I can hear it now – “new music” fans who are reading this and groaning… “This is a "top-ten" list, right? Isn’t ‘new music’ antithetical to that idea? If a piece of experimental music starts getting too popular (or shows up on anybody’s ‘top’ anything list) then hasn’t it by definition ceased to be experimental? Aren’t ‘underground rap’ and ‘alternative rock’ really oxymora? Take the cases of Philip Glass, Steve Reich, the Kronos Quartet, and Laurie Anderson…”
Well, listeners, you can relax. This is simply a list of CDs (and some original vinyl albums) that I could listen to over and over, and find just as fresh and interesting and beautiful each time. I’m recommending them only because I’ve enjoyed them, not to make them more “popular” – fat chance that there are enough readers on this blog for that to happen anyway. (However, as I’ve said before, the entire experimental genre needs to be made more popular without changing its impetus for experimentation. This could be done with promotion – the same way that rock was made popular in the 1960’s, and rap and new age both in the 1980’s.) That said, some of my “top 25” are far from experimental anyway – at least one of them was a commercial top-forty hit…
So here they are, alphabetized because I can’t really count from favorite to lesser favorite (those categories don’t exist for me).
Art Ensemble of Chicago: Full Force
A free-jazz masterpiece with lots of deep resonances, touches of laugh-out-loud humor, moments of (un-)controlled chaos, and a lot of groove.
Pierre Boulez: Chamber Music
A retrospective of the composer’s work, showing the variety that is unexpectedly available in strict serialism. Ranges from the classically-structured piano pieces near the beginning to the freeform (and partially aleatory) “Dialogue of a Double Shadow” for clarinet and electronics; the latter is a tour-de-force of instrumental and textural virtuosity.
John Coltrane: A Love Supreme
The only conventional jazz album on this list is a true classic. What I like about it is, 1.) from a technical standpoint: the extension of the classical “sequences” into modal atonality (!) (I’ve based a lot of my own compositions on this idea, with stacks of fourths and fifths leading into chromaticism and microtones); the unpredictability of when the improvisations (and occasional vocals) start and end; and the unexpected changes of timbre (such as the drum solo on timpani). 2.) From an artistic standpoint: the totality of the experience of the music – somehow it transcends its genre from “merely” small ensemble partially-improvised music into something both unique and universal.
Gamelan of Danuredjo VII: Langen Mandra Wanara
Once I heard this playing in a coffee shop, and I heard a customer say that “they probably didn’t get many Grammies with that.” ‘Tis true, unfortunately – the best music seldom does (this won a major award in France). This is one of the more beautiful gamelan recordings out there, not beautiful in a smarmy mellowed-out manner (as some gamelan has been made into “new age” music) but because of its interesting composition and complex sound structure. What it is, is a tale from the Ramayana, rendered as an “opera” over a Javanese gamelan. That description is merely technical: how it actually sounds is another matter. This is classical Indonesian poetry as improvised recitative (along with the humorous addition of some vocalists who sit on the sideline and make fun of the proceedings on stage), over pre-set gamelan compositions that gradually increase in intensity. It begins nebulous, then somewhere in the middle the listener realizes that a gentle, swaying rhythm has begun. There are moments where this ceases for some vocal solos (including several charming, child-like interjections from the lead female character, Sinta, and a long rumination by the lead male character, Senggana), but the last half is a headlong rush into a volcanic climax (when Senggana jumps off of the burning stake and thrashes the antagonist). NOTE: this is merely a fragment of a longer composition; the entire “cycle” would take over 80 hours (that’s the “StormSound” Cycle times nine, or Wagner times four), though I don’t know if it’s ever been performed in its entirety. Supposedly all of this was facilitated (not “composed” in the usual manner) by an early 20th-centry Javanese prince, though it may, of course, been done partially or completely by others working under him. Whatever; it’s spellbinding music that deserves to be heard at least once.
Toumani Diabate (with Ballake Sissoko): New Ancient Strings
Continuing in the “world music” vein, here’s a CD of kora music that’s not to be missed. This music is all about subtlety; the two koras scatter delicate arabesques over a tranquil and gently rocking rhythm, and lull you into a world where melodies seem to be spun from spider silk.
Ensemble P.A.N.: The Island of St. Hylarion
Quite simply the most beautiful early music recording I’m aware of, both from the aesthetic and technical standpoints. The first two pieces are particularly exquisite.
I have to admire anyone who would use a harp and a live drum kit in electronica, and then apparently retune everything so it matches the (sampled) gamelan.
Evelyn Glennie: Touch the Sound (video)
This is the only music I’m reviewing here that isn’t a CD (though there is a somewhat disappointing CD release of some of it). A “movie”, though not in the usual sense, this is a visual as well as audio delight. Ms. Glennie is, as you probably know, a percussionist who happens to be deaf. In a few small sections of an interview, she discusses how she plays and perceives music. Most of the video, however, is taken up by audio-visual montages of various places (ranging from the cacophony of traffic in New York City to the quiet of the countryside in Japan) and improvisations by Glennie with various other instrumentalists. Most of the music is quite subtle, perhaps unexpectedly for percussion music (though there are of course precedents).
John Hassell: Dream Theory in Malaya
I’d actually heard a couple of tracks from this on a pirate radio station two or three years prior to knowing what it was – and I’d taped it. I listened to that cassette many times, marveling at the unique and beautiful sonorities I was hearing – what instrument is that?, I’d ask myself. The answer came unexpectedly when I was Christmas shopping for some friends and found the vinyl album in the jazz section of a music store in a mall (usually a place not to find experimental music!). It looked intriguing, so I took it home for myself and gave it a listen. I was expecting fairly conventional jazz (or jazz-rock fusion) despite the liner notes suggesting something different – I hadn’t yet heard of Jon Hassell – and was greeted instead by something so new and startling and delightful that I waited to wake up proving that I was dreaming. Jazz, yes, but with a decidedly humid feeling, if that makes any sense; a sharp-edged haziness, a dreamy focus. The trumpet, processed in unimaginable ways to make chords, scattered scintillating lines over deep, asymmetrical rhythms. By the end of side one I was beginning to think that this could be the source for those pieces on my cassette – and when I started side two, there it was. Since then, I’ve heard many Hassell albums, and his wholly unique trumpet styling had shown up in unexpected places (such as a CD of Flamenco and Spanish early music, by Jon Balke and Amina Alaoui) but none of it has quite matched the beauty and sheer originality of this recording.
Heart: Dog & Butterfly
When this appeared in the late 1970’s, I think I (as other young people at the time) regarded the title track as a pretty if rather puzzling hit song, and ignored the rest of it or dismissed it as drug music. Too bad. I will admit that the first two tracks are forgettable. But then something happens – first the music goes into an odd kind of minimalist funk, and then gradually travels into an entirely new space. Impressionism and rock shouldn’t blend well, but here they mix with delicate beauty. The open tunings, flowing non-metrical structures, complex acoustic guitar work, tone painting, surprising touches (at one point the bass line is taken up by a tuba) and strange, metaphorical, often unrhymed lyrics – all of these contribute to a unique experience. If you’ve got this stashed away in your basement somewhere, take it out and try it again (beginning somewhere in the middle), and listen to it as if it were an impressionist symphonic piece. You’ll be surprised how refreshed it is at the end, when the fuzz guitars of “Mistral Wind” give way to an expansive, gamelan-like texture. This is a direction in mainstream music that was offered once – by this album alone – and then forgotten. The music world is slightly less beautiful by that forgetting.
Jars of Clay (their first CD)
This picks up somewhat where the Heart left off, though it sounds considerably more recent with its hip-hop bass below the tight (often acoustic) rock guitar. Again, there are those surprising touches – mandolins, little bits of plainsong, unexpected rhythmic changes, and the (always unanticipated, no matter how many times it happens) addition of the string trio to the guitars. At the end comes the real treat: after “Worlds Apart” (a song that takes its cue for a final crescendo from Rosini!) and a gradual “deflating” of the instrumentals in “Blind”, there is a moment of silence and then a twenty-minute, dreamlike, aleatory “field recording” of fragments of a rehearsal for the band, under heavy reverb. In the end, it becomes quite peaceful, with modal minimalist loopings. The lyrics are no less interesting: there is no stereotypy here, but metaphors, some of which I’ve never heard before.
Yo-Yo Ma: Silk Road Journeys
The world, no, the galaxy of music on one CD. It ranges from the epic to the intimate, from the classical (European and Asian) to the boldly experimental. This is the only “world music” CD where I’ve ever heard a prepared piano; and yes, it is possible to play taiko on the timpani. Too bad subsequent “Silk Road Ensemble” CDs were so disappointing.
Mahler: Symphony no. 4
I don’t have any particularly favorite recording of this piece (it’s probably been recorded hundreds of times) but I have to list it here because it’s one of my favorite symphonies. (Some of my other favorites in the genre are the Beethoven 7, Mendelssohn 2, Schumann 2, Dvorak 8, Sibelius 4, Nielsen 6, Bruckner 9, Ives 4, and Shostakovich 14, though the latter is a "symphony" in name only.) Anyway, the music is stunning, but there’s also that layer of what it means… I’ll let the listener draw their own conclusions as Wagnerian bombast slowly gives way to simple, beautiful, sustained, pianissimo chords and then a “little” children’s song about heaven.
Mars ILL: Raw Material
I’ve been waiting for a rap recording to come along that is of reasonable musical intelligence as well as not giving into cheap shock-value techniques of racist/misogynist/obscene lyrics and profanity. As with punk rock in the 1980’s, it took a while before that happened. Now there are a many such recordings. Here is one (“The Art of Translation” by Grits is another, as are certain tracks on "Kala" by M.I.A. and the "Tsotsi" soundtrack by Zola – though I don’t have space to review more than one here). As with any rap, the lyrics are at the front, with a lot of complicated internal rhyme and wordplay. The music is interesting enough that it would stand without the words, however; there are samples here of Mussorgsky, Chinese cheng music, something I can’t identify but it sounds like Luigi Nono, as well as the usual pop and snippets from movies – but it’s all worked together into a surprisingly intricate (and dark) set of textures. Worth listening to. Also, it’s nice to hear someone rapping about something besides clothes and cars (this is a group of Christian rappers – do you still say “band” for rappers? – and they’re decidedly non-materialistic.)
Messiaen: Vingt Regards (Pierre-Laurent Aimard, piano)
Though the sixth of these twenty pieces is a bit overblown, the rest show how the piano can be treated (no, thundered upon) as a percussion instrument and survive nicely. Beginning introspectively, then running the gamut of expressions, this is one of the great cycles of pieces for solo piano. Try to listen to these “20 aspects of the Infant Jesus” in one sitting, and it will be overwhelming. I should mention this on a list of “alternative” Christmas music too.
Phill Niblock: Touch 3
Inexplicably some people hear drone minimalism as auto horns; and a friend of mine once angrily denounced it by saying “That’s not music, that’s a tone.” That's rather like looking at a plate of Italian noodles and saying, “That’s not food, that’s pasta,” and I might add that it sounds about as much like auto horns as it sounds like Bach. The first time I heard it (on NPR in the 1980’s, back when they were still interested in music) it blew my mind. Anyway, this three-CD set is destined to become a classic of the genre. It does, unfortunately, include a couple of duds (they’re both on the second CD, and are too long, loud and strident to really be of interest) but the rest shows the fascinating beauty that delicately intense sound can be. Listen to it twice: once with the volume on low, and once as loud as possible without blowing your speakers. You’ll hear two completely different worlds.
Tom Nunn, Miya Masaoka, Gino Robair: Crepuscular Music
Say what you will, to me this is the mother of all free-improvisation sessions. It sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard because of its mix of koto, prepared drums, and homemade electro-acoustic percussion. There are moments of resonance bordering on silence, moments of beautifully structured chaos, and moments of surprisingly funky groove – yet the instruments always blend as one, never competing with one another. It’s unique every time I hear it.
Steve Peters: The Very Rich Hours
Intended as an installation, not a “composition” per se, this is somewhere between a piece of musique concrète and a podcast about environmentalism in New Mexico. Over sampled and minimally-altered nature sounds, voices chant the scientific names of species found in the area (in both Gregorian and Orthodox-style chant) and narrators tell the story of the environment in soothing, conversational tones. A listener’s first reaction might be that it’s relaxing but there might not be enough substance to bear repeated listenings, and there the listener would be wrong. By the second or third time through, the melodies of chanting come to the front of one’s attention; by the eighth or ninth time, the symphony created by the nature sounds are the focus of attention. A few more listenings, and one pays attention to the interactions of these elements; and finally, after a few more, the narrations are of interest again – so it comes full circle. It’s a perfect, subtle soundscape about landscape.
Larry Polansky: Simple Harmonic Motion
This is the quietest of music; microtonal harp (with barely audible singing) and some drone minimalism, all on the threshold of silence.
Jade Simmons: Revolutionary Rhythm
I got this from the library one time without really knowing what I was getting into, and it shifted my perception of the boundaries of “commercial”, “classical”, and “experimental” music. Here are two contemporary “classical” piano solos with electronica and hip-hop accompaniments, paired with two major 20th-century jazz-influenced sonatas. Elevator music? Hardly. The solo sonatas have enough dissonance and general volume to avoid that; there is a danger of banality in the hip-hop piece (piano over a beat is a pretty hackneyed idea even if it hasn't been this particular beat before) but Ms. Simmons plays with such power and verve that all hints of that are banished from the start.
Toru Takemitsu: Corona (Played by Roger Woodward)
Like the Coltrane, this is another true classic. I was fifteen years old the first time I heard “Corona” on KING FM, back in the 1970’s when they still played challenging music. I sat there transfixed. It taught me in twenty minutes what I’d failed to learn about music in fifteen years previously. I learned about silence, about subtlety, about lack of subtlety, about beauty, about ugliness, and improvisation and about form. I immediately requested it for a Christmas gift. After receiving it, I took it to school where it became one of several favorites for my own little four-member music-nerd club – perhaps uncharacteristically, since our other favorites were by Styx, Kansas, and Rush (those recordings quickly lapsed into ho-humness, though this one still sounds edgy). Several years later, when I was in college, a music professor asked me how I could play the inside piano and the piano keys at the same time (without going around to the back of the piano as it had "always" been done since the days of Henry Cowell) – this surprised me because I’d learned how to play the piano strings from the pictures on the inside sleeve of this “Corona” album, and hadn’t thought of doing it any other way! I simply reached in from the front of the piano without bothering to do any awkward repositioning. …Anyway, what is this music about? Four piano pieces; three are more or less conventional (“For Away” is the gem, a graceful swirl and quiet blizzard of sixteenth-notes; “Piano Distance” is the only one that I don’t really like – it seems to be an inferior imitation of Stockhausen). The other piece, “Corona”, is the showstopper – entirely produced with “extended” techniques, it utilizes a myriad sounds (backed up by a recurring three-note motive) over a constantly changing, wobbling drone on the electric organ (probably the only piece where I like that instrument). Generally quiet, it has three loud outbursts: the first introduces the organ, the second introduces the first (only) major chord on the organ; the third occurs after a long build-up and represents the piece’s climax in volume, though not in intensity (that comes later). I’ve heard that once this was re-issued on CD it vanished off of the shelves immediately. For once, that happened without the major record labels hyping it – think what would happen if they did decide to promote other types of music…
John Michael Talbot: Come to the Quiet
Folk music with a twist, written and performed by a monk. After an orchestral instruction (which features an odd pentatonic melody that is strangely delayed from its rhythm), Mr. Talbot sings biblical texts in a voice that sounds rather like a male Jean Redpath. He is accompanied by his own acoustic guitar, as well as recorders, Celtic harp, and a ‘cello. The music is simple and direct without being banal, pretty without being saccharine. And, it is deeply felt. Musically, the album has an overall shape (a rarity in folk music) – there are a series of stark pieces in minor keys; then the “Peace Prayer” of St. Francis (the only non-biblical text on the CD) bridges into a major key and the tempo picks up slightly. The last piece, the title track, is indeed an invitation to “come to the quiet”.
Xenakis: Chamber Music (Arditti, et al.)
What can I say? Jagged, ugly, and unrefined on first hearing, this music slowly reveals itself to be none of those things. An uncompromising romp in modernism, this will last long after much of the movement has gone. Great performances of even greater music.
Savina Yannatou: Songs of An Other
This has to be heard to be believed. Ms. Yannatou has a voice that would arouse the envy of any nightingale or warbler, and she uses it to great effect in these experimental arrangements of Mediterranean folk songs. No, experimental folk music is not an oxymoron. Introspective, transparent, yet with touches of discordance; it manages to be both edgy and profoundly beautiful at the same time.
Isang Yun: Chamber Symphony 1
Too bad this is rather obscure. The string ensemble is used to create beautiful heterophonic melodies, very different from “standard” symphonic music but striking nonetheless. The harp concerto is particularly engaging, as it uses that instrument for its “traditional” tranquil/celestial sound but in a very different context.
Well, there you have my opinions, for what they're worth. Any readers who have read to this far, want to contribute some of your favorites?
The World of Harry Partch.
Oh, one extra. Columbia Records should be charged with a felony for never releasing this as a CD (or at least re-releasing the vinyl). This introduced a generation of music lovers (including me) to microtonal music and the possibility of inventing new instruments.
(This posting is Dec. 15, 2010; 160 days until the first performance of the complete StormSound Cycle.)