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.

Tim Brady: The Canadian Connection


tbradyhappiness

Starkland is one of the few American labels that regularly pays attention to Canadian composers.  I previously reviewed their Paul Dolden release here.  This challenge to the curious apartheid we seem to maintain with Canadian culture is most welcome of course and one can obtain a great deal of Canadian music via Canadian labels but retail distribution of their non-pop music is limited to mail order and Internet sales (and I don’t mean Amazon either).  I strongly recommend perusing the web site of the Canadian Music Center for a truly stunning selection of this too little known recorded repertoire.  I should note that most of Brady’s releases are readily available from actuellecd.com.  You can find several of those other symphonies here as well as many other pieces and collaborative releases.  After hearing this disc I couldn’t resist hearing more  by this artist whose work has been known only faintly to me thus far.  That order is now being shipped.

Now to the disc at hand.  The  use of electric guitars as a primary instrument conjures immediate comparisons to Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham as well as to rock and blues but this music is quite different from all of these.  This is one aspect of  the work of a composer whose work includes writing for orchestra, chamber and solo instruments as well.  Brady, largely set taught in music until he attended college (Concordia University 1975-78; New England Conservatory 1978-80) is an interesting composer and performer with a widely varied palette.  Brady’s Wikipedia page is surprisingly informative as well.  You can find that here.

Tim Brady (1956- ) is an artist of many talents and this recording represents his most recent work, a symphony.  It is his fifth essay so titled and his choice of instrumentation for each (of his now 6 symphonies) is unique.  In this case he has chosen to score for four guitars (his Symphony No. 4 is for full orchestra) and also presents a separate solo version backed by electronics.  It is subtitled, “The Same River Twice” (2013) and I struggled a bit initially getting wrapped up in trying to discern the differences between the two versions but realized that is rather beside the point in a way.  What makes this music interesting is the way in which it differs from the likes of Branca and Chatham.  Brady clearly comes from a different perspective.  The myriad ways in which creative musicians find to integrate cross genre elements fascinates me as a listener.  He is 8 years younger than Branca, 4 younger than Chatham but his perspective of the inherently “pop” inflection of the electric guitar differs greatly.  He is writing another vital and welcome chapter in this loosely defined group of guitar based experimental musics of the last 40 years and his work deserves attention.

He seems to have more in common (broadly speaking) with Pat Metheny than Fred Frith and his discography reflects encounters with several ECM artists.  I’m not sure who influences who here but this is a pleasant and intelligent exploration sometimes virtuosic, sometimes drone-like but a consistently engaging piece.

As I said there are two versions of this symphony on the disc.  Along with those are two shorter tracks by Antoine Berthiaume and Rainer Wiens.  Fungi by Berthiaume is another example of the integration of pop motives into a broader quasi-improvisational context and is most successful.  The disc is rounded out with a sort of little summation “remix” by Wiens entitled “What is time?” which reportedly uses breath as a rhythmic determinant.

The playing is competent and intuitive, not flashy or self-consciously experimental.  Rather this is the work of a seasoned composer who uses his materials well .

Recording and mastering, all expertly done, were done in Canada by the artists who also did the useful liner notes (Allan Kozinn writes the gatefold notes).  The cover art and the production of the CD belong to Starkland and it is a very nice production.