Soundtrack: January 2001

While we wait to see if “Dubya” manages to unite Donkey and Elephant, we will have to content ourselves with music in which there is some kind of tentative “coalition” between styles. Two discs jumped out at me as superlative examples of such blending: Mark Kuss’s chamber music, on Gasparo, and Martin Bresnick’s two-volume Opere Della Musica Povere, on CRI. The title of Kuss’s “American Tryptich,” for string quartet and tape, recalls Schuman’s “New England Tryptich,” but the comparison ends there: this is the cynical, commercialized America of Generation X. Martin Bresnick’s approach is far less in-your-face. Instead, he weaves together minimalism, neo-romanticism, serialism, references to early American hymn tunes and Baroque practices in twelve interrelated pieces. Also interesting is the electronic music of Larry Kucharz, which represents, in his own words, a marriage between “austere minimalism” and “consonant harmonies and gestures from the Western Choral Classical Music Tradition.” Nine of his pieces can be found on a new self-produced disc entitled ComputerChoral Green Prints.

The use of multiple musics within the context of a single work is nothing new, of course, but I was nonetheless surprised to find an Alaskan Inuit melody in the Quartet for Strings in One Movement of Amy Beach. Native American music can also be heard in the techno-influenced “variations” of Phil James. Bright Sheng is well-known for his combination of Chinese and Western sensibilities, and three of his orchestral pieces can be heard on a new recording by the Shanghai Symphony. The Abstract and the Ethnic is a disc of Leonardo Balada’s music, both some blunt-edged avant-garde pieces from the 1960s and then some more explicitly Spanish works dating from later that are more melodic. Three cultures meet in the music of Pran, a group comprised of two American musicians who play Indian ragas on European and Australian instruments (trombone and didjeridu).

Roughly contemporary with the Amy Beach quartet is William Grant Still’s “Afro-American Symphony” with its alternately rich and playful representation of African-American blues and jazz. Gary Eskow’s piano and chamber music reveals diverse influences: not only jazz, but also rock, Latin music and the refined Romanticism of a composer like Rorem.

Six albums that I listened to this month struck me as polystylistic in terms of their overall conception. Jenny Lin’s Chinoiserie, for instance, is a fascinating collection of pieces from the past hundred years that are all influenced in some way by the Far East, real and imaginary. Water Colors is a different sort of “east meets west” project, featuring seven pieces for koto written by composers from the Pacific Northwest. Jed Distler’s group Composers Collaborative has put out a compilation of some of the best and brightest moments of their Solo Flights festival, including a hilarious piece David Del Tredici wrote for Distler himself. American Mosaic features the works of ten composers who have written pieces for flute and harp, stretching from an arrangement of “To a Wild Rose” to two new pieces by composers born in the 1970s.

Three discs represent the work of “polystylistic artists” – amazing musicians who cross the (real/imaginary) fence between genres with ease. My personal favorite (but then I’m going through a “martini phase”) is the Intergalactic Contemporary Ensemble’s disc called I Dig, recorded live at the Fineline in Minneapolis. This is an example of a group of “serious” contemporary music players jumping gleefully onto a different stylistic bandwagon, reviving with great flair such neglected 1950s exotica as Moises Vivanco’s “Malambo No.1.” Willis Delony is a pianist who keeps one foot in the jazz world, and one foot in the classical world, as he demonstrates on his new CD of largely “written-out” jazz. Haskell Small is another pianist whose work crosses genres: his writing for the instrument harks back to the American Romantic tradition of Barber, certainly, but also like Barber, there are distinct hints of jazz in the music, as well.

I had some fun grouping discs that, taken together, form a polystylistic commentary on a single idea. (Warning: try this at home.) Take, for example, the idea of American musical traditions. You could listen to Stefania De Kenessey’s Shades of Light/Shades of Dark, music solidly grounded in tonality – think Horatio Parker. Then, you could listen to Chas Smith’s Nikko Wolverine, which includes four pieces written for Smith’s own instruments – think Harry Partch. To finish, you could listen to David Basse’s Strike When the Iron is Hot, a collection of mainstream-style jazz tunes written by the likes of Duke Ellington, Stanley Turrentine, Mike Melvoin, and even Billy Joel.

Stefania DeKenessey isn’t the only composer whose work manifests European influence, of course. There are George Antheil’s fourth and fifth symphonies, which eerily “echo” contemporary works of Shostakovitch and Prokoviev, though he was unfamiliar with them at the time. Lowell Liebermann’s second symphony, on the other hand, is a combination of the sweet choral style of Brahms and orchestral writing lush enough to suggest Hollywood.

Brian Schober’s music is Baroque in conception, though his language is decidedly modern. His “Te Deum” is scored for the sonically wild combination of mixed chorus and prepared piano. Schober is also an organist, and his “Toccatas and Fantasias” are worth hearing just for the fine playing. Steven Stucky’s lyrical double concerto is scored for another Bach-like combination: violin, oboe, and chamber orchestra. And David Maslanka’s alto saxophone concerto is cast in five movements, the third of which quotes the Crucifixus from the Catholic Mass: could this be a reference to the chiastic form that Bach occasionally employed for its religious symbolism?

Science is the meeting-point for the music of Jim Fox and Anne LeBaron. Jim Fox’s “The Copy of the Drawing” is an extended meditative work that features an excerpt from Sarah Simons’ letters to the Mt. Wilson Observatory. LeBaron’s “Telluris Theoria Sacra” is named after the cosmological work written by Thomas Burnet in 1681. LeBaron’s chamber work portrays the course of the earth from “chaos” to “holocaust and implosion.” The piece itself is polystylistic, with references to the 17th-century passacaglia, the Italian devotional lauda, the waltz, and to jazz.

A sense of place binds together the music of David Bindman and Samuel Jones. Jones’s Suite “Roundings” is a programmatic work based on New Deal murals throughout Texas. Bindman’s “Pier Sketch,” written for his Brooklyn Sax Quartet, depicts the Hudson River waterfront, a place, in his words that “suggests the struggle between raw natural beauty [and] the fleeting yet awesome ability of humans to construct an alternate reality.”

Finally, you might trying listening to the music of Michael Byron and Tony Malaby in order to compare their different uses of rhythmic energy. Byron’s minimalist “Entrances,” for three pianos (one pianist), makes use of the percussive qualities of the piano to create a seething rhythmic texture. Tony Malaby and his sidemen also use rhythm as a binding element in their work, as a driving force that holds together some dramatically-varied free jazz improvisations.

 

Jenny Undercofler

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