Saturday, October 30, 2010

CD Reviews: Boretz, Lierman, Improv Festival

I said in some earlier postings that I’d do some CD reviews, so here they are. These are all CDs that I’ve picked up over the last year or two at concerts at the Chapel Performance Space in Seattle, where many of the concerts I review on this blog have been. Unfortunately, due to budget constraints, I’m not likely to be getting any many more CDs in the months to come, so these reviews will have to do for this year (and maybe next as well).

Benjamin Boretz: String Quartet (played by Quartet Dafo)
Open Space 23

The two Benjamin Boretz CDs represent different aspects of the composer’s music. The string quartet (composed over forty-eight years!) really shows the two aspects itself: the first two movements are conservatively “classical” (or “20th-century classical”, rather reminiscent of Stravinsky or the relatively lesser known French composer Frank Martin). The second, a scherzo, could also have stepped out of a Shostakovich quartet. This is not to say that neither shows originality – Boretz’ harmonic language or two-note chords (rather than triads or more complex chords) is obvious in certain passages, and sometimes it is rather surprising. It comes to fruition in the third movement, a long slow movement that derives much of its sound-world from Morton Feldman. It is in complete contrast to the first two, but forms an elegant counterbalance to their louder, more strident activity.

So the composition itself is interesting. I might also mention that the Quartet Dafo plays with a considerable amount of verve and intensity, even in the long quiet section. The recording, on the other hand, has a major problem (which to me at least is unforgivable). The second movement is recorded at least twice as loud as the other two. (The music itself is slightly louder, but the recording sounds as if the mikes had suddenly been placed several feet closer to the instruments and the volume not adjusted accordingly.) I’m used to this occurring when home-burning CDs from home-assembled playlists; some pieces are naturally recorded louder than others. But it should never happen on a studio-produced CD. It completely destroys the flow of the music, and sent me scrambling for the volume button. I finally had to upload it into iTunes, adjust the volume on each movement separately, and burn a copy myself in order to listen to it.

Benjamin Boretz: Piano Music 1976 – 2000 (played by Michael Fowler)
Open Space 18

The piano CD says right in the insert that the individual pieces were recorded under different circumstances, which were not always optimal. This is true; they do not sound like studio recordings (though they’re certainly not bad). They do, however, sound consistent, which cannot be said for the quartet CD. These piano pieces are all in the “quiet” mode of musical thinking, a la Feldman. Nathaniel Evans called this the “West-Coast-can’t-play-quietly-enough” style (see my 7/7/2010 posting). Not a lot can really be said about them that wouldn’t detract from the music. They are slow, quiet, tranquil yet intense meditations on the sounds of the piano. Each note or note-cluster rings into its own silence in its own way, both related to all the others and at the same time utterly separately from them. Mr. Fowler plays the music with considerable nuance. I might add that at least one of these pieces is an intensely beautiful experience when played by a capable pianist in concert; I heard Keith Eisenbrey play (“…my chart shines high where the blue milks upset…”) at a recital last June (see my 6/12/2010 posting) and the piece's chiming resonances were like a revelation of the inside of the sound.

C. Lierman: Huon
2002 onethum disc

I picked up this C(arl) Lierman CD at the Eye Music concert (see my 9/19/2010 posting). Mr. Lierman is a member of that band. The music continues a similar aesthetic to the Boretz, but achieves it in a far different manner.

“Huon” has four meanings that I could find: a software development compnay, a character in a 13th-century French epic, a type of particle in the British cult TV show “Dr. Who”, and a wilderness area in Tasmania. I’m assuming that Mr. Lierman was referencing the particles and/or the legend (the music could be the accompaniment for a fantasy epic), but it could also refer to new technology or wilderness…

The CD consists or two long tracks. Like a lot of “ambient” music (I use that term in a good way) they appear to be composed from improvisations; that is, made from several recorded improvisations sampled, multilayered, and pieced together. The sound is uniformly slow and mysterious; drones of various intensities interweave with and comment upon sections of white noise and deeper indefinite rumbles. Most of the sound has heavy reverb; so much so that it is difficult to tell when one sound ends and the next begins. Besides this difficulty of pinning down the exact origins of these sounds in time, it is also difficult to discover their nature (both in material and in space) -- someimes they sound like distant trombones from outside of the room where one is listening; sometimes they are digeridoos from somewhere above the left speaker; sometimes they are waves from somewhere else... In totality the work sounds rather like my piece “Spherics” (number 9 in the StormSound Cycle), which is intended to represent the “music of the spheres” and was derived from computer-altered nature sounds (along with synthesized drones). It is best for quiet but active listening; the same way one would listen to it at a “live” concert. I recommend it heartily.

The 1st Seattle Festival of Improvised Music,
2 March 1986
Self-Produced by Paul Hoskins

This “improv” CD, a historical record (derived from historical vinyl records or cassettes) was my most recent acquisition of music from “The Chapel” (see my 10/20/2010 posting). As a historic record it is indeed very interesting; one can hear the sounds made by the older, analogue technology (I once heard some people complain that George Crumb’s music for electric string quartet sounded much better with the old electronics; the new digital sound didn’t roar and scream as much). Musically, it varies in quality.

It also varies in quantity. The informal concerts were recorded with a lot of talking and audience noise, and there are long stretches in the recording of nothing but background sounds with no music playing. (It sounds as if it had been recorded in a restaurant or bar, so this could be bar talk without Bartok. …sorry, couldn’t resist…) The impetus for this was probably the inclusion of as many “aleatory” elements as possible in what was essentially chance sounds made on purpose, but it doesn’t work that well on a CD. To me it comes off as sloppy editing. There are also places where the CD track number changes in the middle of a piece; I’ve seen this even on commercially released CDs and it’s probably a software glitch during the manufacturing process – I can’t complain yet again about bad editing…

That said, much of the music is interesting and worth repeated listening. Several of the pieces follow the standard “improvisational” form of beginning with sparse sounds, building in density to a wailing, screeching climax, then trailing off into silence. These are, as always, expected, and not so interesting. There are, however, a number of tracks that are genuinely inventive. There is one that lists Johnny Calcagno as playing “guitar and tapes” – but the “tapes” are manipulated and played with such dexterity that it seems to presage digital sampling and use of the turntable as in instrument in hip-hop. There is a piece with Wally Shoup (alto sax) and Harlan Mark Vale (drums) where they catch each other’s “groove” and are able to synch up – and stop and start – with almost mechanical precision even though there is no discernable meter. There is a piece entirely for voices – screeching, singing, howling, yodeling, ululating, and laughing (along with the audience at several points). There is one for four guitars and voice that sounds nothing like four guitars and voice: it is a minute of repetitive grinding howls with distortion, as if the guitars had been “prepared” with chainsaw and jackhammer motors. (Right as this piece finishes, an audience member can be heard saying, "That was too much!") There is a guitar solo that eschews the (then popular) Van Halen-esque riffs in favor of blocks of pure electric noise, taking cues from both Hendrix and the post-punk “noise” bands that were starting at the time (though, paradoxically, the end effect of this piece is calming). And, speaking of calming, there are a number of slow, ambient pieces with delicate points of sound, that remind me of Takemitsu’s sparser works. All in all, this is an interesting (and sometimes beautiful) collection of music, and most of it stands up to multiple hearings.

(This posting is Oct. 30, 2010; 204 days until the first performance of the complete StormSound Cycle.)

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