Soundtracks: September 1999

As the cost of making orchestral recordings in the United States continues to skyrocket, less than 15 recordings by the major American orchestras have been slated for studio time this year. Clearly, something must be done to make American orchestral recordings viable once again and the answer is in the recording of new American repertoire. It is sadly ironic that in the month we have chosen to focus on the performance of American repertoire by American orchestras only 4 new recordings of American music are orchestral and of those, only 3 are new recordings of American music by American orchestras. (The fourth is a long-overdue re-issue of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra‘s 1960s performances of symphonies by Amy Beach and William Grant Still.)

Although they were not included in our round-up of American orchestras this time around, the New York-based Riverside Symphony has proven its commitment to American music once again with its world premiere recording of Andrew Imbrie’s 1984 Requiem, one of his most profoundly moving compositions. The Albany Symphony, which is most definitely included in our orchestra report, gains yet another accolade for its new Roy Harris CD. And Universal Classics has finally issued Michael Tilson Thomas’s New World Symphony performances of three Morton Feldman orchestral works in the United States, although none of the works on the disc are world premiere recordings as the label claims.

Chamber music, which is much easier to organize and record, continues to dominate the new recordings of American repertoire. Four new American composers join the ranks of “composers with single-composer discs” featuring works for a wide array of instrumental combinations: Robert Avalon, Amy Rubin, Jan Krzywicki and Chaya Czernowin. And it is great to hear inspired performances of small-scale works by Ralph Shapey even though recordings of so many of his large-scale works are still pipe dreams. CRI has also re-issued four song cycles for voices and chamber ensembles by Leo Smit and Sony Classical’s latest Columbia Masterworks Heritage re-issue features historic composer-led performances of vocal chamber works by Samuel Barber, Virgil Thomson and AMC-founder Aaron Copland.

On the improvisatory end of the American chamber music spectrum, a couple of new jazz groups have finally made it to disc including George Schuller‘s Schulldogs and Rob Reddy‘s Honor System, featuring the great Pheeroan Aklaaf. Sony Classical, who’ve done much in recent years to stretch the definition of the “C” word, have issued uncategorizable bassist Edgar Meyer‘s latest blend of jazz, bluegrass and contemporary concert hall music with co-conspirators Sam Bush, Mike Marshall and classical violin star Joshua Bell. And for something even more uncategorizable … if the 10-CD boxed set on Organ of Corti wasn’t enough, the small L.A.-based label Transparency has re-issued an additional 4-CD boxed set of material recorded by a variety of ad-hoc pre-industrial experimental ensembles from the mid-1970s known collectively as the Los Angeles Free Music Society.

Electronic media, of course, allow composers to employ chamber means to paint with orchestral palettes, and several new recordings take full advantage of the latest technology. Carl Stone programs computers to create a wide-array of super-human sounds while Larry Austin gets more out of chamber ensembles by combining acoustic instruments with electronics and computer processing. A re-issue of ’60s electro-acoustic music by Richard Maxfield and Harold Budd shows how far our technology has come while at the same time proving that antiquated technologies can still yield timeless music. Finally, Eric Belgum uses multi-track recording to create unique collages of spoken conversation which hover at the boundary between literary art and music.