Cordis: Sam Kassirer (vintage keyboards), Dorothy Lawson (electric six-string cello), and Richard Grimes (electric cimbalom, marimba)
How to explain this ever-growing collection of chamber ensembles who want so badly to be bands? Seems MTV and subscriptions to Spin have ruined what would have otherwise been a perfectly fine generation of conservatory grads able to play Haydn and Beethoven quartets ad nauseum on performing arts series across the country. When allowed to escape their practice room cages, they show themselves to be living and thinking artists. In this particular case, Grimes may be counting too much on studio novelties and common stadium rock strategies (tension, tension, now make it really loud!) to past muster with some new music fans, but his ensemble Cordis offers an intriguing mix of instrumentation and Grimes uses them well to show of his unique perspective on 21st century chamber music.
When you listen to recordings from the early days of live electronics, the lo-fidelity sound manages to capture a nearly audible buzz of excitement, probably fueled by the unpredictability of soldered wires and homemade circuitry. With David Tudor and Gordon Mumma at the helm of their little black boxes, you never quite know what to expect. As pioneers of the genre, both composers have created work for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, and this CD documents Tudor’s seminal Rainforest in a live 1968 dance performance in Brazil. Close your eyes and imagine Andy Warhol’s helium-filled Mylar “Silver Clouds” pillows hovering on stage, intermingling with inscrutably choreographed movement—what a spectacle it must have been. Tudor creates a backdrop of humming drones punctuated by primordial car alarms while tropical birds seethe underneath the volatile electrical current. Luckly, New World Records let’s us hear exactly how things tuned out.
I can’t help it. I hear a quartet with a backing track of hand claps and I can’t escape the vision of a whole congregation of cute little old ladies—garden clubbers in pill box hats, swaying back and forth with the groove, their white-gloved hands keeping the beat. But chamber music isn’t just for grandma, and Roumain takes that assertion up a notch in this remix of the opening track of his Quartet No. 5 “Rosa Parks.” The track was built on a performance the Lark gave at the Chamber Music America conference with violist Kathryn Lockwood’s husband, Yousif Sheronick, lending some percussion. DBR built out the track with his own beats.
Boston Modern Orchestra Project conducted by Gil Rose
A new disc of music by Evan Ziporyn is always a surprise. It could be anything from serene chamber music to over the top clarinet virtuosity to plugged-in gamelan music. But I was still startled by a new disc of his orchestral music featuring the seemingly ubiquitous Boston Modern Orchestra Project, particularly by his 2004 composition War Chant. There’s nothing overtly militaristic about this brooding, surreal work inspired by sounds heard inside an airline cabin but perhaps that’s what makes it such a compelling sonic metaphor for the current hazy armed conflict known as “the war on terror.”
Eyvind Kang, viola; Mark Feldman, violin; Marc Ribot, guitar; Jane Scarpantoni, cello; Marcus Rojas, tuba; Shahzad Ismaily, electric bass; Raz Mesinai, piano, percussion, flutes, drum programming, and processing
With the end of the war in Iraq nowhere in sight and election time around the corner, media correspondents everywhere, spurred in part by Bob Woodward’s Plan of Attack, are posing the question to political pundits: Are we safe? If all these guys would just take a timeout and listen to Raz Mesinai’s latest album Safe, perhaps the big players could get a new perspective on the issue. Released under Mesinai’s Badawi moniker, the album is like an ambiguous state of the union address. With textures vaguely reminiscent of air raid sirens and adrenaline inducing groves, and the title track itself a dense kaleidoscope of unrelated material that points to the parallels between drone and static noise, other tracks like the innocuous (at first) “The Avenging Myth,” take on a more ominous light. But Mesinai isn’t here to play off our fear. After all, it’s just music.
Lisa Liu, violin; Monika Abendroth, harp
A creation of the studio in which the violinist fights with herself—electronically overlaid tracks repeat and cut her off, trip her up, beg to disagree—while underneath a harp and drone lay out a bed to catch her should she fall. Like a Michael Gondry film, it’s as complicated and as fantastic and as ordinary as a love story. It’s a goodbye letter the writer doesn’t at first seem to know how to start, stays up late trying to make comprehensible, and then ultimately can’t bare to send. Bonus back slap to producer Valgeir Sigurdsson for abandoning the “this is how we record classical compositions” rule book and pushing this music all the way into the studio.
Saxophonist Frank Wright (1935-1990) was hailed by his peers as “Reverend Frank Wright” because of the profundity of his improvisational prowess rather than his religious inclinations. Yet to this day his work remains far less-known than that of his nearly deified contemporaries John Coltrane and Albert Ayler. In fact, despite the fact that it was recorded in 1974, this nearly hour-long quartet session has just been released commercially for the first time in 2006. If anyone out there whose views of jazz have been shaped by the Ken Burns documentary still needs some evidence, Wright and his equal partners in music making here—pianist Bobby Few, bassist Alan Silva, and drummer Muhammad Ali (not the former heavyweight great but equally a champ)—are yet further proof that jazz didn’t die when Coltrane did.
Jillon Stoppels Dupree, harpsichord; Northwest Chamber Orchestra conducted by Ralf Góthoni
Although it is an instrument that most people still generally identify with the Baroque period, there have probably been more harpsichord concertos composed over the course of the past 80 years than at any other time in history. In fact, I count among my favorite pieces harpsichord concertos by De Falla, Górecki, Maurice Ohana, and Joonas Kokkonen. What all of those composers figured out is that effectively writing for harpsichord is very different than for piano: typical virtuosic bravado is replaced by a more concentrated and subtle figuration, as well as layers of counterpoint which can be much more clearly articulated. The idiosyncrasies of the harpsichord are particularly suited to the modular music of Philip Glass, who now joins the rank of harpsichord concerto composers; in fact, the harpsichord’s subtleties force him to eschew his own occasional inclination to be bombastic. Jillon Stoppels Dupree, who is normally associated with early music, sounds totally at home in Glass’s current idiom which is now clearly post-minimalist. And, of course, having a pianist the stature of Gilmore Award-winner Ralf Góthoni serve as the conductor aids in guaranteeing that this unamplified, comparatively quiet keyboard never gets drowned out.
You can punch this duo, formed in 2000, down into some sort of avant-garde jazz/improv/contemporary classical genre category, but I can guarantee you won’t be able to get the lid closed. Gordon Beeferman (piano) and Jeff Arnal (percussion) are two minds, four hands, and a whole lot of energy under the hot lights. As the opening track of their just-released disc illustrates, this is no plonking around experimentation session, but a technically well-executed venture. A disc with a lot to give up, each listen winds back to reveal another layer.
John Ferari drums; Daniel Grabois, horn; Benjamin Herington, trombone;
Brian McWhorter and Jon Nelson, trumpets; Raymond Stewart, tuba
The Meridian Arts Ensemble is something of a brass quintet version of the Kronos Quartet, totally challenging preconceived notions of the idiom and recontextualizing them for a more world-inclusive and contemporary form of expression. On their latest disc Brink, the quintet plus drummer offer a typically eclectic program spanning numerous compositional styles and approaches. While Slim in Beaten Dreamers, Nick Didkovsky’s collection of 15 aphoristic vignettes, sounds nothing like the post-prog rock he creates for his band Doctor Nerve, it also sounds nothing like any other brass piece. If you know someone who thinks brass music is nothing but Salvation Army chorales, play them some of Nick D’s totally swinging Varèsian riffs.