Category: Classical Pimping

Noises off

I will forever resent the management office of my apartment complex for rerouting the main vent of my central air-condition system to my bedroom.

All of my music listening and review writing happens in my bedroom, and the white noise of the a/c — especially during summer — interferes with my listening.

And for Kronos Quartet’s Mugam Sayagi: Music of Franghiz Ali-Zadeh, the problem is compounded.

The dynamic range of this album is wide, and when Ali-Zadeh marks a soft tempo marking, it’s usually ppppppp — maybe I’m exaggerating, but suffice to say, it’s so soft, it hugs the noise floor of the recording itself.

I tried listening to this album in my office with headphones on and the volume turned up, but it wasn’t enough to drown out neighboring cubes.

It’s either a sad commentary on how much noise pollution exists in the world, or a terrible indication of the quality of this recording. In reality, it’s probably both.

And it’s a shame.

The pieces on Mugam Sayagi deserve as few distractions as possible. Ali-Zadeh first worked with the Kronos Quartet in 1993, when the quartet commissioned the title track of this album. Kronos recorded the piece for its 1994 album, Night Prayers.

Mugam Sayagi, the piece, is a thrilling work, full of longing, passion and intensity. Even without the theatrics Kronos adds in live performance — the full ensemble doesn’t play together on stage till half way through the piece — Mugam Sayagi never fails to impress.

This new recording, however, does — it lacks the same fire as the earlier version.

The remaining pieces on the album unfold more organically and don’t have the same kind of rhythmic drive as the denser parts of Mugam Sayagi.

Oasis calls to mind other pieces in Kronos’ reperoire, namely Tan Dun’s Ghost Opera and George Crumb’s Black Angels. Unlike those pieces, Ali-Zadeh uses the sound of dripping water and voices as flourishes, not as foreground.

The two-movement Apsheron Quintet for piano and string quartet features the composer herself on piano. Ali-Zadeh creates some nice percussive effects by striking wires on the piano sound board directly, emulating the instruments of her native home Azerbaijan.

Music for Piano achieves a similar effect when Ali-Zadeh prepares the piano by putting a necklace in the middle range of the sound board. When she runs through that portion of that piano with the sustain pedal down, it creates a haunting buzz.

But for all of Ali-Zadeh’s skill, it’s the recording itself that interferes with her pieces. Her music demands attention, but only the meticulous design of a concert hall can provide that environment.

As of this writing, the temperatures around my home are in the triple-digits, and I’m not that keen on shutting off the a/c to hear this album properly. But would have it killed producer Judith Sherman and first violinist David Harrington to master this disc with a bit more amplitude?

Here come the warm jets

Wayne Horvitz has a lot of recordings under his belt — as band leader, as band member, as producer, as solo artist.

And while “composer” is another title on which he can lay claim, only one recording documents that aspect of his ouevre.

But if Otis Spann and Other Compositions is any indication, there really ought to be more. (I always wondered what “Yuba City”, his commission for Kronos Quartet which he recorded with the President, sounds like.)

Horvitz is something of a technological artist — he can elicit strange timbres from synthesizers but still manage to infuse humanity into them.

So it’s little surprise that when real people playing non-electronic instruments tackle his music, it’s even more striking.

The five-movement title piece possesses Horvitz’s signature melodic and harmonic sense, but aspects of his electronic work that seemed mechanical reveal themselves to be deliberate and effective in an acoustic setting.

Horvitz is fond of drones, and in the final measures of “Coda”, a violin plays a vibrato-less high note. It’s nearly imperceptable, but it’s presence is forceful.

The insistent pulse of “9/8” demonstrates Horvitz’s economy with material. In an electronic setting, such repetition would come across as mechanical, but here, it’s slightly closer to minimalism.

And it’s easy to imagine “Love, Love, Love” tricked out with Tucker Martine’s percussive samples in an imaginary 4+1 Ensemble arrangement.

To fill out the rest of the disc, Horvitz composed additional pieces for the Seattle Chamber Players.

“After a Time” and “Ann Arbor, 1971” pit acoustic instruments against Horvitz’s ethereal programming, but the pieces without electronics — “Fanfare” and “Thursday, At Dusk, In Spokane, Washington” — stand out more.

“Thursday, At Dusk” is introspective and beautifully performed by clarinetist Laura Deluca and Horvitz on the piano. “Fanfare”, a solo piece for cello, gets an expressive reading by David Sabee.

But Horvitz can’t leave his electronics alone, so each of these additional pieces are accompanied by remixes. “Remix” is an understatement — in the case of “Fanfare” and “After a Time”, they’re almost entirely different pieces.

Still, hearing Horvitz’s compositional sense in a setting devoid of electronics casts a different light on his studio work. He may be a great improviser able to make random events sound like fate, but there’s an inherent attention to detail that expresses itself in very warm, affecting music.

Where every verse is filled with sorrow

When a recording of Gregorian chant by the Benedectine Monks of Santo Domingo went multi-platinum in the early ’90s, nobody could figure out what spurred the public to buy the disc in droves.

Press pundits wanted to pin the success of the monks on some sort of spirituality resurgence, although others mumbled something or other about the influence of Michael Cretu, who mixed Gregorian chant with hip-hop beats on his first album as Enigma.

It was the second most interesting classical music story of that era.

Although not given as much scrutiny, a Nonesuch recording of Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3 managed to peak at no. 6 on the UK charts in 1993.

Not only was it a classical recording — with no overtures for crossover gimmickry — it was a recording of a modern work. That’s like seeing the Sun City Girls lodged on the Hot 100 Singles Chart alongside Britney Spears.

But Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3 doesn’t sound like (what’s often perceived as) a 20th Century classical work. It’s tonal, not at all thorny and inscrutible like, say, Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire.

In fact, the framing canons which makes up most of the symphony’s 26-minute first movement is reminiscent of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, a piece made famous in the film Platoon.

Then there’s soprano Dawn Upshaw, a singer whose strong, clear voice elevates just about everything it tackles. On this work, Upshaw’s performance telegraphs the work’s subtitle — “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs”.

The thick texture of the symphony, with its slow, pulsing rhythm, feels timeless. There’s a tonal root to the work but also a sense of dischord, as if Gorecki has reached into the distant past while keeping firmly planted in the present. Much like Arvo Part.

Scored only for strings, prepared piano and voice, Gorecki’s third symphony uses a minimal amount of material, but it’s not a minimalist work. Economic, yes, but minimalistic, no.

It’s that economy which gives the work such directness. Non-classical listeners would find the symphony easy to digest, but it’s by no means simplistic.

Gorecki has moved on stylistically since composing his third symphony in 1976. His more recent works incorporate more Polish folk references, juxtaposed with far more thornier textures.

But it’s this recording that put Gorecki, a late-comer to the field of composition, on the map, and it’s a work that deserves the success it earned.

Alien lanes

I’m not sure what spurred me to seek out Krzysztof Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima one night during a shift at the record store where I work.

The only recording I owned of the piece was on a set of cassette tapes that accompanied one of my college textbooks, and they were long since lost. But I’ve always liked Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, and for some reason, I had a jones to listen to it.

It’s an incredible work, if only for the simple fact that it transforms 52 stringed instruments to sound completely alien.

At first, Penderecki was about to title the piece 8’57”, in the same manner as John Cage’s 4’33”. But the emotional content of the work was too apparent to relegate to a series of digits, as the composer explained.

Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima employs a compositional technique called “sonorism”, where the timbre of an instrument determines the course of a work before all else.

With Threnody, Penderecki makes the string musicians play on parts of the instrument to create percussive effects, in essence turning the string orchestra into a percussion ensemble.

He also employs a mix of techniques to give the piece a sense of randomness without losing an overall sense of direction. There’s even an intricate canon midway through that feels a lot more orderly than it sounds.

It’s a thrilling piece, chaotic but structured, grotesque but beautiful.

The only recording of the Threnody available in the store that night was on a Naxos disc titled Orchestral Works, Vol. 1.

Penderecki’s Symphony No. 3, the opening work on the album, finds the composer embracing more traditional influences, although eschewing any post-Romantic leanings.

Emotionally charged, the Symphony No. 3 manages to retain the brash qualities of the Threnody with a more mature perspective on harmony and structure. It’s a more palettable style, but it’s not as stimulating as the sonorist works.

Orchestra Works, Vol. 1 is rounded out by Flourescences for orchestra and De natura sonoris II, pieces which find Penderecki expanding the sonic capabilities of the orchestra.

Flourescences for orchestra shows an obvious nod to Edgar Varese in its incorporation of a warning siren as an instrument. The clacking of a typewriter provides a percussive break at one point.

But the real centerpiece of the disc is the Threnody, a high-minded piece that turns out to pack an emotion punch. Strings have never sounded like that before.

Jacked up

I could start off with all the reasons I’ve come to prefer George Szell’s recordings of Ludwig Van Beethoven’s symphonies, but I’ll give the real reason instead.

They were cheap.

Back in my music student days, building a classical music library was essential, but it was an expensive endeavor on a student income.

Sony Classical, in an attempt to play on the same field as budget label Naxos, priced each disc in the Szell cycle of Beethoven symphonies for $7.99. I wasn’t picky enough to choose between an $8 Szell recording and, say, a $16 Leonard Bernstein recording.

At one point in my life, I actually owned two copies of Beethoven’s Fifth — the other with Lorin Maazel conducting the New York Philharmonic. I sold it when I needed some on-hand cash and stuck with Szell.

From most accounts, Szell was a bastard. He rode the Cleveland Orchestra hard, and if memories of my high school band teacher are any point of reference, that kind of dictatorial approach unites an ensemble to spite its leader.

What results is perhaps some of the most jacked up readings of Beethoven around.

The Fifth Symphony — with the four most recognizable notes in classical music (and perhaps the only four notes most people will have heard in their lifetime) — takes on a manic energy under the baton of Szell.

He and the Cleveland Orchestra pretty much barrel through that first movement with the urgency of people all ready to get into each other’s shit.

However much the first movement of the Fifth Symphony has seeped into the cultural subconscious, it’s the other three movements that are dear to me. (Maybe it’s because those first four notes are so instantly recognizable.)

Beethoven, breaking free of Franz Josef Haydn’s influence, opts for theme and variation instead of sonata or rondo form in the second movement. And the segue between the last two movements? Any number of superlatives can be substituted here.

But the way Beethoven returns to that rhythmic motif — short-short-short-long — in all the movements of the Fifth is what sells me on the piece. The first movement doesn’t exist in a vacuum — it provides material threading all 30 minutes of the work.

Sony Classical, of course, doesn’t let a buyer off so easily. Each of Beethoven’s “popular” symphonies — nos. 3, 5, 6, 7 — are paired with a work of less critical esteem.

On this recording, the Fifth is paired with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2, a work still beholden to the influence of Haydn. Back when I was a student, I was thankful for this approach — I managed to get a complete cycle of Beethoven for a cheap price, and I can’t play favorites with any one disc.

I’d recommend getting Szell’s complete cycle, but if you have to start anywhere, start with the work that’s perhaps the most ubiquitous.


Make no mistake — Audra McDonald has one of those sweet, theatrical voices that doesn’t wear on repeated listens.

In fact, her voice is divine. Clear, strong, practically flawless. It’s the voice of a professional.

Which is why it doesn’t quite work for Happy Songs, a collection of Depression-era music by the likes of Duke Ellington, Harold Arlen, Irving Berlin and Richard Rodgers.

McDonald is a veteran stage performer with a few Tony Awards under her belt, which means she’s had some training. (Some place called Julliard, wherever that is.)

On her previous solo album, How Glory Goes, McDonald sang individual songs from musicals without sacrificing their dramatic contexts. You didn’t need to know the whole story to get it, and she made sure you got it.

Somehow, that dramatic sensibility doesn’t translate on Happy Songs.

It’s not that she delivers a bad performance — quite frankly, it’s difficult to imagine she could. It’s not that she interprets these songs insensitively. She sings the hell out of them.

No — these songs need swing.

And swing isn’t something a classical training encourages.

It’s apparent right from the first track, “Ain’t It the Truth”. The song calls for a voice as rough as the muted trumpet blaring in the introduction, but McDonald just doesn’t have that kind of gravel.

“Beat My Dog” finds McDonald close to the kind of grit the album needs, but for the most part, the album is mismatch of message and messenger.

The lustre of McDonald’s voice, unfortunately, is not enough to bridge this disparity. In other words, her training got in the way of her interpretation.

Still, McDonald could sing a phone book and blah to the blah to the blah …

Even if Happy Songs doesn’t quite suite her, it’s still a setting nice enough for her to try.

For beautiful human life

Of the three singles Kronos Quartet released to commemorate its 30th anniversary, Peteris Vasks’ String Quartet No. 4 offers little in terms of any compositional challenges and is admittedly derivative.

It’s also the most beautiful.

Vasks’ String Quartet No. 4 represents one of three kinds of works the Kronos performs — commissioned pieces. (The other two are repetoire pieces, such as Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite, and pieces in other idioms, as with Harry Partch’s U.S. Highball).

Vasks says the quartet embodies his personal struggle to find hope in a world teetering on the edge of extinction. He namedrops Dmitri Shostakovich when describing the piece’s “Tocatta” movements (the second and fourth).

It’s more than just a passing resemblance — the “Tocatta” movements sound like drafts of Shostakovich’s second movement in the Quartet for Strings No. 8.

Is that a bad thing? In this case, no.

Vasks’ Quartet No. 4 has been described as “elegiac”. That’s modern classical doublespeak for saying it has melody and tonality, two ideas that are still somewhat anathema to Western art music of the last century.

But for a listening public conditioned to think of modern classical music in terms of movie soundtracks, Vasks’ Quartet No. 4 is an accessible work.

If it bears resemblance to Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 8 or Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings — see “Chorale”, the third movement — so be it. Of course, both Shostakovich and Barber have been recorded previously by Kronos.

Vasks achieves what he sets out to do in this work. The strife and hope he struggles to balance get equal airtime. The “Tocatta” movements are downright fiery, the “Elegy” and “Meditation” introspective.

Kronos brings out every ounce of emotion inherent in the work, delivering a magnetic and charged performance. In this recording, the ensemble gets to the core of what marks its reputation.

Regardless of its collaborations with world-class singers, international performers or multimedia pioneers, Kronos is simply a string quartet.

And any new work that reminds listeners of this fact is welcome any day.

Lost in translation

To commemorate its 30th anniversary, Kronos Quartet released three “singles” to represent the kinds of works the ensemble champions.

Kronos’ singles feature half-hour length works which the quartet says deserve to be heard on their own. Historically, they have been the weakest recordings in the group’s discography.

U.S. Highball by Harry Partch falls in a category of idiomatic works translated to the string quartet format — a category which includes, for instance, Colon Nancarrow’s pieces for player piano and Television’s “Marquee Moon”.

Partch’s works, however, present some staggering cross-platform challenges. Not only did Partch devise a microtonal pitch system — that is, a scale containing far, far more than 12 pitches between an octave — he built his own instruments to play it.

How successful would arranging a proprietary system of performance be to an open, standard format? For this review, it’s impossible to tell. In other words, I’ve never listened to the original piece.

And that’s not surprising.

Although a contemporary of Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein, Partch is no less influencial but only to a few. As the liner notes states, Partch’s subject matter for U.S. Highball, subtitled “A Musical Account of Slim’s Transcontinental Hobo Trip”, is underground compared to the populism of Copland’s Appalchain Spring or Bernstein’s On the Town.

While Partch was an innovator where forging his own pitch system is concerned, the legacy for perpetuating such an achievement has been less successful. It’s tough to play a custom-made instrument when there’s little documentation to explain how it works.

Enter Kronos. The most it can hope to do is perpetuate Partch’s music through its own means of expression — the string quartet.

And try it does. Regardless of what long-time naysayers of Kronos think of the quartet’s technique, it sure scores stellar in the gumption category, something not lost in the spirited performance of Partch pupil Ben Johnston’s arrangements.

Unfortunately, Partch’s musical language is too idiomatic to work in other forms. Despite Kronos’ best efforts, something just gets lost in translation.

Baritone David Barron throws in his requisite 100 percent into the performance, but his thoroughly trained technique is an uneven match to the text’s streetwise tone. By comparrison, Johnston’s performance on another Partch piece arranged for Kronos, Barstow, captures that essential grittiness.

If nothing else, U.S. Highball serves to further name recognition of Harry Partch. But even without listening to the original work, it’s evident Partch’s music exists in its own creative space. Kudos to Kronos, though, for taking the shot.

Tortured suite

Here’s the challenge facing this review: it’s going to concentrate more on the piece than on the recording.

That’s what I get for spending most of my time reviewing Japanese indie rock bands than keeping my four years of classical music training current.

But having not heard Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite before, I have no real point of reference with which to evaluate Kronos’ performance.

So Kronos — you dodged the bullet on this one.

I am, however, familiar with Kronos’ discography, and the ensemble is no stranger to music borne out of personal crisis or ideological unrest. From Dmitri Shostakovich’s angry and mournful Quartet for Strings No. 8 to Franghiz Ali-Zade’s passionate Mugam Sayagi, composers, like other artists, channel their frustrations into their works.

Alban Berg composed his Lyric Suite in a time when structure for the sake of structure started to impose itself on musical expression.

Although the piece was written in 1925, the inspiration for it wasn’t revealed till more than 50 years later, when American composer George Perle came across an annotated copy of the score sent to Berg’s would-be mistress, Hanna Fuchs-Robettin.

Berg wrote the Lyric Suite to memorialize the eight days in which he and Hanna secretly longed for each other. In the piece, he quotes Alexander von Zemlinsky and Richard Wagner, while also musically notating his and Hanna’s initials into the score.

Titling the piece Lyric Suite, Berg implied the work was extracted from an unwritten opera, the theme of which he left listeners to determine for themselves.

If obfuscation was Berg’s intent, he certainly did an excellent job. But conveying the grande passion (as its described in the liner notes) of his not-affair? Less so.

Berg certainly captures the psycholgoical dissonance of longing — Tortured Suite would have been a more journalistic title for the work. And he also symbolizes the relationship numerically throughout the score: 23 to represent him, 10 to represent her. The results aren’t readily apparent to the listener.

But any warmth Berg may have felt for his object of desire gets lost in the analytical methods he uses to express that love. The piece is complex, yes. It’s challenging, yes. It expresses frustration and isolation, oh hell yeah.

But warmth?

That doesn’t mean Berg at any point should have gone tonal on the listener, but George Crumb’s more grotesque, Vietnam War-inspired Black Angels also employs numerology and quotation to express its point — and it’s not missed on the listener.

For this recording, engaging soprano Dawn Upshaw performs a vocal part restored by Perle originally intended to conclude the quartet.

Berg made the right decision to leave the vocal part out. The piece feels like it ends at the fifth movement, and a singer making an appearance in the finale seems forced.

For its part, Kronos handles Berg’s score with its usual hands-on interpretive approach. But it’s tough to inject much emotion into a piece that sets out to be cold.

It’s oh so quiet

This review won’t even pretend to be one.

I mean, really — just what kind of opinion does a webzine covering mostly Japanese indie rock have to offer about a five-hour string quartet?

If you’re looking for navel-gazing wanking about how Morton Feldman epitomizes art’s highest ideals, go pick up an issue of The Wire.

The most can accomplish is a feeble attempt to grasp — through words — what comes out of the speakers when Feldman’s String Quartet No. 2 is on.

For the uninitiated, Feldman’s works consistently draw one adjective — intense.

Sparse, nearly static, invariably quiet, and incredibly long, Feldman compositions require a lot of committment from listeners and performers alike.

Even Kronos Quartet screamed “peeknuckle” when a rehearsal for the second quartet gave the ensemble back problems, forcing a cancellation of the work’s performance.

Recordings of the work weren’t even tackled until recently, when Flux went into the studio for mode, and the Ives Quartet delivered a performance for hatArt.

For a work as long as String Quartet No. 2, a home audience trumps a live audience for convenience — you can’t press a pause button to stop a quartet on stage. Can you imagine sitting through a five-hour recital?

(Flux’s recording comes as a five-CD set or one DVD. I ripped the five-CD set onto MP3 and played the entire work on my computer.)

My only points of reference for Feldman’s work thus far are a recording of Piano and String Quartet by Kronos and pianist Aki Takahashi, and a recording from CRI’s American Masters series which I borrowed from the label during an internship there back in 1992.

Neither brief experience prepared me for the expanse of the String Quartet No. 2 — and I’m not talking exclusively about its length.

Sure, all the usual adjectives apply, but if there’s one thing jarring in a Feldman piece, it’s a triple fortissimo. Early in the piece — that is, some time in the first 30 minutes — the quartet strike violent chords. There are also moments of quiet kinetic energy.

Although brief and sparing, those moments are enough to string a listener along, to encourage them to stick with the remaining four hours and find other sonic morsels.

Of course, most of what I perceived of the String Quartet No. 2 is unconscious. By accident, Feldman has created a work akin to Brian Eno’s Music for Airports — in order to truly feel it, you ultimately have to ignore it.

It’s no accident Feldman’s quartet was the soundtrack to a web development I worked on right before writing this alleged review.

The Flux Quartet should definitely be given props for even putting the effort to document the quartet, but audiophiles might take issue of the recording’s mix. There’s just a sense that Feldman’s multiple pianissimo need not lie so close to the noise floor of the studio console.

The stamina it takes to perform, let alone listen to, Feldman’s second quartet may relegate it to the dust bins of the standard repertoire, so the mere existence of Flux’s recording gives the piece a chance to find an audience. Even if it’s a curious one.