The path to hell

For some listeners, the path to hell leads to the music covered in this round-up. For me, it’s paved with the usual good intentions.

I keep wanting to cover more classical music on this site, especially of the modern variety. But my pop song rearing has me defaulting to the Björk and Shiina Ringo portions of my playlist than to the Györgi Ligeti or Concord String Quartet portions. All that to say my actual listening time for some of these releases are disproportionate to the listening times of more recognizable titles.

In other words, don’t expect anything insightful. If anything, the following few paragraphs are a Luddite’s perspective on new music.

Aulis Sallinen, Chamber Music

This 1990 disc from the BIS label includes a recording of "Vintern var hard", which Kronos Quartet recorded as the title track for its 1988 album. Kronos also recorded his third string quartet for its self-titled major label debut in 1986. All that attention from Kronos made me curious, so I grabbed this album from eMusic to get more of a sense of the Sallinen’s work.

Sallinen reminds me a bit of Alfred Schnittke in the way tense, discordant passages can resolve into a burst of tonality. Sallinen, however, does not possess Schnittke’s intensity. Truthfully, very little about Sallinen’s work really stays with me. "Vintern var hard" is very much melodic, but when I try to recall an impression of his work, I draw blanks.

Henryk Górecki, String Quartet No. 3, … songs are sung, Kronos Quartet

Back in 1993, Górecki was the classical recording industry’s hit flavor. The Nonesuch recording of his Symphony No. 3 ranked on the UK pop charts, and labels rode the coattails of that success, releasing a slew of Górecki recordings. After that, not a peep. So it was something of a surprise to learn Kronos was releasing a recording of a new Górecki string quartet. It was even more surprising to learn Górecki held onto the quartet for more than 10 years before handing the score to Kronos, who commissioned the work.

I’m not sure how Górecki did it, but from the start, there’s a very strong personality in the work, something that feels like it was really forged from the essence of its writer. Perhaps its how Górecki weaves material reminiscent of Polish folk melodies into the fabric of the score. Most likely, it’s because he doesn’t treat the piece as an intellectual exercise. There’s a real sense of singing from this piece, which he set out to do by subtitling it … songs are sung.

Terry Riley, In C

I listened to Riley’s original 1969 recording of his piece back in high school, when I checked the vinyl album out of the library. At the time, I couldn’t really budget my meager allowance for a $15 recording of my own, so I waited, till I eventually forgot I wanted this album. A project for a synthesis class last semester got me on a buying spree, and I decided finally to add this album to my collection.

I haven’t heard any other versions of this piece — although I am fascinated by the idea of the vocal version by the Hilliard Ensemble — but I figured I’d get the benchmark before I explore the interpretations. Not so much a review here — because what else can be said about this piece, and in particular, this recording? — but at some point, I want to see if I can leverage Ableton Live to handle a single-person performance of this piece.

George Crumb, Ancient Voices for Children/Music for a Summer Evening (Makrokosmos III)

Ancient Voices for Children was required listening when I was studying music in college, and the Jan de Gaetani performance on Nonesuch was included in our textbooks. As with In C, I’ve been meaning to get this recording for a long time but didn’t get around to it till now.

George Crumb is synonymous with turning traditional instruments on their heads. On this recording, de Gaetani is fearless as she essentially yelps through the score. The brutal primitivism Stravinsky ushered in with Le Scare du Printemps finds its logical conclusion with Ancient Voices for Children. Here’s music that really feels primordial.

Concord String Quartet, American String Quartets, 1950 – 1970

Although Kronos Quartet introduced me to the terror that is George Crumb’s Black Angels, I have to say the New York String Quartet premiere recording for CRI in 1972 has far more crunch. That recording, unfortunately, is not in print, but the Concord String Quartet’s recording in 1973 comes close. Concord’s reading of Crumb is included on a two-disc set titled, American String Quartets, 1950-1970.

The Kronos recording, while mastered to hear every detail of the piece, has a cleanliness indicative of more recent studio technology. By contrast, the Concord recording falls to the mercy of sweet analog. The transfer to CD is exceptional, but by virtue of the times, there’s an inherent roughness to the recording. I haven’t really explored the other pieces on this collection, but the cross section of names is pretty impressive: John Cage, Morton Feldman, Earle Brown, Christian Wolff and Jacob Drukman.

Györgi Ligeti, Ligeti Edition 4: Vocal Works

I bought this disc only to see if there was something I could sample for the aforementioned synthesis class, so I can’t say I’ve listened to this disc very thoroughly. The thing with Ligeti, though, is an immediacy of his work. Ligeti has such a strong sense of his voice that one listen can leave a very lasting impression.

For the Nonsense Madrigals which open this collection of vocal works, Ligeti makes his singers do ridiculous things with their voices and maintains the humor inherent to those performances. In a Crumb piece, such timbres would be taken very seriously. Ligeti Edition 4 does stretch on the long side, and I did find myself wondering when it would end.


  • Dave Williams says:

    Hmmm… Hardly a Luddite. I quite agree w/you – especially on Goreck. I believe him to be a genius and truly inspired.
    Addtionally, I agree w/you on Ligeti – he does have a “stong voice”.
    Dave Williams (composer)