Monk and the Memories


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Like many innovative young artists in New York City in the early 60s Meredith Monk had to train musicians to work with her unusual vocal methods. Her first album, Key (1971), was the first time her vocal art began to be dispersed outside the intimate, neo-bohemian loft space where the album was recorded. After graduating from Sarah Lawrence College in 1964 Monk moved to Manhattan where she and many other young, creative experimental musicians populated what became known as the “downtown scene” or SOHO. Many musicians worked with her over the years including composer/cellist Robert Een, Pianist Anthony De Mare both of whom incorporated their extended vocal techniques learned in the loft of the master herself.

Bang on a Can was formed from a very similar aesthetic (that of providing an alternative to the “uptown scene” which generally refers to the “establishment” or “mainstream” of classical music epitomized by Julliard and Lincoln Center. Founded in 1987, Bang on a Can and their subsequent touring group, Bang on a Can All Stars (begun in 1992) can be said to be another generation’s effort to achieve what Monk and the many musicians who followed such as Philip Glass, Steve Reich, LaMonte Young, among many others whose musical vision stood in contrast to the established uptown, more academic leanings.

It was Bang on a Can’s transcription of Brian Eno’s famous studio produced album (no live musicians), “Music for Airports” that demonstrated their ability to revision some of the work of their forebears and bring it into the concert hall. This is pretty much what we see here in this loving collaboration/tribute to one of New York’s finest composer/performers from the early downtown/SOHO era.

Monk began her artistic life as a dancer and dance/choreography remains an essential part of her artistic vision. 2014-2015 marks the 50th anniversary of Meredith Monk as a performer. “–M—EM–O-R—Y —-G-A—-ME—” (2020) is a wonderful production which sits somewhere between a “greatest hits” record and that of another generation’s reverent celebration of a unique artist. Bang on a Can shares the duties of transcription and performing with Monk and her ensemble. Most of Monk’s work involves (generally) one to five musicians (playing minimalist style music) onstage but here we see an expansion into a larger ensemble not unlike her collaborations which resulted in one of her largest works, the masterful “Atlas” (1993) produced by the Houston Opera. (Would that a new recording of Atlas may eventually come from such a collaboration).

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So what we have here is a combination of transcription, performance, but most importantly a respectful sharing out of a mutual educational experience between Monk’s ensemble and that of BOC. There are nine tracks comprising nine distinct compositions from Monk’s oeuvre. BOC composers provided transcriptions of “Spaceship” (Michael Gordon), “Memory Song” (Julia Wolfe), “Downfall” (Ken Thomson), “Totentanz” and “Double Fiesta” (David Lang). The other tracks appear in transcriptions by members of Monk’s ensemble: “Gamemaster’s Song” and “Migration” (Monk), “Waltz in 5s” (Monk and Sniffin), and “Tokyo Cha Cha” (Sniffin).

Monk’s ensemble in this recording consists of Meredith Monk, Theo Bleckmann, Katie Geissinger, Allison Sniffin, and guest artist Michael Cerveris. The Bang on a Can All Stars include Ashley Bathgate, cello and voice; Robert Black, electric and acoustic bass; Vicky Chow, piano, keyboard, and melodica; David Cossin, percussion; Mark Stewart, electric guitar, banjo, and voice; and Ken Thomson, clarinets and saxophones. The expansion of the ensemble adds favorably to the sound (as it did in Atlas) and the transcriptions enhance the music (as was the case in “Music for Airports”).

The 2012 collaboration produced by Monk’s House Foundation deserves mention here because it is a crowd sourced two CD production of covers by a variety of artists paying homage to Monk’s work. It is not clear if this release had any influence over the Memory Game album but it does speak to the influence of the artist.

The House Foundation for the Arts
ASIN : B00A1JCY1I

Fans of Meredith Monk and her various music/dance/theater works will find a comforting familiarity in these performances of music which, at one time were the leading edge of the new and experimental, now become familiar and, more importantly, embraced by another generation who clearly took the time to look, listen, and understand the work of this now acknowledged American Master. Those unfamiliar will find this a great introduction to Monk’s legacy.

Though chosen from a variety of compositions which date from 1983 to 2006, this selection comes together in a satisfying unity. The very tasteful album design is itself an homage to the look of Monk’s ECM recordings (under Manfred Eicher’s direction) who released the majority of her work. Kudos to the production team of David Cossin and Rob Friedman whose work here is among the finest of Bang on a Can Allstars’ recordings and a very satisfying addition to Monk’s discography. The little liner notes booklet includes an essay by the composer as well as a copy of the lyrics to “Migration” and “Memory Song”, just enough to inform and not overwhelm the casual listener. This is one fantastic release.

Meredith Monk performing her signature Gotham Lullaby in San Francisco, 2016 Other Minds

Dither, a Unique Guitar Quartet


Dither is a guitar quartet comprised of Taylor Levine, Joshua Lopes, James Moore and Gyan Riley.  The present release is their third album and, like the preceding releases is an adventure in listening.  Their intelligently designed web site has some nice sound and video samples.

A quick look at their recorded output places their performing repertoire clearly in the “new music” category and their work has been granted a kind of serious legitimacy by their inclusion (of their second album) in John Zorn’s wonderful Tzadik record label.  So along comes the truly rising star of New Focus Recordings whose service to new music adds yet another imprimatur to this group’s collective resume.

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A quick look at the track list on the back of this gorgeously designed album reveals 9 works spread across 12 tracks (one of the works is in 4 movements) which includes one track from each of the musicians alongside some other interesting new music and, at the end, the gift of one older piece which, though certainly modern in concept is too little known. The only negative is the lack of liner notes both on the album and on their website.

I assure you that I don’t mean to trivialize this wonderful album by calling it “post-psychedelic” but it is difficult to not hear the riffs and effects as having an ancestry in the psychedelic sound.  But for this disc the psychedelic sounds appear to include Frank Zappa, Rhys Chatham, La Monte Young, Brian Eno, as well as Jimi Hendrix, Mahavishnu John Mc Laughlin, and their compatriots.

The first track, “The Garden of Cyrus” (1985) by Eve Beglarian, a much sought after composer who emerged from the downtown New York scene and continues to enthrall with her inventive talents.  This track is generally speaking a sort of post minimalist piece with a rather immediate appeal and serves as a fine introduction to the album. It has a variety of sections with varying degrees of rhythmic complexity and harmonic density. It is sometimes microtonal, sometimes spectral, sometimes antiphonal, sometimes dissonant, sometimes warmly consonant, but always engaging.

Next up is “The Tar of Gyu” (2013) by Gyan Riley.  Gyan is indeed his own man musically who has emerged from the shadow of his famed father Terry Riley in a most gracious manner.  His collaborations with his father continue to be a must see concert event and his work in solo and chamber groups reflect a growing and fascinating identity as a composer and musician entirely in his own right.  The present work makes excellent use of the timbres of the electric guitar and makes for another engaging if rather somber track. This work is largely about sustained tones and timbres and shows a real mastery of composing for this unusual chamber ensemble as well as a side of Riley’s compositional style less familiar to this reviewer.

Paula Matthusen, an associate professor of music at Wesleyan where she became the sort of heir to Alvin Lucier’s Music 109 class (documented so well in Lucier’s book of the same name).  Her music combines electronics with instruments and sometimes recorded sounds.  Her piece, “but because without this” (2009) was written for Dither and continues her unique compositional journey. Without notes it is difficult to say much about this work by a composer who tends to insert herself pretty organically into her compositions.

Jascha Narveson is a name new to this reviewer.  He is another composer deeply involved with electronics as well as acoustic instruments.  Ones (2012) is a four movement work written for the Dither Quartet.  This is basically a set of etudes for the effects pedal.  The four movements, titled “The Wah One”, “The Driving One”, “The Warped One”, and “The Floaty One” are each apparently a reference to electric guitar foot pedals and these minimalist etudes exploit the effect created by the pedal as a compositional device. Really fascinating.

Mi-Go (2012) by the ensemble’s own Joshua Lopes and it is here that the Zappa comparison is most evident.  This piece (the second longest on the album at 9:38) sounds like an aural refugee from Zappa’s “Jazz from Hell” (an album much admired by this writer).  Lopes creates a work of some complexity and many moods utilizing the potential of this instrumentation to great advantage creating a work of almost symphonic dimensions.

Up next is James Moore’s Mannequin (2014), one of the shorter pieces here.  After a loud and somewhat cacophonous opening this piece goes on to explore sustained tones and glissandos.

Candy (2010) by Ted Hearne is the first of only two pieces here that was not written by one of the performers.  Hearned earlier released a fine disc of his own music (also on New Focus). Like many of his peers he wields a tool box of compositional styles that includes jazz as well as contemporary classical techniques. This is certainly one of the more complex pieces here but Hearne’s music communicates well with the audience.

Track 11 is by Dither’s Taylor Levine. Renegade (2013) is a relatively brief piece and one which wanders furthest from my characterization of this album being “minimalist”. It seems to have its roots at least partly in noise bands but its complexity engages and seems to fit the program.

Track 12 is by James Tenney (1934-2006).  His Swell Piece (1966) is actually an early example of minimalism an is part of a series of compositions written on post cards and called, “Postal Pieces”. Tenney spent a portion of his career in California teaching at Cal Arts where he mentored many composers and performers working today,  This is a fitting conclusion, an homage to one of the great experimental composers whose music, thankfully, is now getting fine performances and recordings.

Devonte Hynes’ Fields, Another Triumph for Third Coast Percussion and Cedille


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This recent release by Cedille Records (which turned 30 this year) is a fitting example of their vision as well as daring.  It is in some ways characteristic of Third Coast Percussion whose albums range widely in their creative explorations ranging from definitive performances of accepted masterpieces as well as of works written for them and/or co-created by them with their own compositional and improvisational skills.  Their Steve Reich disc, Perpetulum, and Book of Keyboards CDs have been reviewed here and can be seen to represent the range about which I speak.

The present disc is by an English musician, composer, and producer Devonte Hynes.  He is better known by his pseudonym Blood Orange under which he has released several albums whose style might be described as electronic dance music.  One might think it unusual that someone who works in a sort of “Pop” genre would have his work appear on a basically “classical” label.  And one would be wrong.  One need only think of David Byrne’s on The Knee Plays and his work written for string quartet or the incursions into modern classical by Brian Eno on albums like Music for Airports.

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So here we have three works by Mr. Hynes played by one of Chicago’s finest musical exports, Third Coast Percussion.  The music was entirely written by Hynes on a digital work station, not on score paper (goodbye 20th Century) and transcribed (on to score paper) for the percussion quartet by the musicians.  One of the difficulties in writing for an instrument you don’t play is learning exactly how to write for a given instrument.  That is where the members of the percussion quartet add their expertise to this collaborative effort.  The results will likely surprise many listeners.  There are echoes (or homages) to Philip Glass and likely other such echoes as well.  The bottom line is that this music will not fail to engage.

Hynes’ style might be described as post minimal (as might a lot of dance music) with an eclectic spectrum.  The first work, For All Its Fury is a sequence of 11 distinct sections ranging from just over a minute to just over six minutes for a total of just over 35 minutes of music.  One hear the variety of musical ideas that comprise the composer’s style (s).  Rather than try to describe or identify these styles I will only say that the music is a journey which is designed to be experienced as a whole.  As such it is a very listenable and engaging piece.  It is followed by two single movement works titled respectively Perfectly Voiceless and There Was Nothing, each coming in at around 12 minutes.

While there are some clues to the meaning or intent of the music and titles the listener is basically left with the sound object to contemplate.  But wait, and this is perhaps one of my tired “memes” but the design and artwork of the album and accompanying booklet are themselves a joy to behold as visual objects (oh, for the 12 inch by 12 inch format).  Perhaps there are clues one might glean from this packaging as meanings underlying the sounds therein but I would be seriously remiss to fail to credit Sonnenzimmer, the collective output of artists Nick Butcher and Nadine Nakanishi.  And the photographers Stephanie Bassos and Timothy Burkhart of People vs. Places, another collaborative.  These images are strikingly beautiful and they serve to augment this release in a way that can’t be done on radio or any of the streaming services.  What we have here is closer to an art object with sound.  Congrats to Cedille, Third Coast Percussion and Devonte Hynes (aka Blood Orange) and Happy New Year to all!

Pauline Kim Harris’ Solo Debut: Heroine


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Pauline Kim Harris is a marvelously accomplished violinist.  Her resume includes her work as composer as well as performer.  At first glance this disc would seem to be an unusual choice for a solo debut but a quick look at her discography reveals that we have here a musician who has chosen experimental and potentially cutting edge music to define her work.  This album is a collaboration with another musician, Spencer Topel, who has chosen a similarly difficult and complex challenge to define his career.

I have chosen for the scope of this review to forego attempts at analyzing these nascent artists and their uniquely defined personas as musicians and have simply provided links to their respective websites.  What I feel obligated to do however is look at the nature of this genre of this music.  Is it ambient?  Is it drone? Is it transcription?  And who is the intended audience?  Musicians? Listeners sitting in a seat in a concert hall?  Background music a la Eno’s Music for Airports?  How will this disc be used?

One clue as to this music’s intended purpose is the recording label itself.  Sono Luminus, a new music label defined largely by a concern with producing the finest sound via digital signal processing.  This independent classical label has sent me several CDs which are reviewed (most favorably) elsewhere in these pages.  One of the things that is notable about this label is the intelligent choice of programming.  Rather than settle simply for quality sound alone they seem to focus their repertoirial radar on new and/or unusual music which is not being heard on other labels.  Their choices have been intelligent in the past.

OK, now to the disc.  There are but two pieces here.  One is a sort of deconstruction of the Chaconne from Bach’s solo violin partita (BWV 1004).  This much lauded masterpiece has received a great deal of attention and composers such as Feruccio Busoni have done transcriptions of the work.  Another recent recording (reviewed here) features a just intonation version of the work.  I’m not sure what Bach would have thought of either of these but the fact is that this is a work very much representative of western music in the high baroque era and one which endures in performances to this day.

The sound, of course, is wonderful.  The range and the clarity of the recording beg to be heard on the highest quality sound system the listener can commandeer.  It is beautiful. It is in a tonal idiom.  But what volume is needed?  Well that depends on your listening context.  For the purpose of this review I listened on my factory sound system in my 2015 Toyota RAV 4.  Not the highest end of audio reproduction but one which did allow me to perceive the quality of the recording.

So I listened at a volume which allowed the music to be heard above road and traffic noise.  I wondered if I would have appreciated this from an audience seat.  Hmm, not sure.  Then the more ambient notion suggested itself to me.  Maybe this could be music that is played in the foyer of a concert hall before the concert and during intermissions (regardless of the content of the actual concert to be heard).  Intriguing idea but I know of no one willing to consider this notion in any sizable venue.

I listened to the second track, a “reimagining” of Deo Gratias by renaissance composer Johannes Ockeghem.  Same thoughts…dedicated listener in a chair, music to modify a sonic space.  Both tracks are listed as “Composed by Pauline Kim Harris and Spencer Topel.”  So the artists think of these as their compositions.  Fine by me.  The long standing and ongoing tradition of working with older music and recasting it by changing its instrumentation, writing variations, changing its performance context, etc. is well known and has been put to good use in any number of subsequently respected musical compositions.

So in the end I remain undecided as to the intent (other than experimentalism) of these pieces and will leave my readers with the suggestion that they simply listen and utilize the music as it fits your own life.  It is certainly beautiful but it is not dramatic or assertive, rather it almost subsists inviting listeners to contemplate and choose to do more deeply or to simply allow the music to exist as a pleasing sound object (the listener indeed may be the “Heroine” of the title).  Either way this disc provides much more than what initially meets the ear.  And that would seem to be a significant artistic achievement.

Wolfgang von Schweinitz’s “Klang”, Gorgeous Postminimalism


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I must confess that Ireland is hardly near the top of my list for countries that are producing interesting contemporary music but this new release will soon have me checking out their Contemporary Music Center to see what else is happening.  Let me be clear, I’m not criticizing Ireland, just lamenting the fact that, like many countries, their contemporary classical music rarely gets to U.S. ears.

As if to magically remedy my wish for a more democratic distribution of said music producer Eamonn Quinn kindly sent me this single track CD containing a work influenced by (among others) the Godfather of minimalism, La Monte Young. He commented to me about the ultimate marketability of a one track CD but his instincts are well placed in this CD recorded February 2019, hot off the presses.   This is my first encounter with the composer, Wolfgang von Schweinitz (1953- ) whose name is now programmed into my surveillance engines as a voice to be followed.  Definitely want to hear more from him.  Born in Hamburg, he now teaches at Cal Arts.  A list of his works can be found here.  (While there you will want to avail yourself of the rest of this great site about just intonation composer at Plainsound)

While I share Mr. Quinn’s concern about the marketability of a single track CD (it is about 45 min), this is an ideal presentation for a work in just intonation by a string trio and the uninterrupted 45 minute interval is integral to the experience of the music.  This work is like the grandchild of La Monte Young’s String Trio (1958).  I am now having fantasies about curating a program of this work paired with its spiritual grandfather.  The single track, just intonation hits at my geeky minimalist heart and I know I’m not alone in that.

The brief but lucid and useful program notes are by the wonderful Paul Griffiths and the recording by Peter Furmanczyk captures the rich overtones well.  The Goeyvaerts String Trio has earned a place in my media alerts now as well.  They perform this work with insight and passion.

Now, past the name dropping and background stuff to the music itself.  If you know the long tones of La Monte Young’s String Trio, which is of similar length, you might hear it as a more melodic version of that.  That is not to say that this work is derivative, it is evolved its predecessor’s DNA, so to speak.  It is postminimalism (or file under “ambient” if you prefer) from that branch of the family tree.

The full title of KLANG” is given as ” PLAINSOUND STRING TRIO KLANG AUF SCHÖN BERG LA MONTE YOUNG…” Op. 39 (1999, rev 2013),  and while the musical references to Schoenberg and Berg are there, the experience is that of an almost romantic tableau of long tones and rich harmonics descended from the Urtext of minimalism that is La Monte Young. The spirit of Morton Feldman appears to reside here as well, maybe even a wisp of Brian Eno.  The kaleidoscopic effect of the just intonation with all the rich harmonic overtones evoke a great deal and probably will provoke different memories for different listeners. It is a maybe even a sort of Verklärte Nacht for the millennium though what is ultimately transformed is the listener themselves.  You can choose your own metaphor, but first you’ll be charmed by the music.

And dontcha have to love that cover graphic?