Saturday, September 6, 2014

Modern Polish music

One of my favorite resources at Ubuweb is the Wolf Fifth Archive. The site explains, "Wolf Fifth was a modernist music blog, featuring out of print and orphaned classics. Like so many great blogs, they fell victim to the cloud locker wars. Fortunately, UbuWeb's pal Justin Lacko downloaded the entire archive before they went down and donated the collection to UbuWeb. As you can see by the list below, there's a ton of stuff, and it's going to take quite some time to get this all sorted and posted on Ubu. So stay tuned. We're working on it. "

The work of uploading does seem to be going slowly, but there is still plenty of music to try. What to choose? Ubuweb's Twitter account recently recommended  this collection of modernist oboe music ("A gorgeous LP of modernist works for #oboe") and I plan to check it out soon.

But I can go ahead and recommend this album of modern Polish music,  issued in 1961, so I guess "modern" is a matter of judgment. It has music by Krzysztof Penderecki, Grazyna Bacewicz, Tadeusz Baird and Kazmierz Serocki, and I liked all four pieces.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Listening to Roger Sessions

I used to think I had no use for 12 tone music. Back in college, I bought an LP of piano music that had Stravinsky on one side and Schoenberg on the other. (I've always loved Stravinsky). I dutifully made several attempts to listen to the "B" side, but could never make sense of it. Other attempts to "get" other famous 12 tone pieces were not successful.

On this point (as on others) I was "schooled" by my favorite music blogger, Boom. He called my attention to Sessions' seventh symphony, which I liked right away. If you want to try 12 tone music that excites and pleases, this might be a place to start. (There's a recording on Spotify with the Louisville Orchestra. Unfortunately, the information on the app is so bad, you can't even tell who the conductor is, but I looked it up; it's Peter Leonard.) The album is also available on Freegal, the music service at many public libraries that offers free downloads of MP3s.

While I think the 7th is a good gateway drug, there's plenty to explore. I like the piano concerto. The 8th Symphony is a little harder to get into than the 7th, but if  you're looking for a 12 tone piece that uses maracas, your search is over.

I can't tell how much of a following Sessions has. There's something called the Roger Sessions Society, run by a college professor,  but it doesn't seem to be a very dynamic group. It's had the same disclaimer for months, if not years: "Please note that for the time being the membership structure is on hold, as we evaluate possibilities for web-based newsletter publication." But apparently I'm not the only one who still listens to his music.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

'Excelsior' streaming at Q2 this week

Fifth House 

Q2, the modern classical music Internet radio station, is streaming the new Excelsior album by the Fifth House Ensemble, an album I listened to during my long commute to work this morning. I'm not ready to review it here, but it's worth a listen and you can try it for free this week, so I'm noting it today. On my first listen, at least, my favorite piece was the long title track by Caleb Burham.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Koh's 'Two by Four' thoroughly enjoyable

Few classical music albums in recent years have given me as much pleasure as Two X Four, the album Jennifer Koh released this year with fellow violinist Jaime Laredo, who was formerly her teacher.

The title comes from the concept (two violinists, an "elder statesman" still playing well and a young player in her prime) and the number of compositions (four, with three modern pieces and two world premieres.)

The paring of Laredo and Koh reminds me a bit of a blues album I bought years ago, one that combined  Stevie Ray Vaughn with Albert King.  Koh and Laredo play well together, as you might expect from Laredo's rep and Koh's previous efforts, such as this one. 

But an album like this ultimately will stand or fall on the quality of the pieces, and that's where Two X Four does particularly well.

It matches up a Bach warhorse, the "Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor" BWV 1043, with an Anna Clyne piece, "Prince of Clouds," Philip Glass' "Echorus" and David Ludwig's "Seasons Lost."

Hybrid albums of new and old can be a risky strategy — if the modern pieces aren't very good, they'll be exposed pretty quickly.

But when I heard the Anna Clyne, I felt I'd made a big discovery. I loved the moments of drama, the ethereal melodies and the way the piece unfolded in my brain as I played it over and over again. I'll disclose that I was sent a review copy of the album by Cedille Records. But if it gives you an idea of how I felt about the Clyne, who I'd never heard of before, I then bought everything available by her on Amazon's MP3 store and Google's Play store. I bought two whole albums, plus various pieces from other albums that I put together as a playlist. Clyne is the composer-in-residence for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra; I look forward to following her career.

Anna Clyne

The other pieces are a short, melodic Glass piece, "Echorus," and the Ludwig. Although the notes included with the CD don't mention it, the Glass is a chamber orchestra version of the second etude from Glass' lovely "Six Etudes for Piano" from 1994, which I first encountered on Bruce Brubaker's excellent Time Curve album.

The Koh-Laredo album concludes with Ludwig's "Season's Lost," four short pieces for winter, spring, summer and fall. They didn't make as big an impression on me as the Clyne, but they are vivid and pictorial and I was glad to meet Ludwig's music. The Clyne and Ludwig are both world premieres.

The media section of Koh's official site has several videos about Two X Four, but here's one with Clyne and Koh talking about Clyne's contribution. Koh explains that she heard a string piece from Clyne and thought it was the most beautiful composition she'd heard in a long time. That's how I felt about "Prince of Clouds."

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Koh to return with another 'Bach & Beyond' set

A news release from Cedille Records reports that violinist Jennifer Koh's Bach & Beyond Part Two album will be released this year.

I don't know anything about the album yet, but I sure did like 2012's Bach & Beyond Part One. 

That album begins with J.S. Bach's "Partita No. 3 in E Major, BWV 1006" and ends with Bach's "Partita No. 2 in d minor, BWV 1004." Sandwiched in between is Ysa├┐e's second violin sonata, Kaija Saariaho's "Nocturne" and Missy Mazzoli's "Dissolve, O My Heart," the latter a world premiere.

All are solo violin pieces, which puts a lot of pressure on Koh, but I like her Bach partitas better than the other recordings I've heard so far. Check out her slashing attack on the "Prelude," the first track on the album, and the drone on the next track, the "Loure." She gets a great sound out of her instrument, so I want to record the name of the producer and engineer: Judith Sherman.

My music collection falls into two broad groups: Legacy classical music (which I can play basically anytime I want) and modern classical music (which I can play when the more conservative ears in the household are not present.) With the Koh, I can get my Saariaho fix in and listen to the Mazzoli but still answer any objections by pointing out that Bach will return soon. So it's an album I also can play anytime, a modern music "sneak it in" album.

(Disclosure Cedille sent me a copy of the album. See my blog post on freebies.)

Friday, May 9, 2014

A note about freebies

As I am determined to resume blogging, I need to say a word about some of the recordings I will be talking about.

From time to time, record companies and individual artists who apparently are completely desperate for publicity will send a complimentary commercial recording to your humble blogger.

I do my best to listen to these recordings, but a free recording does not guarantee a good review or even any attention at all here.

I do not claim to be a music expert, but I am a sincere enthusiast, and I will not express enthusiasm, or even mild pleasure, for a recording that I don't like.

For example, I'm a fan of eighth blackbird, but I didn't like the the Lonely Motel album. Obviously, other folks did not agree -- it did win a Grammy -- but I don't care. I was pleased to give a good notice for the Meanwhile album (which also won a Grammy.)

I'll try to note in my blog posts whether I paid for a recording or parted with cash for it or whatever.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Lou Harrison on UbuWeb

I was surprised to discover that one of my favorite composers, Lou Harrison, is heavily represented on UbuWeb, the Internet archive for avante-garde and hard to obtain material.

A page on the website has links allowing visitors to download MP3 files for five Harrison albums.

A FAQ on the website has the following answer to the question, "What is your policy concerning posting copyright material?" Here is the answer in full:

A. If it's out of print, we feel it's fair game. Or if something is in print, yet absurdly priced or insanely hard to procure, we'll take a chance on it. But if it's in print and available to all, we won't touch it. The last thing we'd want to do is to take the meager amount of money out of the pockets of those releasing generally poorly-selling materials of the avant-garde. UbuWeb functions as a distribution center for hard-to-find, out-of-print and obscure materials, transferred digitally to the web. Our scanning, say, an historical concrete poem in no way detracts from the physical value of that object in the real world; in fact, it probably enhances it. Either way, we don't care: Ebay is full of wonderful physical artifacts, most of them worth a lot of money. 

Should something return to print, we will remove it from our site immediately. Also, should an artist find their material posted on UbuWeb without permission and wants it removed, please let us know. However, most of the time, we find artists are thrilled to find their work cared for and displayed in a sympathetic context. As always, we welcome more work from existing artists on site. 

Let's face it, if we had to get permission from everyone on UbuWeb, there would be no UbuWeb.

The posting of the Harrison albums would appear to push the envelope a little bit on UbuWeb's own stated policy. I looked for Lou Harrison albums at Amazon's MP3 store. Four out of five of the posted albums were available for purchase (the exception being the album of Harrison's piano music.)

On the other hand, Harrison died more than 10 years ago, and as with any serious American composer who isn't named "Philip Glass," "Steve Reich" or "John Adams," I worry about whether Harrison will find and sustain an audience over the long term. (Yes, many people reading this blog will know who Lou Harrison is, but let's face it -- you're a small minority of a small minority.) I wouldn't mind at all if the UbuWeb posting resulted in many more people discovering Lou Harrison's music.