Category: Tracks

All That Makes Us Human

What first tipped me off that This Binary Universe was an unusual find in the NewMusicBox mailbag was that the CD had a trailer (you can watch it here). Composer Brian Transeau, known now by just the initials, has a resume that sports a long list of film scores, club mixes, and video game work, and the influence is clear in this music. Much of the project seems to be collaging various aspects of modern culture—from bits of standard jazz and radio rock to the world electronic music they pipe into hair salons and Pier 1 emporiums. The opening track is more of a bliss out venture, going easy on the electronic glitches in favor of echo-y guitar loops, tinkly percussion, and breathy sonic overlays.


Rain Song

Much is made about Dvorak’s influence on American composers during his three-year sojourn here in the 1890s, but nowadays little gets heard by the American composers who actually studied with him. Once of the most fascinating is the composer/violinist Will Marion Cook (1869–1944) who was the first African-American to score a Broadway musical and today is remembered when at all through a handful of his black-character art-songs. An extremely generous portion of them are collected in performances by the late tenor William Brown, who was a champion of African-American composers, on the 2-CD set Swing Along. While many of these have not aged well—their faux vernacularisms sounding stilted and at times embarrassingly condescending to African-Americans—Will Marion Cook certainly never intended this and was a product of his era. So a song like “Rain Song” to a contemporary listener might seem quaint at best and politically incorrect at worst. But try to listen without contgemporary biases (we have our own shortcomings these days too, after all) and you’ll experience a fascinating time portal into the beginnings of the contemporary American art song.


Fu I

Given the traditional sound world of Taiwanese-born and Boston-based Shih-Hui Chen’s 1999 composition Fu I for solo pipa, it’s hard to believe that this was the first piece that she ever composed for a traditional Chinese musical instrument. Curiously, it was created almost concurrently with a pipa concertante Fu II, written for the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, which is also featured on the disc. It was tough choosing only one of these works to attempt to wax poetic about here, but I finally opted for the solo, reveling in how it completely blurs the line between traditional Chinese music and contemporary American composition.


What is This Thing Called Love

Charles Mingus, bass and piano; Thad Jones, trumpet; John LaPrta, alto sax; Teo Macero, tenor sax; Jackson Wiley, cello; Clem DeRosa, drums

I have nearly 30 records of music by Charles Mingus so I thought I heard it all. It’s good to know there’s still more. Aim, a small Australian label, brings together two long out-of-print Mingus small combo sessions from the 1950s in which standards feature more prominently than Mingus’s own idiosyncratic compositions. But, don’t be fooled into thinking that the music is any less idiosyncratically Mingus’s . Take the perennial “What Is This Thing Called Love,” which is nominally by Cole Porter. Here it becomes a launching pad for an elaborate contrapuntal weaving of disparate moods channeled through some curious timbral combinations: a standard bebop instrumentation augmented by the unlikely presence of a cello, making for a rather bottom-heavy ensemble so treasured by its bass-toting leader.


New Species

There’s nothing that quite matches the visceral energy of a piano and percussion duet. The jazz community has known this for several generations and the new classical community has caught on in recent years as well. However, what’s perhaps even more exciting—at least for me—is when the roles of piano and percussion blur as they do on “New Species,” co-composed by drummer Billy Martin and pianist Dave Burrell (and it sounds like it). Here, in this performance captured live at the U Penn in October 2005, the drums stroll melodically through an albeit microtonally and timbrally diverse set of “keys” while the piano maintains a steady groove.


Green Pastures

Anonymous 4 (Marsha Genensky, Susan Hellauer, Jacqueline Horner, Johanna Maria Rose); Darol Angel, fiddles; Mike Marshall, mandolins

I have to confess that I’m usually wary of projects like Anonymous 4’s Gloryland. A group of four women celebrated for their pure-voiced interpretations of medieval European classical music taking on such core Americana as shape-note hymns with bluegrass/newgrass journeymen Darol Anger and Mike Marshall would seem doomed to failure. I love them all separately but put the gang together and I smell crossover, NPR promotion, and all that other manufactured industry stuff that makes me alternately yawn or puke. But boy was I wrong. Somehow they make it work. And, while I won’t be casting aside my field recordings of this material for these more polished interpretations, they offer a very interesting alternative, proving that old traditions can morph into some very interesting new musical directions.


Psalm for Band

Winds of the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Amos

Readers of these pages might remember my unbridled joy at the release of four of Persichetti’s symphonies on Albany. Now Naxos’s new Wind Band Classics series collects the mid-century Juilliard-based neoclassicist’s considerable repertoire for symphonic winds. When I first started listening to Pershichetti’s 1952 Psalm, I was reminded of Shostakovich’s 10th symphony which exudes a similar pathos, but I was delighted to discover that the Persichetti work predates it.


Where Joy May Dwell

Minimalism’s detractors usually attack its sonic relentlessness. As a fan of the method, that very relentlessness for me is one of minimalism’s greatest virtues. But Phillip Schroeder’s brand of minimalism further ups the ante on minimalism’s signature relentlessness. He multilayers piano tracks (sometimes as many as five), each repeating sonic modules which are sometimes also further repeat through added digital delays. In the case of Where Joy May Dwell, composed last year, it is two pianos plus two pianos with digital delays. The result is, well, relentless. If you hate minimalism, you’ll want to jump out the window. But, if like me, you love it, you’ll keep hitting repeat on your CD player.



Adjust your volume accordingly; this track starts with a ferocious bang. Makes sense due to the fact that Tsunami was composed to commemorate the 2005 tragedy. After the opening sonic blast, the music all put disappears, holding its breath. Eventually the garbled mummers of Thomas Buckner’s voice emerge from the shadows of Mel Graves’s droning bass. Then the texture begins to build, until it sounds like George Marsh is banging on every suspended cymbal he can possibly get his hands on. Hell brakes loose from there as the trio crams the sonic texture with every extended technique known to man. Once the kitchen sink overflows, the music begins to dissipate, becoming somewhat introspective as water begins covering the floors and creeping up the walls, shorting out the refrigerator.


Quiet Kissing

A little slip of an emo disc, the slick gloss of “Quiet Kissing” is defined by Shapiro’s bell-toned synthesizer setting but warmed up by a wistful lyrical line and in-the-flesh violin accompaniment, courtesy of Meg Okura. Shapiro’s creation is dreamy quite beyond the usual abstract comparison point—rather the slowly rocking tempo and overlapping, whispery vocal track lull the ear and the mind into a contemplative state I previously thought could only be experienced by actors in independent films.