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Soundtracks: January 2000

For our first compendium of new American music CDs of the millennium, of course, we’re continuing to feature discs that were recorded in the last millennium! But in the coming months we will soon find out that like so many other terms that need to be re-examined, the appellation “20th century music” no longer suffices to describe new American music.

Several of the discs covered in this issue are so unlike most of the music you’ve heard before that they could very well be considered a harbinger of 21st century music. Nothing has quite prepared us for Al Margolis’s assemblage of 106,476 clarinets, or Tom Johnson’s sonic encyclopedia of every possible piano chord in 12-tone equal temperament. And James Tenney’s music for violin and piano, some of it several decades old, still sounds years ahead of its time. Tenney is also featured on a remarkable new disc by Sonic Youth, arguably the most important American rock band of the past two decades. The album, fittingly titled Goodbye 20th Century, features performances of experimental works by 10 composers of the second half of the 20th century, 9 of whom are Americans, which must be a first in both the history of rock and the history of so-called concert music.

The music of Jerry Gerber posits an orchestra-less future for orchestral music, using programmable synthesizers to convey symphonic sonorities. Although another disc featuring new works by Robert Starer and William Thomas McKinley shows that the orchestra is still very much alive.

Indeed, there will be many musical carryovers from the previous century. And as the post-romantic orchestral music of John Stewart McLennan, the quasi-impressionistic piano music of Alvin Curran and the often mystical music of Stephen Dickman suggest, we are part of a musical continuum that goes much further back in time and that encompasses a world-wide geography.

It’s fitting that for the first issue of NewMusicBox where jazz takes central stage, there are a plethora of interesting new jazz releases. The latest small combo releases by saxophonist Jimmy Greene and trumpet genius Dave Douglas, offer new sets of compositions that are firmly in the jazz tradition, while the larger ensemble outings by master arranger Don Sebesky and legendary congero Ray Barretto put new spins on some classic charts by Ellington and others. An Ellington tune also appears on the latest CD by Don Byron, who appears in this month’s In The First Person. Finally, Ellington’s own interpretations of his music are featured on a never-before released live concert recording of the under-appreciated 1954 line-up of his orchestra, which is particularly fitting in an issue of NewMusicBox devoted to the impact of concert venues on musical performance and should serve as a reminder to today’s record industry that some of the best jazz recordings have been the ones that are not manufactured in the studio.

Soundtracks: December 1999

Traditionally, December is a slim month for new releases. Most record companies and distributors view December as a time to catch up and to make one valiant final effort for the entire year’s releases through holiday promotions. Still, however, a handful of exciting new releases have come our way that might even wind up in many “Best of the Year” lists! A new disc of early chamber music by Elliott Carter, lovingly played by the Chicago Pro Musica, fills in the missing aural links between his accessible Americana and the later metrical complexities. A new recordings of Aaron Copland’s The Tender Land, re-orchestrated for 13 instruments by Murry Sidlin, finally captures the innocence and intimacy which Copland was trying to convey in his only full-length opera.

This month, CRI, continues its usual bounty combining exciting new recordings of new repertoire with re-issues from its legendary back catalog. Two new composers featured on their own first-ever CRI releases this month are Richard Festinger and Mathew Rosenblum, whose must-hear music employs a bizarre 21-tone tuning system combining the standard 12-tone equal tempered scale with 9 additional pitches derived from just intonation. Past repertoire mined by CRI this month include a re-issue of historic composer-led recordings by David Van Vactor and a brand new recording of piano and chamber works by Louise Talma whose music should be much better known. Finally, Vicky Ray‘s exciting new recital disc features six very recent solo piano pieces, five of which were composed within the last four years. Combine that with New Albion’s CD re-issue of Stephen Scott’s classic LP Music for Bowed Pianos for a fascinating overview of new ideas for the piano emanating from the West Coast.

Of course, for people who are producing their own CDs, there is no need to worry about pushing back catalog for the holidays. In fact, this is probably an excellent month to introduce something new: hence new CDs devoted to music by Mark Carlson, Earnest G. Woodall and Larry Kucharz, whose previous CD was also featured in NewMusicBox earlier this year. And although Christina Fong’s new recital disc featuring late solo violin works by John Cage might make your skin crawl (perhaps inspiring the disc’s provocative cover), it challenges the myth that Cage’s late number pieces are all ambient and meditative.

In addition, 4tay, a brand new record label devoted to new music launched with new releases by Herbert A. Deutsch, Albert Tepper, Jerry Rizzi, and Elodie Lauten whose remarkable Variations on the Orange Cycle was featured on the Century List.

Lastly, Sony Classical’s 2-CD retrospective of 30 years of film scores by John Williams, poses a challenge that NewMusicBox would like to make. What are the ten best CDs of 1999 that we featured in NewMusicBox. What are the 10 best CDs of 1999 that we left out?

“Some People Think He’s God”: Ken Smith Remembers Paul Bowles

Although he was a success as both composer and author, as a recluse Paul Bowles was a total failure. After fleeing New York for Morocco in 1947, he and his wife Jane continued to entertain a seemingly endless parade of visitors in his adopted country. Even in the 1990s, after Betolucci’s film of The Sheltering Sky had made him America’s most famous living expatriate, finding him was still as easy as picking up the Tangier telephone book.

I had discovered his work only in the mid-’80s, when within the course of a week I read an essay by Gore Vidal claiming Bowles’s stories as being “among the best ever written by an American” and an unrelated piece by Ned Rorem predicting that “if history remembers [Bowles] it will be for his musical gifts.” The two sides of Bowles’s creative life seem to occupy mutually distinct realms-the music existing to charm, the text trying to horrify-but it was the area in-between than I came to find the most intriguing.

As a regular music critic at the New York Herald-Tribune from 1942 to 1946, Bowles upheld the mantle of Virgil Thomson, and was Thomson’s own choice to replace him as chief critic when he left the paper in 1954. In retrospect, Bowles proved a subversive choice. Entrusted with documenting “serious” music in the city, he became the first critic to devote any serious space to jazz and what today we call “world music,” reserving special contempt for countries which subverted their own indigenous music to a colonial presence, as Cuba did with its African influences and Moroccan Arabs once did with the Berber tradition.

These writings make intriguing reading for a generation which finds world music trendy again. Just as his nihilistic fiction paved the way for the Beats and his musically repetitive non-development fills the missing gap between Colin McPhee and Steve Reich, the best of Bowles’s criticism reveal yet another of today’s interests that he explored first.

By the time I eventually met Mr. Bowles, on a 1998 trip to Morocco with NewMusicBox editor Frank J. Oteri, “going out” for him meant leaving his bed for the living room. His presence in Tangier, though, remained undiminished. The staff at the Hotel Continental, where portions of The Sheltering Sky were filmed, effortlessly steered us to the right neighborhood. Our driver, conversing with local teenagers in a pickup soccer game, found directions to “the American, Paul Bowles” (the only English words amid rapid-fire Arabic). And once on the right street, a stranger we approached got in our car to point out the right apartment building.

Even in ill-health Mr. Bowles (for no other salutation seemed appropriate) proved an amiable host, providing some occasionally mischievous answers to an afternoon’s worth of questions, perhaps a few willfully misheard…

Paul Bowles meets with Ken Smith and Frank J. Oteri

Frank J. Oteri and Ken Smith with Paul Bowles
Photo by Melissa Richard

January 1, 1998
Tangier, Morocco

KEN SMITH: I’d like to talk a bit about your life in New York, the days when you were writing for the New York Herald-Tribune.

PAUL BOWLES: It was years…

KEN SMITH: The years, then, that you wrote about music. You were part of a great era of music criticism.

PAUL BOWLES: Virgil [Thomson] really knew what he was doing, and most critics don’t. Their writing is about as interesting as, well, Olin Downes at the Times. Then there was Frank Perkins. He was a nice man, but he always sat on the fence so that you never knew what he liked. You’d read his pieces and still not know why it mattered. Nothing changed. I think something should change when you read a piece.

KEN SMITH: It was an interesting time to be covering the music scene in New York.


KEN SMITH: The pieces from the mid-century that are not just coming into the repertory were being heard for the first time.

PAUL BOWLES: I suppose that’s true, yes.

KEN SMITH: And because the Herald-Tribune critics were composers themselves, you had some insight into what those composers were doing.

PAUL BOWLES: Yes, I think that composers are better fitted to say what’s in a new piece of music than most critics.

FRANK J. OTERI: What interested us about your writing is that you were one of the first daily critics to respect jazz and non-western music and talk about these musics as equal to the western classical tradition.

PAUL BOWLES: Well, as far as I was concerned they were. And are.

FRANK J. OTERI: But nobody else said so.

PAUL BOWLES: Not at all. It just wasn’t done.

KEN SMITH: Did you face any barriers then? Were your readers and peers receptive to that idea?

PAUL BOWLES: I think they were. At least I did it for a long time and no one objected. They were willing to read a piece even if they didn’t know the music, and very likely they didn’t.

KEN SMITH: What kind of feedback did you get?

PAUL BOWLES: None, but I didn’t expect any either. People don’t react directly to that kind of criticism. Maybe they do with literary criticism, I don’t know. Other critics may have wondered why [I would write about it], I suppose, or spoken about it in a derogatory fashion. But who else was there? The Times had not a single good critic that I could see. One had been a weatherman, but they needed an extra critic so that they could say they covered everything. The Herald-Tribune said with pride that they were the only paper to cover every musical event in town and the Times couldn’t allow that. Of course, they mainly had Mr. Downes, who couldn’t really hear any music except Sibelius.

KEN SMITH: There are still large Sibelius festivals in New York where Olin Downes is prominently mentioned.

PAUL BOWLES: Oh, I’m sure he would still be there if he could.

KEN SMITH: You first began writing music criticism for Modern Music. How did that invitation come about?

PAUL BOWLES: Probably from Aaron Copland but possibly Mina Lederman. They were great friends.

KEN SMITH: Did they give you any guidance or did they just ask you to submit something?

PAUL BOWLES: I wasn’t aware of any guidelines, if they had any. I doubt that they did. Either Mina liked the piece, or she’d mark it up and say, “This is impossible. You can’t say this.” Or “Explain why you say this.” That’s the only guidance I was aware of. She wasn’t trying to form a style; she was trying to get pieces that she wanted to print.

KEN SMITH: What were the kind of things she wouldn’t print.

PAUL BOWLES: There were certain people she would not let you attack. You couldn’t be negative about Roger Sessions, for example. Did you hear about his death?


PAUL BOWLES: He was ill for quite a while before he died, and he was talking with Babbitt and said suddenly “I’m dying-what a bore.” Those were his last words.

KEN SMITH: I’ve never heard that.

PAUL BOWLES: I did (laughs). I thought it was very funny, using one’s own death as material. I wonder if he was aware that his last words would be quoted.

KEN SMITH: Do you remember your own…

PAUL BOWLES: My own death?

KEN SMITH: No, no, your own manuscripts being marked up for any reason?

PAUL BOWLES: No, it was usually just typos, and the desire to be as accurate as possible.

FRANK J. OTERI: Were there ever reviews sent in that were negative?

PAUL BOWLES: I don’t know; if there were they were never published.

FRANK J. OTERI: So you never wrote anything negative about Sessions?

PAUL BOWLES: I never wrote negative things about anybody. That was all Virgil. He used to say “Nobody gives a damn if you like it or don’t like it. Who are you? Describe what happened. Include everything except your reactions. If you cover a fire in the Bronx you don’t write about your reactions. You write about how many people they carried out.”

KEN SMITH: What kind of day-to-day guidance did you get from Virgil?

PAUL BOWLES: Virgil and I saw things pretty much eye to eye, so he didn’t have much to correct. We were both Francophiles-and Germanophobes.

KEN SMITH: What was it like when you started writing on deadline?

PAUL BOWLES: Well, I was very nervous for a while, because time was so much the element. The big clock stood over you as you tried to get as much down as possible to the possible. If anything came back wrong from the topographers you had only a few minutes to correct it. I was nervous for about 2 weeks until I fell into the swimming pool and stayed there.

KEN SMITH: What reviews do you still remember?

PAUL BOWLES: I remember I was assigned to cover Wanda Landowska-the problem being that I not only had to review her concert, but go to her studio beforehand and have her go through the program, just for me. And at that time, she not only played but explained why she did certain things that weren’t written. She knew exactly what the composers meant. She was a strange woman, but a marvelous harpsichordist and a very good pianist. I remember she played Scarlatti and Mozart sonatas at the concert. But what was strange in her studio was she had five harpsichords and under each one was a girl who kept them in tune. You have to tune them everyday, you know? I didn’t because I never had one.

FRANK J. OTERI: Did hearing her play ever inspire you to write for the harpsichord?

PAUL BOWLES: No, to do that I would have had to have one myself. You can’t write for harpsichord on a piano very well.

KEN SMITH: Did you ever determine your own assignments?

PAUL BOWLES: Not much. It was all Virgil. Sometimes he gave me things he would’ve liked to cover himself, but he wanted to see how I would react.

FRANK J. OTERI: Was that with record reviews as well?

PAUL BOWLES: No. If I liked a record, I would write about it.

FRANK J. OTERI: You only reviewed things you liked?

PAUL BOWLES: There’s no point in writing bad things, “bad” only meaning not worthy to the reviewer. In [jazz and non-western] music you can hear what is authentic, what is good and what isn’t. You don’t have to be trained in that musical tradition. You just know. I’d traveled and listened carefully to other musics.

KEN SMITH: I’ve heard that most of your jazz education came from listening to John Hammond’s collection.

PAUL BOWLES: John used to live on Sullivan Street in the Village, lived right below Joe Losey, as a matter of fact, and he was very enthusiastic about all black music-making. He used to take me up to Harlem because he had friends there. There was Billie Holliday and someone…I’ve only smoked one kif cigarette today but I still can’t remember anything…Teddy Wilson, Very good pianist and intelligent, in touch with contemporary music. And then John was very enthusiastic about a record he found by someone named Meade Lux Lewis, but he had no idea how to find him. He’d found a record called the “Honky Tonk Train Blues,” and was determined to find this man and bring him New York to play for audiences who would appreciate him. He went traveling around to find him, stopping everywhere asking questions. Finally he found him washing cars in a garage in South Chicago. He’d given up music for something that would keep him alive.

FRANK J. OTERI: He began recording again?

PAUL BOWLES: Yes, thanks to John. They all used to play down at Cafe Society in the Village. Maybe uptown too.

FRANK J. OTERI: That was about the time the whole bebop revolution took place up at Minton’s.

PAUL BOWLES: An editor at the Herald-Tribune called me in and asked me what I knew about bebop, I said nothing. He said, “Well, what do you know about a man named Gillespie?” And I’d heard of him but I knew nothing about him. He wanted me to write a special article, but I couldn’t, not having heard the music.

KEN SMITH: What was your reaction when you finally heard the music?

PAUL BOWLES: It was nervous jazz. I liked it.

KEN SMITH: You mentioned the assignments came from Virgil. Occasionally you reviewed concerts where Virgil’s music was performed, and there was one occasion I found where your own music was being performed.

PAUL BOWLES: I didn’t choose those concerts. That was Virgil.

KEN SMITH: I haven’t seen any precedent for that that in the daily papers. Usually an editor would find someone with no ties to the paper to cover it.

PAUL BOWLES: Well, Virgil didn’t think there was anything wrong with that and he would cite examples where it had happened in Europe. I said that I would like to be able to mention all the pieces that are played or sung, and Virgil said when you listen you just cross out the name of the composer and pretend they are all written by John Smith.

KEN SMITH: Virgil always claimed he could review his own grandmother objectively, but how did you deal with reviewing a concert in which, say, Aaron’s music was being played.

PAUL BOWLES: Well, I showed my preference for his music if, let’s say, Ross Lee Finney was being played on the same program. I could say it was well done and not go into it. There’s no point in going into it if you don’t like it.

KEN SMITH: That seems to sum up your approach. As far as individual reviews went, did you ever think about shaping the piece as a critical essay, over and above daily reporting?

PAUL BOWLES: You mean was I conscious of what I was doing? No, not really; there was no time for that. Even if it was a Sunday piece, which I had to have in by Wednesday, there was no need for it. They were more familiar in tone, and to make a planned essay out of it would have removed some of the feeling of familiarity. When a point is made offhand, you need to continue to be offhand. Virgil sent me to Boston to review Stravinsky’s new Symphony in Three Movements. I’d never heard it and there’s nothing to talk about unless you know it. It was an important piece-still I think one of his best pieces. But I stressed the conducting of Koussevitsky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. And I had to go in and have tea with Stravinsky and we got on very well. I had never met him before, or since.

KEN SMITH: The Rite of Spring had been a big influence for you.

PAUL BOWLES: I think it influenced more composers all over the world than any piece in the 20th century, don’t you think? I remember I went with Marc Blitzstein in a concert in Town Hall where they played Rite of Spring, and afterward he said, “But it’s all so old fashioned.”

KEN SMITH: That’s what struck me about reading many of your reviews. You were on the front line hearing many pieces that have lasted till today. It’s hard listening to Symphony in Three Movements today and trying to imagine the conditions of its first performance.

PAUL BOWLES: You have to have a real conception of the period.

KEN SMITH: Did you follow much music criticism after you left New York?

PAUL BOWLES: None whatsoever. I had no idea what was going on. There was not much connection between New York and Tangier, musically or in any other way.

FRANK J. OTERI: Is there any sort of music criticism in Tangier?

PAUL BOWLES: None, because there’s no music.

KEN SMITH: Not even in the Arabic press?

PAUL BOWLES: No, and by that I mean they don’t usually think of music as a entity unto itself. Usually it’s a religious accompaniment to a rite, or some festival. It’s not the same idea at all. Music is much more gebrauchsmusik here, as it is all over Africa.

FRANK J. OTERI: But there are also entire suites of classical Arabo-Andalucian music performed by ensembles.


FRANK J. OTERI: I saw it on television this week.

PAUL BOWLES: Moroccan or Spanish?

FRANK J. OTERI: Moroccan. It was really quite impressive.

PAUL BOWLES: Broadcast from Rabat, I suppose. When I made my recordings for the Library of Congress I favored Moroccan music over Arabic music because, after all, Morocco is only an Arab colony. They were trying to instill their culture and Arabize the Moroccans, who don’t take to anything with much interest if there’s no money in it.

KEN SMITH: Lou Harrison also wrote for the Herald-Tribune after you left.

PAUL BOWLES: Yes, he and Peggy Glanville-Hicks, I’m not sure which came first.

KEN SMITH: You both were very interested in music outside the European model. Did you have much of an association in New York?

PAUL BOWLES: None. I met him and thought he was crazy, which he turned out to be-I mean crazy as in not being in control.

KEN SMITH: He, too, did much better after leaving New York City.

FRANK J. OTERI: Do you have any messages for Lou Harrison?

PAUL BOWLES: Well, I hope he’s going strong. He’s still composing? He’s not as old as I am but he’s getting on.

FRANK J. OTERI: He just turned 80.

PAUL BOWLES: Tell him I got there first! [laughs]

KEN SMITH: Are you still composing these days?

PAUL BOWLES: Not much now. Oh, I did a score on synthesizer, but I don’t consider that composing. There’s no compositional technique involved. I suppose it is composing, though, in a different way.

KEN SMITH: What have you been writing?

PAUL BOWLES: Theater music. This year I did it for the American School. They always put on one big production every year. That’s the main interest of the headmaster. He’s more interested in theater than the school.

KEN SMITH: Peggy Glanville-Hicks’ music is starting to come back too. Did she get involved in music criticism the same way you did?

PAUL BOWLES: Yes. Sometimes there were too many concerts for us all to cover. Often I did three concerts on a Saturday afternoon, grabbing a taxi from one concert hall to another. Virgil said, “Well if it’s too much you’ll have to call in outsiders. Here’s Peggy’s number. Call her in advance and see if she’s free.” And she was good. There’s a wonderful film about her made in Australia, which I have not seen where somebody mentioned my name to her in her later years and she said, “He’s so difficult.” They asked why and she said she’d arranged for a recording with MGM of my zarzuela. Directed by Carlos somebody.

FRANK J. OTERI: Surinach?

PAUL BOWLES: Yes, that’s it. And she said I did nothing but fuss because she left out a certain dance and included other things which I thought were inferior. And as she was remembering it, she was getting angrier until finally she said, “All the work I did on his scrappy little opera, and I’m much better composer than he is.” I would agree, because she was a true composer she devoted her whole life to it. You have to get credit; she knew what she was doing. She fell under the spell of Vaughan Williams, which was too bad because it remained in her. Even in music she claimed voraciously had no harmony, she still had to have thirds and sixths going on. But she did a lot of work for me, copied out hundreds of pages of my music, which I wouldn’t have had copies of otherwise.

FRANK J. OTERI: A lot of your scores for the theater no longer survive, and we wonder whether any of your music was ever improvised.

PAUL BOWLES: No, it was composed, exactly like my regular music.

FRANK J. OTERI: Was there ever a time you improvised music publicly.

PAUL BOWLES: I wouldn’t have dared. It would’ve been like undressing in public.

FRANK J. OTERI: I’ve read that before you started writing music, and in fact before you wrote poetry, that you were a painter.

PAUL BOWLES: No. I studied painting at the School of Design and Liberal Arts, but it was only because I was graduated from high school too young to go to university. I never had a good visual sense.

FRANK J. OTERI: You’ve taken a lot of good photographs.

PAUL BOWLES: But that’s different, I guess

FRANK J. OTERI: So none of your paintings survive.

PAUL BOWLES: It’s just as well. I don’t know why anyone would want it to survive.

KEN SMITH: Has anyone made an effort to collect your reviews?

PAUL BOWLES: Those do survive, though many of them are not interesting enough. You’d probably have to go to Modern Music to find reviews that stand out.

KEN SMITH: I still remember your columns on Cuban and North African music from the Herald-Tribune.

PAUL BOWLES: Really? I remember writing on Mexican music and calypso. Does that even exist anymore?

KEN SMITH: Yes but not in the same form.

FRANK J. OTERI: There’s a derivative called soca that’s infused with a steady rock beat, electric instruments and elements of rhythm and blues and soul. A lot of it is reminiscent of recent Jamaican music but it has a calypso harmonic backdrop. Most of it’s not very good. I found some things I like, but nothing compares to say Wilmouth Houdini.

PAUL BOWLES: The old Trinidadian? Whatever happened to him?

FRANK J. OTERI: He died. I recently read a fascinating story about Houdini’s years in New York written by Joseph Mitchell, who wrote for the New Yorker.

KEN SMITH: Have you ever read his work? He had a very interesting way of capturing a place through its people. They are actually similar in a way to your travel essays in Their Heads are Green.

FRANK J. OTERI: Your book made a nice companion for us this week as we traveled all through Morocco. It’s been inspiring.

PAUL BOWLES: Did it have much to do with Morocco? I don’t remember.

KEN SMITH: “The Rif to Music” was about your travels through the country recording the indigenous music.

PAUL BOWLES: Oh that’s right. Wasn’t “The Route to Tassemit” in that collection, too? That one is just as authentic-a real travel piece about a real place. I have a picture of it right here. I didn’t take it, but that’s not the point.

KEN SMITH: Many times the photos can upstage the writing.

PAUL BOWLES: You mean like Leni Refenstahl? Susan Sontag claimed that Riefenstahl’s book The Last of the Nuba was Fascist, which was ridiculous. Leave it to Susan Sontag to go so far on the branch that she couldn’t crawl back.

KEN SMITH: I remembered that review mainly because it had so little to do with the book at hand.

PAUL BOWLES: She was more concerned with Riefenstahl than the Nuba. Riefenstahl didn’t make any bad films, regardless of what Susan Sontag said. But she even implied that being interested in Native Africa was a Fascist attitude. I suppose you have to pretend they don’t exist.

KEN SMITH: That’s an interesting position, that Riefenstahl even acknowledging the people at all was a form of colonization.

PAUL BOWLES: And I would ask Ms. Sontag, what was the alternative? She has yet to tell us. She was too obsessed with the fact that Riefenstahl chose a society where everybody ran around naked. That’s absurd. I like Susan Sontag, but you can’t always agree with her. She came here once and we talked about this country. But (laughs) I introduced her to Jane, and Jane had nothing to say. I told Jane she was very intelligent; after she went back to New York I asked Jane what she thought of her. She said, “She has unfortunate gums.”

KEN SMITH: Have you ever heard any similar criticisms of your own work? Your recording the music of North Africa could be construed in the same way.

PAUL BOWLES: I don’t see how.

KEN SMITH: Just the fact that you are taking the music out of its gebrauchsmusik context and into people’s homes for their private listening.

PAUL BOWLES: Well, I don’t know. What would you do with Monteverdi?

FRANK J. OTERI: That’s part of the problem. The people who make that argument play mostly Mozart and Brahms, but they play that music in the wrong context, too. If they listened to their own argument, they’d play only contemporary music.

Soundtracks: October 1999

Of the 24 discs featured in our current SoundTracks round-up, only 2 are discs of electronic music: David Doty‘s multicultural microtonal synthesizer landscapes and the unique multi-tracking experiments of Robert Paredes. A third CD, Future Flute — Margaret Lancaster’s recital disc of works by four composers, features works which combine flute with computer electronics. Still, one eighth of the grand total seems peculiar in an issue devoted to new music technology.

In a way, of course, all recordings are electronic music. And in our exploration of music and technology the over-riding objective has been to explore how the great variety of American music can be nurtured by emerging technologies. For example, the technology of recording allows us to experience the intimate vocal recitals of Neva Pilgrim and Sharon Mabry, who performs a recital dedicated exclusively to composers from Tennessee but which can now be heard all over the world. So perhaps the 12.5% is not so peculiar after all.

It is perhaps more shocking to discover that there is now a fourth recording of Morton Feldman‘s Crippled Symmetry, a demanding almost-90 minute chamber music tour-de-force. Perhaps this is evidence that this work will be standard repertoire before too long. Now that there’s finally a recording of Charlemagne Palestine‘s Schlingen-Blängen, a solo organ work of comparable duration released 10 years after it was recorded and 20 years after its composition, perhaps this early minimalist pioneer will get his due. Nonesuch has just issued a new work for string quartet by the most famous of the minimalist revolutionaries, Philip Glass, performed by, who else, the Kronos Quartet. Composed as a soundtrack to accompany the classic 1931 Bela Lugosi film of Dracula, it’s out just in time for Halloween.

Sony has made a firm commitment to the music of Wynton Marsalis issuing a new disc of his music every month this year. We’ve caught up with three of these unprecedented releases: a new interpretation of the Soldier’s Tale (using the same instrumentation as the Stravinsky classic), two ballet scores, and another string quartet. In addition, Marsalis even appears on the Sony compilation Listen to the Storyteller which also features works by Edgar Meyer and Patrick Doyle.

Guy Klucevsek‘s latest disc of solo accordion virtuosity features several of his own works as well as new music for solo accordion by pioneering post-minimalist William Duckworth, Canterbury guitar legend Fred Frith, and the uncategorizable John Zorn. A new orchestral recording devoted to the music of an American composer is always the source of great joy so the new Meyer Kupferman disc is more than welcome. But the behometh among all the releases this month is the New York Philharmonic‘s 10-CD commemorative set of American music. Not out in time for our September Orchestra issue, but we’re thrilled nonetheless. Would that these 10 CDs were the subscription season of any orchestra in America this season!

Soundtracks: September 1999

As the cost of making orchestral recordings in the United States continues to skyrocket, less than 15 recordings by the major American orchestras have been slated for studio time this year. Clearly, something must be done to make American orchestral recordings viable once again and the answer is in the recording of new American repertoire. It is sadly ironic that in the month we have chosen to focus on the performance of American repertoire by American orchestras only 4 new recordings of American music are orchestral and of those, only 3 are new recordings of American music by American orchestras. (The fourth is a long-overdue re-issue of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra‘s 1960s performances of symphonies by Amy Beach and William Grant Still.)

Although they were not included in our round-up of American orchestras this time around, the New York-based Riverside Symphony has proven its commitment to American music once again with its world premiere recording of Andrew Imbrie’s 1984 Requiem, one of his most profoundly moving compositions. The Albany Symphony, which is most definitely included in our orchestra report, gains yet another accolade for its new Roy Harris CD. And Universal Classics has finally issued Michael Tilson Thomas’s New World Symphony performances of three Morton Feldman orchestral works in the United States, although none of the works on the disc are world premiere recordings as the label claims.

Chamber music, which is much easier to organize and record, continues to dominate the new recordings of American repertoire. Four new American composers join the ranks of “composers with single-composer discs” featuring works for a wide array of instrumental combinations: Robert Avalon, Amy Rubin, Jan Krzywicki and Chaya Czernowin. And it is great to hear inspired performances of small-scale works by Ralph Shapey even though recordings of so many of his large-scale works are still pipe dreams. CRI has also re-issued four song cycles for voices and chamber ensembles by Leo Smit and Sony Classical’s latest Columbia Masterworks Heritage re-issue features historic composer-led performances of vocal chamber works by Samuel Barber, Virgil Thomson and AMC-founder Aaron Copland.

On the improvisatory end of the American chamber music spectrum, a couple of new jazz groups have finally made it to disc including George Schuller‘s Schulldogs and Rob Reddy‘s Honor System, featuring the great Pheeroan Aklaaf. Sony Classical, who’ve done much in recent years to stretch the definition of the “C” word, have issued uncategorizable bassist Edgar Meyer‘s latest blend of jazz, bluegrass and contemporary concert hall music with co-conspirators Sam Bush, Mike Marshall and classical violin star Joshua Bell. And for something even more uncategorizable … if the 10-CD boxed set on Organ of Corti wasn’t enough, the small L.A.-based label Transparency has re-issued an additional 4-CD boxed set of material recorded by a variety of ad-hoc pre-industrial experimental ensembles from the mid-1970s known collectively as the Los Angeles Free Music Society.

Electronic media, of course, allow composers to employ chamber means to paint with orchestral palettes, and several new recordings take full advantage of the latest technology. Carl Stone programs computers to create a wide-array of super-human sounds while Larry Austin gets more out of chamber ensembles by combining acoustic instruments with electronics and computer processing. A re-issue of ’60s electro-acoustic music by Richard Maxfield and Harold Budd shows how far our technology has come while at the same time proving that antiquated technologies can still yield timeless music. Finally, Eric Belgum uses multi-track recording to create unique collages of spoken conversation which hover at the boundary between literary art and music.

Soundtracks: August 1999

We have tracked down new recordings of music by 65 American composers this month. As always, the variety is overwhelming. There are three new MMC anthologies of orchestral music featuring works by 21 composers proving that the orchestra continues to be a source of inspiration for composers with a wide variety of stylistic inclinations ranging from a powerful Piano Concerto by Emma Lou Diemer to an evocative meditative Elegy by James Caldwell to a wild parody of the orchestral tradition by John Biggs. At the same time, younger composers like Jane Ira Bloom and Tyson Rogers are breathing new life into hard bop jazz.

As usual, however, many of the discs included herein, are unclassifiable. David Garland is coming from a place somewhere between alternative rock and downtown experimentalism. Jose Halac combines the folk music of his native South America with the post-industrial improvisations of the very different folk he met here. Kyle Gann uses synthesizers to explore entire new sonic vistas opened up by alternate tuning systems. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Panzer proves that a harp isn’t always angelic and Matthew Fields reinvents the carillon. And Robert Rutman creates music with instruments of his own design including the steel cello and the bow chime. Now that the eery soundworld of the once mysterious theremin seems ubiquitous, a new disc features first recordings of theremin works by Bohuslav Martinu, written during his American exile, and Gershwin’s composition teacher Joseph Schillinger.

There are also new CDs of works for a variety of unusual instrumental combinations by two of America’s greatest elder statesmen of music: Lou Harrison and Henry Brant, both of whom are members of the American Music Center, by the way. William Thomas McKinley‘s new large-scale cantata combines solo voices with a string quartet and a saxophone quartet creating a remarkably balanced range of sonorities. On the other hand, Leo Smit‘s cycles of Emily Dickinson settings continue the art song tradition and a disc of nine new flute works performed by Grzegorz Olkiewicz show that this most intimate of voices continues to inspire a wide diversity of approaches.

Three new recordings of piano music, each by foreign-born pianists, show that 20th century American concert music is gaining more and more international prominence. Japanese-born Tomoko Deguchi features works by eight recent composers on her new disc. Tatjana Rankovich, from the former Yugoslavia, plays works by three forgotten American romantics: Paul Creston, Nicolas Flagello and Vittorio Giannini. German pianist Steffen Schleiermacher continues his remarkable series of the complete piano music of John Cage with a monumental performance of the enigmatic 1951 Music for Changes. And, by curious co-incidence, the two discs of 19th century American music featured this month where our focus is on immigration and emigration are both by composers who emigrated to the United States from other countries, French born Charles Martin Loeffler and Claudio Grafulla, who did not leave his native island Millorca, Spain, until the age of 28 to become the most important brass band leader of the Civil War era!

Once again this month, each recording featured in SoundTracks is accompanied by a RealAudio sound sample of music from the disc so make sure to experience each of these exciting new discs.

Soundtracks: July 1999

For our third issue of NewMusicBox, we have expanded the scope of SoundTracks. In addition to featuring the cover and complete track information for all new recordings of American music that we can get our hands on, we are also featuring sound samples of every recording. So rather than hearing us rave about one of these discs, you can judge for yourself!

The array of music being released, once again, is stunning. From a passionate double concerto by Katherine Hoover to a “reggae symphony” by Hayden Wayne, from the totally controlled yet spontaneous-sounding compositional rigour of Robert Erickson to the totally improvised yet intricately-woven sonic tapestries of Joseph Jarman, from previously unavailable historic recordings of music by George Gershwin and Captain Beefheart to the long-awaited re-release of Douglas Moore’s The Ballad of Baby Doe starring Beverly Sills … These are but a few of the sounds awaiting you herein.

As in the past, most of these new recordings are only a click away from being purchased on, making them easier to get a hold of than ever before.

Soundtracks: June 1999

Last month, when we launched NewMusicBox we featured information about 56 new CDs of American music issued since January 1999. For our second issue, we feature yet another 40! The year is not yet half over and already there are almost 100 new recordings of American music floating around. And the range this month is equally staggering in its diversity.

Two recordings of music by Aaron Kernis — a disc of new orchestral works and the world premiere recording of his 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning string quartet which was previewed with an exclusive sound sample in our News section last month. Trumpet masters Dave Douglas and Wadada Leo Smith join the trio What We Live for a remarkable quintet session and Fred Hersch’s intimate solo piano stylistics are finally captured in a live recording. John Corigliano’s long-awaited film score for The Red Violin is out as well as the first-ever disc of the complete solo piano music of Miklos Rozsa, known mostly for his epic film scores. There’s a disc featuring music by 18 forgotten women ragtime composers and another featuring Dave Brubeck’s famous “Blue Rondo a la Turk” transcribed for harpsichord. There has also been a plethora of re-issues of rare historic recordings including Samuel Barber singing his own celebrated Dover Beach, Vladimir Ussachevsky‘s earliest electronic experiments, and a one-act opera by Carlisle Floyd. New opera, and a variety of distinctly American vernacular off-shoots, is in abundance this month with works ranging from Fred Ho’s fascinating Warrior Sisters and the mysterious F. Di Arta-Angeli’s unrepentently romantic Frossini to Adam Guettel’s musical revue Myths and Hymns and the CIVIL warS, Philip Glass’s other collaboration with Robert Wilson.

Most of these new recordings are only a click away from being purchased on, making them easier to listen to than ever before.