Next Gen Steve Reich: Two Great New Recordings


One of the hurdles on the way to long-term historical recognition is finding the next generation of interpreters for whom the music itself is not new but whose interpretation is needed anew in light of the music’s place in the canon of performed and recorded music. So Mr. Reich has now arrived in two fantastic new recordings.


The first CD here is the Cedille (Cedille 90000 161) label debut by Third Coast Percussion, a young Chicago based group.  The label itself is reason enough to pay attention with their intelligently selected and well-recorded releases.  But even so this one stands out for a couple of reasons.

As  Reich reaches his 80th birthday (as are many composers whose work informed my listening life since the 70s) we are seeing the next generation (or so)  of performers, musicians for whom this music is not new.  (Third Coast Percussion is Sean Connors, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin and David Skidmore. They were founded in Chicago in 2005.). As these dedicated musicians traverse this repertoire they see it from a different perspective and they acknowledge this in the accompanying notes by Robert Dillon.  No doubt they are familiar with the music and have heard some if not all previous recordings. This music is no longer new and novel the way it was to those who first heard it.  And that is what we have here, a new take on music already familiar giving us the perspective of another generation.

The second reason to get this recording is the sheer beauty of the sound.  It is a masterpiece of recorded sound which does justice to the work of these fine musicians as well as the music.  The album was recorded at the University of Notre Dame’s DeBartolo Performing Arts Center (where Third Coast is in residency).  Dan Nichols was the engineer assisted by Matt Ponio.  It was mastered by Jessie Lewis and Kyle Pyke.
The CD opens with the recent Mallett Quartet (2009) which has been recorded only once before.  The piece is in three sections fast-slow-fast split over the first three tracks.  It is one of Reich’s finest compositions showing him as a still vital artist and it will no doubt receive many more performances but it would be hard to imagine a better recording.

The second selection is, for this writer, one of Reich’s more unusual pieces.  The Sextet (1984) is scored for two keyboards (pianos doubling synthesizers used for long held tones) and percussion.  David Friend and Oliver Hagen lend their formidable keyboard skills to this work and help it to swing.

I must admit that this performance has resulted in me giving this work some serious close listening again and I am liking it better.  Some of these movements seem like precursors to some of the writing in Reich’s wonderful The Four Sections (1987), another work that deserves more attention.

The brief but lovely Nagoya Marimbas (1994) is pretty much an accepted staple of the classical marimba repertoire and has also been transcribed and performed on guitars as well.  As with the preceding the performance is faithful and lively.

For the final track a decision was made to go back to early in Reich’s output with Music for Pieces of Wood (1973).  As with much of his early work we see his experimental side focusing as much as possible on a single process.  It uses the same rhythmic pattern as the 1972 Clapping Music but uses additive rather than phasing techniques (I believe), a great example of the roots of minimalism.  The group does some toying with the choice of percussion but, as in the preceding tracks, manage to create a performance worthy of the best interpreters in their generation.  Happy Birthday Mr. Reich!!


This second CD (New Focus fcr 165) is another aspect of crafting a legitimate new interpretation of a given piece of music.  Guitarist Daniel Lippel goes back to some of the roots of Reich’s mature style, Ghanaian drumming.  Reich seems to have achieved his personal artistic synthesis after his encounter and study with the master drummers of Ghana.  It is here that he was finally able to synthesize the gifts received from his study of jazz (Reich was/is a jazz drummer) and his tape music experiments into the larger forms for which he is now known through these studies with West African musicians.  And it is here that Lippel goes, with an assist from musicologist Martin Scherzinger, to create his (re)vision of this classic Reich composition.

Electric Counterpoint (1987) was written for and first recorded by the still wonderful jazz guitarist Pat Metheny.  His recording is certainly definitive but, as with all music performance, hardly the last word.  Several artists have presented their versions (David Tanenbaum’s acoustic guitar version deserves more attention by the way).  It is a very appealing and interesting piece cast in a classic fast-slow-fast format that presents formidable challenges for the musician but not for the listener.

It is difficult (and certainly beyond the scope of this review) to say specifically what Mr. Lippel has done differently but there is clearly a difference (further notes can be found here).  I am loathe to find adjectives to describe this recording except to say that it is well worth your time to hear it.  It provides a different way of hearing much as Glenn Gould has done for Bach.  Just sit back and enjoy.

The Big Piano Variations, a great new recording of Bach, Beethoven and Rzewski


 

71Dr+79MpxL._SL1200_

Let me start by saying that I specifically requested the opportunity to review this October, 2015 release because I was pleased and fascinated to see this representation of three major masterworks of the large variation form included in a single collection.  To my knowledge this is the first time that these three works have been represented in a single release.

Variation form is one of the staples of the composer’s arsenal of techniques for well over 400 years now but the form is most commonly used as one technique in one  of several movements of a larger work. Consequently these types of variations generally last a few minutes.  A favorite example is the variations movement from Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet, a set of variations on his song, “Die Forelle” (trout in English) which subsequently lends the title to the entire work for piano quintet. This variation movement runs about 7 minutes or so in performance.  The Goldberg Variations (1741) can run up to 2 hours if one includes all the repeats but generally performances take about an hour.

So, along comes Johann Sebastian Bach who is commissioned by one Count Herman Karl von Keyserling (1697-1764) to compose some music for harpsichord (the predominant keyboard instrument of the day) to be performed by his personal musician Johann Gottlieb Goldberg (1727-1756) to aid the count’s insomnia.  The original intent apparently was to have the player perform one or two of said variations as a sleep-inducing remedy upon the Count’s request.  The work, using a brief Sarabande from the Bach’s own Anna Magdalena Notebook collection of pieces, has since taken the performer’s name as the Goldberg Variations.

It is not clear when the practice of performing the work in it’s entirety began but there is little doubt that Glenn Gould’s 1955 recording for Columbia Records (now Sony Classical) placed this piece firmly in the repertoire and in the minds and hearts of musicians and the listening public.  The variations had been recorded before by Rudolf Serkin, Wanda Landowska, Claudio Arrau, Ralph Kirkpatrick, Gustav Leonhardt and Roslyn Tureck but Gould’s quirky interpretation apparently defined a moment.

In 1819 the publisher Anton Diabelli composed a waltz and sent it out to many composers of the time asking them to write a variation on his piece with the promise that the collection would then be published.  This was not an uncommon practice at the time and it is certainly a workable business plan.

Indeed Diabelli did publish a compendium of these 50 plus variations by many composers of the day (including Franz Schubert and the 11 year old Franz Liszt) as Vaterländischer Künstlerverein (the link will take you to the downloadable score of the non-Beethoven variations on the waltz) but these are largely now forgotten.  Beethoven apparently balked at the idea or simply saw a larger potential in Diabelli’s brief waltz because he chose to write not one but 33 variations on the theme which subsequently became Volume II of Diabelli’s project.

Unlike the Goldberg Variations the Diabelli Variations (1823) were intended as a concert piece to be performed in its entirety.  Like most of Beethoven’s music this piece found a place in the repertoire and remains a staple for many pianists.  It is not clear if Beethoven was familiar with Bach’s work but the gesture is certainly similar in creating a large cohesive set of variations.

In 1975 the fabulous pianist Ursula Oppens commissioned Frederic Rzewski to write a set of variations that could be a companion piece to the Diabelli Variations.  Rzewski composed the music and Oppens premiered it in 1976.  Her subsequent recording from 1979 was nominated for a Grammy Award.

Frederic Rzewski (1938- ) is a composer/performer as were Bach and Beethoven.  He is a highly virtuosic pianist and a prolific composer whose influence extends widely from his involvement in the European avant garde including his own innovative use of early electronics in his ensemble Musica Elletronica Viva with Alvin Curran, Richard Teitelbaum, Allan Bryant, Carol Plantamura and John Phetteplace.

Rzewski’s variations are based on a revolutionary song by Sergio Ortega called, “El Pueblo Unido Jamás Será Vencido” (The People United Will Never Be Defeated), a song popular during the Chilean revolution that deposed Salvador Allende.  Unlike Bach and Beethoven, Rzewski’s music frequently takes on political associations, usually pretty explicitly as seen in this piece.

There are  36 Variations (6 groups of 6) and, like the preceding pieces are a reflection of much of the performance practice of their respective times.  Various “extended techniques” include slamming the lid of the keyboard, whistling and others are carefully integrated into this very cohesive mostly tonal work.

This piece seems to be gaining ground as familiar repertoire in the concert hall and, whether by accident or design, the inclusion of this piece along with the other two by Sony (who, you will recall released the establishing version of the Goldberg Variations) in effect is a major acknowledgement of this piece as perhaps the foremost representation of the large variation form in the 20th century much as the Goldberg and Diabelli Variations represent the 18th and 19th.  Bravo, Sony!

The interest here too is the emergence of a new artist, the Russian pianist Igor Levit (1987- ). This is his third release on Sony Classical, the previous two being the 2 disc set of the Beethoven late piano sonatas and the 2 disc set of the Bach Partitas for keyboard.

I won’t go into the nuances of interpretation that distinguish Levit from other performers of these variations except to say that he has to my ears a lighter touch, more Chopin in spirit than Liszt perhaps.  His performances leave no doubt as to his virtuosity and interpretive abilities but, of course, there are always discussions of individual preferences for one or another pianist in such repertoire.  What is undeniable is his ability to grasp the larger picture and to perform these large masterpieces in such a way as to convince the listener of the integrity of each work and to hold the interest of the listener throughout the performances.  There is, in the end, no definitive recording of any music really but these are certainly candidates in the debate.

In short this is a fine set of discs, beautifully recorded, which would please anyone interested in classical music and piano music in general.  Over time one might want to hear other interpretations but these recordings are extremely satisfying and represent  their composers as well as any I’ve heard.

The Biggest Sound, Paul Dolden’s Eclectic Musical Visions


This new Starkland release (due out on July 29th) is actually the second time that Paul Dolden‘s music has appeared on the label.  The groundbreaking Dolby 5.1 surround audio DVD with images,  Immersion (2001) contains his Twilight’s Dance (2000).

Paul Dolden is a multi-instrumentalist born in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada in 1956.  He has worked as a musician since age 16 playing violin, cello and electric guitar. His work has been described as post-modern, the new complexity, electroacoustic and ambient but none of these descriptors can give you a clue as to how his music actually sounds.  In addition to his instruments he makes extensive use of recording technology and sampling techniques.  But Dolden is not a tinkerer with a laptop and Garage Band software.  His music appears to stem from a variety of influences and ideas which embrace acoustic instruments, tape techniques, digital editing, alternate tunings, rock, classical, jazz and perhaps other influences as well. His album L’ivresse de la Vitesse (1994) was listed in Wire Magazines list of “100 Records That Set the World on Fire”.

L'ivresse

 

This was indeed his breakout release.  Two previous albums are essentially retrospectives of his work.  ‘Threshold of Deafening Silence’ (1990) contains works from 1983-1989.  And ‘Seuil de Silences’ (2003) contains works from 1986 to 1996.

Seuil de Silences (2003)

Seuil de Silences (2003)

Threshold of Deafening Silence (1990)

Threshold of Deafening Silence (1990)

 

 

 

 

He followed L’Ivresse with ‘Delires de Plaisirs’ (2005).  Both his biographical sketch on electrocd.com and his Wikipedia page were both created by Jean-François Denis, the Montreal based producer of the empreintes DIGITALes label which released most of Dolden’s recordings along with a treasure trove of music by mostly Canadian electroacoustic composers.  There is a great deal more to Canada than hockey.  There is a rich musical culture which inscrutably is very little known in the United States.  This new release would be welcome if only for its making some of the best of that culture better known.

Delires de Plaisirs (2005)

Delires de Plaisirs (2005)

Dolden has written over 30 commissioned works for various ensembles from chamber groups to symphony orchestras.  His works have been played by the Espirit Orchestra (Canada), Phoenix Orchestra (Switzerland), the Stockholm Saxophone Quartet and the Bang on a Can All Stars.  He has been most favorably profiled in The Village Voice and Wire Magazine.

So this Starkland release is the fifth CD devoted entirely to Dolden’s work.  His work appears in several collections, most notably the sadly out of print  Sombient Trilogy (1995) which places Dolden’s work in context with many of his peers including Maggi Payne, Dennis Smalley, Stuart Dempster, Elliott Sharp, Ellen Fullman, Maryanne Amacher and Francis Dhomont among many others.  Perhaps the San Francisco based Asphodel records will re-release this set or it could even wind up on one of those treasure troves of the avant-garde like Ubuweb or the Internet Archive.  It is worth seeking out.

Dolden’s work is pretty consistently electroacoustic, meaning it contains live musicians along with tape or electronics.  And while this is still true on the disc at hand ‘Who Has the Biggest Sound?’ would be difficult to stage in a live setting.  Its dense complexities would require very large forces.  The specter of Glenn Gould and his ultimate reliance on studio recordings rather than the unpredictable nature of live performance looms here.

The album is very competently composed, produced, mixed and mastered by Paul Dolden.  The recording is consistent with the high sonic standards by which Starkland is known.  Executive producer Tom Steenland contributes the appropriately enigmatic cover art.  Starkland’s genius here is in promoting this amazing artist.

Back cover

Back cover

This disc contains two very different works, each in several sections. ‘ Who Has the Biggest Sound?’ (2005-2008) is the major work here.  Dolden’s intricate methods are put to very effective use in this sort of virtual electronic oratorio describing the search for the sonic Holy Grail with mysterious poetic titles to each of the 15 different sections.  In my notes taken during multiple listenings (this is not a piece I think most listeners will fully grasp the first time through, I certainly did not) I struggled to describe this music.

In it I heard some of the collage-like elements of John Cage’s Roaratorio and Alvin Curran’s Animal Behavior.  Certainly there are elements of free jazz and the sort of channel changing style of music by the likes of Carl Stalling and John Zorn.  I flashed back to the overwhelming complexity of a live electronic performance I once heard by Salvatore Martirano and felt nostalgic for the sounds of Robert Ashley’s similarly electroacoustic operas.

Repeated listenings revealed more depth and coherence.  Dolden reportedly spent hundreds of hours in the studio mixing this magnum opus so I didn’t feel badly that it initially eluded my intellectual grasp.

The second work ‘The Un-Tempered Orchestra’ (2010) is described in the liner notes as owing a debt to Harry Partch and while that’s certainly true I would suggest that it owes a debt to other masters of microtones such as  Ben Johnston, Alois Haba, Ivan Wyschnegradsky and perhaps even La Monte Young, Tony Conrad, James Tenney and John Schneider among many others.  It is cast in six sections which, curiously, do not have the poetic titles accorded to the sections of the previous work and which are generally ubiquitous in Dolden’s output.

That being said, Un-Tempered Orchestra in its six brief sections shares much of the same sound world as the former work.  It is more intimate in style and is similarly difficult to anchor in any specific tradition.  It is in part an homage to Bach whose Well-Tempered Clavier celebrated the introduction of equal temperament tuning which would become the standard tuning system for the next 200+ years.  This is a deconstruction, if you will, of that system and explores some of the endless possibilities of alternate tunings.

This is a fascinating and intriguing release which will spend many more hours in my CD player.  It is a great new addition to the quirky but ever interesting catalog of Starkland Records and a welcome example of a composer at his peak.  It is available though the Starkland Records website as well as through Amazon.  Highly recommended.