Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Herbert Henck - John Cage's "Sonatas and Interludes"

A piano prepared for the Sonatas and Interludes (Wikipedia)

John Cage (1912 - 1992), though regarded by many academics as the most important American composer of the 20th century, has still not earned much widespread acceptance or even recognition from general audiences. Performances of his music are infrequent, and not from a lack of able and willing performers; regrettably, many casual listeners find his compositions musically senseless and absent of emotion. Steve Reich addresses this in an essay on John Cage (see Reich's Writings on Music), and suggests that his Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano are among the few likely candidates for Cage pieces which could achieve lasting popularity.

This author agrees with Reich for the simple reason that the Sonatas and Interludes are catchy, a claim which no doubt will sound strange to anyone whose exposure to John Cage is limited to 4'33". The set, written prior to Cage's fascination with chance in composition, consists of 16 sonatas in binary form, interspersed with four more freely composed interludes. Many of these pieces borrow compositional techniques from various non-Western cultures; that combined with Cage's complicated scheme of rhythmic proportions, and the expanded timbrel palette of the prepared piano, leads to a rather idiosyncratic overall character. Ultimately though, these pieces have a distinctly charming and playful quality to them - there are melodies and rhythmic gestures throughout that have the capacity to get stuck in the listener's head, and this is rare for John Cage.

This ECM recording is one of many available, indicating that the Sonatas and Interludes have indeed already secured some amount of popular appeal. Herbert Henck has enormous technical faculties, and the typically transparent ECM recording quality is at hand, allowing these pieces to come fully to life. So have a listen and proudly reply "John Cage!" next time you're asked what you're whistling.


Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Steve Roach - Landmass

Steve Roach has been producing deeply inspired and masterfully crafted ambient music for the last 30 years, at a pace only his most dedicated fans can keep up with. The twentieth release in Roach's Timeroom Editions series, 2008's Landmass
"is a surreal shape shifting grand adventure in sound, morphing through a constantly altering perspective giving witness to the creation of iconic landscape formations, stone monuments and massive alluvial desert plains, and the occasional pyroclastic flow."*
Although the music on Landmass constitutes a single seamless journey, it is broken up into six tracks which make the structure of the journey clearer. "Transmigration" opens the album with echoing shimmers steeped in a soft drone, soon joined by light percussive taps and bass thumps. Within a few minutes, steadily measured bass strumming joins this beautiful texture to create a strong feeling of movement, as the title suggests. And after fifteen captivating minutes, the beat dissolves and we arrive at "Cerulean Sky Over A Seared Desert Wasteland". It will be difficult for me to resist using superlatives in describing this one. Rapid, knotted keyboard melodies dance over a thick low drone, like flashes of light in a fog. A strong tribal rhythm comes to the foreground, grounding us, and we coast for several minutes; but periodically and unpredictably, enormous shining swathes of strange harmonies interrupt the rhythm, and the effect is like being launched into the clouds by a great gust of wind. As the piece begins to wind down, we hear the raspy cries of what might be a turkey vulture, and it is clear Steve Roach means it when he says he has been influenced by "regular soul-searching trips to the Southern California deserts and mountains".

The next two movements, "Monuments of Memory" and "Alluvial Plain", are beatless, and fine examples of Steve Roach's quieter side, providing us some time for rest after the longer and more kinetic opening tracks. Despite the overall relaxing qualities of this music, it is not "easy listening" in the pejorative sense, and the album takes on a somewhat darker shade at this point. Murky mists of sound surround us, and a sense of timelessness hangs over everything. One feels we could be lost in this realm forever.

But finally, we take up the journey once more with "Trancemigration", a tight groove constructed from punctuated keyboard and bass notes. The emphasis on discrete scatterings of notes rather than a droning continuum makes this track a standout in terms of energy and velocity. In the last third of the piece, though, the groove begins to relent and change shape, and we transition smoothly into "Stars Begin" - a ghostly conclusion with the barest overall texture present on the album.

Although Roach has released more than 50 albums and honed an unmistakable "sound", he rarely repeats himself, and Landmass testifies that he remains a major boundary-pusher in the world of meditative ambient music.

* Order from Steve Roach's website

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Christopher Willits - Surf Boundaries

Like his contemporaries Christian Fennesz and Tim Hecker, San Francisco based Christopher Willits digitally processes his live guitar improvisations to create compelling electronic music. In contrast to the former artists, however, on Surf Boundaries Willits combines his abstract digital textures, unsteady glitch rhythms, and alien noises with a huge pop component - live drumming, gorgeous dreamy singing, short songs with verse/chorus structures, and a general sense of boundless joy and energy. It would be an understatement to say many influences went into the making of this album, and it is truly staggering how well they all came together to form something so coherent, unique and accessible.

Visit Christopher Willits' website

Monday, January 5, 2009

Metro Area - Metro Area

On the heels of the recent Kelley Polar post, here is the full length debut of Brooklyn based Metro Area, for which Polar lent his viola talents. Morgan Geist, DJ and half of Metro Area with Darshan Jesrani, met Kelley Polar in 1998; their collaborations led to the singles "Dance Reaction", "Miura", and "Caught Up", all of which appear on the 2002 full length. But this is not a Kelley Polar album, and its sound is immediately recognizable as closer to the New York house scene than outer space. The songs are mainly instrumental, and despite some very slick production and elaborate arrangements they maintain a raw, stripped down funk feel. In other words, the album successfully revels in the old school and points toward the future. What better time than the new year for us all to do the same?