Tag: new recordings

Sounds Heard: Chris Wild–Abhanden

Abhanden (Navona Records) is the debut release from Chicago-based cellist Chris Wild. Wild is a mainstay of the Chicago contemporary music scene; he has been a core member of Ensemble Dal Niente since its founding and is an active conductor and music educator. His onstage presence is intense and contemplative, so it comes as no surprise that Abhanden presents six works which, in radically different ways, explore intimate and interior worlds. The recording is expertly crafted by Wild and his co-producers, engineer Dan Nichols and composer Eliza Brown, and features excellent performances from Dal Niente’s pianist Mabel Kwan, percussionist Greg Beyer, violinist J. Austin Wulliman, and soprano Amanda deBoer Bartlett.

The album’s first work is Chinary Ung’s Spiral (1987) for cello, piano, and percussion. Ung, a Cambodia-born composer whose music draws on (and works to preserve) the musical traditions of his native country, has written a series of pieces for various instrumentations, all sharing the title Spiral. In this, the first piece of the series, Ung frequently places the cellist in the traditionally virtuosic, singing role of soloist. Wild’s approach to the material is soaring, lyrical, and bold. Pianist Mabel Kwan and percussionist Greg Beyer contribute dynamic and exciting performances; they create a rich, dark, percolating atmosphere which can spring to rhythmically ferocious life at any moment. It is hard to imagine Ung’s enchanting music finding finer advocates than these. Each moment of the piece’s heart-stopping final sequence is painstakingly shaped and colored by the trio, and the cello’s final note seems to both swallow all of time, and be swallowed by it.

The next track is Claude Vivier’s 1975 Piece pour violoncelle et piano. (Vivier was a promising French-Canadian composer whose career was cut short by his murder at age 34.) With its dramatic passages of extended recitative, the piece calls to mind great chamber works by Ravel and Debussy. Vivier, like his French predecessors, was interested in the musical cultures of Asia (in this case, Balinese gamelan music). The piece, written for a Canadian performance competition, walks the line between celebrating cellistic virtuosity and taking the formal and harmonic risks we might expect from late-20th century music. Wild and Kwan’s performance is sensitively timed and supremely patient, allowing the work’s material to sparkle as it unfolds at a glacial pace.
Chicago composer Daniel Dehaan’s If it encounters the animal, it becomes animalized begins calmly enough, in an ether of harmonics. But then an arresting groan, as if from the mouth of a living creature, emerges and startles the listener. This is the first signal that the piece, a virtuosic tour-de-force for solo cello, will indeed engage the instrument’s “animal nature.” Dehaan’s piece places the animal (the human performer) in a many-sided physical relationship with the cello and all the raw materials of which it is made. The recording and production work is particularly excellent here, capturing Wild’s full-bodied performance and successfully creating a three-dimensional sonic image of the cello itself that the listener feels she can almost touch. The closeness of the microphones leaves us delightfully uncertain whether Wild’s audible breathing is a part of the notated score or not.
If it encounters the animal… is an excellent representation of the creativity that can result from long-term collaboration between performer and composer. Each cello sound seems to have been carefully and collaboratively developed. The piece feels so multi-layered that one could easily forget it is an unaccompanied cello work. It evokes both an animal–whips, groans, breaths, rasps, slaps–and the windswept chasm in which the animal might manage to survive. This recording is yet another reason why Dehaan has become one of the most exciting young composers in the city.

Andrew Greenwald describes his music as being concerned with “issues of pixelated sound material viewed at increasing resolutions.” His Jeku II for violin and cello, performed here by Wild with J. Austin Wulliman, demands a wide technical range and interpretive daring. The duo delivers a focused and dramatic performance; there’s particular flair in the way the piece’s long silences amp up the tension before another burst of activity. Wild and Wulliman execute Greenwald’s palate of extreme sounds with a combination of playfulness and precision. Every whoosh, clatter, and scramble sparkles in contrast to the surrounding sounds. Wulliman seems to know the dimensions and density of each centimeter of his bow; in one passage, he creates an arresting series of percussive clicks with the movement of what seems like one “tooth” of the bow hair. It’s a clear-sighted performance that demonstrates why Wild and Wulliman are such successful longtime collaborators.

Marcos Balter’s elegiac memoria, for solo cello, shows off Wild’s strengths as an introspective performer. Balter has written subtle and slow-moving shifts of timbre that make the simple addition of a second pitch feel magical. As the piece spins in what feels like one never-ending note, there are haunting glimpses of harmonics that seem to ascend and descend from other dimensions. The recording quality is again excellent, embracing the three-dimensional aliveness of the cello itself.

Eliza Brown’s Ich ben der welt abhanden gekommen–a work for cello, soprano, and electronics inspired by Gustav Mahler’s setting of the same Ruckert text–was, for this listener, the most fascinating and revelatory on the disc. Brown describes her music as exploring “culturally defined elements of musical meaning and syntax,” and succeeds wonderfully here. This is art song that alternates between feeling like Mahler and feeling like Mahler played through a radio on the moon. Brown makes subtle and powerful use of electronic tracks, which move in mysterious waves as Bartlett opens the piece with wide-vibrating long tones and a melodic line of Mahlerian scope. Brown’s setting often finds the cello and soprano in intimate interaction, trading off unisons that blend seamlessly into one another. The electronics are a highly dynamic third character: sometimes tender and lush, lending superhuman strength to the cello; other times self-consciously machine-like, crackling with cold, post-apocalyptic static.
Abhanden offers the listener excellent renderings of work by three of Chicago’s most interesting voices, as well as three fascinating works by composers less often heard in the city–yet each one manages to project a sense of musical intimacy. Abhanden confirms that Wild is not only an exciting performer to watch, but also a wise programmer and collaborator. The album manages a delicate balance between being both a fascinating portrait of Wild himself and an intimate map of the collaborative community in which he works.

Sweeter Music and High Art

Sarah stipulated that the music should be about war or peace, “but preferably peace.” War seemed easy. Almost everything I had done in the last few years had to do with it. Peace was harder. I started War Dances, but soon got into trouble and couldn’t go on. So I dropped war and turned to peace.

—Frederic Rzewski, on Peace Dances

Sweeter Music CD
Pianist Sarah Cahill’s A Sweeter Music commissioning project, which has yielded 18 solo piano works that she has presented in concert both in the San Francisco Bay Area and on tour, developed as a response to the Iraq War. Cahill said in an interview with San Francisco blogger Michael Strickland, “After reading news about the latest deaths in Iraq, I would sit down and play [Frederic Rzewski’s arrangement of ‘Down by the Riverside’] as a kind of catharsis. I kept thinking that there needed to be more pieces like this, which are composed in response to a particular war … but can still provide solace and inspiration thirty years later and beyond. … So I really left it to the composers whether their work would be ‘anti-war’ or ‘pro-peace.’”
This fall, the Other Minds record label released Cahill’s recording of eight of the works that have come out of the project. (A second album is planned for future release.) This first CD, titled A Sweeter Music, comprises works by established American compositional voices, including Terry Riley, Yoko Ono, Kyle Gann, Meredith Monk, Phil Kline, Carl Stone, and, of course, Rzewski. There is also a piece written by the legendary experimental art collective The Residents, for solo piano and a recorded spoken text. Many of these composers have created works in response to war previously—Riley’s Salome Dances for Peace, Kline’s Zippo Songs, and much of Rzewski’s output immediately jump to mind—but Cahill’s juxtaposition of these diverse artistic reactions to mankind’s most destructive compulsion makes for a multifaceted and complex collective statement.

Only two of these works include text: whereas The Residents’ drum no fife uses a recorded text that addresses the universality of the desire for both war and piece, in War is Just a Racket Kyle Gann instead gives Cahill herself text to recite while playing, drawn specifically from a 1933 speech by U.S. General Smedley Butler denouncing the military and capitalism. Gann aligns certain chords and cadences with specific words and lines, with solo piano interludes that are pastiches of Americana, evoking a distorted Norman Rockwell image of apple pie. Within this compilation, Gann’s work is the most explicit in its condemnation of war and the motivations that have driven America into violent conflicts.

But Cahill’s title comes from Martin Luther King’s statement upon being honored with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964—“We must see that peace represents a sweeter music, a cosmic melody that is far superior to the discords of war”—and several of the other composers chose to explore the topic from the pro-peace perspective. Yoko Ono’s Toning takes a conceptual approach, asking the performer to use the playing of a series of ascending major triads as the opportunity for a personal meditation, with each chord ringing like a Tibetan bowl, a looking inward to heal internally before looking back out to the world. Similarly, Riley takes personal compassion as his starting point, using a lullaby played for his grandchildren as a basis for his Be Kind to One Another (Rag), which takes its title from an exhortation by Alice Walker in the wake of 9/11.

As Rzewski notes, in some ways peace can be more challenging than war, but Cahill performs his demanding seven-movement Peace Dances with commanding and assured grace. Utilizing fragments of a number of traditional tunes, Rzewski wrote a series of short and varied works that acknowledge peace as a complex idea. While the ravishing sixth movement features a fluid stream of pentatonic runs with a bright melody ringing out above, by contrast the fourth takes elements of “Die Moosoldaten,” a song by Nazi labor camp prisoners, and builds an ominous canon. The optimistic final movement, “It Can Be Done!,” written both as a 100th birthday gift for Elliott Carter and as a tribute to Pete Seeger, features an ascending pointillistic line, glissing down repeatedly but climbing again. The piece ends with the left and right hands in quiet, settled dissonance.


A San Francisco-based percussion/electric guitar duo called The Living Earth Show unveiled their new album High Art last month with a performance on the Artist Sessions concert series, recently founded by pianist Lara Downes. Released on Innova Records, High Art is a collection of five pieces that The Living Earth Show has been performing regularly, written for them by a younger generation of composers than those represented on Cahill’s disc: Samuel Carl Adams, Timo Andres, Adrian Knight, and Jon Russell. To celebrate the release, they projected a film for Knight’s Family Man, created by Will Greene, and posted it as a music video on YouTube.
High Art CD cover
The tongue-in-cheek juxtaposition of the title High Art with the charmingly sophomoric album cover photo belies the deeply committed, totally focused playing of guitarist Travis Andrews and percussionist Andy Meyerson. In live performances, the musical communication between Meyerson and Andrews is at times astonishing and has the feeling of being completely natural. At the release event they played three of the works from the album on this concert, from memory. The CD listener is unfortunately denied the pleasure of witnessing the amount of multi-tasking required of Andrews and Meyerson to realize this collection of layered and multi-textured pieces. (Memorization seemed almost a necessity since often no limbs were left available for page turning.)

The album is framed by two works by Adams titled Tension Studies 1 and 2 from 2011, which were among the first works written for The Living Earth Show. Adams’ spacious writing for the duo plus electronics turns the listener’s focus in to the overtones from the guitar or crotales, notes that bend from the guitar and bowed vibraphone, pairs of pitches that are tuned slightly differently, or moments of stillness and resonance with unpredictable durations.

The longest work in the collection is Knight’s Family Man, an episodic work that, taken as a whole, paints a curious American landscape filled with nostalgia and decay, violence and melancholic solitude. The brief movements or snapshots are separated by live-triggered samples of the sound of a slide projector and languorous big band dance music, and as the interludes cut off abruptly the listener is deposited into another place in the expanse.

Living Earth

Living Earth in performance

Sounds Heard: Burr Van Nostrand—Voyage in a White Building 1

I may know better than to judge a CD by its cover, but it was hard to resist the poetic allure of the graphic score which unfolds across the front of Voyage in a White Building 1, a New World Records-issued recording of three pieces by Burr Van Nostrand.
Though the notation samples reeled me in (there’s another within the detailed booklet notes by Mathew Rosenblum), it was actually Matthew Guerrieri’s review from last year of performances of Van Nostrand’s music at the New England Conservatory of Music that first attracted my attention to this American iconoclast’s work.  Guerrieri’s vivid descriptions of the texture and flavor of the pieces left me intrigued, yet its infrequent live performance had me doubting I’d ever have the chance to hear it for myself. So consider this as much of an alert as a record review: if you ever desired the opportunity, it has arrived.

The three works included on the album were all written between 1966 and 1972. It opens with Fantasy Manual for Urban Survival, a six-movement fully notated composition. The recording included here—featuring performances by Robert Stallman (flute), Jay Humeston (cello), and Herman Weiss (prepared piano)—was made at the piece’s premiere at the New England Conservatory in 1972. I was somewhat surprised to read that Van Nostrand “began the project by compiling lists of extreme ensemble sonorities,” since to my ear, each gesture feels so deliberate and well-placed—nothing thrown at the wall just to see if it will stick. It comes off not as a catalog but as an organic exploration of a dim world, no turn taken too quickly. What begins as a murky, slow-moving study sharpens its attack and reveals additional facets as things progress. Midway through, the performers begin taking turns speaking text from the Friedrich Hölderlin poem “Hälfte des Lebens,” an inspiration for the piece, as the music continues to slip and stutter. The final two movements turn spare and crystalline, breath and light key clicks dissolving into the ether.
Phaedra Antinomaes was written for friend and collaborator violinist Paul Severtson, who infuses an attractive confidence into his presentation of the material (as documented in the 1969 recording featured on the disc). The work’s three continuous movements can be played in any order, as can the fifteen fragments that make up one of the sections. Severtson chose to lead with his ingredients—the gestural “Fragments”—before slipping seamlessly into the “Very slow, suspended” section, aggressive bow work, twacks against the instrument, and plucked accents contrasting with delicate spiccato sputters and glissando introspection.  The final section, “Violent, fast—very slow,” kicks up the tension level, but not as much as these descriptive words might imply. Throughout the work, Van Nostrand pads his statements with enough air around them to allow full aural absorption. As a result, Phaedra Antinomaes remains, start to finish, a haiku of a piece. No single line in its twelve-and-a-half-minute run time seems to unspool more than a few syllables before taking a breath, but absorbed as a whole the music contains surprising weight.

Tara Mueller, violin; New England Conservatory, April 2012

A new recording of the title work, Voyage in a White Building 1, closes the disc with a bang, and it is here that the enticing graphic score pages come to life. Premiered originally in 1969, the booklet notes explain that Van Nostrand created the work for a collection of close colleagues and relied on the unconventional notation system to include their diverse range of styles and reading abilities. On this disc, the work is presented by the NEC Chamber Ensemble led by Anthony Coleman, and a hat must be tipped to them—particularly the “speaker,” who emphatically emotes his way through the performance—for picking up this challenge and making it such a rich sonic experience.

For as seductive as I found the graphic score illustrations, the sonic image they convey (at least to these musicians) resolved into an ominous picture. Based on Hart Crane’s poem “Voyages 1,” it is structurally and thematically reflective of its three stanzas—a warning to children playing on a beach. Any sort of playfulness that may be present at the outset seems to melt into a kind of nightmarish fairy tale horror along the twists and turns Van Nostrand’s interpretation takes. The seeming madness of the speaker—his nearly nonsensical verbal explosions, maniacal laugher, moans, gasps, and cries—hold center stage throughout much of the performance, ramping up with deliberate speed as the piece moves towards its finale.  But it’s a beautiful terror to witness, a vibrant piece of theater for the ears.

Burr Van Nostrand – Voyage in a White Building 1

Sounds Heard: Brian Chase—Drums & Drones

A lot has been written about the new resources that electric guitar-wielding rock musicians have brought to the realm of composition—a keen sense of subtle timbre transformations gleaned from tweaking amps and effect units, a melodic vocabulary where bent notes are given free reign, etc. There’s a different and equally riveting approach that results when a rock drummer grabs the compositional reigns—a sound world where pitch, while rarely absent, takes a back seat and other elements, such as rhythm and sonority, are allowed to be the primary focus. There’s a particular primal rawness to many of the solo compositions and improvisations that have been created by these musicians—whether the drum machine experiments that Ikue Mori created following the dissolution of the seminal No Wave band DNA, the process-oriented stripped down rhythmic patterns created by Wilco drummer Glen Kotche, or the ascetic thraks of Oneida’s John Colpitts (a.k.a. Kid Millions) for his Man Forever project.
Unlike most of this music, Yeah Yeah Yeahs beatmeister Brian Chase’s Drums & Drones, as its title implies, foregrounds pitch, albeit in a new way that is perhaps only possible for someone whose primary musical activity is playing in one of the most visceral of New York City’s post-punk bands. I’ve been a fan of Yeah Yeah Yeahs since their initial eponymous EP from 2001. While I’ve always been floored by Karen O’s abrasive wide-ranged vocals (which have been what has garnered the lion’s share of accolades for the trio), Brian Chase’s primal throbs have caught my attention more than any other aspect of the band’s sound: while Karen O’s shrieks get under your skin, the music stays there because of what Chase is doing behind the drum set.

While listeners familiar with YYY might be surprised by the heady “new music” direction of the material on his first solo release, Brian Chase comes out of Oberlin Conservatory—from the same milieu that produced ICE and eighth blackbird—and has a long history of collaboration with experimental musicians. In fact, according to Chase (whose lavish annotations on the music accompany the recording), the material featured on Drums & Drones was initially inspired by the time Chase spent at La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela’s legendary Dream House installation where he had volunteered as a “monitor,” spending periods of 4 to 5 hours sitting directly outside the gallery space listening to the complex drone emanating from within. In February 2007, Mary Halvorson curated a month of concerts at John Zorn’s club The Stone and asked Chase to participate, at which point he unveiled the first incarnation of a series of electro-acoustic works based on applying just intonation theory to drums and other percussion instruments. This material gradually evolved over a four-year period—which involved tours across the United States and Australia, travels to Indonesia, and YYY’s 2009 album It’s Blitz—into what is contained on Drums & Drones.

Although in classical music circles, drums are frequently mislabeled as “un-pitched percussion,” the reality is that every sound has a pitch component; it is just easier to isolate specific pitches in certain sounds than in others. Struck drums typically produce a numerous simultaneous pitches, each of which contains its own overtone series. The result, when one attempts to analyze its pitch content, is often akin to a tone cluster. By isolating individual sonorities and focusing on their pitch content through electronic processing, Chase is able to make drums sing. The result is a mind-bending recontextualization of the perceived function of percussion instruments in most musical traditions. Several of the most compelling of the album’s ten audio tracks are derived from the sound of striking a single instrument—the crash of a cymbal, the sound of brushes on a snare drum, a foot pedal on a bass drum. “Feedback Drone,” the most overt LMY homage, presents an unchanging drone of upper harmonics derived from processing the resonance of the drum head of a 16-inch floor tom-tom that had been tuned to a specific frequency. Perhaps the least static track is “Melody Drum Drone,” which exploits the harmonic nodal points on a single drum head to yield a rich, melodic tapestry that is somewhat akin to the music produced on jaw harps.

For the truly intrepid, a DVD is also included with Drums & Drones which pairs Chase’s percussion-based drones with austere videography by Ursula Scherrer and Erik Zajaceskowski. Scherrer’s video for “Aum Drone” accompanies Chase’s pitch bending experiments on a 20-inch tom-tom with a seemingly static image of what appears to be a thick forest—as you watch, branches begin to sway and at some point it almost seems like ghosts float by; it’s mesmerizing. Zajaceskowski’s video for “Stick Shot Harmonic Drone,” on the other hand, is not for the faint of heart. Very bright images are intercut with a black screenshot. It’s like a visual on/off switch which shifts as rapidly as Chase’s pulses from the striking of two sticks; it moves by so fast that it is impossible to ever know exactly what you’re looking at. It’s kind of like staring directly into a halogen light and blinking incessantly. It’s fascinating, but probably not something I’ll find myself returning to frequently.

Drums & Drones is a recent release from Pogus Productions—a small, independent label devoted primarily to uncompromising electronic and experimental music that has been run single-handedly for years by Al Margolis (a.k.a. If, Bwana). Being on this label—which has issued important material from such contemporary music luminaries as Pauline Oliveros, Roger Reynolds, Philip Corner, Annea Lockwood, and the late Kenneth Gaburo—connects Chase’s music to an extremely vital stream of iconoclastic music. It is appropriate company for Chase’s intellectually probing music to be placed in. It will hopefully get fans of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs more excited about these important American experimentalists, and perhaps (just as interestingly), make more fans of the avant-garde excited about the Yeah Yeah Yeahs!

Sounds Heard: Ehnahre—Old Earth

Arnold Schoenberg famously preached the liberation of dissonance, but left implicit the symmetric relation in that statement: that dissonance can, in and of itself, be pretty liberating. Ehnahre, the Boston-based experimental metal group, has a knack for dissonance, amplified into bone-crushing clouts of familiar overdrive distortion. But the real, dark fun of Old Earth (Crucial Blast) is the way the music, fueled by dissonance, constantly slips free of such genre expectations.

For the group’s third full-length album, Ryan McGuire (bass), John Carchia (guitars), and Ricardo Donoso (percussion and electronics) stretch out in full experimental sweep; laid out as a continuous, four-part track, Old Earth covers a lot of ground. (The album represents something of a swan song for the group, at least this iteration of it: Donoso has moved on to focus more on electronic music; McGuire and Carchia, having recruited three more musicians (Brandon Terzakis, Rich Chowenhill, and Jared Redmond), are about to start touring with the new lineup.)

Schoenberg is a particular and acknowledged inspiration for Ehnahre; 12-note techniques lie at the heart of much of their material. Serialism has been hanging around the edges of various heavy metal subgenres for a while, especially technical metal, with its pursuit of ever-increasing noise and virtuosity. But Ehnahre goes further, borrowing not just the theory, but something of the aesthetic as well: a thoroughly expressionist fascination with death and decay, aiming for nothing so much as the venerable sensation of the uncanny, the intersection of terror and clarity. The group has a poetic streak, too—their previous album, Taming the Cannibals, found lyrical inspiration in such writers as Whitman, Jeffers, and Trakl. Old Earth turns to none other than Samuel Beckett, adapting his “Fizzle 6.” Not that it’s entirely intelligible translated into a full, guttural doom-metal howl—but the mood translates surprisingly well, precise but fugitive glimpses of nature’s brutal indifference.

There’s metal to be had, of course—the third part, in particular, is a crunching, asymmetrical pummeling to be reckoned with. But much of the album unfolds in heavy, slow-moving clouds of sound. A long, musique concrète-tinged prelude; dark chimes from Carchia’s guitar; a moody arco double-bass solo from McGuire—at times, Old Earth feels more like a free-jazz album, albeit one with all the knobs turned to ten. The group draws forth the extreme quality of metal but also pushes it in different directions: extreme restiveness, but also extreme stasis, extreme haziness. Switching between shadowy warmth and carpet-bomb assault, Old Earth envelops the ear in harsh and gleeful hair-trigger possibilities.

Sounds Heard: Christopher Bono—Invocations

The composer Christopher Bono is someone I had never before encountered until Invocations, an entire CD devoted to his music that arrived in the mail a few months ago. His own website does not offer a biography and the about page on his blog merely states the following:

“I enjoy all aspects of sound and music. As a composer and student of life, I am interested in new sound worlds, alternative states of consciousness and experience through sound, and collaboration.”

As it turns out, Bono has quite a fascinating life story which I eventually learned directly through email from him. He grew up in a St. Louis suburb and trained to be a professional baseball player (he was drafted by the Seattle Mariners) before physical injuries forced him to abandon athletic activities. At the age of 21, he taught himself guitar and initially explored rock. After experimenting with heavy metal and even country, he eventually turned his attention to classical composition. His mother was a trained classical musician, but sports had been his focus throughout his formative years. While the music he has gone on to write—at least from what I can glean from having listened to this disc—does not particularly conjure up America’s greatest pastime, it does sound like something written by someone who is somehow an outsider. While much of 21st-century contemporary composition is not beholden to any rules, to the extent that I could probably claim everyone to be an “outsider” in some ways, Bono’s music sounds as though everything he writes is something he is discovering for the very first time, even if there are clear reference points throughout to the sound worlds of other composers from both our own time and other eras.

The bulk of the disc is comprised of an elaborate three movement composition dedicated to the composer’s father, also entitled Invocations. Each of the three movements has a different instrumentation. The first part, “Exhaust,” is scored for string trio which Bono describes in his program notes as “exposed and vulnerable.” One violin shy of a full string quartet, the string trio has certainly had a far less illustrious history. While few composers have worked extensively in the string trio medium, some have created important individual works for it either relatively early—Ludwig van Beethoven (who actually wrote four of them), Henry Cowell, La Monte Young, Charles Wuorinen—or comparatively late—W.A. Mozart, Arnold Schoenberg, Irving Fine, Ljubica Marić, Ivan Wyschnegradsky, Elliott Carter—in their careers. So the idiom is not without illustrious pedigree. Perhaps even more than being “exposed and vulnerable,” there’s something somehow sonically pure and clean about the interplay of one violin, one viola, and one cello, and Bono in “Exhaust,” once again proves how emotively satisfying an instrumental combination it can be.

The second movement, “Fish, Father, Phoenix,” is something else entirely. Here a string quintet (with double bass) is joined by harp, winds, percussion, and a series of samples. Seemingly taking a cue from the documentary-like snippets of pre-recorded speech in Steve Reich’s landmark Different Trains, Bono weaves an elaborate soundtrack around fragments of a narrative. But unlike the speech samples Reich used, which—like those in Scott Johnson’s earlier John Somebody—determine the melodic shapes and rhythmic inflections in the instrumental music that accompanies them, Bono’s speech samples are but one timbral element in his multifarious sonic palette.

In “Sunday Stills the Willow,” the final section of the composition and also the shortest, the samples are gone but the rest of the ensemble remains. Gone also is the frenetic drive and what remains is extremely heartfelt but somehow more introspective.

Perhaps the most exciting music for me herein, however, is what comes next on the disc—The Missing, a work for string quartet composed in 2010.

The piece opens with a series of extended techniques—e.g. bowing extremely close to the bridge, microtonal pitch slides, and various scrapes and squawks. What follows, though more traditional in its nature, is every bit as unusual—thematic material inspired by indigenous music from the West African nation of Togo is developed somewhat along the lines of middle period Beethoven. Imagine how different the world could have been if such music would have been written in the early 19th century.

The final track on the disc offers an alternative take on “Fish, Father, Phoenix” without the speech samples. Strangely, this version somehow sounds even more Reichian to me, albeit with a much more cinematic hue.

All in all, discovering Christopher Bono’s music has been a rewarding experience, one that makes me wish I had even more time to devote to listen to everything that comes my way.

Sounds Heard: Mohammed Fairouz—Sumeida’s Song

Sumeida’s Song was completed in 2008, when composer Mohammed Fairouz was only 22 years old. Taking inspiration from Tawfiq al-Hakim’s play Song of Death, the opera follows Alwan (Mischa Bouvier) as he returns from Cairo to his hometown in Upper Egypt. Rather than fulfilling an ancestral blood-feud, Alwan rejects violence but ends up paying a terrible price for his efforts to bring enlightenment to the village, in a plot that echoes another Middle Eastern Passion.

For a first opera, Fairouz’s work is a brilliant synthesis of Western opera and Arab musical traditions—specifically, the microtonal inflections typical of Arabic maqam which Fairouz allows to take hold in the second scene onward. Written for operatic voices and Western symphonic instruments, Fairouz’s command of traditional operatic craft would be astonishing for a composer twice his age—and at times, the work sounds almost Straussian in its textured web of motifs; imaginative and rigorous and expressive yet very far removed from any sound world that might be considered even vaguely Arabic.

One reason for this is doubtless because much of the development in Sumeida’s Song takes place within the characters’ minds, hence the intensely psychological, almost expressionist tone developed in the final arias. Another reason is that Fairouz often reserves his Arabic inflections for moments of urgency and crisis, giving his use of quarter tones a specific and musical significance. Those looking for a glib and obvious film-score, Arab-American fusion will be disappointed by this work, which casts Fairouz squarely as a serious composer of concert music in the Western tradition more than a crossover phenomenon.

Fairouz’s orchestration likewise stems from traditional 19th-century technique but is always peppered with arresting timbres and subtly shifting textures that support the drama in myriad creative ways. The first scene begins with Alwan’s mother and aunt anxiously awaiting his arrival by train, with the shrill and sudden screech of the train whistle expressing volumes. Fairouz understands that colorful sounds have an associative and expressive capacity, and his use of the orchestra—though largely traditional—reveals a composer intent on making every sound contribute to the overall psychological drama.

The opera’s libretto is perhaps not its strongest suit, largely expository and at times clunky and ill-suited to Fairouz’s vastly more natural vocal writing. And at times, I found myself wondering if the composer had shown too much concern for avoiding identifiable Arabic influence—sidestepping one kind of compositional danger only to embrace a musical blend in which classical tradition, performance technique, and orchestration threaten to smother the Arabic elements for a good amount of the score. Yet Sumeida’s Song comes off as a compelling musical drama nonetheless, a statement of tragedy and hope that speaks to a universal aspiration: that humans might one day turn away from a legacy of violence.

Several of Fairouz’s recent compositions have received a lot of attention in part because of their timeliness and thematic relation to recent uprisings in the Arab world, but this opera in particular addresses ideas and emotions that have relevance far beyond the events of the Arab Spring. Expertly recorded and mixed by Bridge Records, the disc features fine performances from all four singers as well as a taut and finely detailed account of the score by the Mimesis Ensemble under Scott Dunn. Bridge has released several new operas in recent years, including works by Tod Machover, Bill Bolcom, and John Musto, and Sumeida’s Song proves that Mohammed Fairouz is a composer whose sensitive musicianship and personal vision suggests that he is likely to claim a similar niche in the operatic world.

Breathing In


I vividly remember the first time I ever consciously understood how inspiration functioned for me. I had been studying for 6 straight days. My eyes suffered the tunnel vision of sleep-deprivation and my body was crushed under a ceaseless caffeine buzz. But what I remember so intensely about that night isn’t what I was studying or why I felt so depressed—I don’t even remember what year it was, just that it was winter in Ithaca and upon leaving the library at 2 AM, I faced a 25-minute walk home, which made me angry at the world. But something amazing happened as soon as my face hit the frigid air. It had been snowing during my whole study session and through my blurry eyes the entire quad was radiantly white and crystalline, with more snowflakes spiraling gracefully and silently to the ground. Upon seeing this scene, my body filled with this incredible euphoria that was so strong that at first wondered if someone had slipped something into my coffee. I ran through the snow finding symbolism and superstition in everything around me…that my footprints were the first to break up the smoothness of the snow, that someone lost a glove for me to find. But I couldn’t tell if I was inspired by the situation or the timing of it or the caffeine. In any case, this month I was simply fascinated by the diverse sources of inspiration that drove composers and musicians to commit so much work to 41 new recordings of American music.

Art Yields Art

Since most Americans are required at least to square dance for a few weeks in school, it is no wonder that many composers hold a special place in their heart for folk music and tales. After all, despite criticism from the rest of the world, Americans do have a folk history rich with music, dance, and tales. Oh My Little Darling, a collection of field recordings of Southern Appalachian folk music, gives a good overview of one facet of our earthy musical roots, while Leonardo Balada‘s pair of one-act operas based on an American cowboy song and Richard Winslow’s “Variations on a Tune by Stephen Foster” (arranged for guitar on David Leisner‘s new disc) show how these tunes continue to elicit new art. Meanwhile, Gloria Coates‘ eighth symphony for voices and orchestra draws texts from Seneca, Winnebago, and Plains Indian songs, making use of another musical tradition in America’s history. Funk trumpeter and composer Greg Adams is more up to date on today’s pop world, also an important aspect of American culture, incorporating influences from more commercial music into his smooth arrangements of standards and original songs.

Other composers and players move outside U.S. borders to find motivation, for example drummer Guillermo Nojechowicz brings rhythms from South American dances to the music of Latin jazz combo El Eco and composer/guitarist Gyan Riley‘s first solo recording is a meditation on the nylon-string guitar’s presence in all kinds of world musics. Plus, on a unique recording of John Cage‘s orchestral music, 108 (for large ensemble) is played simultaneously with One9, for solo sho, a Japanese harmonic instrument.

While it makes sense, that folk music would inform today’s music, we cannot forget the influence that other art forms, particularly literature and theater, have too. For example, Ernst Toch, after escaping Hitler’s Germany, came to the United States and wrote two orchestral works based on beloved children’s stories and Irving Fine was enlisted to write tunes for a 1942 stage version of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Theatrical tuba player William Roper takes it one step farther on Roper’s Darn! Yarns and improvises his own stories! Singer Carolyn Heafner found eight American composers who had set 28 Emily Dickinson poems, composer Edward Thomas based his American folk opera on Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms, and the libretto for Sweethearts, with music by Victor Herbert, is a take on the old “princess-in-disguise” tale. Cellist Joan Jeanrenaud, who struck off on her own after 20 years with Kronos, has created multimedia work taking off on current trends in the art world. And finally, inspired by a different kind of cultural institution—Sesame StreetPaul Lansky‘s Alphabet Book includes music about numbers and letters and animations on an enhanced CD.

Church music can be fun!

Considering that many people came to America to escape religious persecution, a lot of music is still created in response to spiritual practices, and in the midst of the holiday season, Music for Christmas by Conrad Susa, is a shining example. Furthermore, the male vocal ensemble Chanticleer and the University of Miami Wind Ensemble both engage in diverse programs of all-American music that have a few threads of religious insight like William Billings’ David’s Lamentation or James Syler’s choral/winds work Blue which uses a variety of texts including some from the Bible.

The Nonfiction Variety

While myths, literature, and Biblical stories seem to be a universal
ly inspiring lot, many composers prefer to address history and politics through their music. Whether depicting the Jewish experience of the past century, such as in Michael Horvit‘s oratorio The Mystic Flame, or creating a theatrical portrait of the great Civil War and political journalist Ambrose Bierce, like Rodney Waschka II‘s Saint Ambrose, the composers attempt to recreate the emotions they felt when hearing these stories from the past. James Cohn, on the other hand, is more preoccupied with current events, writing works such as Homage, a tone poem dedicated to a sick Secretary of State John Foster Dulles during the Cold War.

Personalize It

Although James Cohn found current events of a grand scale inspiring, a lot of composers and musicians use their own personal experiences as fodder for their art. After the death of his son in the early ’60s, George Rochberg abandoned strict serialism for a freer form that allowed him to express his grief, which is apparent in dark works such as Black Sounds. Kathryn Mishell‘s Musical Voyages reflect inner voyages that she has taken as she experiences life and if part of your life experience includes “Cash, Ho’s, Rides, Kicks,” maybe you can identify with the eclectic men of The Hub, whose newest recording is titled Trucker.

Space Age

Like me, many people find inspiration simply by walking outside. The profound aura of John Luther Adams‘ music always owes a little bit to his arctic surroundings in Alaska while the chorus of frogs that accompany Phil James and his shakuhachi on First Places celebrates the natural sounds of Missouri. Rochester-based musician Tommy Gravino opens one song with an ode to Monroe Avenue in his hometown on his new album Party of One while the singers of the Spivey Children’s Choir pay homage to their Homeland of Georgia. Andrew Imbrie‘s experience as a visiting professor in Chicago formed the inspiration of his “Chicago Bells” while electronic composer Frank Felice basks in the ambient noise of bustling sidewalk scenes on his latest record. Conceptual composer Alvin Lucier trumps them all by designing music that is meant for a particular space and one can hear his early explorations on Vespers and Other Early Works.

The Instrument is the Thing

Often, when asked to write a work for a specific player, composers need no more of a muse than the instrument itself. Oboist Jonathan Blumenfeld explores works by two composers that focus mainly on the oboe’s timbre and personality and flutist Kathleen Chastain rounds up an all-star list of composers each with a unique perception of the flute’s potential. Farther afield, jazz organist Tony Monaco makes it clear that what drives him musically is his indestructible love for the instrument and its history.

All You Need Is Music

Of course, there remain the hardcore musicians who need nothing more than the ideas surrounding music to create more music. Through a second volume of David Diamond‘s string quartets one can see how the neoclassical structure influenced his ideas about music and the chamber music of Julian Wachner shows how he separates elements out in order to fit them back together again. Meanwhile, Larry Polansky‘s Four-voice canons (the name says it all) claim no other motivation than purity of construction, facilitated by Polansky’s expertise with computer programming. The formal electro-acoustic music of Barry Schrader makes use of unyielding repetition to bring out the more subtle timbral qualities of sound, while Orlando Jacinto Garcia‘s chamber music also highlights more subtle structural qualities of sound through delicate, tiny changes in texture. And finally, the driving force in the duets performed from saxophonist Anthony Braxton and brass player Taylor Ho Bynum is simply a transcendence of musical limitations, seeking liberty through exploration and innovation.

The word inspire comes from the Latin inspirare, which literally means to breathe in. It is no wonder then during that winter night in Ithaca, as soon as I took a breath of that cold, crisp air, I began to find beauty everywhere. Looking at the stories behind each of these recordings, it became clear to me that, in the most simple of circumstances, to breathe is to live and to live is to be inspired.

Globe Trotters and Jet Setters

SoundTracksWhen I was 20 years old I, like generations of American college students before me, packed a suitcase and got on a plane for my junior year abroad in Paris. I had never been to a country where English wasn’t the primary language and I remember in my post-departure panic saying to my French professor: “If you don’t think I speak French well enough and that I’m going to be an embarrassment to my country, be honest with me and I won’t go!” Of course, when I realized that most Americans in France practice what David Sedaris calls “Easy French” (simply speaking English louder), I eased into my new culture without a problem. When the cab driver dropped me off at my apartment, I knew I was at home. I have never been as comfortable in my life as when I was in Paris. I wanted to be Parisian, whereas I am not quite sure that I want to be considered a New Yorker. I believe strongly that every person has a corresponding place that feels like home and this is not necessarily (or even usually) where they are born. I was fascinated this month to find so many artists among the stack of new recordings who have moved away from their roots and ventured into the unknown to find their mental and spiritual homes.

Across the Ocean

It makes sense that many composers and musicians would have a desire to live in Europe. After all, many of our American musical traditions come from European roots and academic ties to European institutions are plentiful. Barney Childs took a break from the American West when he was invited to attend Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar and George Walker, like dozens of American composers before and after, sought the tutelage of Nadia Boulanger in Paris. Before this he had been studying in Fontainebleau about 45 minutes southeast of the grand French metropolis. Film and television composer extraordinaire Danny Elfman escaped from his native L.A. at age 18 to join a theater troupe in Paris with his brother and soon pushed off to Africa. Only a bout of malaria convinced him to return to the States! And bassist Andy McKee continued a long tradition of ex-patriot jazzers in the City of Lights, living in Paris in the mid-1980s.

The bustle of Rome (not to mention the American Academy there) has also attracted many American deserters throughout the past century such as Samuel Barber, Frederic Rzewski, and Alvin Singleton. Both Singleton and Rzewski extended their stays in Europe for a couple of decades!

As the Cold War came to a close, many artists started to explore the artistic resources of Eastern Europe and soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Czech Republic has become a sought-after destination for young artists of all shapes and sizes, thanks to its ridiculously low prices, the legality of absinthe, and the Czech people’s deep appreciation of serious music. Conductor Paul Freeman, who is an avid champion of American composers, it currently on the podium of the Czech National Symphony, and composer/flutist/conductor Daniel Kessner honors the beautiful nation with a recording of his chamber works that were created and/or performed at the Forfest annual music festival.

Some artists have venture farther afield in search of inspiration. Larry Polansky‘s time spent in Central Java continues to inspire his output as is evident on his newest recording. And although they hail from all over the US, Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock, and Jack DeJohnette joined forces in Tokyo for a live recording. Due to the improvisatory nature of their music, one can’t deny the impact of location on the performance.

Road Trip!

Because the United States is so vast, many artists are continually inspired by the variety within their homeland. Most composers seem to follow in the path of the pioneers and settlers moving from east to west. MIDI-raga composer Michael Robinson left New York City for Maui in 1989, backtracking a year later to land in Los Angeles. Jazzers Skip Heller, Mike Fahn, Terri Lyne Carrington, and contrabassoonist (whom I’ve also heard called “contra-nut”) Allen Savedoff left their northeastern abodes for the palm trees of L.A. Improv artist Adam James Wilson stopped halfway west from New York in Ohio and Illinois for university, and legendary tenor saxophonist Charles Lloyd along with the funky tin hat trio both opted for the northern vibe of California. Composer Daniel Adams who specializes in percussion music took the southern corridor westward moving from Miami to Texas via Louisiana (and Illinois).

Although it appears that most movement among musicians seems to re-enact some kind of musical manifest destiny, many go against that grain. Some westerners have opted for East Coast attitude such as jazz old-timer Chico Hamilton who split time between Los Angeles (his hometown) and New York. Composer Phillip Schroeder left his northern California upbringing behind for an education in the East (he is now working in Arkansas) and classical saxophonist/Californian Jeremy Justeson slowly worked his way from West to East via his studies making stops in Chicago, Texas, and Pennsylvania. Chamber music composer Robert Baksa returned to his birthplace, New York City, after growing up in Arizona and conductor Jo-Michael Schreiber left his California home to lead the University of Miami Chorale, which is featured on a recording this month performing contemporary works for mixed chorus.

A few other folks made the trek from South to North. For example, North Carolina-native Billy Taylor arrived in New York City in 1942 at the age of 21 and soon was playing with all the big names. Meanwhile, academic composer Ezra Laderman inched his way up the East Coast from Brooklyn to New England.

Still others longed for the warmth of the South like pianist/composer and Doors fan George Winston, who made homes in Mississippi and Florida after his childhood in eastern Montana and, from what I can tell, Camelot composer and creator of musical soul portraits Richard Shulman headed to Asheville, North Carolina, after doing his university work in Western New York. And probably one of the most fascinating recordings for fans of folk music is one called I’m On My Journey Home, a collection of field recordings made by ethnomusicologists (mostly from the North!) of vocal traditions and techniques of southern Appalachia. My favorite has to be the recording of the tobacco auction!

And finally, winner of the Continental United States Jetsetter Award has to be Colorado-born, neo-romantic orchestral composer Frank Graham Stewart who has made homes in New York
City, upstate New York, California, and Michigan!

Destination: U.S.A.

Now let’s turn the tables for a moment and recognize the fact that the United States is also a prime destination for musicians and composers from all over the world. Composer Michael Gordon was born into an Eastern European community in Nicaragua before attending Yale University where he met the other two founders (David Lang and Julia Wolfe) of Bang On A Can, the new music ensemble whose most recent recording is a greatest hits compilation. The late Leo Ornstein was brought to the U.S. from the Ukraine by his family and then moved around the country elusively during his later years (including a stint in a trailer in Texas!) and MacArthur award-winning composer Bright Sheng, who lived through the cultural revolution in the People’s Republic of China, came to New York City in 1982, and started teaching at the University of Michigan in 1995. On the newest recording from the Society of Composers, Inc., two of the featured composers, Maria Niederberger and Emily Doolittle, left their native countries (Switzerland and Canada respectively) to work and study in the U.S.

In addition to the ex-patriot composers that now call the United States home, many performers have done the same. New Age, multi-cultural violinist Farzad, who is originally from Iran, came to study in Indiana and Texas before becoming an orchestral musician in Ecuador. Pianist Sahan Arzruni, born in Istanbul to Armenian parents, is currently a resident of the U.S. and a key member of the ethnomusicological community. A recording of vocal music released this month is an ode to another ex-pat, the poet W.H. Auden, who left England for the United States in 1939 and subsequently split his time between New York City and Vienna.

I Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere

Ironically, some of the most adventurous music being made is by people who are relatively uninspired by the lure of a new setting. It seems that many native New Yorkers have no desire to reach past their own urban safe haven for more than a vacation here and there, but they make the most of their lush multi-cultural surroundings. Latin jazzers Bobby Sanabria and Steven Kroon have gleaned their inspiration from the outer boroughs while jazz maverick Dom Minasi proudly proclaims New York as his home. Avant-garde pop artist David First has the New York Metropolitan area running through his blood and the improvising quintet of Jimmy Williams, Michael Jefry Stevens, Joe Fonda, Herb Robertson, and Harvey Sorgen uses New York as their base. Meredith Monk and Leonard Bernstein are the face of the New York musical sensibility for me. Despite the Grove Dictionary‘s claim that she was born in Lima, Peru, Monk was born and raised in the NY metro area, but Bernstein is actually from Massachusetts. Although tell me—who is more New York than Leonard Bernstein??? This perhaps supports my point that where your spirit belongs isn’t necessarily where you were born! Some Californians also seem pretty content with their setting such as “swamp rocker” Lisa Haley and improv-oriented trumpeter Jeff Kaiser, who has two new albums out this month, one with Brad Dutz and the other with his ockodektet. At the same time violinist (a simplification, I know) Mat Maneri continues to rock the New England improv scene.

All this talk of exploration, new places, and new sounds has inspired me. So I am going to leave you now, as I am catching a flight to Istanbul tomorrow to get some perspective. Happy travels and happy listening.

A Neurotic Wind Player


As an oboe player, I have always had a chip on my shoulder about string players. Every time a concert “master” would strut onto stage, accepting the applause of the audience, only to turn around and command me to play an A, a wave of resentment would pass over my body. I was responsible for the whole orchestra’s tuning and suffered near panic attacks every time I would enter after 60 measures of rests with an incredibly difficult solo. I had no “section” to fall back on yet the conductor still shook the hands of the second chair violist before me! As I took on a job that had me listening to music more than playing it, I became even more enraged. New works for everything but winds! I became jealous of everyone: the beloved cello and the hip percussion, the quirky viola and, of course, the saintly piano. What was so wrong with my family of instruments? Why did no one love us? And so my sweet inferiority complex bubbled.

Winds, winds, everywhere winds

This month, however, my people, those with lips as agile as their fingers, reign supreme over the newly released recordings. Closest to my heart is an album dedicated to the Bassoon Music of the Americas, featuring talented Floridian bassoonist Jeff Keesecker as well as a multi-cultural array of music for this under-appreciated member of the double reed family. Also, winning points in my book are the woodwind quintets of David Maslanka, a composer whose mastery of timbre and expression has been a breath of fresh air to the chamber music repertoire for winds. Maslanka’s larger scale wind band compositions are also featured on another recording performed by the University of Massachusetts-Amherst Wind Ensemble. His Fourth Symphony shares billing with other works by Robert Stern, Joseph Turrin, and Michael Daugherty. The oboe’s orchestral neighbor, the flute, is lavished with attention on a recording of Brian Ferneyhough‘s complex, modernist music for solo flute, piccolo, and bass flute and this instrument also gets a downtown treatment on a re-issue of Phill Niblock‘s music titled YPGPN. The latter is a double CD also featuring solo works for other wind compatriots: saxophone, trombone, sousaphone, and didjeridu. Meanwhile, the Chestnut Brass Company engage in a tribute to the music of Irving Berlin while talented classical saxophonist, Kenneth Tse, presents An American Exhibition that includes new works for saxophone by seven American composers.

Winds Around the World

I have also found that artists who are influenced by various world traditions are also usually wind-friendly and David Krakauer’s Klezmer Madness! band is certainly a fine example. Mixing klezmer and rock influences, this energetic music is really all about the clarinet (and the accordion, of course.) Krakauer even busts out the shofar, a traditional horn used to mark the end of Yom Kippur, on one track. For a lighter world music experience, guitarist Eric Tingstand and oboist (yay!) Nancy Rumbel blend Celtic music, church hymns, and various new age sounds into their Acoustic Garden. And although they don’t use any wind instruments (shame, shame!), the Guarneri Underground is a multi-talented, guitar-centric project of Jeffrey Sick’s that blends everything from Middle Eastern music and Irish folk tunes to African drumming and jazz.

Spontaneous Winds

Wind instruments have always figured prominently in the world of improvised music from jazz to experimental. Two important jazz releases this month, the debut CD of the Dave Holland Big Band, anchored by his renowned quintet, and bassist Ben Allison‘s collaboration with Malian kora virtuoso Mamadou Diabate, embrace the role of wind-blown instruments. Ten of 13 members of the Big Band use their breath for more than smoking and the title track Peace Pipe says it all for Ben Allison’s outfit. Meanwhile, legendary trumpeter and composer Wadada Leo Smith is joined by his Golden Quartet on a recording of transcendent tunes called The Year of the Elephant. Coming out of the same tradition, trumpeter/composer Hugh Ragin‘s Feel the Sunshine is full of joyous tracks and fresh ideas. For traditionalists, pop saxophonist and producer Andy Snitzer is joined by a trio of players on conservative arrangements of standards and the wind-less Greg Burk Trio can be spared the heavy-hand of my wind nationalism due to Burk’s rich compositional ideas and the skill with which they are executed.

For truly out-there music check out the experimental, improvisational-based works of composer/singer Lenore Von Stein on I Haven’t Been able to Lie and Tell the Truth, featuring a random assortment of instrumentalists and vocalists, spiced up with some German lyrics. The crux of Obbligato, featuring vocalist Mary La Rose, reed player Jeff Lederer, trombonist Steve Swell, and bassist Dominic Duval, is innovative arrangements of everything from Dolphy and Hendrix to Randy Newman. Two other improvisational recordings abandon wind instruments, but not the pioneering spirit of experimental music. The Focus Quintet, a hodgepodge of electric and acoustic instruments as well as vocals, puts forth a collection of spontaneously created and often stark tracks while Focus Quintet member Chris Forsyth’s noisy guitar and drum project present eight dark, freely improvised pieces. Forsyth was a busy bee th
is month, also collaborating with Ernesto Diaz-Infante on march, where the concentration was on creating sounds that one would never imagine came from guitars, pianos, or drums alone.

An Upstanding Member of the Community

Of course, composers who take on orchestral music are forced to reconcile with the winds and many of the large-scale works featured on recordings this month feature winds prominently. The Marco Polo label has released a sampler of suites from classic films including the eerie and campy “Look Out! It’s King Kong Coming” by film music guru Max Steiner. A disc of Ferde Grofé‘s geographically inspired oeuvre (not the Grand Canyon Suite…) and a “Super Audio CD” of Roy Harris’ Symphony No. 2 and Morton Gould’s Symphony No. 3 reflect the trends in Americana symphonic music of the mid-century. For newer, more cosmopolitan works, give a listen to new recording from the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra featuring the music of Yannatos, Wyner, and Fussell or if you are craving a little bit of the human voice, hear a live recording of the world-premiere of Kurt Gellersted’s Requiem for chorus and orchestra. Another great recording of choral music, titled Freed From Words, showcases the artful compositions of Mark Winges.

Learning to Accept the “Other”

Although I pride myself on being oboist (perhaps foolishly), in college I put much more of an emphasis on singing. Therefore, I cannot be too bitter against recordings of vocal music and there are certainly plenty of high quality collections of songs available this month. Broadway star Audra McDonald focuses on upbeat show tunes and jazz standards on her newest venture from Nonesuch called Happy Songs, while Peter Buchi‘s An American Voice is loaded with patriotic nostalgia. For those fascinated with poetry set to music, Dreamer: A Portrait of Langston Hughes has tenor Darryl Taylor exploring how 13 different composers were inspired by this American literary giant. Also, lyric composer Jeanne E. Shaffer uses her own words as well as those of poet Christina Rossetti to shape several beautiful songs on a recording of her chamber music titled Sapphire Summer and “the Dean of Northwest Composers” George Frederick McKay‘s songs based on the poetry of Walter De La Mare and Keats, among others, are placed alongside his diverse output for small ensemble.

Other recordings of chamber music that were released this month include the stunning Another Sunrise from Peter Garland performed exquisitely by Essential Music and music for piano and piano-violin duo by Pulitzer-prize winning composer Leslie Bassett. For more solo piano, check out The Complete Piano Works of Stephen Foster played by Sara Davis Buechner. Again, since I associate the piano with my first musical experiences (starting lessons at age 5), I have a rather strong sentimental attachment to it. Not to mention that Stephen Foster’s music is rife with nostalgia…”I Dream of Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair” and “Old Folks at Home” never cease to transport me back several generations. If you’re more interested in the pop music of today rather than of a century and a half ago, Verse from songwriter and vocalist Patricia Barber and Looking for Landmarks by Two Loons for Tea (headed by Jonathan Kochmer and Sarah Scott) both have a pop surface supported by layers of jazz and classical influences.

The Dog House (But we love ’em anyway)

Some people, on the other hand, have just given up on acoustic instruments all together, and I have to give them their due respect. After all, what is new music without new technology? For the math-oriented technophile, David Dunn‘s new recording of electro-acoustic works is right down your alley, mixing complex patterns with philosophically rich concepts. For those that prefer rhythms to algorithms, John McGuire‘s optimistic electronic compositions put the music back in electronic music.

Hmm…now that I have surveyed these 39 new recordings, I am beginning to think that my bitterness is unfounded. Perhaps all grudges melt after enough reflection—a lesson I will try to apply to my daily life. Not to undermine my moralizing, but I also worry that I have some kind of weird psychological problem. Maybe as a child I was beaten with a violin. But all this aside, I have discovered that embracing the diversity of music in 2002 has proven to be the best therapy.