For our first compendium of new American music CDs of the millennium, of course, we’re continuing to feature discs that were recorded in the last millennium! But in the coming months we will soon find out that like so many other terms that need to be re-examined, the appellation “20th century music” no longer suffices to describe new American music.
Several of the discs covered in this issue are so unlike most of the music you’ve heard before that they could very well be considered a harbinger of 21st century music. Nothing has quite prepared us for Al Margolis’s assemblage of 106,476 clarinets, or Tom Johnson’s sonic encyclopedia of every possible piano chord in 12-tone equal temperament. And James Tenney’s music for violin and piano, some of it several decades old, still sounds years ahead of its time. Tenney is also featured on a remarkable new disc by Sonic Youth, arguably the most important American rock band of the past two decades. The album, fittingly titled Goodbye 20th Century, features performances of experimental works by 10 composers of the second half of the 20th century, 9 of whom are Americans, which must be a first in both the history of rock and the history of so-called concert music.
The music of Jerry Gerber posits an orchestra-less future for orchestral music, using programmable synthesizers to convey symphonic sonorities. Although another disc featuring new works by Robert Starer and William Thomas McKinley shows that the orchestra is still very much alive.
Indeed, there will be many musical carryovers from the previous century. And as the post-romantic orchestral music of John Stewart McLennan, the quasi-impressionistic piano music of Alvin Curran and the often mystical music of Stephen Dickman suggest, we are part of a musical continuum that goes much further back in time and that encompasses a world-wide geography.
It’s fitting that for the first issue of NewMusicBox where jazz takes central stage, there are a plethora of interesting new jazz releases. The latest small combo releases by saxophonist Jimmy Greene and trumpet genius Dave Douglas, offer new sets of compositions that are firmly in the jazz tradition, while the larger ensemble outings by master arranger Don Sebesky and legendary congero Ray Barretto put new spins on some classic charts by Ellington and others. An Ellington tune also appears on the latest CD by Don Byron, who appears in this month’s In The First Person. Finally, Ellington’s own interpretations of his music are featured on a never-before released live concert recording of the under-appreciated 1954 line-up of his orchestra, which is particularly fitting in an issue of NewMusicBox devoted to the impact of concert venues on musical performance and should serve as a reminder to today’s record industry that some of the best jazz recordings have been the ones that are not manufactured in the studio.