Soundtracks: April 2000

SoundTracksThis month’s edition of SoundTracks spans a greater chronology that ever before. Perhaps it’s fitting that in the end of the first year of NewMusicBox, there would be so wide a range. Now that we’re in the 21st Century (pace to the 2001 apostates), of course, it is now possible to have recordings of American music from 4 different centuries, and this time, indeed we do!

From the 18th century, we’ve got music by David Moritz Michael (1751-1827), a German composer who lived and worked in the United States from 1795 to 1815, contributing greatly to early Pennsylvanian musical life both through his work for the Moravian Church and through composing and conducting secular instrumental music. From the 19th century, we’ve got a wonderful new recording of the Piano Concerto and Piano Quintet of Amy Beach performed by the dynamic pianist Joanne Polk who has previously recorded Beach’s complete solo piano music. A few of Beach’s delightful songs appear on a new CD by soprano Carolyn Heafner which also features repertoire by five other composers including Ernst Bacon, who, though largely forgotten, was one of our most important song composers.

As for the 20th century, the choices are as seemingly endless as always. Last month we asked you to name the most important 20th century American composer, one of our easier questions :), and it almost feels like the record companies were listening! Of course, it takes much more that a month to get a CD into production, but it’s a joyous coincidence that the music of five of your choices for most important composer – John Cage, Charles Tomlinson Griffes, Duke Ellington, Milton Babbitt and Conlon Nancarrow – all appear on new recordings this month. (Some other possible candidates for most important 20th century composer, who somehow didn’t make it onto our forum yet, resurface again this month in new recordings as well: Henry Cowell, Samuel Barber…) In fact, Griffes appears three times: his complete piano music has been released on two separate discs (disc 1 | disc 2) and his lovely Poem for Flute and Orchestra appears on a collection of flute concertos which also features a little-known concerto by Virgil Thomson. Cage appears twice, first on a new disc devoted to his visceral early percussion music and second on yet another recording of the seemingly-ubiquitous Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano, albeit this time with a twist… It’s on Naxos. Cage has finally become standard repertoire after all!

Naxos’s American Classics series continues to offer up other surprises as well: symphonies by Meredith Willson whom I’ve previously only known through The Music Man and other inventive Broadway musicals. There’s even a new Naxos disc featuring the music of a living American composer who is still in his 20s, Carter Pann! A new disc of works written in the last few years for duo violinists János Négyesy and Päivikki Nykter features music by two other composers still in their 20s. Of course, the lion’s share of releases devoted to the music of contemporary American composers is still CRI, a label that continually amazes both with a startling number of new releases as well as historic back-catalog re-issues. This month’s new releases include discs devoted to the music of Jennifer Margaret Barker, Ronald Caltabiano and Herman Berlinski, who turns 90 in August and is still going strong! Even this is trumped by another CRI release, a re-issue of music by Minnesota elder statesman Gene Gutchë who turns 93 in July. The title curiosity level of his “Bongo Divertimento” is only outdone by “Fanfare, Fugue and Funk” featured on another CRI re-issue devoted to the music of Francis Thorne! There are a whole host of other discs devoted to the music of both elder statesmen and younger lions (to borrow the term from the neo-Hard Boppers) including David Diamond, Easley Blackwood, Dominick Argento, Judith Lang Zaimont, Richard Wilson, José Serebrier, Daniel Asia and Ian Krouse.

This month, in the less-than-easily-classifiable department (which is always proof of how varied new American music is) are film scores by Caleb Sampson and the Alloy Orchestra, who’ve used three classic silent films as the departure point for some very unusual music. A new disc by guitarist/composer Tom Taylor merges bluegrass, jazz, rock and classical fugues into a cohesive whole with some help from Dave Grisman and the Kronos Quartet. There are even more elements thrown into the mix on the second Tin Hat Trio album and on the first full length CD from Twisted Tutu, a new music-and-beyond duo whom Kyle Gann, in his provocative liner notes, describes “as the way 21st century music sounds.”

Of course, it’s still a little misleading to talk of releases featuring 21st century music. Chances are, this early on, that even discs that say © 2000 everywhere and offer no other date, such as Steve Heitzeg‘s eclectic music for the PBS documentary Death of a Dream, were at least partially if not completely conceived and recorded sometime before December 31, 1999. But who knows? And, indeed if it has not been disseminated into the world until now, isn’t it 21st Century Music anyway? And if you haven’t heard any of this music before, what then? So much for clocks! Maybe it’s best to turn them off for a while and listen to some of this music…