It was only a few days after receiving this CD that I received a visit from a friend similarly interested in new music. Shortly after that visit I discovered that the CD was missing. My friend confessed to having taken it immediately when I asked but I already knew why he had taken it and why I might have done the same thing. After all it’s a Starkland CD and this new performing ensemble have chosen for this, their debut recording, to do an arrangement of one of the finest pieces of political classical music ever. It is their clever interpretation/homage of Frederic Rzewski’s Coming Together (1971) that provoked my friend’s larceny and laid bare my own moral weakness. How could anyone resist that? (I told him took keep it and bought myself a new copy).
Nakedeye Ensemble was founded in 2011 with the intent of performing new music. They were founded in Philadelphia
Curiously, of the six compositions featured on this release, three are “sociopolitical” and the other three I suppose come closer to a category like “absolute music”, the notion that music can be just about music. While all art is a victim (or product) of its sociopolitical, geographical, and economic context one can at least say that there is a continuum in which some music actually depends on those contexts in a greater degree. Sociopolitical music is a pet obsession with your humble reviewer.
The disc begins innocently enough with a fine rendition of Sextet (2010) by Jonathan Russell (1979). This is a pleasant post-minimal work with rock influences and provides a gentle introduction to an apparently carefully constructed playlist designed to demonstrate some of the range of skills possessed by this group. The influence of Steve Reich is present and functions almost like a framework for the post minimal music that emerges. Another generation puts its stamp on this genre which is now older than anyone in this ensemble.
With the second track we get to one of those political pieces and to the second oldest composer represented. Zack Browning‘s Decade of the Dragon (2015) was written to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War and the 50th anniversary of its beginning. Browning (1957- ) is professor emeritus at the University of Illinois and the director of the Salvatore Martirano Composition Award (Sal was also no stranger to politics).
Decade of the Dragon sounds like a post-modern sort of tone poem, evoking through musical quotation and development of original themes, the composer’s memories of the travesties that permeated those years formative to his development much as they were to your reviewer’s and doubtless many whom I imagine to be an ideal target audience for this music (and all the music on this disc actually). And there is a sort of painful irony to hearing the artistic expressions of these sad historical events played (very effectively) by an ensemble for whom the events are solely history.
Rusty Banks‘ (1974- ) “Surface Tensions” (2015) is another playful post-minimalist essay which is not afraid of a little experimentation. Banks is among the younger composers here but this little sampling of his work suggests we will be hearing much more from his pen.
Randal Woolf (1959) is a name which will likely be more familiar to listeners as he is a seasoned member of the so called “downtown” musicians. He applies his considerable compositional skills to a politically infused work, “Punching the Clock” (2015).
There is a dedication and respect communicated by these musicians for their art, the artists whose work they interpret, and for the history that inspired some of them. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than by the last track, Frederic Rzewski’s Coming Together (1971).
This piece has been done by many ensembles over the years but the only recording other than Rzewski’s original on Opus One records is one by the Hungarian ensemble “Amadinda”. The text is spoken clearly, dramatically, and effectively and in English, albeit with a charming Hungarian accent. There are also various lovely and interesting readings to be found on You Tube (including an uncharacteristically hesitant reading by rapper/actor Mos Def) but the arrangement by resident composer Richard Belcastro does a stunning (Am I too old to say “reboot”?) or reworking of the original.
Using different voices, intonations, and inflections this arrangement uses the voices in a sort of pointillistic counterpoint with voices having solos, sometimes answering each other, sometimes together. Ranging from plain speech to whispers to various different vocal inflections this arrangement sort of democratizes the voices and creates a scenario in which the listener could envision their own voice and struggles.
The music here is great all the way through but the special joy of this release is the discovery of these youthful artists whose insights belie their age and whose technical skills suggest that Nakedeye can now take their place (alongside Eighth Blackbird, ICE, Alarm Will Sound, Band on a Can All Stars, etc.) Definitely a group that bears watching/listening.