Photo-Op. – sound recording reviews

D. Cleckler

CRI has recently unveiled a set of new compact discs under the banner “Emergency Music Series.” Focusing on the growing “new music” market, executive producer Joseph R. Dalton attempts to combat CRI’s reputation as a label interested entirely in American academic music with slick graphics, post-modern artwork, hip liner notes, and a slew of “downtown” New York composers. Clearly inspired by the commercial success of the Kronos Quartet, John Zorn, and other rising Elektra/Nonesuch powerhouses, these CRI discs have a new look and sound that reflect the record industry’s consistent glamorization of evolving musical trends. For the first time in a history of nearly forty years, CRI has added demographics and promotion to their approach to selling music. Openly competing with the smaller, but highly successful new music labels (including Knitting Factory Works, New Albion, and even a nineties-looking New World Records), CRI’s departure may help it recapture the unpredictable spirit of new music.

New music outside academic circles has long existed, but not until the early 1980s did it appear to have much commercial appeal. Although musical “outsiders” like LaMonte Young, the Fluxus group, Harry Partch, John Cage, and Henry Cowell never attained widespread academic or public acceptance in their own time, they paved the way for more commercially successful composers like Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, and Steve Reich. University composers seldom have a mass following; they do, however, manage to earn respectable livings while furthering their musical output and careers (no small thanks to CRI). On the other hand, “outsiders” are rarely given the pleasure of making a living from their music, and many subsequently go unnoticed or unheard for years. Perhaps the Emergency Music Series takes on its meaning in light of these facts: can CRI provide an outlet for the unheard composers of this generation?

With the boundaries of new music touching everything from new age to rock and roll, free jazz to electronic, improvised to strictly notated, new definitions emerge every five or six years in order to condense complex and subtle style changes into unifying, catchphrase categories. “Post-minimalism” is the operative word for Emergency Music – but listen to the music, and you’ll realize that this term is just as vague as the name of any other genre or “movement” defined over the last fifty years.

Bang on a Can, Live, vol. 1, the most satisfying disc of the four considered here, is a compilation of works by a variety of musicians and composers from the United States and Canada, each defining his or her own brand of post-minimalism. This recording, named after the pioneering new music festival in New York, combines selected live performances recorded between 1987 and 1991. The pieces are as varied as the seven featured composers, but all carry obvious influences of downtown Manhattan musical styles. The bassist and new music virtuoso Robert Black opens the disc with an excellent recording of Tom Johnson’s infamous “Failing: A Very Difficult Piece for String Bass.” Johnson was an influential Village Voice music critic of the seventies, but many do not realize that he is a composer as well. Conceptually challenging and always philosophical (and quite often humorous!), “Failing” is an excellent representation of both Johnson’s music and the philosophy of Bang on a Can. The performer is required to speak from the score while playing, describing the increasing difficulty of the piece to the audience. Black eloquently holds his own with the mounting rigor, only to keep reassuring the audience that he will make a mistake and fail to play the music perfectly. The triumph is in his failure, as only a failed performance can succeed. This single recording alone makes the disc worth owning.

Another standout is Evan Ziporyn’s composition “LUV Time” for bass clarinet, baritone sax, trombone piano, and kempli. The piece is divided into three sections: “Between the Jaws,” “Ramrods (for Steve Lacy),” and “Instep.” As one would expect from a jazz clarinetist, Ziporyn’s music has strong improvisational qualities. Working similarly to the simple melodic and scalar motives of the jazz legend Steve Lacy’s improvisational generating structures, “LUV Times”‘s basic five-note scale (with variations) and prominent steady pulse provide the perfect foundation for Ziporyn’s repetitive but openly flexible, refreshing music.

Two of Bang on a Can’s cofounders, Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe, are featured in this collection, each taking a stab at post-minimalism. Gordon’s piece, “Strange Quiet,” is an exercise in repetition in which odd-metered ostinatos help articulate fairly simple pitch structures. It is played by the Michael Gordon Philharmonic (violin, viola, bass clarinet [Ziporyn again], electric guitar, keyboard [Gordon] and percussion). The music, which focuses on rhythmic development, bears a strong resemblance to the British composer Michael Nyman’s scores for early Peter Greenaway films. Fans of experimental and progressive rock will find the piece – dissonant and driving – quite satisfying. “Strange Quiet,” however, is more than thirteen minutes long, and before it has ended these same qualities will provoke the annoyance of the average CRI listener.

Wolfe’s music is not so much repetitious as static and slow in its evolution. Played convincingly by Le Nouvel Ensemble Moderne, “The Vermeer Room” is quite impressionistic and rich in its sonority despite its intentionally limited range and repertoire of pitches. The music tends to ebb and flow, constantly revealing a new view of an old sound, not unlike some of Morton Feldman’s larger and later works. Unfortunately, even with the push toward a chaotic climax and slow recovery at the end, “The Vermeer Room” strays from a cohesive path, and results in a less than satisfactory listening experience.

Bang on a Can rounds itself out with works from William Doerrfeld, Scott Lindroth, and Allison Cameron. Doerrfeld’s performance of “Evening Chant” for live sampler is rhythmically interesting but sonically silly in the long run. It does, however, serve this compilation well as it breaks up the larger, more traditionally-rooted pieces. “Relations to Rigor” by Scott Lindroth is one of the works requiring the juxtaposition of Doerrfeld’s sampler. The title spells out the intention of the work, as both rhythm and pitch are regulated to very minimal and uninteresting treatment via motivic and registral limitations. The last composition on the disc is Cameron’s study in timbre, “Two Bits,” for four percussionists and string quintet. The music is primarily built around varied percussive effects and attacks, compelled consistently and quietly forward by a background of string glissandi. Iannis Xenakis once said that his music has only two dynamic levels: very loud or very soft. “Two Bits” is like a Xenakis quiet section, abstracted and turned into a thirteen-and-a-half minute experiment. It works surprisingly well for the loyal listener.

For the most part, CRI issues recordings of one to three composers per disc, rarely branching out to the compilation or sampler. The CRI Emergency Music Series is again an exception, including so far not one but two sampler discs. In contrast to Bang on a Can’s festival and composer sampling the accordionist Guy Klucevcek’s Manhattan Cascade is a showcase of his highly regarded and well-known playing ability. With this recording, Klucevcek presents ten fairly recent works (1986-90) – including two of his own compositions – by some of New York’s finest downtown composers. Despite the restrictive format – seventy-one minutes of grueling solo accordion music is a true challenge for any listener – the disc survives as a delightful combination of personal style and virtuosity.

Lois V. Vierk’s towering twenty-minute “Manhattan Cascade” for four accordions (all overdubbed by Klucevcek) is the standout for both composer and performer. One in a series of works for multiples of the same instrument, “Cascade” takes the listener down a slow running current of tremoloed dissonance that eventually transforms into a gigantic waterfall of clustered chromaticism. At times sounding everything – and nothing – like a cross between Pauline Oliveros’s solo accordion work and Steve Reich’s phase studies of the late sixties, brought to life through the slow stasis of a Glen Branca symphony, this piece ultimately transcends any true classification: it is the work of an American original. Vierk’s more recent works for multiples of the same instrument are available as “Simoom” (on the minimalist Phil Niblock’s new label, X1 Disc). One hopes that CRI listeners will be hearing more from her soon.

Balancing the weight of Vierk’s opus, Klucevcek offers a batch of polkas specially commissioned for his 1987-88 project, Polkas From the Fringe. Most of the works rarely approach any sort of traditional polka, but they do provide some offbeat entertainment. Standouts include the turntable wizard and collaborator, Christian Marclay’s “Ping Pong Polka,” and Mary Ellen Childs’s spacious and bouncing “Oa Poa Polka.” Klucevcek’s own well-crafted, mid-length pieces contribute to the variety; “Samba D’Hiccup” echoes the beautiful, but sad Brazilian “forro” style, while “An Air of Gathering Pipers” pays homage to the bagpipe of the British Isles. Improvisation plays an important role in the life of the downtown musician Anthony Coleman, as well as in the music of the composer John King. Their respective pieces take Klucevcek through a series of ideas, references, and quotes, providing the listener with ample opportunity to enjoy the abilities of this master musician.

Finally, the Carl Stalling/Luciano Berio-influenced “Road Runner” uses John Zorn’s now trademark technique of jump-cutting by splicing highly disjunct and unassociated musical ideas with dense clusters and extended approaches to the accordion (tapping, knocking, etc.). Taking particular pride in his cartoon-inspired music, Zorn bombards the listener with a colorful display of images, not unlike the visual density of many contemporary pop videos and the crash-and-burn violence of Chuck Jones shorts. Zorn’s pieces are rarely performed live because of the complexity of transitions and the speed with which they occur; Klucevcek’s excellent realization is a combination of human virtuosity and studio manipulation. Since Zorn professes that his music is meant to annoy, whether or not it succeeds in challenging the listener, “Road Runner” is perhaps a kinder introduction than, say, his band Naked City to his highly successful brand of noise. Those familiar with this alto saxophonist’s popularity and commercial appeal, however, may see the inclusion of Zorn’s music on a CRI recording as some sort of blasphemy. It is, very clearly, a step in a new direction.

The two other discs released under the label “Emergency Music,” David Lang’s collection Are You Experienced? and Conrad Cummings’s Photo-Op, are excellent discs in the CRI tradition, but seem to me to be less concerned with challenging unexplored territory than Manhattan Cascade and Bang on a Can, Live. Therefore I have concentrated in this review on the Klucesvek and Bang on a Can recordings. Lang and Cummings are well-represented by their respective recordings: well-performed, with ample recording, performer, and composer information provided with each disc. Each disc is a good cross-section of its composer’s recent output.

Whether or not the series succeeds depends ultimately upon record sales, but one thing is certain: CRI’s break from the once innovative, now redundantly stiff and conventional (cerebrally mainstream?) set of university composers promises a brighter future for the more experimental, exploratory, and avant garde musicians of our time. Even with the jumbled mix of hits and misses the series offers, the change is an important milestone in CRI’s representation of American music. Let’s hope for a better representation of women and ethnically-diverse composers in future issues of this series, as white males still seem the favorites within the walls of CRI. For this listener, Emergency Music ranks with great CRI releases of the past (Henry Cowell, Ruth Crawford-Seeger, Morton Feldman, Allan Bryant, Henry Brant, and of course, Harry Partch) as towering peaks above a hazy valley of the average.

COPYRIGHT 1993 University of Illinois Press

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group