Gravity fails

I’m usually a big fanboy when it comes to the works of Wayne Horvitz and Robin Holcomb. But I’ve been spinning the latest releases from both composers, and I just don’t feel it.

Horvitz released Whispers, Hymns and a Murmur on John Zorn’s Tzadik label back in February, while his first recording with his new ensemble Gravitas Quartet followed in June. Holcomb released John Brown’s Body also in June and also on Tzadik.

I considered this avalanche of releases a boon, until I listened to all three discs.

Wayne Horvitz, Whispers, Hymns and a Murmur

Wayne Horvitz/Gravitas Quartet, Way Out East

I could never warm up to Whispers, Hymns and a Murmur because I couldn’t tell the individual pieces apart. "Mountain Language" appears on the album in three versions, each one seemingly distinctive from the other.

But the expressionist writing of these pieces doesn’t suit Horvitz. He’s usually great with giving listeners a sense of direction, even when his improvisation goes hogwild, but I never found my bearings with any of the "Mountain Language" pieces.

"Whisper, Hymns and a Murmur" features Horvitz’s signature melodicism, but sometimes I felt as if the full timbral capabilties of the Koehne Quartet weren’t exploited.

Horvitz is great with using odd timbral combinations — the trombone and violin of 4+1 Ensemble comes to mind — but it seemed as if the string quartet was too homogenous a medium.

Gravitas Quartet, by contrast, is far from homogenous. Consisting of piano, trumpet, bassoon and cello, Gravitas offers some potentially compelling sounds.

Horvitz aimed to form an ensemble that could improvise within a structured classical framework. All these ideas sound great on paper, and yet the execution didn’t really grab me.

Perhaps I’m too trained to expect no improvisation in classical works to appreciate Gravitas’ efforts. Way Out East features a series of very different works, and they all do a great job of challenging the ensemble.

Put together, it just didn’t strike me as an album.

There’s a point to which I’ll admit I don’t get the music. At the same time, I’m usually consistently moved by Horvitz’s music, so that makes me wonder whether the disconnect is totally mine.

Robin Holcomb, John Brown’s Body

This album is pretty much a composer’s showcase. The pieces on John Brown’s Body range from piano solos to string quartet to songs.

There doesn’t seem to be a solid thread that ties all these pieces together, and the contrast between them can be wide. "Pretty Ozu" concludes the album with a lullaby, which seems to come from nowhere after the angular melody of "Maybe You One Day".

As such, the album feels miscellaneous, as if Holcomb threw together the flotsam and jetsom of work she couldn’t include on her pop albums or on Little Three, her piano solo album.

Holcomb doesn’t gravitate to the melodicism of her husband, and her pieces tend to be thornier. I’m usually a fan of thorny, but the random feel of this album didn’t frame that dischord in a way that could speak to me.

Again, I didn’t get it.