“Katya Kabanova, why did you marry him?/You knew his mother was a bitch.” Those ears looking for a taste of was sort of opera Rufus Wainwright might deliver the Met will find a sample on this clever little send up of a few classic heroines of the form. Audra McDonald has kicked the mood up from Wainwright’s original angsty lament to something more in the range of a sultry, Latin-flavored dance number. Wainwright has clearly done his share of listening to three-hour operas and knows how to handle the three-minute song with finesse. It will be interesting to see what he has to offer when those two paths collide.
Wesleyan University Orchestra, Singers, Concert Choir, Gamelan, South Indian Trio, West African Drumming Ensemble, and Big Band conducted by Henry Brant, Neely Bruce, and Richard Winslow
Ever imagine what it would sound like if all of the world’s music was played together simultaneously? I’d guess it would sound like Henry Brant’s Meteor Farm, which combines an orchestra, chorus, jazz big band, Indonesian gamelan, South Indian trio, and a Western African drumming ensemble. Each group plays its own music with minimal attempt to connect to what anyone else is doing. In that sense, it’s a rather accurate sonic metaphor for the body politic. However, it’s not quite as portentous as that; it’s actually a rousing good time, and it sounds like it might have even been more fun to have been there live on the campus of Wesleyan University in 1982 when this recording was made. Since such an elaborate undertaking is unlikely to be coming to a theater near you any time soon, it’s great that Innova is finally making this music available to all of us who missed out the first (and thus far only) time around.
Ah the sweet sound of trombone—no really, trombone. Every now and again we need reminded that the trombone can be sultry, even beautiful: they‚re not just the jackhammers that Berlioz and Mahler used to built their sonic skyscrapers. They may be the laughingstock of high school marching bands everywhere, but with Ed Neumeister at the helm of the slide mechanism, the instrument sings strong and lyrically. Joined by John Hollenbeck (drums and percussion), Drew Gress (bass), and Fritz Pauer (piano), Neumeister’s quartet weaves complex melodic tapestries with a laidback vide. This disc goes better with the Sunday paper than coffee.
When you talk about women composers of the first half of the 20th century, people like to talk about Ruth Crawford Seeger. She was the first woman to win a Guggenheim Fellowship, and maybe it helps that her work with Alan Lomax makes her name recognizable to a wider audience than many other names you might drop (her folk-famous children don’t hurt the odds either). But while it’s nice she did some groundbreaking in the male composition ghetto, her music requires no platform of sexual politics to heighten its import. Her brief but intense string quartet from 1931 is shown off here in a reading by the ever-engaging Pacifica Quartet. The edgy, aggressive lines of the work’s opening movement give way to quieter strains of introspection before the quartet’s first violinist drives the piece to its jagged, stark conclusion.
Ethel’s latest disc Light showcases compositions by the string quartet’s members, as well as a few other invited guests. The group continues its strategy of presenting stylistically homogonous ditties, never straying too far away from its pop-influenced post-minimal bent and with a focus on fun, fun, fun! But things get a little strange when Pamela Z shows up with her rig of digital effects. Her Ethel Dreams of Temporal Disturbances sounds like a surreal collage pieced together from PBS programs that feature the famous Ms. Merman. In between snippets of “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” Z delivers deadpan utterances such as, “This program is made possible by the generous support of viewers like you.” Thanks Ethel.
Enrique Malo Lop, guitar
If the darkness of brief winter days is getting you down, Alexandra Gardner has proffered a cure. Luminoso, a six-minute work for guitar and samples which also lends its title to this disc of “solo with sounds” pieces, is inspired by the sunlight in Barcelona. The rhythms and timbres of flamenco-style guitar playing dominate the opening measures, but the bed of processed guitar sounds underneath pull things in a more ethereal direction. I’m not sure you’d hear the sunlight without the program-note suggestion, but the music’s movement—both in the acoustically finger picked and in the electronically crafted—generates an inherent warmth.
Czech National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Paul Freeman
Hungarian-American composer Tibor Serly is remembered mostly as the man who completed Bartók’s Viola Concerto. But he was an engaging composer in his own right. Serly further refined the symmetry and parallelism in Bartók’s middle period works—such as the Violin Concerto No.2 and the Fourth String Quartet—into a comprehensive compositional system he called modus lascivus that rivals dodecaphony in its organicism while still remaining fundamentally consonant. Serly’s 1965 Concertino 3×3 is the bizarrest of piano concertos. For each of the three movements, the material is presented first by solo piano, then the orchestra, and finally with the two in combination. While this might sound overly didactic, this form of presentation allows the listener into the compositional process offering a clarity of musical language only to be superseded by the advent of musical minimalism among subsequent generations of composers.
Remember that first time you heard Joanna Newsom’s one-of-a-kind voice? Fingernails on a chalkboard immediately came to my mind, but I found myself unable to stop listening to the shape-shifting richness encrusted in her folk-inspired singing. Of course her music is much too esoteric to classify as typical folk, and she’s not just another whacky Tori Amos clone either. Sticking with the harp as her main axe, Newsom’s new album Ys expands into more thickly orchestrated territories—strings and winds—but steers completely clear of drums and percussion. The results are lush, buoyant, and even rapturous. Newsom also explores more extended narratives, weaving stories over spans that can last nearly 17 minutes. The opening track, Emily, will have you hooked from it’s melancholic, slow-boil introduction. If this little excerpt is your first introduction, do yourself a favor and get your mitts on the entire album, then prepare to loose yourself in Newsom’s conflated web of memory and illusion.
Ara Anderson, trumpet and piano; Zeena Parkins, harp; Mark Orton, guitar; Ben Goldberg, clarinet; Carla Kihlstedt, violin
The remaining original members of the Tin Hat Trio have shortened their name and expanded their ensemble, though longtime fans of the group are unlikely to get riled by the changes. With an attic’s worth of instruments on hand between them, the now five-member crew has turned out a new album of characteristically entrancing tunes that call to mind a bittersweet love story, a Slavic countryside, and a Lemony Snicket book all summed and averaged out. There’s a comfortable world conjured inside the music: players proficient well beyond the technical demands asked of them, delivering lines they seem more connected to via their souls than their intellects.
The music of Gamelan Son of Lion founder Barbara Benary is a lot more visceral that you might imagine. Although it takes as its point of departure the ecstatic sounds of Balinese court music, the sound worlds she mines are more eerie. On Amtrak, the fourth movement of the five-part Aural Shoehorning from 1997, as on many of tracks here, Benary combines sonic elements of Indonesia’s elusive paradise with darker undercurrents that are decidedly more hellish: at times I thought I was listening to King Crimson! Aural Shoehorning ups the ante more than most of the works on the disc by sounding instruments tempered in incompatible tuning systems simultaneously. Of course, each Indonesian gamelan traditionally maintains two sets of instruments which are tuned differently, and no two gamelans are tuned alike. Totally my kind of stuff!