Listening to the 20th Century

In the past, I’ve made noises about wanting to cover more classical music on this site. Well, the only way to do that is to listen to more of it, which I’ve been doing since last year.

Certainly, reading Alex Ross’ The Rest Is Noise was a big push, but there have been other stimuli leading up to that point. The only music blogs I really follow are classical sites, such as ArtsJournal, NewMusicBox, aworks and The Standing Room. I’ve got no fluxblog, Stereogum or Brooklyn Vegan in my RSS reader. And Pitchfork? I’m no masochist.

I’ve also gotten chummy with Russell McCollough, the classical buyer at Waterloo Records. He’s steered me to a number of titles over the past year.

There’s a lot of doom and gloom in arts coverage about the dwindling audience for classical music, and it spurs me to give the genre some room among the indie bands, Japanese bands and ’80s catalog about which I write. At the very least, I hope to generate some name recognition among the readers who wouldn’t normally seek out this kind of music.

Music from the last century — and this one — get more hard drive space over the standard repertoire, the classical "war horses", as they’re called. I don’t have much more to add about Beethoven or Bach, and I usually exit in case of Berlioz. But I think there’s some overlap between indie rock and modern classical music that musicians in either camp don’t seem to recognize as much as they could.

Joan Tower, Silver Ladders/Island Prelude/Music for Cello and Orchestra/Sequoia, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, Leonard Slatkin

This recording is available on the First Edition label, but the one I bought is the original Meet the Composer/Nonesuch pressing I owned on cassette in the early ’90s. I didn’t know a thing about Joan Tower at the time — I just bought it because Nonesuch was equivalent to the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for me. (Still is.)

Tower recently won a number of 2008 Grammy Awards in the classical category for her work Made in America, which is the title track of a Naxos recording featuring her orchestral music. The works on that disc don’t differ much from Silver Ladders.

Tower’s orchestral writing can get dense and dramatic, as if she were treading the path Igor Stravinsky would have taken had he further explored the primitive rhythms and brutal harmonies of The Rite of Spring.

Silver Ladders, as the title implies, focuses on a number of ascending melodic lines coursing through the orchestra. Island Prelude is something of a concerto for oboe, putting the spotlight on an instrument not commonly considered concerto material. Cellist Lynn Harrell does a superb job driving Music for Cello and Orchestra, while Sequoia pounds out with big burst of percussion and brass.

Back in 1990, I bought this album with no idea what I was getting into, and it turned out to be worth the risk.

Joby Talbot, The Dying Swan

British composer Joby Talbot is approximately my age, so his influences probably mirror my own, had I stayed the course as a composition student. Talbot performed with the band the Divine Comedy, and he’s scored such film projects as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Talbot isn’t anchored by a particular -ism. His music bears an influence of the minimalists without being tethered to them, and when his pieces venture into unfamiliar timbral territory, he’s not being experimental for the sake of being experimental.

"…similarities between diverse things" is engagingly pretty, while minus 1500 skirts on the edge of unhinged. A pair of string quartets performed by the Duke Quartet clock in at the length of a pop songs, not wasting time with long meditations.

Although Talbot shares with Nico Muhly an agility with a range of voices — from eeirely chromatic to beautifully melodic — he doesn’t blur the lines between those voices as much as Muhly. Talbot’s lyricism can be quite appealing, but there’s a sense his more adventurous side can inform that lyrical side a lot more.

Karlheinz Stockhausen, Tierkreis, 12 Melodien der Sternzeic, Schlagwerk Nordwest

Karlheinz Stockhausen has managed to build such a cult of personality around his work that it seems like a first listen would somehow be revelatory. His death in 2007 was a major event, even warranting a mention on

I keep getting Stockhausen confused with Edgar Varèse, and the scarcity of recordings of his work only fuels that ambiguity. When he was alive, Stockhausen held an iron grip on how his works would be performed and recorded. Some writers have posited Stockhausen’s death is the only way people will get to know his catalog better.

All that to say that when I downloaded Tierkreis, 12 Melodien der Sternzeic from eMusic, I wasn’t impressed. In a post-Propellerhead Reason/Ableton Live world, the dated synthetic timbres of Tierkreis sound like exercises in a basic sound synthesis class. There’s also a distinct hippie vibe that makes me think I would be a lot more blown away by it had I been born before 1972.

I’m not dismissing Stockhausen, though. The snatches I’ve heard of Paul Hillier and Theatre of Voices’ recording of Stimmung seem to live up to the hype perhaps cultivated by the composer himself. I’m listening to that one next.

Tobias Picker, Symphony No. 2/String Quartet No. 1

Alongside the Tower album, I also picked up the Meet the Composer/Nonesuch recording of Tobias Picker’s work. Back then, the Tower album got a lot more air time on my Walkman than the Picker cassette. Nearly 20 years later, I found both albums again on CD, and like before, the Tower disc outplayed the Picker.

Picker does write with 12-tone rows, but he’s flexible enough with his pieces to let some melody come through. His Symphony No. 2 is a nine-movement work, but no movement lasts more than five minutes. Just about every other movement tugs and pulls at the momentum of the symphony — fast, dramatic movements alternating with slower, almost lyrical ones. (Emphasis on almost.) It all builds up to the entrance of soprano Leona Mitchell toward the end.

The Mendelssohn String Quartet tackles Picker’s first quartet, which also consists of a number of relatively short movements. The 12-tone technique isn’t as lax on this work as with the Symphony No. 2, and it’s got the abrupt leaps and heavy textures common in such pieces. I’m not sure if I can pick out anything remarkable about it.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Sinfonia Concertante/Rondo for Violin and Orchestra/Concertone for Two Violins and Orchestra, Julia Fischer, Netherlands Chamber Orchestra, Yakov Kreizberg

No, not an album of 20th century works. But Julia Fischer has been getting a lot of attention, and she won the Artist of the Year Award at the 2007 Gramophone Awards.

The only other recording of Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante I’ve heard is the first movement on the Amadeus soundtrack, so I can’t give much of an authoritative critique of Fischer’s interpretation.

I do have to say Fischer’s playing is some of the most articulate I’ve heard, and conductor Yakov Kreizberg takes that first movement at a brisk pace. Fischer manages to sound clean and expressive even with the punchy tempo.

Dawn Upshaw, The Girl with Orange Lips

Dawn Upshaw is a fixture in my collection, but I don’t actually own very many of her own albums. I don’t think I listened to I Wish It So all that much, whereas I enjoyed White Moon: Songs to Morpheus quite a lot.

While The Girl with Orange Lips won a Grammy Award in 1991, I didn’t get into it. Upshaw is a champion of modern music, and this collection has a heavy slant to composers from the first half of the 20th Century. I think I’m approaching this album with too revisionist an ear, because I’ve heard Upshaw perform all manner of new music, from Alban Berg to Henryk Górecki.

The Girl with Orange Lips felt too narrow in its focus, and the pieces didn’t distinguish themselves enough for me to pay much attention to Upshaw’s performances. That’s not to say it’s a bad album — I just prefer hearing Upshaw tackle a broad spectrum of repertoire, as she did with White Moon.

Kronos Quartet, At the Grave of Richard Wagner

Kronos Quartet’s classical "singles" tend to be the flotsam and jetsam of its discography. At the Grave of Richard Wagner doesn’t have much of a strong program, pairing a lyrical Franz Listz piece with the 12-tone works of Alban Berg and Anton Webern.

Kronos’ Berg recordings have not spoken to me, and between Berg and Webern, I’m more partial to Webern’s sparser textures. I can say that Kronos’ recording of Webern’s Five Movements for String Quartet isn’t flattering to the piece. A lot of the quieter moments get swallowed up by the noise floor, and I’ve encountered more expressive readings from the Emerson String Quartet and the Artis Quartett Wein.

Not a very essential Kronos release.

Witold Lutoslawski, String Quartet, Kronos Quartet

Kronos’ recording of Witold Lutoslawski’s String Quartet, on the other hand, is very impressive. Lutoslawski wanted to incorporate chance music into the score, but he didn’t want to surrender a general sense of structure. The String Quartet achieves both goals, and Kronos gives a thrilling reading of an intense and messy piece.

Various Artists, Sonic Rebellion: Alternative Classical Collection

Buyer beware! The compilation offered by eMusic is not the same as the one offered in stores, and the one I listened to was the eMusic version.

This compilation has a few essential pieces, familiar to new music listeners — Arvö Pärt’s Fratres, Krzysztov Pendercki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, John Adams’ Shaker Loops and Philip Glass’ Symphony No. 4, subtitled "Heroes" after the Brian Eno/David Byrne album which served as source material.

The remaining works in the collection span the diversity of styles explored in the last century. The influence of Jean Sibelius can be felt more than it can be heard in Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Piano Concerto No. 1. Sofia Gubaidulina’s Silenzio isn’t as freaked out as her String Quartet No. 4, which involves bouncing rubber balls on the strings. And the Fourth Interlude from Sonata Iby John Cage shows from where Björk got some of her weird.

This collection seems very much geared to beginners, as it focuses on the really big figures of the last century — no downtown New Yorkers or anyone under 50.