Tracy Silverman, electric violin; BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by John Adams
One of the most exciting live performances I attended a year ago was the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Esa-Pekka Salonen doing John Adams’s The Dharma at Big Sur in L.A.’s Disney Hall with electric violinist Tracy Silverman. What made it so exciting for me wasn’t just that it was my first time at Disney Hall—which is a “must-see” and “must-hear music in” venue—or that Silverman on stage acted like and was treated like a rock star—that sort of thing usually doesn’t press my buttons. What always does, however, is the use of alternate tunings. But Adams writing microtonal music, as thrilling as that prospect is, isn’t the only reason Dharma was such hit with me. This composition ties together earlier generations’ maverick tendencies and then responds to them in a completely contemporary and personal way. Dharma‘s two movements honor Lou Harrison and Terry Riley, respectively, with music that is alternately reflective and ecstatic. That these hommages are still throroughly Adams and also explore just intonation (sadly, though, not with the whole orchestra) are an added bonus. Nonesuch’s new recording pairs Dharma with another recent Adams work that connects him to his antecedents, My Father Knew Charles Ives. But, I suppose in an effort to guarantee that each of these two substantial half-hour compositions is perceived as self-contained, each is featured on a separate CD. They should’ve just issued these two pieces on an LP!
Like a torch song from another planet, Bonnie Barnett’s sultry voice teases the ear with garbled gibberish. It’s doesn’t matter what the hell she’s saying, it’s all in the delivery. As the nonsense syllables cascade by, one gets the sense that the pensive melody’s derivation is special delivery via some deep state of trance. Ken Filiano’s trippy double bass provides a fitting underpinning, completing the alien-like mantra. If there’s ever a need for a TV theme song for a Dada sci-fi drama, this track is a prime candidate.
Claudio Jacomucci, accordion
Japanese-born composer Akemi Naito claims that her initial attraction to the accordion was its timbral similarity to the traditional Japanese sho. But the sho, a mouth organ related to similar instruments in China, Laos and northern Thailand, goes back centuries before free reed instruments were developed in the West. So don’t expect a polka or a tarantella here. Instead, Naito takes advantage of the accordion’s power to sustain pitches to create an ethereal web of harmonies.
On this new Albany release, the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players team up with Chanticleer to record composer Pablo Ortiz’s Oscuro, a work they jointly commissioned. Oscuro uses madrigals as a jumping off point to illuminate dark-themed texts by poets Francisco Alarcón and Amado Nervo. The contrapuntal treatment of lines like como loca flor, en lo oscuro brota (like a crazed flower it buds in the dark), rapturously lay upon one another, quietly propelling the work forward by torchlight. It feels familiar, but you never know what’s down there at the end of that darkened hallway.
Philadelphia Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra conducted by Daniel Spalding
George Antheil earned the moniker “bad boy of music” from both the title of his hyperbolic autobiography and from his early exploits as a composer, which included shocking audiences with tone clusters, airplane propellers, etc. Four generations later, most of the shock value has waned—is anything shocking now, anyway?—and we are just left with the music which contains many treasures beneath the surface. Pianist Guy Livingston has been Antheil’s most ardent champion in recent years, both through his dynamic performances and erudite scholarship. This new disc on New World gives us a bit of both sides of Livingston: a fascinating set of program notes on three little-known Antheil works and a rousing performance of one of them, the Piano Concerto No. 2 completed in 1927. This is not to say that the other works on the disc are any less worthy, but the performance of this concerto—which sounds like El Salon Mexico filtered through Charles Ives’s Second Orchestral Set—might have even made a convert out of Virgil Thomson, who dismissed the work at its premiere.
Guitar Gabriel, born Robert Lewis Jones in Georgia on October 12, 1925, grew up the son of a legendary bluesman. After WWII, he criss-crossed the country performing in old-time medicine shows, Dixieland bands, and for burlesque acts. In the 1990s, however, interest in his music grew and earned him spots at big-name clubs, halls, and festivals. He passed away a decade ago, but true to its mission, the Music Maker label—an outfit dedicated to preserving the sound of Southern musical traditions—is working to keep his voice in the public’s ear. Though much of this album is made up of cleanly crafted bluesy tunes, the last track opens up the floor to really get at the heart of Gabriel’s artistry.
Misha Dacic, piano
What do you get when you cross Morton Feldman’s obsession with consecutive minor seconds with an expressivity more along the lines of Schoenberg? Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce to you John Van der Slice’s Solo for Piano. This puppy is kind of weird looking, but still very cute and playful. The music is all about intervals, and it sticks to its guns, tossing taut little riffs around different registers on the keyboard, making for one spiffy piano piece.
Nathaniel Bartlett, marimba
You might assume a disc including compositions by Augusta Read Thomas and Steve Reich back-to-back to be somewhat disjointed, if not downright disconcerting, but marimbist Nathaniel Bartlett makes the juxtaposition sound not only natural but inevitable. And, according to his program notes, this was his goal, which makes highlighting just one track from it all the more difficult. That said, Allan Schindler’s Precipice, which lends the disc its title, raises the stakes by adding computer-generated sounds to the marimba mix, making the music all the more mysterious and alluring.
Danny Elfman’s Serenada Schizophrana conjures precisely the sort of fantastical aural world you’d expect from the composer—he is, after all, the guy Tim Burton rings up when he needs a soundtrack. In this case, however, it was the American Composers Orchestra that commissioned the six-movement work from the largely self-taught composer. (This recording, however, is not the orchestra’s 2005 premiere performance, but a new recording made with a studio pick up group on the West Coast.) The piece, scored for a full orchestra, electronics, two pianos, and female choir, is windingly cinematic, but “I Forget” seems to most directly contain the souls of some of Burton’s extraordinary characters. If you’ve taken the kids to the movie theater recently, you may have already heard some of the music without realizing it—Serenada Schizophrana has also been excerpted and adapted to serve as the soundtrack to the IMAX short film Deep Sea 3D.
Despite the fitness savvy titles, Christian Wolff’s series of Exercises aren’t formulated to inspire the local gym’s spinning class. In this music, like much of the composer’s oeuvre, something seems eerily missing. Melody, rhythm, and harmony sound aloof to one another’s presence, creating a tentative atmosphere of happy accidents. These mishaps usually err on the side of profound rather than tragic. Take Exercise 18, a hodgepodge of passages that has the potential to synchronize into a familiar waltz, but things don’t turn out so obviously. This stuttering passacaglia sounds as if it could have been homebrewed in the tool shed out back. You can attribute this to Wolff’s open design in terms of both instrumentation and interpretation, as well as the adventurous groups of performers which include fellow composers Fredrick Rzewski (piano, percussion), Larry Polansky (electric guitar, percussion), and Chiyoko Szlavnics (soprano saxophone, percussion) joined by new music percussionist extraordinaire Robyn Schulkowsky.