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Life in the slow lane: Some little reviews
Benjamin Boretz

Illustrations by Henry Glover, Nick Hurwitz Goodman, and 100Busy


Despite what you may have heard me say lately, I believe there actually is at least one real-life, music-affecting sense for “the history of music”; one that rises up sharply as I engage to write my responses to an assortment of CDs I’ve been listening to lately: in my (and your) personal life-history, there are living composers, there are dead composers, there are composers who were born after you were grown up, there are composers who were living and died during your lifetime. Everything about what you hear when you hear any instance of music is contingent on this history of yours--for me, it’s especially noticeable how different it is to confront the image and sounds of an ontologically “dead” composer and of one who died after I ontologized them as living--most especially, of course, when I knew them personally. The strange unsettling sense of emptiness, of the aftermath of fullness of presence suddenly blanked out, has no resemblance to the complacent equanimity, the sheer enveloping comfort, of the posthumous presence of a historic master--even the historic masters who were living but quite aged when I first came into musical consciousness, and even--like Stravinsky, Varèse, Wolpe and Sessions--when I knew them personally. I think such history profoundly affects how I experience music, or, indeed, what music I hear, mutating radically--ontologically--as time passes. So when I think of Irving Fine, or Seymour Shifrin, or Earl Kim, or Bob Helps, or Kenneth Gaburo, or Earle Brown, or Herbert Brün, or Ralph Shapey (the list is getting very long) there’s a spooky sense of immanence intensely present but infinitely denied, a spectre of enormous energy looming powerlessly over its own immutable absolute absence.

And the ones born in my adulthood, composing intensely just as if they had always been there, strenuously occupying conspicuous spaces in my musical consciousness that were never even there before--it has nothing to do with the stylistics of their music--produce a complementary but equivalently weird effect, sort of a blindsiding of fullblown energetic presence materializing fullblown out of nowhere. These are the ones I’m most insecure about listening to, or writing about, because I have a sense of being in the wrong place, from the wrong time--particularly, tuning in from the wrong ‘social’ position, to come at their music, to have it come at me, in an unmediated, uninhibited interaction. It feels like I need to distill my instinctual responses with a sense of, yes, all this history, to use that sense to distance reception from pure interpenetration, to be able to cultivate a meaningful aesthetic benefit, internally, and a considerate interpersonal appreciation, socially, for the character and substance of their sudden presence in my expressive world.

Another way of saying this--from the perspective of a reader or listener--is that everything you read about or hear in music is an output of a particular life history at a particular moment, and its truth or expressivity is the truth and true expressivity of that, and, really, only that, moment--as is this. What you get, if you care to, is access to that moment, as you compose it for yourself, out of your own moment. That I am 67 at this moment, male, born in Brooklyn, educated musically on the East Coast, perceive clearly that the world has been coming to a dismal end for some time now--and so forth--is objectively determinable; (and where that all crunches is anybody’s call--and belongs to their story, of which mine is also one).

So, if you accept the conditions on this warning label, I invite you to read.


Gérard Grisey:
les espaces acoustiques
CD 1: prologue - périodes - partiels
Gérard Caussé, viola / Ensemble Court-Circuit, Pierre-Andre Valade.
CD2: Modulations / Transitoires - Epilogue
Sylvain Cambreling, trombone; Frankfurter Museumsorchester
ACCORD 1 CD 465 386-2 (3 discs)

Tristan Murail:
gondwana pour orchestre (orchestre national de france, yves prin)
désintegrations pour bande magnétique et 17 instruments (ensemble de l'itinéraire, yves prin)
time and again pour orchestre (orchestre du beethovenhalle de bonn, karl-anton rickenbacker)

Surely it was bound to happen that the acoustic qualities of electroacoustic music would provoke imaginative responses in the instrumental domain--a pure experiment-alism in the Varèse sense, something rather imaginable in the precincts (France) of the IRCAM sensibility, but--in the détente from ultimate IRCAMian scientistic austerity encouraged in the postmodern sensibility (and in the space of the very idiosyncratic observational “science” practiced on the acoustics of natural sounds by Messiaen)--there emerges Gerard Grisey finding inspiration in the sonic qualities embedded in sound spectra. Is there something special in the French compositional ear in this direction, some detached acuity of perception of sound that hears into it to componentialize and then reconstruct it out of the supersensitized objectification of the “sound itself”? That is, Berlioz. The Requiem’s trombone-pedal overtone orchestrated into the high flute – like nothing I know anywhere in his German or French models (but of course someone will know!). Just the most one-dimensional case in Berlioz – there are many moments where other issues are foregrounded which have that clinical-acoustic revelational quality.

As a listener it isn’t the analytical accuracy of the science of Grisey’s sounds that interests me but the feel of getting a field of x-ray hearings into sound that becomes my experiential trip. Not chords, or the gestalt of chords, or the alchemical fusions of chords that enrapture classical music but journey into the interior of chords – or rather chords which experientialize into journeys into the interior of sounds. Grisey’s music composes an - the – his - experience not transcribes some analysis.

And – probably partly in consequence – the pieces are – miraculously – seriously, interestingly, significantly different from one another (“musically”, expressively, sonically).

Tristan Murail doesn’t get – or never tries for - the intensity that goes with Grisey’s integrity – impressionistic, theatrical, affects referential to familiar music postures (rhetoric) its bodylanguage penderecki/messiaen/modernmusicisch - ok, probably he just has a more mainstream ear and affective sensibility than Grisey’s.

György Kurtag:
Grabstein für Stephan (Jürgen Ruck, Guitar) / Stele (revised version)
Karlheinz Stockhausen:
Gruppen (Freidrich Goldman, Marcus Creed, co-conductors)
Berlin Philharmonic, Claudio Abbado
Deutsche Grammophon 447 761-2

I expect I’ll still be listening to György Kurtag’s music a long time after I’ve stopped listening to Karlheinz Stockhausen’s – this occasioned by rehearing the CD sandwiching the quite generically Stockhausenisch Gruppen between two Kurtag pieces, Grabstein für Stephan (guitar and orchestra) and Stele (orchestra). I keep hearing astonishing things (sounds, especially, and ensemble dramatizations) in both these Kurtag pieces with a nice breather of predictable familiar Stockhausenerei (the rhythm is almost always the homogeneous Modernski spasms, the timbres always the short sharp shock, the shrill shrieky shrek, totally listenable and ear-catching but not finding anything unique because seeming not to have anything unique in mind).

Grabstein: you never would have thought to put a guitar into this miasma of an orchestral sound – an auditory inferno with enough terror and pity for a thousand Euripideses. And a constantly on-the-edge-of-your-chair adventure in continuity. And expression you can believe in.

Stele: After the trademark polyphonies and harmonies of Gruppen (arbitrarily inserted on this CD between 2 Kurtag pieces) the wideopen first-off G octave (soon contaminated with an A-flat) that Stele does for you seems like nothing you’ve ever heard before – can’t be right, it’s a wideopen orchestral G octave, nicely (classically even) orchestrated – but it so rightly resets the psychic space that its ensuing sincerities and inventivenesses of stark and sober expressivities – ensue feeling like something important – not self-important (cf. KS) – is unrolling in your head. Time stretches and squeezes in multiple dimensions (like the rhythm of inner being), the beast-orchestra grumbles and writhes, straining to find its point of meaning somewhere, in peace or in turbulence, as they ensue...ensuing is what they, it, do, and you (me) with them, to the gravitationally immobile-verging stop place.

By the way - don’t get me wrong – Gruppen is really snazzy Stockhausen.

What would you think about a music which refuses to continue beyond what it perceives its natural dimensions to be? even where those are widely disparate, including, wildly tiny? At minimum, I think you’d notice it, as a salient – and previously uncontemplated – aesthetic dimension of a music’s being. (Mostly you don’t notice, or want to, the length of musics, and mostly do only when there’s some complaint involved).

Roy Harris:
Symphony No. 3
Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Neeme Järvi
CHANDOS CHAN 9474 (with Aaron Copland: Symphony No. 3)

Symphony No. 3
New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein
SONY SMK 60954 (with Randall Thompson: Symphony No. 2; David Diamond; Symphony No. 4)

Symphony No. 7
Philadelphia Orchestra, Eugene Ormandy
ALBANY Troy 256 (with Walter Piston: Symphony No. 4; William Schman: Symphony No. 6)

Quintet for Piano and Strings (1937)
Johanna Harris, piano

can a piece which doesn’t make sense not make sense differently in different performances? it seems too bad for the roy harris third symphony that we know sibelius’s second so well – so the uncloseted ripoffs of both surface licks and depth-of-continuity ideas are brutally exposed – not for their ripoffness, which we don’t really mind, rather are charmed by because we like the sibelius second symphony, but for their beyond-the-fringe klutziness – I thought of Milton, how he always cringed at the slightest hint of transitional ineptitude (he’s obviously more of a brahmsian than a wagnerian at heart no matter what the chromaticism); so poor harris, groping around to start with for something to take hold (it really stays vague and flabby for an amazingly long time), his sibelian longline fizzling dismally at every thrust for glory, without warning spinning a feathery muiltivocal intertwining ostinato (all of this going long – harris’s greatest virtue for me is his utter refusal to compromise on length (cf. A. Copland’s Piano Variations)) reaching no bitter end but just stopping for the big fugue tune – the hook of this piece for sure but we have no idea of what to do with it or where to have it go- it dashes itself stimulatingly against itself for as long as possible, not knowing how to get to the big final socko lick so that has to just start somewhere after b.f.t. has exhausted not itself probably but roy, at least, and me, for sure – and this most sibelius-secondian of flourishes ends it all not with a whimper to be sure.

I have a special soft spot for roy harris’s unpandering determination to follow every idea to the gates of hell if that’s where it leads no matter how long how far or how weird.[1] As I say it makes the powerhouse copland piano variations seem timid cautious and short-breathed – making sure not to tax your and my attention span overly. so realizing that I think the third is a dog is disappointing. At least, that’s Neeme Jarvi’s harris third. But that’s where the (admittedly sneery but imagine it’s actually sincere) question I started with becomes foregrounded as interesting, with Leonard Bernstein’s recording alternating with Jarvi’s on the CD player.

This time it’s the Drive to Nowhere – all fraught, quivering with dynamism thrusting through and through and through (thrust up, thrust down, thrust right, left – can’t find it yet?) landing hard on every gauzy bubble, no sibelian plod but an ever-incipient gathering about to be vibrant, about to seriously beat, yes, but not from where you’ve been (was there a where?) but are going fulltilt (all multislithery and polyharmonic) – in Big Fugue Tune (Hook!) – pounding not on itself now but on me – so I’m not the detached spectator of the fugal disaster but its victim but complicit in the sheer exhilaration of it, energy as pure as vacuity could make it (wideopen to the max) and the beat incipienting cumulatively (the unrelenting intensification curve relentliesly bended) almost to the mexican border, bang and twitter to the apotheotic congealing endwhack – congealing pure density around its very own fully earned absence of anywhere. And yet the blanks are there, have come to be there, to be yet filled in, opening vibrant to what might somewhere someway speak them, give them voice, there’s a them there, anew there, awaiting a reason and a there to be.

Luciano Berio:
Swingle Singers; Orchestre Nationale de France, Pierre Boulez
ERATO 4509-98496-2 (with works by Birtwhistle, Carter, Dufourt, Ferneyhough, Grisey, Kurtag, Schoenberg, Xenakis) (5 discs)

Luciano Berio’s scintillating theatricality overlays the inner middle-of-the-road-ness of a lot of his music (and I do mean Sinfonia). It doesn’t often seem to develop the sharpness that turns theatrical surface into dramatic substance. The extrusive avant-theatrical eruptions throughout Sinfonia intrude onto a nicely flowing specimen of between-the-wars modern music, which sort of defeats the avant-purpose because the timesense (via melodysense and harmony-sense as well as pattern-of-duration-sense) never breaks loose from the mainstream concert music groove (cf. Benjamin Britten, Leonard Bernstein, ...). Everything that’s spectacular about Sinfonia is local or, more pervasively, symbolic (you have to be able to be startled out of your mind that a composer of his avant-garde pedigree would play Mahler, etc. inside of his own piece – a piece of Tom Wolfe-ish journalism to notice more than expressive composition to hear). But – so the fuck what? I mean, if I just get over my bias for a more total music-experiential epiphany, it’s still scintillating (I like scintillating), entertainingly theatrical (I like entertaining), divertingly topical in its head-turning context-shifting get-this-guys quotation from the MSM repertoire (I can get into titillating too) – a lot to be funned by if you don’t get stuck on your demand for transcendence every time out (or get weird because of the press the piece gets everywhere else). Strange, though, what a stodgy pedant (transcendently skillful though) lives below the entrance to Berio’s creative cave.

(ps: Visage is fantastic, especially Cathy Berberian's screaming to make Diamanda Galas blush...)

Francis Poulenc:
Sonata in d minor for violin and piano
Christine Michaela Pryn, violin; Joachim Olsson, piano
CLASSICO CD (with works by Karol Szymanowski and Paul Hindemith)

Trio for piano, oboe, bassoon
Elegie for horn and piano
Sextet for piano, flute, oboe, clrinet, bassoon, piano
Southwest Chamber Music Society
CAMBRIA CD (with works by Serge Prokofiev)

To find out Francis Poulenc’s political views, you have to look elsewhere than to his music;
if you want to learn of Francis Poulenc’s psychological condition, you have to look elsewhere than to his music;
to make contact with Francis Poulenc’s deepest spiritual center, you have to look elsewhere than to his music;
these are just a few of the many virtues of his music.

Karol Szymanowski:
Symphony No. 3, Op. 27 / Symphony No. 4, Op. 60
Tadeusz Zmudzinski, piano; Polish State Philharmonic Orchestra (Katowice), Karol Stryja
MARCO POLO 8.223290

Symphony No. 2, Op. 19 / Symphony No. 4, Op. 60
Howard Shelley, piano; BBC Philharmonic, Vassily Sinalsky

Symphony No. 1 /Symphony No. 2
Polish State Philharmonic Orchestra (Katowice), Karol Stryja

Violin Concerto
Wanda Wilkomirska, violin; National Philharmonic Symphony Orchestr, Witold Rowicki
POLSKIE NAGRANIA CD (with violin concertos by Khatchaturian and Schostakovich) (2 discs)

Can a symphony for big orchestra be from the heart? Listening to Bruckner, I think yes. Listening to Mahler, I think no. Listening to Szymanowski, I think well, maybe, but what’s in that heart that’s trying to emanate from those emotionally charged surfaces? Because it isn’t the charge of the surface that reveals the contents of the expression; and yet it’s not an overbearing Mahlerian breastbeating mirrorstage obfuscation or a steamy subcutaneous Wagnerian manipulation, more like an earnest sruggle to be real within the confines of a highly conventionalized art-social medium.

Ferruccio Busoni:
Arlecchino / Turandot
National Opera of Lyon
Kent Nagano
VIRGIN CLASSICS CD 0 777 59313 2 7 (2 discs)

Doktor Faust
National Opera of Lyon
Kent Nagano
ERATO CD 3984-25501-2 (3 discs)

Busoni ⇒Mussorgsky – an unplanned listening sequence, starts something brewing about: expression - music expression - where it lives - within music not as outer-directed expressivity, of course, it goes straight to Haydn (: a sense of music substance as affect-an-sich – expression being just the sense that surface activity is the surface of substance within...) Busoni: we can observe the musical cogency and relevance and inventiveness of every moment but we’re on the outside observing something rather than being suffused by it as experience – Mussorgsky seems so much less adept, so much more crude and unmodulated, in all the arts of composition and musical articulation, but every moment speaks experientially – expressively – lodges internally as a holistic something living within, transmuted into experience as experience.

Elaine Barkin:
String Quartet (1969)
American Quartet
New World-CRI NWCRL 339 (with Martin Boykan: String Quartet)

Sonata Form it ain’t, this seething mass of edgy sensibility: (first movement) a first movement from yes a cauldron of composition, fracturing the very concept of continuity not in a Webern or post-Webern way because the signals are pointing backward to phrasing and gesture that are as direct as dance and song but diffracted and angularized and impetuously repositioned with a persistent impulse of intense energy intensely wanting to know what itself is to be but diverting at each moment of almost-sentience.

A second episode (epicide?) (second movement: Variations) superimposing its multiple contradictories, temporally adjacent antonyms becoming evermore starkly dialectical simultaneities, songs of ever-higher aspiration abrupted by jagged setpieces, renegade rowshards, mudvolcanic microruptions bopblopping, actually devolving itself into a final wideyed catwary equilibrium. And such an innocent little outmove to end, you’re not going to believe and aren’t supposed to.

Vincent Persichetti:
Night Dances
The Juilliard Orchestra, James DePriest
NEW WORLD CD 80396-2 (with works by Milton Babbitt and David Diamond)

There’s nothing wrong with Vincent Persichetti’s music; it’s just that there isn’t enough in it. Everything is fine, nice colors, nice energies, nice gestures, nice moves from here to there, lots of nice things for players to play: it’s all good. Period. You’d like these chords to mean something, you’d like those dynamic energies to come from somewhere inside, you’d like those tunes and swells to, well, express something – something other than characteristic expressivity. So listening, enjoying everything as it goes by, comes up empty in the afterspaces of all the neat strokes and sprightly licks. What would bring you back to listen again?

Robert Morris
"This Bubble of a Heart" (Gary Snyder)
Karen Clark, contralto; Galax Quartet
INNOVA CD 795 ("On Cold Mountain": Songs on Poems of Gary Snyder by Roy Wheldon, Fred Frith, Robert Morris, W. A. Mathieu)

I go into experiential overdrive listening to Bob's Gary Snyder song for its unflinching on-sleeve expressivity, for how it puts my working Bob-paradigms into baseline meltdown, coming on with molten four-voiced sirensinging string quartet sound, flowing on to amiably reinvent harmony, time, instrumental-vocal quality, ensemble texture, text utterance. In meaning and surface both. Poem-expression alchemizing into pitch-structured spectral magic, as rigorously formed as any Bobwork I know. Expression sweet and passionate without nostalgia, no retro-style exercises slyly loaded with kneejerk emo-response cues. Just Bob's own cutting-edge utterly post-postmodern language (free as a bird to do its own thing). And Karen's voice speaking, crooning, ululating, tracing always unecstatic expressive parabolas seamlessly, unstrained, innocent wholly of cheap theater. You don't mistake her voice for Gary Snyder's voice; but his voice is all there, unmistakably composed-in within and above Bob's, Karen's, and the Galaxes', reflected, reconceived, recontemplated, understood.

Thelonious Monk:
Thelonious Himself (April 1957)
Disc 4 of All Monk: The Riverside Albums
Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Gerry Mulligan, Coleman Hawkins, Johnny Griffin, Charles Rouse, Jarod Land, Thad Jones, Clark Terry, Joe Gordon, Oscar Pettiford, Art Taylor, Roy Haynes, Art Blakey, Kenny Clarke, Max Roach.
RIVERSIDE CD (16 discs)

Thelonious Monk's asymptotic quests for the DNA-center of every tune, its Beethovenian music-essence, evolves in realtime as though being inside the man's brainhands, being in inexorable progressivity an almost unbearably poignant experience of directed concentration, transcendent awareness, self-awareness, in radically exclusionary as-musical terms, as homed in on its core objective as the Leonore Overture No. 3 homes in on that F# as the defining essence of its G-G descending C major scale (and elsewhere). The signature sequence is 'I don't stand a ghost of a chance', boring ever more subatomically on what after a spell of this processing could be referred to only absurdly as its 'hook'. ('I should care' is so classic as to elude regrooving.) Amazing how the indelible after-imprint of Beethoven saturates everything that strives for 'serious' in our music-creative consciousness...

Lukas Foss:
Time Cycle (orchestral version) / Phorion / Song of Songs.
Adele Addision, Jennie Tourel. Columbia Symphony Orchestra, Leonard Bernstein.
SONY CD 64164

Echoi /The Fragments of Archilochos / Non-Improvisation.
Lukas Foss, piano/harpsichord; Jan Williams, percussion; Fouglas Davis, cello; Edgard Yolzinski, clarinet
EMF CD 005

A gratification of listening to Lukas's music - any of Lukas's music - is that you are never far from music wherever his music takes you music is behind the wall down the corner below the horizon across the universe under the eaves at the end of the tunnel at the tip of your ear you can taste it just yonder just beyond experience just rolls off your fingertips beams just over the moon is right beside you just barely untouching your semblable knows what you like likes you - maybe more - dances ingeniously just behind your ear that almost licks almost mahlers you out with brahms by gould smoothing ruffled lennys edges rounding igors corners not il miglior fabbro but the grooviest musicperfect pianoplayer you ever heard bach or four temperaments always the music a more than ample payback for the long indenture or safeconduct cover for the smiling inyourface pushoff fathermaster teachermaster symbolic hindemithicide pantomusikanting out to enact to exorcise to performatize to spielify all the crushing load of master-student composer-performer lennylukas previnlukas glennlukas igorlukas aaronlukas johncagelukas germanamericanlukas all the never biodegrading relationships by rigorously nonjazzing the rules but instead declassicizing them to escape at last but still there have to be rules even if like countercrafts of non not anti never anti composition the un not ever anti hindemithaaronreinervengerova not breaking not flouting but remaking always tethered to music always the careful chords the tasty lukaslicks the classic infallible dufallo clarinet riffs the dignified but decorously avantgarde delancey bass around the straightish bluecollar colf cello they groped their way away almost went for broke they were never far from music but ever further away along the rules they made as they went we were never in it together but close enough to relate.

Close to music, Lukas's music Performs, Stages, Enacts, Personifies, Affects. To do it right you get prepackaged bigstars: You get Jennie Tourel. You get Adele Addison. You get Lenny Bernstein. You get Andre Previn. You get the Improvisation Chamber Ensemble.And you stage them brillliantly, just so, just for them in particular; they will never have it better: Phorion: lenny down the chute as mad bachcrazed maniac(no place here for the self-congratulating hero-knight of the Shapero Symphony or the devouring ogre of Brahms by Gould). Time Cycle: Adele a jumping bean on a tightrope, a warbling acrobat bird, groovy earthmother. Song of Songs: Jennie as Daniel Deronda's Mirah, Malke the Wise, the exalted Bride of Judea. Echoi: Lukas & Co. in a fractal lukaslick tsunamifest. You compose avant-lenny; avant-jennie; avant-adele; avant-andre; avant-lukas. Invent scintillating, titillating, coruscating, startling, channeling the future, imaging the beyond, the easily familiar terra incognita we can all know, in a glossolalic newspeak that we all understand. Soundmusic monstrances richly repaying every moment of experience you lend to them; and it always sounds fantastic. Like nothing else floating through the modern musical world, like a wraith of future past, like a vision of things that were to come, but never did.

[1] cf. the astonishing early Quintet for piano and strings and--especially--the Seventh Symphony: it's all over the place, yes, but this time it's actually the same place it's all over: a single continuous line evolving lucidly through wildly inventively different places, exiting sublimely.

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