Orchestra was established in 1937 and its history has been wonderfully told in a 2010 documentary entitled, Music Makes a City.  Since their founding they released about 150 LPs containing new and interesting music not available anywhere else.  Many of those recordings have become available on the Albany CD label but the orchestra hasn’t released a new recording in about 30 years.

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Teddy Abrams

Along comes new music director, composer, clarinetist Teddy Abrams and now we are graced with a new recording on the Decca Gold label.  Now for a reboot this release is somewhat conservative in it’s musical choices but that’s not to say it isn’t interesing.  This recording, released also in commemoration of the orchestra’s 80th season, reflects a sincere effort to draw younger audiences to the concert hall.

This auspicious release contains as its opening Abrams’ Unified Field, a finely crafted four movement work that channels the late Aaron Copland and his ilk.  It’s style is inflected with elements of jazz and other so called “vernacular” music but it incorporates those styles in much the way that Copland and his contmporaries incorporated folk song as well as jazz/pop rhythms. It is virtually a symphony in its dimensions and is highly entertaining while remaining seriously classical and very finely crafted.  The year of it’s composition is not specified in the notes this writer received but best guess is that it is of recent vintage in this talented composer’s oeuvre.

This is followed, curiously, by three torch songs, one by the able soloist Storm Large, one by Cole Porter, and one by Teddy Abrams.  The stylistic unity of these three songs is striking and Storm Large (who is known for her work with Pink Martini) is a convincing chanteuse.

These are followed by another American masterpiece, the Clarinet Concerto (1948) by Aaron Copland.  Originally written (and subsequently recorded by) Benny Goodman, the concerto is definitely in the repertoire but receives far too few hearings in concert.  This writer had not heard the concerto in many years and was struck both by its quality and by the convincing performance recorded here.  Abrams takes the solo role and the orchestra is conducted with assurance by one Jason Seber.

Abrams’ reading is as convincing and authentic as any and this is a delightful way to close this wonderful recording.  Here’s hoping that this release will be the restart of Louisvilled great recorded legacy and that Abrams tenure as conductor will breath new life into an orchestra which has become a venerable part of America’s cultural history.

 

 

Crazy Nigger, Gay Guerrilla, Precious Artist: Julius Eastman Examined


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This essential collection celebrates the life and work of a composer and performer whose unique presence was nearly eroded to nothing but for the work of composer (and co-editor of this volume) Mary Jane Leach who spearheaded an effort to rescue as many scores and recordings as possible after Eastman’s death in 1990 at the age of 49.  The first evidence of this modern archaeological effort came with the release of Unjust Malaise (2005), three CDs which featured some of the recordings that were gathered in that early effort.  In addition it should be noted that Leach continues to maintain a resource page with the most up to date information on Eastman scholarship efforts.

Now, along with Renée Levine Packer (whose wonderful history of the Buffalo New Music Days, “This Life of Sounds” (2010) is not to be missed) we have a lovingly edited collection of essays which comprise a sort of biography as well as an appreciation of this very important American composer.

One look at the acknowledgements reveals the wide scope of individuals with whom Eastman came into contact and whose contributions became so essential to this volume.  The wonderful introductory essay is so very appropriately written by George E. Lewis whose figure itself continues to loom knowledgeably over late twentieth and early twenty first century music.  He takes a characteristically unflinching look at the cultural, historical and socioeconomic factors that contextualize Eastman’s work as well as his untimely demise.  Eastman’s frequent use of politically incorrect titles that challenge a smooth vocal delivery in the most seasoned of broadcasters is here made to seem quite understandable (if not comfortably palatable) within the complex forces that defined Eastman’s milieu.  Lewis embraces Eastman’s talents and makes the prospect of further study of his work tantalizing.  He provides a truly authoritative context which can serve all future work in this area.

There are nine chapters, a chronology and a select bibliography along with photographs and score examples.  The essays that comprise each chapter focus from the macro-view of Packer’s biographical sketch and Leach’s timeline to micro-analyses of some of Eastman’s works and some additional personal perspectives.  One of the most endearing qualities of this volume is the fact that many of the contributors knew and/or worked with Eastman at one time or another.  It is clear that all the contributors were deeply affected by their encounters with Eastman himself and/or with his music and all are rather uniquely suited to be in this volume.

One suspects that Packer’s biographical sketch which opens this volume will henceforth serve as a basic model for all future biographical research.  Whether one finds agreements or not the material is presented in as complete and organized a fashion as can be imagined.  It paints the picture of a prodigy who, for whatever reason, fell into disarray.  Whether there was drug use or symptoms of mental illness will be the debate which will, of course, never be satisfactorily resolved.  What shines through though are tantalizing moments and a plethora of relationships, however brief sometimes, that contribute to all we will ever really know of the enigma of the life of this precious artist.

Some of what follows has the quality of memoir and some leans more toward academic analysis.  All of these essays, timelines, bibliographies, etc. tie this book together as the first most comprehensive effort at trying to understand the man, his music, his milieu, his unusual personality.

These accounts will always be crucial in any future analysis of the enigmatic talent of Julius Eastman.  Though many will attempt to affix labels to his personality variously attributing his quirks to mental or physical illness no one will ever know him the way the people in this book did, as a precious artist whose work was rescued (as much as it could be) from obscurity by his family (both biological and artistic).  He was and is loved in perhaps the only way that he would allow, through his work and his deeds.

This book is a fascinating read which serves to put the artist back into his proper place as the genius he was.  Much remains to be written, performed, analyzed and recorded but this book will always serve as the reference point for what is to come.

The Heresy and the Ecstasy: Brooklyn Raga Massive Does “In C”


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This is heresy.  It is not, strictly speaking, faithful to the 1964 score and it is a sort of cultural appropriation which is actually the very basis of Brooklyn Raga Massive, a sort of latter day “Oregon” (to those who recall that band) which takes on all sorts of music and filters it through the unique lens of this flexibly populated group of musicians whose backgrounds range primarily from Hindustani and Carnatic traditions (though hardly in the most classical sense) but also from western classical and jazz.  Their “heresy” comes from their choices.  The root of heresy is the Greek word, “hairesis” which means choice.  There is a lovely selection of their musical heresies on their You Tube Channel.

No this is not purely heresy and it is certainly not blasphemy.  Quite the opposite actually.  And I would prefer to think of this effort as cultural integration.  The choices made here instead lead to some mighty ecstatic music making which pays honor to Terry Riley who turned 80 in 2015 and provides a unique perspective on this classic work.

“In C” (1964) is without doubt Riley’s best known work by far and the one which pretty much defined what would later become known for better or worse as “minimalism”.  It is an open score meaning that no instruments are specified for performance making this music heretical in nature as well.  In addition there is no conductor’s score as such.  Rather there are 53 melodic cells numbered 1 to 53 and the ensemble is held together by the expression of an 8th note pulse played by at least one of the musicians involved.  The defining reference on the intricacies of this work is composer/musicologist Robert Carl’s masterful book entitled simply, “In C”.  He describes the wide variety of potential choices which can be made in performance and the different results which can be achieved.

There are a great deal of recordings available of this work from the first (released 1968)  on Columbia’s “Music of Our Time” series curated by the insightful David Behrman to versions involving a wide variety of instrumental combinations of varying sizes.  The first “world music” version this writer has heard is the version for mostly percussion instruments by Africa Express titled, “In C Mali” (released in 2014).

Not surprisingly BRM, as they are known, have chosen a largely Hindustani/Carnatic take on this music.  The unprepared listener might easily mistake this for a traditional Indian music recording with the introduction which incorporates a raga scale and adheres to the traditional slow free rhythm improvisation of the introductory “alap” section common to such traditional or classical performances.

The familiar sound of these (largely) South Asian instruments with their rich harmonics sets the tone gently.  This writer has at best a perfunctory working knowledge of these complex and beautiful musical traditions but one must surmise that the choice of Raga Bihag may have some intended meaning.  Indeed such music is by definition integrated into the larger cosmology of Hinduism, the Vedas, the Gita, the Sanskrit language, and, no doubt other references.  This is not discussed in the brief liner notes but is worthy perhaps as a future interview question.

It appears that many of the musical decisions were made by sitarist Neel Murgai though it becomes clear as the performance develops that individual soloists are allowed wonderful improvisational freedoms at various points.  The recording is intelligently divided to let the listener know which set of melodic cells is being expressed at a given time.

The alap gives way to the sound of the tablas which initiate the pulse mentioned earlier.  The structure of this piece produces a range of musical experiences from a sort of didactic beginning to the swirling psychedelic waves of sound which stereotypically define much of the music born in the mid 1960s in this country.  In fact Terry Riley’s deep study of South Asian musics (most famously under vocalist Pandit Pran Nath) did not occur until later in his career.  Nonetheless there seems to have always been some affinity between Riley’s vision and the sort of music whose popularity was driven in the United States most famously by the efforts such as Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Alla Rakha in the 1970s.

What follows is a riot of musical ecstasy involving some inspired improvisational riffs and some stunning vocalizations as well giving us a fascinating take on this music which was written well before these musicians came into the world.  We have a later generation paying homage to the beloved American composer and to the beautiful traditions of their own eclectic ethnic heritage.

The set concludes in this live and lively recording with a traditional fast paced Jhalla, the traditional ending to classical Indian musical performances. This will likely become known as the “Indian” recording of “In C” but it is so much more than that.  It is an homage.  It is a look back from the view of at least a couple of generations of artists.  And it is heresy in the best sense of that word, choices made judiciously to achieve higher artistic goals.  Not all art is heresy and not all heresy is art but the heresies perpetrated here definitely deserve our ears.

The heretics are: Neel Murgai, Sitar and Vocal; Arun Ramamurthy, Violin; Andrew Shantz, Vocal; Josh Geisler, Bansuri; Sameer Gupta, Tabla; Roshni Samlal, Tabla; Eric Fraser, Bansuri; Timothy Hill, vocal; Trina Basu, Violin; Ken Shoji, Violin; Kane Mathis, Oud; Adam Malouf, Cello; Michael Gam, Bass; Lauren Crump, Cajon; David Ellenbogen, Guitar; Max ZT, Hammered Dulcimer; Vin Scialla, Riq and Frame Drum; Aaron Shragge, Dragon Mouth Trumpet.

Namaste, folks.

 

 

 

 

Visions of a Dreamer: Keane Southard’s Waltzing Dervish


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Keane Southard (1987- ) is a composer and pianist whose work is influenced by a variety of styles including standard classical and pop and folk influences.  This major debut disc is a fine sampling of his work though it is important to realize that his work is for diverse ensembles of pretty much every description and the present sampling is of music for wind ensemble.

Just like every specialized grouping, be it string quartet, string orchestra, wind quintet, solo piano, full orchestra, etc., one encounters composers with varying degrees of facility in each configuration.  Southard seems very much at home with the wind ensemble/band and its possibilities.  A quick look through his extensive works list at his site suggests a hugely prolific musician with a wide variety of skill sets in a variety of musical configurations.  Wind ensemble is clearly one of his strengths and the Northeastern State University Wind Ensemble of Oklahoma under conductor Norman Wika are up to the challenges.  Southard playfully refers to this grouping as a “wind powered” ensemble using it as a metaphor for ecologically sustainable power systems.

There are nine tracks of which three are transcriptions of other composers’ work and the remaining six are by Southard.  His metaphors are as eclectic as his musical choices but fear not, his choices are friendly ones.  The first track, Waltzing Dervish sets the tone as an original and substantial composition of some ten minutes duration in which he takes on the waltz and its various meanings both public and personal to create an original band composition concerned as much with ecological metaphor as with a striving for multicultural diversity in an optimistic and thoughtful exploration of what can easily be a tired dance form.

The second piece is an arrangement of a piece by Francisco Mignone (1897-1986), one of the composers whose music he encountered during his 2013 Fulbright Fellowship in Brazil.  The piece is scored for optional choir (not used in this recording) and band, an arrangement Southard made with the intention of sharing this music as a highly viable selection for concert band.  It is indeed a joyous affair and one could easily imagine this being adopted as a staple in the rarefied realm of concert band music.

Do You Know How Many You Are? is the composer’s 2013 band arrangement of a 2010 choral piece which he describes as having basically come to him in a dream.

Claude Debussy’s Menuet (ca. 1890) was originally a piano piece which Southard envisioned in this orchestrated form during the course of his studies of orchestration.  That sort of inspiration is not uncommon for a composer but the result is not always as ideal as the composer imagined.  Fortunately this orchestration works quite well and again would proudly fit in a given band’s repertoire as an audience pleasing piece.

The next piece, originally an orchestral piece from 2013 is presented in the composer’s own arrangement for band.  No Interior Do Rio De Janeiro (2013/15) is another of the inspirations from the composer’s 2013 Fulbright Fellowship and was inspired by his work with “Orquestrando a Vida”, a Brazilian music project inspired by Venezuela’s famed “El Sistema”.  The band version was written on a commission from the present NSU Wind Ensemble.  Here is perhaps a departure from the dance theme of the first three tracks.  It seems to be a thesis or musical diary entry reflecting his personal take on the experience of working with this project though the spirit of the dance remains throughout.

Carousel (2008/2010) is the arrangement for band of the third movement of a mini-symphony (perhaps a scherzo?) for orchestra.  Curiously he describes his inspiration as coming from the sound of the calliope, a sort of steam driven organ common in circuses of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Cortège et Litanie (1922) by French composer and organist Marcel Dupré (1886-1971) is a bit of a departure.  Neither a dance nor derived from Brazilian sources this piece was originally written for organ.  The organ (like the calliope in the previous piece) is arguably a wind instrument and this transcription retains some of the ambiance of that grand instrument.  It is among Dupré’s better known pieces and seems a natural for band.

Uma Pasacalha Brasiliera (2015) is a commission from a the Arrowhead Union High School Wind Ensemble and conductor Jacob T. Polancich.  The composer describes various influences in the circuitous path the the completion of this work but it is basically a sort of homage to the baroque form of the pasacaglia (variations over a repeating bass line) as well as to some of the great folk song influenced composers such as Percy Grainger.  Brazilian influences dominate much of the composer’s work from this period and they combine with the aforementioned baroque and folk influences to form a wonderfully creative take on that form of baroque counterpoint.

Finally the big finale is presented in another transcription, this time of a concerto for piano and organ from 2008.  Of course the organ again lends it’s sound easily to a band transcription and we have this Concertino for Piano and Wind Band (2008 rev. 2015) which allows us to hear the considerable keyboard skills of the composer.  This is the most substantial work on the disc and provides a satisfying finale to this portrait of a prolific and optimistic young composer at the very successful beginnings of what this writer (optimistically) hopes will be a long and productive career.