Archive for the ‘Classical’ Category

Alarm Will Sound @ the Library of Congress

Wednesday, October 31st, 2007

Although I still have other shows to write about, I wanted to put some words down about the concert I saw tonight (Tuesday night), Alarm Will Sound at the Library of Congress. This was the best show I’ve seen since the spring — I really haven’t seen a show since then that’s had me smiling gleefully in the midst of it, but this one had exactly that effect on me.

Alarm Will Sound is a large ensemble of about 18-20 mostly quite young musicians, playing mostly classical instrumentation (a couple violins, viola, cello, bass, various winds, trumpet, trombone, percussion, piano etc) but with a few notable exceptions. I think they made it onto my radar because I heard about the album of Aphex Twin interpretations they did a couple years ago. In any case, their repertoire now is something they’re calling “a/rhythmia,” in which they play a bunch of pieces that are all based on a steady pulse, but that fuck with them either by layering additional rhythms on top or simply by messing around incessantly with said steady pulse. I’m a pretty beat-based music listener (with the exception of the various ambient musics I’ve started getting into fairly recently), and as a fan of prog and RIO, in which unusual rhythms are the norm, this was a pretty ideal program for me.

Of the pieces they played — interpretations of everything from 20th century Western classical music to rock to electronica to early music (pre-1500) — my absolute favorite was something called “Yo Shakespeare” by Michael Gordon. For this piece, the ensemble shifted around their instrumentation considerably, ditching some of the acoustic instruments for three Fender Rhodes and two electric guitars, in addition to an assortment of acoustic strings and horns. The music was a loud, polyrhythmic, dissonant cacophony that sounded to me like it could have been a direct influence on Zs, that insanely awesome avant-rock band that rocks out like crazy while focusing on intricate charts the whole time. Imagine Zs‘ material fleshed out for an ensemble of 20, with many of the resulting possibilities for increased complexity and poly-everything explored to the fullest, and you get some idea of what this piece was like. My feet kept tapping out some of the rhythms in this one for at least 20 minutes after the piece was over.

Another highlight was a composition by Harrison Birtwistle called “Carmen Arcadiae Mechanicae Perpetuum,” a disorienting slice of postwar classical experimentation that reminded me a lot of (and I’m probably showing my total lack of knowledge when it comes to this kind of thing) Penderecki’s more chaotic stuff, in effect if not really in sound. The group also played several pieces by Conlon Nancarrow that I found really appealing — each of these compositions started off with very simple jazz or blues-inspired melodies and basically layered them on top of each other, with the melody played simultaneously by mini-ensembles playing in several different meters. These pieces were some of the the most immediately comprehensible, and accessibly beautiful, examples of complex polyrhythm that I’ve heard.

Then there were the electronica pieces. A low-key piece by Aphex Twin based on a simple bass drum beat was given life by the performers constantly shifting position, first throughout the concert hall as they meandered down the aisles while playing, and then on the stage. And a manic piece by Mochipet, “Dessert Search for Techno Baklava” (clearly a play on Mr. Bungle’s “Desert Search for Techno Allah”), was fun to watch just to see these musicians tackling a composition not meant to be played by humans; their speed and dexterity was impressive, although the song appeared to my ears at least to lack the some of complexity of the rest of the program. But maybe that’s just because it was all flying by too fast for me to hear.

Finally there was a cover of a song by The Shaggs. If you don’t know it, their story is worth reading. For the purposes of this entry, though, all you need to know is that they were called “the most horrible rock band in the world” by the New York Times, which probably isn’t too far off the mark if you’re concerned with things like conventional ideas about instrumental talent, compositional chops, the ability to sing and play in tune, etc. But here’s what the text of the concert program said:

“…the rhythmic complexity of the other arrangement of commercial music, Philosophy of the World by The Shaggs, may not be the result of intelligence… The drummer seems to be flailing, the vocals and guitar are completely out of tune, and all three are never in time with one another… It is not clear whether the complexity of their music is accidental or deliberate.

One of the guys in Alarm Will Sound apparently decided to take the Shaggs’ complexity seriously, and the ensemble’s cover of “Philosophy of the World” was actually pretty great, taking the original song’s hilariously inept drumming (they played a recording of the original first) and turning it into an asset, an insanely shifting meter that formed the basis for other rhythmic shenanigans in which the rest of the ensemble indulged.

What a pleasant surprise this was. It’s like I unwittingly stumbled into a “Classical In Opposition” concert. I expected stuff like the Ligeti and even the Birtwistle, but the overt rhythms and complex beats in the other pieces was what really sold it for me. Really great fun. Sounds like the ensemble are releasing some pieces from this repertoire on a forthcoming CD, which I’ll definitely be looking into.

UPDATE: some good reviews of this concert from IonArts and the Washington Post.

“Counterproductive” (ie creative) titles

Friday, December 14th, 2001

Here’s something weird: in Classics Today’s review of Kaija Saariaho’s Sony release of “Amers”, “Graal Théâtre”, and “Château de l’Âme”, this is the first paragraph:

I do wish modern composers could write music without giving their pieces, shall we say, counterproductive titles. Graal Théâtre (Grail Theater, as if this translation clarifies any questions you might have) is simply a violin concerto. Amers (which means “sea-marks”) is a cello concerto. I suspect that the two works sound more like each other–that is to say, like Saariaho–than the former sounds like the Jacques Roubaud book that donated the title, or the latter sounds like a sea-mark, whatever that is. I don’t plan to read Jacques Roubaud in order to see in exactly what context these words appear, nor do I expect anyone else will either (assuming you read French); and even if I did, I doubt the experience would shed any special light on Saariaho’s violin concerto purely as music, which is of course the only thing that should concern us here. In the final analysis, such conceits (for that is what they are) accomplish nothing but to further alienate potential listeners, distancing them from the music before they’ve even heard a note, and sending them on a frustrating, irrelevant quest for some extra-musical answer to the question of what the music “means”. It’s a pseudo-intellectual indulgence we could well do without, although it’s only fair to note that Saariaho certainly isn’t in any way unique in this respect in the field of contemporary music.

This seems to imply that the reviewer wants all classical pieces to be named after what they are. As in, any variation from “Symphony #14″ or “Cello concerto #2″ is bad, and having any sort of creative title is a “pseudo-intellectual indulgence”. What really bewilders me, though, is the idea that creative titles will “alienate potential listeners”. Maybe me popular-music background leads me to believe strange things, but I’d think that boring old descriptive titles would do more to scare off potential listeners than a title like, say, “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima”.

The choice of that example is not fortuitous, incidentally; I’m listening to that Penderecki CD now, much to the distress of my roommate.

Revisiting my entire music collection

Thursday, December 13th, 2001

So I’m going through and listening to all my CDs in reverse alphabetical order by title. This is something I tried a couple years ago (though not in reverse order, that was a weird whim this time around), but I never did finish because I kept getting all these new CDs to give my attention to instead. This time around, I’m in a phase where I can’t afford to keep buying new stuff, so it should be a bit easier. I’m being pretty lenient with myself as well… letting myself listen to what I want, but when I finish doing that I move back to the ordered list. I’m in the middle of the W’s now… just finished listening to Wadachi by the Japanese band Compostela.

I’ve been reviewing a lot of the stuff I listen to as I go, but since Wadachi isn’t prog at all, it doesn’t really fit in. But I’d like to say something about it here… this is a fascinating CD, featuring a trio with two instrumentalists who play mostly saxophones, along with a tuba player (tuba-ist?). Apparently their music mixes klezmer influences with Japanese street music, but since I’m not really familiar with Japanese street music I can’t really comment on that. I will say that the klezmer influence is pretty obvious. But there are also some really neat departures from that overall style, including a piece that sounds almost traditionally symphonic before segueing perfectly into a bouncy klezmerish workout. There’s good stuff here… I’m impressed. I wasn’t taken by it when I first got it, but now I quite like it.

Other listening today is a new one that I picked up, a compilation of relatively short Penderecki pieces on EMI Classics that I picked up because it has “De Natura Sonoris” and “Capriccio” (and, of course, “Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima”). The Governor’s School orchestra played “De Natura Sonoris” - just No. 1, I think - this summer, and it fucking blew me away, so it’s about time I got a recording of it. It’s as good as I remembered. Now, there was also a Lutoslawski cello concerto played at that same concert that kicked my ass even more (mostly because of the cellist, Tom Kraines - one of the Governor’s School instructors and a graduate of Julliard) - I’m going to have to go hunt it down as well.

“Morally and intellectual superior”

Thursday, August 10th, 2000

I’m excited: there’s a new Godspeed You Black Emperor! album coming soon. Double LP on Constellation, double CD on Kranky. If it’s anywhere near the quality of their last release (the EP Slow Riot for New Zero Kanada), I will be a very happy person.

I’ve followed part of the rec.music.classical thread “Our children and music” with interest (man, if you thought rec.music.progressive flamewars were exasperatingly uppity, try this one); there are a couple tidbits from it summarized nicely at josh blog. “…grant me that Beethoven’s Opus 133 String Quartet is morally and intellectually superior to Pearl Jam’s Dopus Whatever…” This guy has a serious stick up his ass. The sick thing is, there are plenty of people like him: if you thought prog-snobs were grossly elitist, check out classical music snobs. Jesus. A mild (no, really) example from a few days ago:

“If I were a rock listener, I would have them forcibly detain me, shut me in a cell and play me enough classical music until I saw the errors of my ways. Do unto others….”
— “John” on rec.music.classical

Interesting reading on this topic: Lawrence Levine’s Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America.