World Premieres and a Resurrection: Partch Vol. 3 on Bridge Records


Bridge Records is one of those labels whose every release is worth one’s attention. Their series of music of Elliott Carter, George Crumb, et al are definitive. And while this listener has yet to hear the first two volumes of the Harry Partch series this third volume suggests that Bridge continues to maintain a high standard as they do in all the releases that I’ve heard.

Harry Partch (1901-1974), like Philip Glass and Steve Reich would later do, formed his own group of musicians to perform his works. For Glass and Reich they could not find performers who understood and wanted to play their music. For Partch this issue was further complicated by the fact that he needed specially built instruments which musicians had to learn to play to perform the very notes he asked of them.  And keep in mind that Partch managed to do a significant portion of his work during the depression.  He is as important to the history of tonality as Bach, Wagner, and Schoenberg.

I will confess a long term fascination with Partch’s music.  Ever since hearing a snippet of Castor and Pollux on that little 7 inch vinyl sampler that came packaged with my prized copy of Switched on Bach I was hooked.  That little sampler also pointed this (then 13 year old) listener to Berio’s Sinfonia, Nancarrow, Steve Reich, and Terry Riley.  And so it continues.  But it is not just nostalgia that recommends this disc, it is the definitive nature of the scholarship, the intelligence of the production, and the quality of both performances and recordings that make this an essential part of any serious collector of Partch, microtonal music, musicology, and good recordings in general.

With the aforementioned interest/fascination I reached a point where I had pretty much collected and listened to all I could find of Partch’s music.  Certainly everything of his had been recorded, right?  Well ain’t this a welcome kick in an old collector’s slats?  Not only have the folks at Bridge (read John Schneider) found and recorded a heretofore practically known composition but they’ve done it with a brand of reverence, scholarship, and quality of both recording and performances such that this is a collector’s dream and a major contribution to the history of microtonal musics and American music in general.

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John Schneider from a You Tube screen capture

Let me start with the liner notes by producer John Schneider.  As one who is given to complain about the lack of liner notes I am so pleased to encounter such as these.  They alone are worth the price of the CD and read at times like the adventure they describe, to wit, this recording.  The tasteful and well designed (by one Casey Siu) booklet provides an intelligent guide to the music which enhances the listening experience.  Schneider’s web site also provides a wealth of information and references for further research.  Many would think that these liner notes are comprehensive as they are and there should be no need for anything more…so the link provided to even more info on the web site of the performing group on this disc, PARTCH.   These folks are Grammy winners and they perform on scholarly copies of the original Partch instruments executed by Schneider and his associates.  This release is solidly built from the ground up.

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PARTCH performing at RedCat copyright Redcat

PARTCH includes: Erin Barnes (Diamond Marimba, Cymbal, Bass), Alison Bjorkedal (Canons, Kitharas), Matt Cook (Canon, Cloud Chamber Bowls, Spoils of War), Vicki Ray (Canons, Chromelodeon, Surrogate Kithara), John Schneider (Adapted Guitars, Bowls, Canons, Spoils, Surrogate Kithara, Adapted Viols, Voice), Nick Terry (Boo, Hypobass), T.J. Troy (Adapted Guitar II, Bass Marimba, Voice), Alex Wand (Adapted Guitar III, Canons, Surrogate Kithara)

The 21 tracks contain five Partch compositions.  It opens with one of Partch’s more unusual pieces (for him), Ulysses at the Edge of the World (1962).  This piece was written for Chet Baker but Baker never got to play it.  It kind of sits a bit outside of Partch’s work and is his most direct use of the medium of “jazz”.  The piece has been recorded twice before.  For this recording two fine new music/jazz musicians were chosen, saxophonist Ulrich Krieger and trumpet player extraordinaire Daniel Rosenboom.  Excellent choices for this too little performed piece.

Tracks 2-13 contain the Twelve Intrusions (1950) which is basically an accompanied song cycle with instrumental pieces placed at the beginning.  These are great vintage Partch works but do read the liner notes on the evolution of Partch as he was writing these.  They describe some of Partch’s evolution during that time.

Next is another discovery (or restoration if you will).  Partch’s scores exist in various versions for various reasons.  Windsong (1958) was written as a film score for the Madeline Tourtelot film of that name.  It was later reworked into a dance drama (Daphne of the Dunes, 1967).  Here we have a live performance of the entire score which (read them notes) includes things not heard before, not to mention the most lucid sound of this recording.

Now to the putative star of this release, the Sonata Dementia (1950).  It too comes with some nice detective work allowing listeners to hear substantially what Partch intended but neither recorded nor rejected.  There are three movements and let me just say that they are captivating and substantial.  This deserves to be heard again and again.

Now two little bonus tracks (reminiscent in nature but not in content of the sampler I mentioned earlier) add significantly to Partch and his place in music history.  First is a Edison cylinder recording from 1904 of a traditional Isleta Indian chant which Partch, who had been hired to transcribe these songs, later incorporated into his music.  It’s early date and the nature of that old recording method provide a picture of early ethnomusicological work.

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Photo of Partch with adapted guitar found on web

The second bonus is a real gem.  Again, read the liner notes for more fascinating details.This is an important find, an acetate recording made of Partch performing his Barstow (1941) for an appreciative audience at the Eastman School of Music from November 3, 1942.  This early version (of at least three) for adapted guitar and voice was reconstructed by John Schneider and released on the Just West Coast album of 1993 (Bridge BCD 9041) and later performed so beautifully at Other Minds 14 in 2009.  But I believe that Schneider’s reconstruction predated the discovery of this recording.  Pretty validating to hear this now I would think.

It is this reviewer’s fondest hope that this wonderful Partch project will continue with its definitive survey of Partch’s work.  Bravo!!

 

 

 

Passing Frames, a new CD by Joel Helander, Happy, Gentle Experiments


Let me first acknowledge that I am running behind on my reviews but one of the reasons I have been slow about this one is that I have had great difficulty trying to characterize this music in a meaningful way for readers of this blog.  And by that I don’t mean to imply that this music makes for a difficult listening experience, it doesn’t.

Passing Frames (2014)

Passing Frames (2014)

Passing Frames is the second CD by composer/pianist Joel Helander whose previous release, Flood (2012) is a solo piano effort.  These two CDs published on Bandcamp earned Mr. Helander mention in Forbes magazine in an article about the self-marketing that is available to musicians who are trying to establish themselves in the music business.

Joel Helander

Joel Helander

Helander is a student in theory and composition at Clark University where this very project is featured on their website.  I conducted a sort of interview with Mr. Helander via e-mail exchanges and learned that he has been playing piano for about 10 years including classical training and a more recent interest in jazz performance. He said that this project began as a sort of follow-up or perhaps a natural progression to his previous release.  His earlier album has much in common with this one in terms of atmosphere. Passing Frames is a set of ensemble pieces with the assistance of friends and classmates all drawn from the Worcester area.

His brother Karl Helander, a singer and song writer in his own right, who studied studio drumming at the University of Miami plays drums and percussion.  String and wind players were enlisted from the Worcester Chamber Music Society, fellow Clark students and other friends. He cites Mike Tierney (guitar, engineer, co-producer) as being essential to the creation of the overall sound of the album as well as being an effective instrumentalist in selected tracks.  All in all it sounds like this was a very close creative collaboration which was rewarding for all involved.

When I first received the CD in the mail I was immediately struck by the lovely cover art and overall design which led me to comment to Mr. Helander of the nostalgia for the larger cover art one used to get with vinyl LPs.  He commented that he had looked into this possibility but found it economically prohibitive.  The photo and overall design was by the same artist, Paul Puiia, who had designed his previous release. There are 11 tracks on this CD all with poetic titles that tell you little about the music itself but no doubt have some meaning for the composer and perhaps his collaborators.  That is not intended as a criticism, rather it is a reflection of music that is less concerned with form than expression.  Not program music but little poetic statements.  And given that Mr. Helander aspires to writing film music this sort of focus seems quite appropriate.

On my first few listens to this disc I was reminded in ways of Ludovico Einaudi, The Penguin Cafe Orchestra and perhaps some of the chamber music of Peter Schickele.  Mr. Helander said he was comfortable with those comparisons.  I did ask him to list some of the music he listens to and he provided me with a pretty eclectic list including:

-Debussy’s String Quartet
-Chopin’s Nocturnes
-Beethoven’s “Archduke”
-Satie’s “Gymnopedies”
-Bill Evans’ “Portrait in Jazz”
Randy Newman‘s “Sail Away”
-Rufus Wainwright’s “Want”
-Nina Simone’s “Little Girl Blue”
-Jon Brion’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Soundtrack”
Van Dyke Parks‘ “Song Cycle”
-John Coltrane’s “Blue Train”
-The Bad Plus’ “Never Stop”
-Fleet Foxes’ “Helplessness Blues”
-Tom Waits’ “Orphans: Bawlers”
-Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush”
Belle and Sebastien‘s “The Life Pursuit,”
-Chet Baker’s “Chet Baker Sings,”
Chilly Gonzales “Solo Piano I and II”
Brad Mehldau‘s “Highway Rider”
-Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bookends.”
This is an interesting and varied list.  I didn’t include this list to give prospective listeners and idea of what the music sounds like but I think it does reveal something about the aspirations and inspirations of the composer’s intent.
I had given some thought to trying to describe each of the tracks on the disc and give my analysis and impressions but finally decided to leave my readers with more general impressions.  Each of the tracks is a self-contained musical statement though three of the tracks are identified as being parts of a suite.  As I said, the poetic titles may have meaning for the composer and may invoke ideas in the listener as well but in the end I perceived the entire disc as a sort of unified whole in that the disc appears to be a musical statement which stands as a reflection of the composer’s ideas at the time of this release much as his first disc does.
Further listenings suggested a sort of sophisticated melancholy lounge music born both of the composer’s aesthetic and those of his collaborators (the production and recording certainly add to this effect).  There appears to be more of a classical influence with a jazz ambiance added.  This is an interesting disc which manages to be both gently experimental as well as eminently listenable.  It is a snapshot of this young man’s best efforts at composition and each can be listened to as a potential sound track to a yet to be made film sequence or simply as a pleasant musical statement on it’s own.
With the perspective of the first disc in mind one can see a progression and integration of nascent ideas evolving as the composer works to develop a more integrated and clear statement of his ideas.  He achieves exactly what he intended I think.  That being said I will be interested to see what he does next as I enjoy the work he has done so far.  If you are interested in new music this disc is worth a listen.  If you are just looking for something different to add to your listening selections you would not be disappointed either.