John Adams: Guide to Strange Places

John Adams's most perfectly realized music is often his most inhuman. In Nixon in China, he is better at evoking the President's jet The Spirit of 76—brilliantly realized by the composer—than the Trickster-in-Chief himself. In the Doctor Atomic Symphony (which shares the CD with Guide to Strange Places), the topic may be scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer, but listeners may feel they are following a musical portrait of the nuclear particles rather than the controversial nuclear physicist. Watch the electron resolve into its tonic key proton! Hearing Adams, I am often reminded of José Ortega y Gasset's 1925 prediction that, in the modern era, creative minds would aim to dehumanize art, or the even earlier forecast of T.E. Hulme that the day would arrive when engineering drawings would belong in the Louvre. No, only a big glass and metal pyramid has shown up there so far. But Adams is part of the same ethos that brought it to the doorstep.

Yet Guide to Strange Places, composed in 2001, is something else altogether, a psychological exploration that taps into deeper currents than one usually finds in the minimalist playbook. Adams took inspiration for his title from a French guidebook that he stumbled across at a farmhouse during a vacation in Provence. However, the "strange places" he eventually came to probe in this piece seem to be situated between the Id and Ego rather than Avignon and Cannes. The rhythmic vitality comes from a conception that ostensibly balances the old moto perpetuo and the modern groove, but it is countered by moments of quasi-stasis that still retain a surprising amount of emotional bite. This is the composer at his most mature, and demonstrating an uncanny skill in channeling his personality through a symphony orchestra. The result may be a guide to strange places, but they are also the same ones that we inhabit everyday.

September 12, 2009 · 0 comments


Terry Riley: The Cusp of Magic

Take a quick glance at the sleeve of this CD and you will assume that Terry Riley has composed a piece for string quartet. But it may be more correct to say that Riley wrote a piece to subvert the whole concept of a string quartet. You know something odd is going on from the opening bars, which sound like a work for percussion ensemble. Wu Man's pipa (essentially a Chinese lute) adds to the exotic flavor, and before we have finished with this six-movement piece, we will encounter vocals, ambient effects and the accompaniment of various (according to the liner notes) "toys." The Kronos Quartet do get a chance to pull out their bows and play their usual instruments, but this is just part of the wonderful, wild concoction that Mr. Riley offers here. Yet The Cusp of Magic is not just a clever exercise in getting string players to tinker with toys—we have all seen experimental performances of that sort, which are usually about as interesting as a Fisher-Price starter kit. Riley's music, for all its iconoclasm, is not about cleverness. Rather it is a celebration of the musical; that said, Riley's sense of musicality sometimes takes him to strange places. But when this composer goes off on one of his sonic scavenger hunts, you are advised to come along on the journey.

March 25, 2009 · 0 comments


Gavin Bryars: Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet

In the original 1971 version of this famous (infamous?) composition, Gavin Bryars looped a short tape of an unknown amateur vocalist (patronizingly referred to by the composer as "the tramp") singing a lopsided stanza. It repeats again and again and again and . . . well, you get the idea. Some formulaic accompaniment, added after the fact, fleshes out the tramp's meager contribution.

Gavin Bryars has revisited this composition periodically, and though it has gotten longer with the passing years, it hasn't necessarily gotten better. I am confident that you will get the "concept"—with a small, very small, "c" here, please—within five minutes; and though you may want to sit around and wait an hour (and seemingly a thousand repetitions of the loopy loop) for Tom Waits to arrive on the scene with his solid lead vocal, I suggest that you pour yourself a stiff drink to help you through the interval. Or maybe check your email. Or shop online for a more interesting CD.

I consider myself an advocate of minimalism, but when you try to marry the repetitiveness of that idiom with the oh-so-clever attitude of post-modernism at its most self-congratulatory, you get the musical equivalent of purgatory. Somebody please find an outfit for the emperor! Or, better yet, give his diadem and royalties to the tramp. The fact that this piece has been lauded and held up as a role model of sorts tells you much about the state of modern composition, and even more about the state of contemporary criticism.

March 19, 2009 · 0 comments


Numinous / Joseph C. Phillips, Jr.: On Climbing Heaven and Gazing on the Earth

Composer Joseph C. Phillips, admirably aided by the ensemble Numinous, delivers a stunning 18 minute performance here, blending elements of Steve Reich and Pat Metheny and other sources of inspiration into one of the freshest recordings of the year. Imagine Reich's Music for 18 Musicians, but with an expanded harmonic sensibility, a jazzier pulse, and occasional hints of sweeping Maria Schneider-esque melodies. The individual ingredients are familiar, but I guarantee that you haven't heard them put together in this way before. For want of a better term, let me call it über-minimalism. Phillips' writing is brilliant, and the ensemble performs it with clarity and passion. Count me as a believer.

March 17, 2009 · 0 comments


Steve Reich (featuring Pat Metheny): Electric Counterpoint

A certain ineffable jazziness can often be discerned in the music of composer Steve Reich, but it comes to the fore in this 3-movement piece performed by Pat Metheny. The work makes use of Reich's longstanding interest in overdubbing and tape manipulation. Here the soloist prerecords as many as 10 electric guitar parts and 2 electric bass parts, and then performs an 11th guitar part "live" against the composite. As always with Reich, the surface simplicity hides deeper currents of intricacy. This is a multilayered work that draws the listener into its sonic landscape. And jazz fans will enjoy a pronounced Metheny flavor to the proceedings. In his notes, Reich thanks Pat for his guidance in making the guitar parts more "idiomatic." I'm not sure what this amounted to, but certainly the end results bear the personal stamp of this seminal guitarist.

June 28, 2008 · 1 comment


Philip Glass: Koyaanisqatsi

Minimalism, when it succeeds, captures that elusive moment when the repetitive and predictable create a virtuous circle, self-reinforcing and building inwardly on its own energy. Yet this transcendence comes at a risk: a thin line separates the mesmerizing from the boring. Alas, too often, I find Philip Glass lingers in the realm of ennui. But here, in the opening track to his breakthrough score for the film Koyaanisqatsi, Glass hits a rich musical vein. To achieve the full effect, you should see the movie. Yet the CD is not to be scorned. The vocal by Albert de Ruiter is so far down in the bass clef, you would need to send down divers in pressure suits to ascertain which notes he is hitting. But the organist bravely volunteers to make the plunge, and delivers a passacaglia, full of gravitas, to explore the dangers of the deep in tandem with the singer. This is Philip Glass at his most austere—no migraine-inducing patterns, no chords hammered at ad infinitum—and the results are impressive.

June 28, 2008 · 0 comments


Steve Reich: Piano Phase (1967)

In 1967, when Steve Reich composed Piano Phase, he was working primarily with minimalist sound collages created by means of tape loops and splices. Often no music, in the traditional sense, was employed in these works, with the manipulation of taped spoken language creating the building blocks of his throbbing, repetitive soundscapes.

Piano Phase is a meeting point between these early efforts and the composer's later instrumental works. The piece was conceived originally as a juxtaposition of two piano parts, which start by playing repetitive phrases in synch but gradually fall out of phase. Eventually the parts come back into alignment, and the performers are again playing in unison.

Reich found that it was possible for musicians to perform this work live, perhaps lacking the exact precision that tape manipulation allowed, but with a close enough approximation. From the perspective of the musicians, the process was surprisingly similar to jazz performance. True, the music was built on notation rather than improvisation; but the notated music was quite simple, while the challenge of performance was to listen intensely to the other musician and adapt rhythmically to create the intended displacement of the two parts. Few classical compositions put a higher premium on total absorption into playing off the "rest of the band" (so to speak). The work also conveys a modal flavor that invariably reminds us of the turbulent non-classical musical scene, circa 1967. No, my dear jazz cats, it's not A Love Supreme . . . but this music is a reaction to many of the same stimuli that fed into the work of Coltrane, Miles and others during this era.

Reich's greatest music was still ahead of him. Even so, Piano Phase reveals the composer's early preoccupation with the interaction between repetition and gradual changes in texture that would inform his Music for 18 Musicians and other mature works. Even more important, Reich showed that experimentation in composition could be sound-driven rather than ideology-driven. In time, a lot of theoretical baggage would be dragged into the debates over minimalism. But these early works captivate because of a child-like sense of playfulness that was a much needed tonic during a period in which the composition of classical music was gradually becoming the pursuit of academics holding (or seeking) tenured positions in elite institutions.

June 21, 2008 · 0 comments


Terry Riley: In C

This composition, dating from 1964, did more than any other work to give impetus and momentum to the minimalist aesthetic. Much like a jazz song, "In C" can be substantially different every time it is performed. The lineup of instruments can vary, as well as the length of the performance. But nothing is left to chance (or, as an academic composer might say, to "aleatory factors"): every participant must progress sequentially through a series of 53 musical phrases, repeating each motif an indeterminate number of times before moving on to the next. The concept is elegantly simple, but the layering of the different fragments creates shimmering superstructures of sound. There are many recorded versions of "In C" on the market, some jazzier, others more cerebral. But I still prefer this brisk and stark 1968 recording with Riley in the band, made at a time when this music was less a masterpiece to be revered, and more a wakeup call to sonic seekers of all stripes.

June 21, 2008 · 0 comments


Nik Bärtsch's Ronin: Modul 39_8

You wouldn't think that a discussion of minimalism and funk would be a very long one. On "Modul 39_8," Nik Bärtsch's Ronin takes what might seem like two orthogonal musical substances and fits them together in a very natural way. Beginning with a cycling and moody piano figure, there's absolutely no hint of the changes to come. As the pace picks up (glacially), subtle bits of percussion are the only indication that the band will kick off at the 2-minute mark. Björn Meyer's bass drives lifts the mood for just a few moments before it is again just piano and percussion and mood. With just a few minutes left in the composition, we again shift up with piano notes showering all over a repeated horn figure and Meyer's bass popping away. I can imagine a discussion about this music lasting for days.

February 12, 2008 · 0 comments


Nik Bärtsch: Modul 45

Nik Bärtsch has described his music as "zen funk," but usually there is more zen than funk in the mix. Yet on "Modul 45," we get a more judicious balance. On this penultimate track to Bärtsch's Holon release, the groove kicks into high gear from the outset, and the repetitions that make up so much of his music show their hypnotic side. Even better, Sha layers some free jazz lines on top of the rhythm section that give the whole proceedings a piquant edge.

After hearing this track, I am half convinced that, yes, there is a meeting place between minimalism and funk. But the point of intersection is an elusive one, and hard to maintain. Bärtsch himself hints as much when he quotes Morton Feldman's revealing comment: "I always leave the concert hall when I start tapping my foot." This intriguing performance captures Nik Bärtsch's Ronin at that moment right when the feet start tapping. But don't leave . . this is precisely the point where you'll want to stay and listen.

February 06, 2008 · 0 comments


Nik Bärtsch: Modul 42

Holon, the new ECM release by Nik Bärtsch, gets off to a tepid start with this 6-minute track. Atmospheric jazz, when it is played in such an astringent manner, risks sounding like an under-produced film score. The repetitive, medium-tempo pattern that makes up most of this track reminds me of the kind of music a newbie director would cook up behind shots of a ticking clock in some slow-build suspense movie.

Of course, a ticking clock is suspenseful only when it leads somewhere.

Fortunately the rest of Holon gets better and better. The minimalist philosophy behind Bärtsch's music can build some grand effects, but you need to give Bärtsch time for him to deliver the goods. Spend an hour with his music, and you may walk away a believer, but if you're thinking about downloading this track as a sampler, think again. Bärtsch might have made this the first movement of a multipart work – and then I would have cut him some slack. But as a standalone piece, "Modul 42" will leave you checking your watch.

February 06, 2008 · 0 comments


Steve Reich: Music for 18 Musicians

The ECM label would eventually push far beyond its jazz roots, but its willingness to tackle new sounds and idioms is perhaps best exemplified by this 1978 release by composer Steve Reich. The classical music world has claimed this extended, hour-long performance, and it is deservedly lauded as a major statement of the minimalist aesthetic. But any attempt to link this music to categories such as "classical' or "jazz" misses much of the point of this visionary composition, which defines its own soundspace. The slow pace of harmonic change creates a hypnotic effect that is unmatched, in my opinion, by any other work of modern music. Reich relies heavily on mallet instruments -- played by seven members of the ensemble -- but tempers them with four female voices, creating a tension between soft and hard, stubborn insistence and gentle persuasion, that transforms the aural space.

December 21, 2007 · 0 comments


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