Saturday, November 03, 2018

Morton Feldman - For John Cage (all that dust)

Matthew Shlomowitz - Avant Muzak  (all that dust)

Séverine Ballon - Inconnaissance (all that dust)

all that dust is a new label, run by Newton Armstrong, Juliet Fraser and Mark Knoop, dedicated to contemporary music. Its initial run consists of the above-listed CDs plus two releases available as FLAC downloads: Milton Babbitt's 'Philomel' and Luigi Nono's 'La Fabbrica Illuminata'.

The Feldman is the only work I was previously familiar with, having heard the Ter Haar/Snijders version on hat ART and the Zukofsky/Schroeder recording on CP². Additionally, I've both heard the  Sabat/Clarke duo recording and seen them perform it live. Suffice it to say, it's a big favorite of mine. I haven't done any direct comparison--I don't know how one would begin to do that with a 75-minute piece like this, anyway--but my general impression is that this recoding fits in just fine, is as accomplished as any I've heard. Orazbayeva (violin)  and Knoop (piano) are considerate and sensitive, investing their playing with just the right tinge of (necessary, in my view) emotional content, beautifully evoking the plaintive, even melancholy aspect I get from late Feldman. There are moments, for example around the 43-minute mark, where they take things at a brisker clip than I think I recall from other performances but, surprisingly, given my general preference for languidness, I find this works perfectly with no sense of fussiness or forced propulsion. It's an excellent reading, a fine recording and highly recommended.

I'd never heard Matthew Shlomowitz' work before but I admit that the title, 'Avant Muzak' put me off a bit. It sounded like the kind approach popular in NYC in the 80s, a certain snarkiness that seemed cool for a while but, in retrospect, is somewhat embarrassing. The three pieces, each with four or five parts, are performed by the Norwegian ensemble, asamisimasa (Ellen Ugelvik, keyboard; Kristine Tjøgersen, clarinet; Tanja Orning, cello; Håkon Stene, percussion; Anders Førisdal, guitar), who did fine work on Lawrence Crane's 'Sound of Horse' (Hubro, 2016). The first track, 'International Transport Chimes Reggae' is something of a mash-up of the two referenced sources, with additional Japanese recorded text, accompanied by a whimsical clarinet/guitar-led theme, with the kind of quirkiness one might have heard from Fred Frith circa 1985; ok, but slight. 'Jazz in the Park' intersperses found dialog with a nightclub-jazzy slow crawl. Here, as elsewhere, there's a sense of some kind of synthetic envelope around the sound, nods to the drum machine, sampler-obsessed music of 30-35 years ago, as well as an uncomfortable evocation of Scott Johnson; perhaps its time has come around again, but this listener isn't quite ready for the reappearance of those stiff rhythms and globular tones. There's often some nice intricacy in the writing, as in 'Muzak in the Shopping Mall', here summoning the spirit of Daniel Lentz, but--do we care? On it goes, almost always leading your hapless reviewer to recall other music--Fenn O'Berg's reworking of movie themes, Zorn circa 'The Big Gundown', etc. Well handled, yes; sonically colorful, very much so. But it feels empty. Shlomowitz' intentionality is clear enough, I just don't find it a very worthwhile target. 

'Inconnaissance' presents eight solo cello works by Séverine Ballon. They range from around six to twelve minutes and seem to straddle composition and improvisation. To these ears, it sounds like a general idea was in place for each, within which Ballon freely elaborates, though I could be wrong. In any event, the results are striking, evincing a deep concern with dark, bowed textures, rich overtones and layer upon layer of grain. Ballon demonstrates harshness, an extremely strong and riveting attack and a balanced, complex sense of form, allowing herself ventures both into frenzied storms and soft, if agitated, pools of quiet. Pulse is often implied, on rare occasions overtly stated, generally, as in 'cloches fendues 2', well mixed with interests in pitch and scales. 'Tunnel' contains fantastic, sandy growls, moans rising from beneath, slowly swirling into the depths; very impressive. Each piece has its own character, each maintains interest (at the very least) throughout, each explores the cello in a serious and fascinating manner. What more could you want?

I admit to not being the biggest fan of Milton Babbitt, but label co-owner Juliet Fraser does a very fine job with his 'Philomel' (1964) for voice and tape, her soprano liquid and bright, trickling in very lively fashion through the delicate web of iridescent, burbling electronics which also includes vocal permutations. I have no real point of comparison, but I can only imagine that Fraser's reading more than holds its own with others. Luigi Nono's 'La Fabbrica Illuminata' was written in the same year as the Babbitt and is also for voice and tape, but that's where the similarity ends. The voice (here, Loré Lixenberg) wafts in and out of a bleak, warlike series of sounds, harsh and grating--winds howling through bombed-out cities, angry mobs, downed wires sizzling. She appears, is subsumed by the tumult, resurfaces minutes later, worse for wear but persevering. Gripping, harrowing, stirringly performed, a fine piece.

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