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Looky Here

A title like Looky opens little doors in the mind: “looky” as in “Here comes cookie,” or as in some cocky kid’s “Looky what I got!” When applied to a dance by Mark Morris, it also refers to spectatorship— both the audience’s role and a choreographic theme.

At the work’s Boston premiere, a computerized update of a player piano sat onstage, its keys going up and down by themselves. At Jacob’s Pillow, we have to make do with a spotlit bench and a taped performance of composer (and Voice critic) Kyle Gann’s Studies for Disklavier. The first of five sparkly pieces, Tango da Chiesa, starts out as if single bass notes and single treble ones were walking together over rocky terrain, their stumbles and unanswered questions jolting the rhythms. At other times, Gann, who wrote a book about Conlon Nancarrow, seems to be channeling that composer’s dementedly rapid sound jungles, along with morsels of honky-tonk piano and jazz.

Looky is more about behavior than about dancing, Morris gives us as much to see as Gann gives us to hear in the way of witty bustle and jostling individual voices. Wearing black-and-white costumes plundered from other Morris works, the 18 dancers stroll around as if at an art gallery. They peer respectfully at a very tiny, importantly illuminated object. They sit and chat. John Heginbotham is a tour guide, shepherding wide-eyed Michelle Yard, Joe Bowie, David Leventhal, and Noah Vinson. Craig Biesecker can’t keep his hands off Julie Worden. Samuel Black keeps his smart dog (Maile Okamura) on an invisible leash.

After a bout of waltzing gives way to a quickie sketch class, the scene changes, and we’re in a Tombstone bar, Hollywood style. Four people play cards; another four shoot craps. Lauren Grant, a drunken floozie, sprawls on a chair. Bradon McDonald, sashaying about, might be the hostess. Bowie and Elisa Clark (as a swaggering cowpoke) get into a slo-mo gunfight, with onlookers taking sides in the melee. A brief folkish dance by three quartets, and we’re back in the art world, this time in a museum sculpture gallery. Performers strike poses atop chairs, and others come to stare—awed, bored, or reacting crudely. In the end, one couple sits upstage watching some jazzy dancing, while another pair sits downstage watching us watch them.

The other three pieces on the program were accompanied by Tanglewood Music Center Fellows: Yauheniya Yesmanovich’s splendid performance of Bach’s Italian Concerto graced Morris’s eponymous 2007 piece, and Yegor Shevtsov gave an equally fine reading of Stravinsky’s “Serenade in A” for Candelflowerdance (2005). Pianists Tatiana Vassilieva and Bonnie Wagner and singers Katherine Whyte, Jamie Barton, Siddhartha Misra, and Mischa Bouvier collaborated on Brahms’s ravishing “Liebesliederwaltzer, op. 52,” for Morris’s 1989 New Love Song Waltzes.

Watching this beautiful dance, I was thinking—not for the first time—how Morris’s duets are rarely exclusive. Couples waltz tenderly, but if a third person should enter, he or she is welcomed. A man leaves his partner and walks offstage; no regrets on either side. “I have to go,” he seems to say. “You stay here. You’ll be fine with them.” And she is. In the end, everyone takes a turn with Biesecker before exiting. This unstopping, ever-changing waltz is not about fickleness, but about the expansiveness of love.

The U.K.-based Henri Oguike Dance Company followed the Mark Morris Dance Company into the Ted Shawn Theatre for the season’s penultimate week. The extremely gifted Oguike, who began to choreograph in 1999, has Morris’s wide-ranging taste in music. His program featured keyboard music by Domenico Scarlatti, a piece for string ensemble by Steve Martland, the Saharan blues guitar of Ali Farka Touré, and Japanese taiko drumming. Oguike’s musicality is not as developed as Morris’s, however. Although he too enjoys reiterating and developing a movement theme in relation to a musical one, he doesn’t unpack it the way Morris does to tell you something new about it and the people who perform it.

Oguike’s choreography emphasizes clarity—nothing looks smudgy or ill-considered, no matter how fast or physically complicated. Half-Welsh, half-Nigerian, Oguike has lived in both his parents’ birthplaces, and the African influence is as strong as his teenage breakdancing and his training in contemporary dance. His expert performers often bend forward from the hips, roll their torsos, jut their hips out, rhythmically pump their rib cages, and work their shoulders. Despite their suppleness and sinuous arms, they’re hard-bodied and emphatic; they may allow a gesture of attack to morph into something softer, but relaxation isn’t something they practice.

The six white-clad people in White Space might be engaged in a contradance. Their somewhat mocking bows, mated with the harsh flourishes of Scarlatti sonatas played on a harpsichord, evoke 18th-century manners. When Nuno Campos twists intricately around, first with Noora Kela, then with Laura Peña Nuñez, he rolls his eyes in polite exasperation.

Strutting on tiptoe and pecking with their heads, stroking their bodies and casting glances our way, men and women alike suggest both mincing courtiers and contemporary streetwise seductresses.

Oguike himself is a remarkable performer. In his Expression Lines, to Touré’s moody music, he seems caught between extremes—darkness and the golden beams from onstage spotlights—trying to get comfortable in his skin. His animal sensuality is magnified and made bolder in Tiger Dancing. Martland’s violins seem to scratch and pluck at the dancers as they come and go, prowling and crouching and lunging alone or in immaculate synchrony with others.

Second Signal is the program’s high point. Mark Alcock, James Barrow, and Ed Pickering play the taiko drums onstage, their ferocious energy a goad to the dancers. Fukiko Takase begins with her legs planted wide apart, letting the biggest drum’s thudding beats prime her. There’s more variety than in the other pieces: big strides, jumps, sudden explosions. People come and go as if feeding into an ongoing ritual that allows Chihiro Kawasaki to go briefly crazy and a line of women to stand and thrust their chests at invisible opponents. The constant level of energy and intensity here seems strongly motivated, real, all-involving. And it thrills the audience.

During the Pillow’s final week, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago performs in the Shawn and the Bebe Miller Company in the smaller Duke, while Joanna Haigood’s Zaccho Dance Theatre takes the audience through the wood in her wonderful Invisible Wings, honoring the site’s history as a way station on the Underground Railroad.

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Tuning Your Brain

The Downtown music scene has seemed slightly sleepy since 9-11, but one of the artists most closely affected drew a new lease on life from the tragedy. David First, the distance of whose apartment from Ground Zero is measured in yards rather than miles or blocks, jumped back within weeks with a self-produced pop song aptly called “Jump Back,” an “ode to the people of New York.” Since then he’s come out with two new CDs and initiated a couple of series of performances, making strides in both aspects of his career at once, pop and experimental. Universary (Analysand) is a highly charged disc of songs with a bright dance beat. Dave’s Waves (Ants) is an austere but lovely ambient disc of undulating harmonic tones. And First’s March 24 concert at Harvestworks was the second unveiling of a new phase in his career that he calls, with characteristic humor, Operation: Kracpot.

It’s not only the quantity of First’s work since 9-11 that makes it seem like a determined rebound, but the music’s resolute upbeatness. Universary does some interesting things in the background with tuning and beats (First tells me I can’t always hear them), but the foreground is filled with vibrant dance beats and thoughtful but never angry or self-pitying lyrics: “Was nothing too bold or obscene?/We froze as all good was withdrawn/The agencies waging their faith/Claimed they knew God alone/Was God even home?” Dave’s Waves, by contrast, is a continuum of electro-waves geared toward die-hard Phill Niblock and La Monte Young fans, but its liner notes make a claim for the healing, or at least relaxing, power of sine tones in the frequency range of the human brain’s alpha waves. Whether rocking or droning, First is clearly trying to make the world a better place.

So much was evident at the Harvestworks concert as well. As we entered, soothing, lightly pulsating electronic tones already emanated from the loudspeakers. First is on a new kick—crackpot by his own admission—of basing his music on fluctutions in the earth’s electromagnetic field, as translated from raw data sent to him by a geophysicist friend in Poker Flat, Alaska. As he explains it, lightning strikes the earth at many points at any given time, causing it to ring like a gigantic bell, though at subsonic frequencies. First takes this data over the Internet and transposes it upward several octaves so we can hear it as the drones underlying Operation: Kracpot’s improv piece, The Music of the Sphere.

New-music old-timers will immediately think of Charles Dodge’s 1970 electronic piece Earth’s Magnetic Field, in which tones meandered up and down driven by similar data, but First had a more complex plan. He added in oscillator tones (not having taken science since high school, I promise to get this wrong) at the frequency of brain waves, on the theory that the listener’s brain will tune into the frequency and shift into the brain-wave state suggested. Be that as it may, what was more immediate was that First and electronic composer Daphna Naphtali sat at laptop computers, nudging the tones this way and that and adding in ostinatos and melodic curves. On the opposite side of the small room, singer Lisa Karrer burbled softly into a microphone, while on the flanks David Simons and Jim Pugliese drummed and tapped on cymbals, gongs, and drums so subtly that they mostly blended into the mix.

It took a little wishful thinking to make the disparate elements coalesce, but it was easier when I closed my eyes. The pulsing of harmonics didn’t raise the hair on my neck as has sometimes happened with First’s live performances, but it did absorb me, interrupt my train of thought, loosen my sense of time. It was a relaxing feeling, especially after a day spent tracking anxiety-making news about the troops’ tortuous trek toward Baghdad. The Dave’s Waves disc is even more mesmerizing, like having your own La Monte Young sound installation but with followable, almost melodic, transformations in the beat patterns. Perhaps someone should look into the possibility of piping First’s hypnotic tones into the Iraqi countryside in hopes of calming everyone down.

Or better yet, into the White House.


Analysand: davidfirst.com;

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Micro-Monuments

You’ve got to hand it to Johnny Reinhard. His American Festival of Microtonal Music keeps the varied sound of alternative tunings coursing through Manhattan in a flow remarkable for its quantity, if not always quality. And every now and then, amid the quarter-tone cello pieces and homemade instrument demonstrations, he pulls off a concert so stunning as to outclass the “Hooray for Modernism” festivals uptown that garner so much more publicity. Such was the enlightening March 8 concert of the Flux Quartet.

For the Flux (Tom Chiu, first violin; Max Mandel, viola; Dave Eggar, cello; and Conrad Harris substituting on second violin for Jesse Mills on this concert) is becoming the quartet that thoughtful new-music lovers had hoped the Kronos would be: catholic in repertoire, dynamic in performance, and not stooping to theatrics or watered-down Astor Piazzolisms to gain an audience. An American Arditti, in other words, not speeding up Morton Feldman’s Second Quartet to four hours for fear of arm fatigue (as the Kronos did), but stretching it to six, on their resplendently meditative new Mode recording, in accordance with Feldman’s apparent desires. And whether they found their own microtonal repertoire or had it given them, this weighty, varied concert flouted the truism that microtonality has produced a lot of good theory but little good music.

The great divide that keeps microtonalists sniping at each other is equal temperament (equal division of the octave into 31, 53, even 96 or more steps) versus just intonation (unequal division for maximum consonance with fewer pitches). The Flux played strong examples of each, by Mexican pioneer Julian Carrillo and American patriarch Ben Johnston. Carrillo made a career off what he called “the Thirteenth Tone,” and I had heretofore found his music rather gridlike and unimaginative. But 2 Bosquejos was Romantic in texture and gesture, and to hear the Flux play parallel chords moving through eighths of a half-step, always in tune and in that otherwise conventional context, gave my ear a thrilling twist.

Johnston’s Fifth Quartet (out of 10 so far) was a more complex pleasure. Coming after his fiendishly difficult but widely popular Fourth Quartet, based on “Amazing Grace,” it is a less extroverted but still very demanding work; the Kronos decided that it was too hard to attempt, though he wrote it for them. Based on the American folk song “Lonesome Valley,” the piece opened cloudily and in different tempos at once with that tune played over rocking fifths in the cello. Twice it grew through textures of Ivesian layering to hectic climaxes, and along the way gave Chiu more than a few opportunities to slide through melodies of tiny increments involving the 13th harmonic. More intuitively written than some of Johnston’s later quartets, this one has deep roots in his Southern upbringing, and is one of the most soulful works of a master too neglected in New York.

Not quite so rare (because Uptowners champion him) was the Fifth Quartet of the Italian recluse Giacinto Scelsi. The piece was single-mindedly, not to say minimalistically, focused on creating via strings the noise envelope of a struck gong, each gesture beginning with a loud pluck, going to a thick, scratchy crunch, out of which would slowly evolve a purer, glissandoing unison tone. The most heterogeneous work, by contrast, was Reinhard’s own Trespass, using both quarter-tones and a scale based on the 17th harmonic, the latter of which produces a wide array of interval types. After Mandel started playing, Chiu entered the stage sneakily from the audience, as if infiltrating. This wasn’t the first time I’d wished Reinhard’s own music were more serious in intent, for his microtonal expertise is phenomenal, and the piece offered a disunified array of ear-bending tuning displays.

The seemingly non-microtonal Second Quartet of Charles Ives was included here because it was played in extended Pythagorean, pure-fifth tuning in keeping with an alleged “underlying acoustical plan” that Reinhard has discovered in Ives’s notational idiosyncrasies (such as, for example, including a D-sharp and E-flat in the same chord). That’s as may be; we needed no more urgent excuse for a performance as energetic as this, not quite as crisp in the chaotic second movement as I might have liked, but achieving an ecstatic and mystical third-movement climax. My ear’s not good enough to distinguish Pythagorean from vanilla in an atonal context, and I assume we got what was advertised. But in terms of monuments of microtonal music played with consummate power and authority, we got more than anyone could have expected.

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Your Roots Are Showing

The orchestra is the great leveler. Forged in the 19th century, cryogenically frozen at the beginning of the 20th, it embodies the Romantic era’s massive gravitational pull. Despite all your ingenuity it remains a pipe organ with three manuals: woodwinds, brass, strings, with percussion for sound effects. And so whatever zany great mind you commission to write an orchestra piece, the medium’s ineluctably homogenizing force zips the music through a time warp and sends it barreling back to the past.

Take Elodie Lauten. She’s a major postminimalist talent, an improviser who channels her somewhat Terry Riley-ish melodies through harmonic systems determined by mystical correspondences. Her music, usually synthesizer-based, shimmers, soothes, bristles at times with harmonic ambiguity. And I’ve been awaiting the premiere of her Symphony 2001, her first orchestra piece, which finally occurred February 13 at Willow Place Auditorium, thanks to farsighted Petr Kotik conducting the SEM Orchestra. In seven brief movements, the work is perhaps the first true postminimalist symphony, or at least the first after Philip Glass’s five. Following minimalist tradition, some movements kept the entire orchestra busy throughout, rather than coloristically alternating between tone colors. Some passages repeated propulsive rhythmic patterns over and over, others pitted fast string melodies against slow brass. Four percussionists provided the trademark Lautenesque shimmer, and in the finale vibraphone riffs came sweeping up out of center range in an exciting, not-at-all-minimalist manner.

Exciting, effective, much in Lauten’s dense but lively modal style. Yet the fact that the piece was for orchestra took the shiny glaze of newness off and evoked names from the past: Colin McPhee, Lou Harrison, Virgil Thomson. Hearing it made you realize how much hipness is in the medium. Subtract the medium, and Lauten falls into the same American modal, Eastern-influenced tradition as all those early gamelan-smitten composers of the 1930s. Just like the Glenn Branca string quartet played by the Cassatt Quartet several years ago: very nice, but it suddenly exposed that raucous guitar banger as a spitting image of Henry Cowell’s mild middle period.

Likewise with the piece from the opposite end of the SEM Orchestra’s spectrum, Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City by Roscoe Mitchell. My readers will know Mitchell as one of the more uninhibited members of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, the nose-thumbing improv group that restored an Afrocentric ethos to post-jazz music. Yet Mitchell’s orchestra piece, setting a poem by fellow AEC chum Joseph Jarman for baritone Thomas Buckner, was the evening’s most “classical” work. His texture was a Schoenbergian counterpoint of dissonant motives and ambiguous tonality, made American by the abstractly swinging use of piano and percussion. In fact, the piece harked back to an earlier tradition, the jazz-tinged urban modernism of black composers like Ulysses Kay, George Walker, and Hale Smith. Mitchell may be post-1980s-free-improv at heart, but weight him down with an orchestra and he’ll kick back with the same reflexes jazzers have given in that context for 60 years.

The other four works on Kotik’s generously adventurous concert were by composers I’d heard little else by for comparison, if anything. Rain Worthington’s Yet Still Night was a charming poem of chromatic impressionism, laced with wan snatches of melody over a texture of chromatic intervals, closer to Griffes or Scriabin or the mystical mode of Ruth Crawford than to Debussy. Eroding the Helix by young, just-out-of-grad-school Peter Flint was a snazzy, slickly orchestrated essay in percussion-limned syncopations revealing more ambition than originality; it called to mind John Alden Carpenter’s jazz-styled pieces like Skyscrapers. Most quixotically, an improvising musician who goes by the name mr dorgon avoided the orchestration question altogether by having the entire ensemble, in a piece called I S #10, improvise for a few minutes at maximum dynamic and chaos level. It cleared one’s aural palate.

The one work that called no previous composer to mind didn’t use the orchestra very idiomatically. Frances White’s Singing Bridge for strings imitated the traffic sounds over a bridge she fancies that spans the Delaware River at Stockton, N.J. Sustained pitches, extremely high and extremely low, slowly glissandoed into relationships sharply dissonant at some points and harmonic at others. Austere, if restful, it showed the lengths you have to go to with an orchestra to avoid sounding like your forebears.

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It’s the Tune, Stupid

He was the Santa Claus of new music, an oversized elf whom you could only picture with a broad grin on his face and a belly shaking with laughter. He was the supreme hedonist of us all. “Accompanied by courtesy, lust and greed are the two great virtues”—that was his word. Yet he could be serious when serious was called for, and his worldwide concerns dwarfed our parochial perspectives as his frame and stature dwarfed those around him. An Esperanto scholar, he gave his works titles like “Koncherto por la Violono kun Perkuta Orkestra” and set the Buddhist Heart Sutra in that language for his La Koro Sutro. He insisted that European music was ethnic music, and referred to Europe as “Northwest Asia.” He was at home in American and European musics, also Indonesian and Korean. Lou Harrison was larger than life and a sunnier presence than new music can boast now that he’s gone.

He died as he mostly lived, with hardly a moment’s distress. On his way to Ohio State for a festival of his music, and averse to flying, he took a train to Chicago. Two students picked Harrison and a companion up and drove them, stopping at a Denny’s in Lafayette for dinner. According to Ohio State composer Donald Harris, Harrison stumbled getting out of the car, and apparently had a heart attack, dying a few hours later without regaining consciousness. He was 85, and had been near death before, but hardly slowed his pace and never diminished his infectious zest for life. Lingering in a hospital would have been so unlike him. A mutual friend tells me that Harrison took on a new lover several months ago, but said he wasn’t ready for an exclusive relationship, and might want to see other people. How many 85-year-old men get to use that line?

When I think back over his life’s music, such a heterogeneous jumble comes to mind: piano pieces of Ivesian density and dissonance, spiritual gamelan music, sunny little harp tunes, symphonies that stride through the cultures of the world, theater pieces evocative of the medieval era. He was indisputably a great composer. When I try to picture his music, though, I don’t think of a total output, but of well-loved individual pieces that could practically have been written by different people. There’s the austere yet catchy Violin Concerto mentioned above, which (you’d never guess from listening) only uses three intervals in its endless melody line. There’s the august Symphony on G, so Schoenberg (or rather Wallingford Reigger)-like, a slice of conventionally dissonant 12-tone Americana except for the lush interludes with harp and tack piano, surely the places in which he most reveals himself.

There’s a luxuriant Harp Suite with finger cymbal and hand drum, a Western image of an erotic East. There’s the heterogeneous Pacifika Rondo, running through all the idioms of the Pacific Rim and—in his own way—mastering every one. There’s the infectiously exciting Varied Trio for violin, piano, and percussion, with irresistible examples of his medieval dance mode. There’s a big, growling Piano Concerto, Harrison with his stern Brahms mask on, yet expansive and good-humored underneath, treating us to 18th-century Kirnberger tuning and a delicate ear for timbre. There’s the big, sturdy, dancelike melodies of his Double Concerto for violin, cello, and Javanese gamelan, such East-West combinations being the area in which he was the leading pioneer.

What ties all this together? Possibly only the hint that he gave William Duckworth in an interview: “Your take-home pay from a piece of music is a melody, a tune—and that’s it. How do we recollect almost anything we know? It’s the tune. So I write them.” He called himself a melode and, as hedonistic in his music as in his life, wrote whatever he enjoyed and never gave a thought to his place in history. The “greatest living composer” label some pasted on him in recent years was an uneasy fit. He was too one-of-a-kind personally, too multifaceted musically. His works contain passages of aimless wandering that are hard to defend to skeptics, yet emblematic of what we love about him: that he relished life and didn’t believe in hurrying. I last saw Harrison two years ago at a microtonal conference at Pomona College. He seated, I standing, we chatted awhile, then he looked up at me, said, “You’re so handsome,” and rested his head on my stomach. Coming from such a great soul, who could mind?

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Not Gift Wrapped

When Nonesuch released their 10-disc sets of Steve Reich and John Adams, I put ’em on the shelf and thought, “Well, those’ll be nice to have around.” By this point, after all, I think I could write my own Reich or Adams piece if I had to, their artistic trajectories have been so linear. Not so with Nonesuch’s new Frederic Rzewski set, a seven-disc compilation of Rzewski’s wide-ranging pianism. Write a piece in Rzewski’s “style”? I wouldn’t know where to start. Listening to one of his pieces, I can’t even predict whether the music will be tonal or atonal, serially structured or improvised, quoting “Three Blind Mice” or roaring out revolutionary workers’ songs, five measures from now. The guy darts all over the place. And I’m happy to follow.

Because no other living composer gives you such a strong impression that you’re listening to him think. In that respect, as listening to these discs all in one glorious heap reveals, he’s something of a postmodern-day Charles Ives. Like Ives’s piano music, Rzewski’s will charge through atonal abstractions, then suddenly enter the world of tonal counterpoint and play by its rules for a few measures, then calmly wander off, perhaps to bang fists on the keyboard a moment later. The music does not lack unity; the same musical motives can often be heard recurring as the kaleidoscope of styles swirls around them. There is always a thread to follow that seems strikingly analogous to a train of thought, now rushing, now hesitant, now interrupting itself to take apart what you’ve just heard and put it back together differently before trying yet a new direction.

Like Beethoven and Brahms, Rzewski has a flair for theme and variations, the classical genre which has historically treated style as a variable characteristic. His magnum opus in this respect, included here in a powerful new recording, is of course The People United Will Never Be Defeated—by now a standard of piano repertoire—but a smaller set on the politically charged folk song Mayn Yingele shows his skills in a subtler setting. Those already familiar with the North American Ballads and The People United will be most eager to become familiar with the first half of his great epic The Road, recorded here on two discs. (He’s playing the entire thing live in New York in six installments, February 6 to 8 at the Kitchen, February 14 to 16 at West Park Presbyterian Church.) Truly a circuitous and winding experience, it is his most abstract music, yet playful and utterly devoid of the wispy gestures and scattered textures of academic atonalism.

Even more interesting is to hear so postmodern a mind tackle large, traditional forms like the fantasia and sonata. Rzewski’s Fantasia starts out in Beethoven-ian counterpoint before morphing into free pantonality, and the Sonata—nose-thumbingly, yet with a surprising sense of thematic power—revolves around the tunes “L’Homme Armé” and “Three Blind Mice.” Cogent as these works are, they are dwarfed in effect next to De Profundis, his mercurial setting of Oscar Wilde’s heart-wrenching words written from Reading Gaol. Here as elsewhere, Rzewski’s wanderlust ranges beyond the piano keys to include beating on the instrument, slapping his body, and whistling. Never gimmicky in Rzewski’s matter-of-fact usage, these techniques are rendered poignant by Wilde’s self-searching lamentation.

Nevertheless, what distinguishes Rzewski most from Ives is his temperature; ultimately his music seems potent but chilly, and where Ives feels, Rzewski truly only thinks. Even De Profundis moves you via the contrast between Wilde’s passion and Rzewski’s clinical objectivity. There is never a pause to relish a sensuous moment, never a scintillating texture pursued to delight the listener. It is an intellectual’s music, not in the knee-jerk way that term gets applied to 12-tone music, but in the sense that it can really be followed by the cognition, but not much reveled in by the senses. It is proudly independent, and not only of the listener. In these days in which composers are marketed, and become successful, by virtue of their trademark styles, it takes bullheaded courage to eschew consistency and write in what-ever idiom the moment demands. Rzewski’s refusal to package his wares recognizably is much of the reason his music seems so honest and thoughtful. By constantly changing course, it reminds you that he’s not trying to sell you anything.

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Can’t Help but CRI

I started collecting records when I was 12, in 1968 in Dallas. My dad would take me to work with him at Mobil Oil, and I’d run down the street to the downtown record store, whatever its name was. Records were six dollars, frequently on sale for four, and many was the month in the next 10 years that I would spend every cent I could get on them. I had no idea what I was doing. Raised on Mozart and Rachmaninoff, ambitious to know everything, I’d buy any record by a composer I’d never heard of, figuring most such names were 20th century. And after a while I realized that most of the composers I’d never heard of were on a label called CRI—Composers Recordings Incorporated. I got to where I’d buy anything on CRI.

So when rumors started circulating that CRI was about to close down, and the confirmation came last week, it knocked the breath out of me—like a piece of my childhood taken away. The company had been founded in 1954 by composers Otto Luening and Douglas Moore and arts administrator Oliver Daniel. In the early days I found Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes on that label, with Maro Ajemian playing—a crucial recording. I found Henry Brant’s Angels and Devils, most of the Dane Rudhyar recordings, lots of Ralph Shapey. Loads of historical stuff otherwise forgotten: the Quincy Porter “Elegiac” Quintet, the excellent Piano Concerto by the sadly neglected Ben Weber, all of the available Wallingford Riegger recordings, Robert Ward’s opera The Crucible. Even pieces by my otherwise unknown professors at Oberlin, like Joseph Wood’s “Poem for Orchestra.”

In 1976 CRI went nonprofit, an unusual move for the time. Nevertheless, by the late ’80s the company had stagnated into something of a joke, a label for has-beens in the 12-tone and neo-romantic realms. Then, in 1990, Joseph Dalton took over as executive director. He knew the label’s reputation. He decided to turn it around, and by god, he did it. He started a “Downtown” line called Emergency Music, and began recording music from the Bang on a Can festivals, balloon performer Judy Dunaway, Eve Beglarian, and the Common Sense collective. Overnight CRI went from being the old grandpa of new-music labels to being the hip new kid in town, and “Jody” Dalton became a Downtown hero. Even so, recordings of Otto Luening and Robert Starer, and re-releases of Lou Harrison and Carl Ruggles, kept coming.

That was the thing about CRI. It didn’t have the reputation for consistent quality of the more highly curated labels like Lovely Music and New Albion. But it was a label, it seemed, that every composer, eventually, could be on. It was the kind that would put Cage’s The Seasons (an amazing early work no one knows) on the flip side of Wuorinen’s 2-Part Symphony, forcing opposing camps to own each other’s music. No other label was so catholic. It was a meeting place, a melting pot, an institution. It had its drawbacks. To be recorded on CRI, you generally had to raise the cash yourself, albeit with their advice and help, and they told you upfront in their submission guidelines that post-production costs would be $8500. But that’s no longer unusual for new-music labels, and CRI had excellent publicity and distribution.

When Dalton suddenly left CRI in 2000, a shiver of raised eyebrows swept through Downtown music circles. Their closing seems like the drop of the second shoe. The general problems afflicting the record business, rising costs and declining sales, merely hit CRI harder and faster than it did more commercially minded labels. However, the most recent executive director, John G. Schultz, is making arrangements with another nonprofit label to keep everything in the CRI catalog available; details will allegedly be out by the end of this month,probably at www.composersrecordings.com.

I’ve written a number of obituaries in these pages, but none so sad as this. It’s like having the first close-to-home acres of our cultural rain forest stripped away by corporate behemoths determined to destroy all alternatives to their bland commercial pap. I know that in a few years CDs are supposed to become obsolete and we’ll download all our music off the Internet, and choices will be unlimited and everything hunky-dory. But as I listen to tinny little MP3s on my laptop, I have a hard time convincing myself that the demise of CRI isn’t the beginning of the end.

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CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

How Music Survives Capitalism

Every artist in this age of commerce lives with a divided consciousness. On the one hand, you sense the truth embodied in your own artistic work. On the other, you’re aware of the falsification inevitable in the process through which corporations package art for the public as commodities. Across this gap lies a topologically impossible bridge worthy of an M.C. Escher drawing: The artist would like to have his work offered to the public by the big record company, the major presenter, the famous museum, accompanied by all the PR trappings that both flatter the artist and reduce him to a brand name—while holding on to his work’s subsequent claim to truth. This is the tortured landscape we all live in. And it is a recurring comfort to rediscover it mapped out in the writings of Theodor Adorno.

OK, so Adorno (1903-69) was a snob. He dismissed jazz with unforgivable snideness. To put it more sympathetically, he was so completely immersed in an authentic European paradigm of musical meaning that he couldn’t help but see any other use for music as a degradation of that one. (For those who want their Adorno without the bad attitude, read his superb American explicator, Rose Rosengard Subotnik.) But he was deeply aware of the crisis art would face under a worldwide American model of manipulative consumerism, which he saw as an equal and complementary threat to fascism. And in a luxuriously thick new volume, Theodor W. Adorno: Essays on Music, selected and edited by Richard Leppert with some articles translated into English for the first time by Susan H. Gillespie (University of California Press), you are reminded of truths about art that our cultural institutions wish you’d forget.

Months before the Allies declared victory in WW II, Adorno laid out (in “What National Socialism Has Done to the Arts”) a frightening scenario that would survive the squelching of fascism. The rise of technology, he argued, had destroyed the humanistic balance between art and science, relegating art to a contingent position as entertainment. A culture willing to sacrifice its aims to the blind advance of technology would lose the thread of humanism that constituted mankind’s memory, leaving a spiritual vacuum into which either fascism or capitalist consumerism could pour new values with little resistance—except from artists and scholars whose communion with works of the past gave them a foundation of truth to rebel from. He foresaw the damage that would be done by a system that reduced every work of art, even within the artist’s own mind, to its exchange value.

In the face of the resulting fetishism of high culture, with its humorlessly tuxedoed orchestral functionaries, Adorno writes (in “On the Contemporary Relationship of Philosophy and Music”), “composers have the agonizing choice. They can play deaf and soldier on as if music were still music. Or they can pursue the leveling on their own account, turn music into a normal condition and in the process hold out for quality, when possible. Or they can ultimately oppose the tendency by a turn to the extreme, with the prospect of . . . becoming dessicated as a specialty.” Now read that statement back over and consider whether, in 1953, Adorno didn’t lay out the social tensions underlying what would eventually become the survival strategies of Midtown, Downtown, and Uptown composers, respectively. Or look at this 1945 recipe for a Downtown scene: “The present stage of technical civilization may call for a very ascetic art developed in the loopholes of poverty and isolation, as counter-balance against the business culture which tends to cover the whole world.”

The challenge is to deal with Adorno dialectically, and not just as a cynical excuse for further burrowing into alienated contempt. He was farsighted, but the world’s development was not the one-way road he assumed. At one point he analogizes, “the economic production of the future can no more return to primitive, pre-division-of-labor forms of production, in order to avoid the alienation of human beings from consumer goods, than art can”—and yet today there are progressive areas of society reverting to more holistic models of production. Similarly, I would argue (and do every week) that much recent music reverses that alienation pattern without falling into slots prepared by the corporate world. To facilitate that ongoing struggle, it might not be a bad idea for us all to have Adorno’s critique in the back of our minds.

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CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

The Moving Pencil Writes

A pencil wandering across a page is an irresistible analogy for a human life: leaving its irrevocable, wavering mark as it goes, expending itself in an inherently finite process. At the beginning of Mercy, by Meredith Monk and Ann Hamilton, recently performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Hamilton held a tiny camera on the point of a charcoal pencil as it roamed across the paper. Only the paper itself had no edge—it was a long, long sheet pulled from offstage, so that actually the paper moved, not the pencil. What we saw onscreen was that pencil point moving endlessly across a vast white expanse. Just watching it made you feel contextualized, lonely, aware of where you were in the thin line of your life on the vast field of humanity, how much charcoal has been used, how much is left. And not only seeing, but hearing, for the pencil was amplified.

That’s the kind of creativity I’ve come to expect from Meredith Monk every time: simple but powerful, and powerful precisely because it is so simple. This is what the mid-century mavens of modernism forgot: that when music became complicated it relinquished its power, because it had become extremely specific,and no longer possessed generalized archetypes to speak to the human condition. And Monk’s music is deeply archetypal—partly, but not solely, because it begins with the human voice.

The endless pencil line was the recurring frame for a series of wordless vignettes that looked at human situations, often through that tiny camera, sometimes concealed in a character’s mouth, and always with compassion. Monk’s archetype has often been the lullaby, but in Mercy it seemed—and seems, since I’m listening to the new ECM CD as I write this—to be the plaint, the lamentation, the song of mourning and by extension of comfort. Minor keys predominated, with what were for Monk unusually inconclusive harmonies. People dressed in vaguely old-fashioned European attire threaded past a nurse who examined each and eventually said, “Come in.” Words were rare, but one word the singers sang to each other, muting it as though afraid of being too clearly understood, was help.

Besides, a lullaby has a built-in end point—the baby falls asleep. A plaint is an open-ended, trailing-away affair, and instead of the verse structure of the lullaby, Mercy was propelled by ostinatos, repeated accompaniment figures on piano and synthesizer by Allison Sniffin and on percussion by John Hollenbeck. Meticulously differentiated, every one was a different beat-length: five beats for this song, eight for that one, seven or 10 for another. They made the music go around and around in a circle, an endless but repetitive human parade, just like the parade of human misery in which Monk’s enlarged cast of dancers filed across the stage—just like that endless pencil line.

For all its impressive visual theater—including huge bubbles made by running soap down pairs of wires suspended from the ceiling—Mercy was perhaps Monk’s most musically ambitious piece since her opera Atlas, full of solid chunks of ensemble composition. Her repertoire of sounds was expanded—there were odd, muffled, nonharmonious tones from the synthesizer and considerable noise from Hollenbeck, who was allowed room for chaotic percussion improvisation. Tune in to the CD at certain moments, and Monk wouldn’t come to mind. Rhythmic repetitions played off of each other in layers, cycling in different tempos at once. And Monk’s fellow singers—Alexandra Montano, Ching Gonzalez, Lanny Harrison, Ellen Fisher, and Theo Bleckmann, who particularly deserves notice for his versatile characterizations—were also given free rein to develop their own performing styles for the piece, though this isn’t as evident on the recording as it was live.

The focus of that camera on people’s hands while they were writing, on their mouths while they were singing, on the doctor’s (Bleckmann’s) face as he examined Monk, kept an enlarged focus on the mundane, painted by the music with a noble poignancy. All this with no plot, no dialogue, no obvious throughline. It’s evidence of the level that Monk and Hamilton are working on that until I started writing this column I hadn’t figured out why the piece was called Mercy. And now it’s so obvious.



Related Article:

Deborah Jowitt’s dance review of Meredith Monk’s Mercy

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Like Reich On Vodka

By coincidence I arrived in Moscow the day the Nord-Ost theater siege began. I found a population distracted and depressed, but not too traumatized to share musical enthusiasms. I hadn’t heard a peep of Russian music in decades—only the occasional Estonian like Arvo Pärt and Lepo Sumera, or displaced Ukrainian like Virko Baley. So I was surprised, given Europe’s still-modernist tendencies, to find Russia awash in simple tonality, in brash repetition, in its own cheeky form of post-minimalism. Such a large country, so crowded with musicians, is not so simply summed up in stylistic terms, of course. But in Vladimir Martynov, Pavel Karmanov, Anton Batagov, Georgs Peletsis, Alexander Rabinovitch, Sergei Zagny, and Alexander Bakshi, I found an entire generation of in-your-face tonalists.

I heard a few live performances, mostly by a scintillating and versatile string orchestra called Opus Posth at the Dom Foundation’s Alternativa festival (in which I performed). Wider vistas were opened up by dozens of CDs given to me as I was trying to buy them, many of them by Dom’s director, Nicolas Dmitriev, others by critic Dmitri Oukhov, sort of the Kyle Gann of Russia, as he described himself: the only person there whose job consists of writing about new experimental music. With typical European obliviousness to conflict-of-interest issues we’re hypersensitive to, Oukhov is not only a leading critic but curator of Alternativa and other festivals. The country may be vast, but its new music scene, like everyone’s, is a small world.

What’s striking about Russian post-minimalism is its gleeful abuse of traditional European harmony. American minimalists drew on Asian and African music and distanced themselves from Europe, but the Russians suffuse Baroque idioms with heavy doses of repetition and gradual process, appending titles like L’apres-midi du Bach (Martynov). A few composers take a quasi-American approach—notably Batagov, whose recent CD, The Wheel of the Law, luxuriates in relentless rhythmic repetition for meditative purposes, accompanied by texts which speak of Buddha-mind and voidness. One of the best young composers, Karmanov, is a lively cross between Bach and early-1980s Steve Reich (one of his pieces even bears the Reichiantitle Different . . . rains). More often, though, the Russians use minimalist ideas in the service of some theatrical situation in which the repetition seems to allude to madness or some altered mind-state.

For instance, Rabinovitch’s Musique expressive en hommage à Karl Orff gets stuck on one romantic, arpeggiated riff and articulates it in a dramatic variety of manners, with dynamic explosions and occasional wrong notes. Bakshi goes much further; as he notes in the liner to his Hamlet Is Dying, “These sounds are actors, too.” His music, recorded by no less than Gidon Kremer, repeats tonal gestures in a high state of tension, separated by portentous silences, suggesting a violinist going mad as a malevolent orchestra tries to follow him.

Often, continuing in the tradition of Shostakovich and Prokofiev, an element of satire seems intended, especially in lyrically tonal works that are so pretty and so obvious that they make you want to tear your hair out. Martynov’s Come In! (recorded by Opus Posth) is lovely and sentimental in a Grieg-ish sort of way, but resorts to the same twinkly little celeste cadence over and over until you finally decide he’s thumbing his nose at you for enjoying the pretty harmonies. Peletsis’s Correspondence Between Peletsis and Martynov for Opus Posth, which I heard live, was similarly obvious in its square rhythms, butdelightfully folk influenced with inventive interplay among textures.

There are also electronic ensembles like Vetrophonia (Nick Sudnik and Alexander Lebedev-Frontov) and Membrana, whose music, though noisy and full of found and environmental sounds, is also (what I heard of it) groove-related, repetitive, and slowly changing. Of course, there is free improvisation in Russia, and more traditional music abounds as well. There, as here, the published music is more conservative and connected to academia, somewhat reminiscent of Scriabin in the cases I discovered (Marina Shmotova and Vladimir Ivannikov, among others). They’ve got their own well-acknowledged Uptown/Downtown situation. But it was ear-opening to discover a body of post-minimalist music different from America’s yet recognizable in its sources, like a distant reflection; a music on which neither 70 years of European serialism nor 70 years of Communist rule appear to have left the slightest lasting trace.