New music aficionados in the 1970s had access to quite a bit of new and unusual music on the Nonesuch label under the watchful eye of Theresa Sterne. In fact, Salzman was among the wonderful producers along with people like Joshua Rifkin who put that label at the forefront of contemporary music releases.
Two most unusual dramatic pieces, The Nude Paper Sermon (1969) and Civilization and Its Discontents (1977) caught my ear (yes, I have them on vinyl). I was looking to see if these had ever been reissued (they have) and ran across this disc containing music by Eric Salzman (who was involved in both of the aforementioned discs) and by Meredith Monk.
Eric Salzman (1933- ) is a composer, scholar, broadcaster, producer and theorist. He studied at Columbia University(BA 1954) with Jack Beeson, Lionel Trilling, Otto Luening and Vladimir Ussachevsky. His graduate work at Princeton University (MFA 1956) was with Milton Babbitt, Roger Sessions, Earl Kim, Edward T. Cone, Arthur Mendel, Oliver Strunk and Nino Pirotta. A 1956-8 Fulbright fellowship allowed him to work with Goffredo Petrassi and at Darmstätdter Ferienkurse with Karlheinz Stockhausen, Bruno Maderna and Luigi Nono.
He has written for various news media and wrote for the wonderful Stereo Review magazine from 1966. His academic credits and publications are also highly regarded. He was the music director at WBAI, a Pacifica Radio Station during the 60s and 70s. In short he is a living treasure of American music.
His music, unfortunately, is less well-known I think than his writings but what little I have been able to hear of his work (you can hear excerpts of various pieces on his web site) has piqued my interest to seek out more. He is uncompromisingly innovative and experimental which may put off the casual listener but has wonderful revelations to those who lend their ear. This disc on Labor Records (who have also issued the aforementioned dramatic works) contains a new aural drama or radio drama if you prefer.
Now I doubt that anyone who actually seeks out a recording by the likes of Salzman and Monk will be put off by innovative and experimental ideas but these works are quite listener friendly and represent mature work by both artists. This very welcome recording gives listeners an opportunity to hear the vibrant mature work of two clearly still vital living masters.
Salzman’s “Jukebox in the Tavern of Love” (2008) was written on commission from the Western Wind Vocal Ensemble and was performed in Brooklyn’s “Bargemusic” in 2009. The libretto is by Valeria Vasileski and the action takes place in a New York bar during a power outage. The cast of characters reminds this writer of any number of, “a man walks into a bar…” jokes. We meet a nun, a Rabbi, a Broadway Dame, a poet, and a Con Ed worker all culled from the composer and librettists perceptions of the individuals that make up Western Wind. And these characters comment on the subject of love in this re-visioning of the madrigal opera genre.
Meredith Monk (1942- ) is a dancer, composer, vocalist, choreographer, filmmaker and new music innovator in extended vocal techniques. She is among the best known of the composers who comprised the loosely defined “downtown” new music scene in New York in the 1970s. She graduated Sarah Lawrence College in 1964 having studied with Beverly Schmidt Blossom. She is best known for her numerous recordings on Manfred Eicher’s ECM label.
Basket Rondo (2007), also written for the Western Wind Vocal Ensemble, is vintage Monk. The eight movements take the listener through a series of extended vocal sound worlds. Monk’s work is always more evocative than literal and this work could suggest whatever the listener perceives or could simply be appreciated as musical expression. Her creative vision that underlies this piece involves a pre-industrial society singing a sort of work song. Monk’s ability to export her extended vocal techniques through her workshops made it possible for her to write in her idiomatic style for singers not otherwise familiar with these techniques.
The piece is cast in eight movements suggesting the “rondo” I suppose. And I’m guessing the baskets represent the fruits of their labors. But the important thing is that Monk’s re-visioning of medieval history in these dream like dance/vocal dramas succeeds in creating mesmerizing aural theater regardless of what plays in your head when you hear it.
The Grammy nominated Western Wind Vocal Ensemble (much of whose work is with Medieval and Renaissance music) has a well-deserved reputation as being among the finest small vocal ensembles working today. This disc allows them to demonstrate their ability to move easily into the contemporary music world. Their performances here are superb and a very welcome addition to the discography of these two composers. I cannot think of anyone who could have written this music other than the present composers. Here are two works by composers whose idiosyncratic methods have produced music that identifies them much as a thumb print identifies a check writer (or a criminal, for that matter, I suppose). That is a mark of true mastery. And it would be a crime to miss hearing these works.