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.

Guitar Gods Go Classical? Give them a ‘Secret Rose’


Cover of "Crimson Grail"

Cover of Crimson Grail

The implicitly condescending appellation “Guitar God” has been perhaps somewhat jealously applied to virtuosic guitarists in various popular rock bands. Whether your taste runs to Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix or Eddie Van Halen you cannot discount the technical skill of these and so many other rock/pop guitar players.

Rock and pop artists have distanced themselves from the classical music circles who initially disdained and even condemned their work. But that did not and does not mean that they eschew classical music. Many were initially schooled in classical performance technique and/or were provided a favorable view of some classical masterpieces.

Ian Anderson’s group ‘Jethro Tull’ utilized a movement from a Bach Lute Suite (taking a few rhythmic liberties) in their piece, ‘Bouree’. Roger McGuinn of ‘The Byrds’ acknowledged channeling Bach when he created the now instantly recognizable intro to their version of Bob Dylan’sMr. Tambourine Man‘. Rick Wakeman, keyboardist of the band ‘Yes’ as well as a solo artist peppers his work with snippets of classical melodies no doubt learned in his piano lessons that served him so well. Keith Emerson of ‘Emerson, Lake and Palmer‘ went as far as to write a piano concerto.

From the classical side of the aisle there have been composers who wanted to utilize some of the techniques and ideas of rock and pop within the context of their classical training. Stanley Silverman wrote an opera titled, ‘Elephant Steps’ which was championed by the ever eclectic Michael Tilson Thomas. (This piece deserves at least a second hearing and I hope that Columbia will some day release it as a CD.)

Leonard Bernstein, no stranger to popular musical theater, embraced rock and blues including such ensembles alongside the orchestra in major works such as his ‘Mass’. Similar, though less successful collaborations occurred when symphony orchestras were added to the production of albums by the likes of ‘Deep Purple and, more notably, ‘The Moody Blues’.

Many such collaborations have been and occasionally continue to be attempted but the end result most often appears to keep the division between classical and ‘pop’ rather separate. That is not necessarily a bad thing either. Philip Glass‘ work appears to have been pretty heavily informed by rock music. He played piano in a couple of tracks on one of the New York punk rock band, ‘Polyrock’. The driving rhythms of rock are endemic to much of Glass’ music. Steve Reich’s work as a jazz drummer seems to be evidenced in his intricate use of rhythm patterns in his music.

So while ‘pop’ musicians incorporated some of their classical training and influences and ‘classical’ musicians acknowledged and collaborated with their pop counterparts the classical aspects remained for better or worse more decorative than organic. Jazz became an organic part of many classical works starting in the 1920s. And, as mentioned before, rock influences have certainly found an organic role in the music of Philip Glass and, more recently in the music of Michael Daugherty.

Along came Glenn Branca, Rhys Chatham, Jeffery Lohn and their various collaborators. These musicians with strong roots in rock music began to explore what has become, in this writer’s opinion, the epitome of the organic implementation of classical music into the ‘pop’ medium. Using primarily guitars (in ever-increasing numbers) as well as drum kits and the usual accoutrements of rock bands these musicians began writing music that is definitely not pop or rock (neither does it actually resemble classical at times).

English: A self-portrait photograph by and of ...

English: A self-portrait photograph by and of Rhys Chatham. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Branca who had worked with Jeffrey Lohn began writing his Symphonies in the 1970s. They now number 12 or 13. Working with multiples of guitars, modified keyboard instruments, alternate tunings and basking in the glory of loud he has created an arguably classical set of works grown out of clearly rock/pop beginnings.

Rhys Chatham, a trumpet player initially, worked with Branca and Lohn for a while and began to develop his own classical path within the rock ethic. Beginning with Guitar Trio (1977).   And continuing into increasingly massive multiple guitar works he has created another distinct set of works that are clearly not rock or pop. He does not use the classical form titles like ‘symphony’ favored by Branca but these pieces like, ‘An Angel Moves Too Fast to See’ and ‘Crimson Grail‘ feature large numbers of guitarists which by necessity must be locally sourced. Even without classical form or titles these are clearly not pop or rock pieces. And perhaps they can’t be called classical either but they are certainly of symphonic proportion.

Both Branca’s and Chatham’s works have been recorded and I highly recommend the recordings. But these musics cannot be fully captured by current recording technology. The acoustics of the space in which they’re performed and the volume levels which elicit their own effects are best experienced live because of the volume levels and also because of the overtones which are elicited by the instruments in the performing space and more audible because of the overall volume and the characteristics of the listening space.

Such a rare opportunity awaits Bay Area audiences this November when Rhys Chatham comes to town under auspices of ‘Other Minds’ and the delightfully insightful and eclectic producer Charles Amirkhanian. They have engaged the architecturally and sonically fascinating space of the Crane Pavilion in Richmond (a few miles north of Berkeley and Oakland) with sweeping views if San Francisco Bay and enlisted many locally sourced musicians to produce the west coast premiere of Chatham’s “A Secret Rose” (2011) for 100 guitarists.

Official Other Minds logo

Official Other Minds logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tickets can be purchased through the Other Minds website (www.otherminds.org).

This is a rare opportunity to hear a uniquely different music in a visually stunning and acoustically interesting space.  Hope to see you there.