Thursday, October 20, 2011

Tristan Perich 1-Bit Symphony -- more than 2-bit music

Visual artist and composer Tristan Perich has combined two separate musical concepts: the original performance, and the physical recording. When one purchases a CD (remember those?), it's a copy of a performance recorded weeks, months, often years before.

Not so with Perich's latest release. His 1-Bit Symphony comes in a standard CD case. But inside are some very simple electronics that perform the composition when activated. So every time you listen to the work, you're hearing -- not a recording -- but a live performance.

The symphony gets its name from the electronically generated square waveform. Its such a simple waveform that it can be represented by a single bit of digital information (and remember: a bit is a bit of a byte). Yet Perich does quite a lot with this primal audio building block, creating complex sound structures that are indeed symphonic.

The following video gives you a brief overview of the work, as the presenter hits the fast-forward button to skip through the various movements. When you hear the work as intended, though, you'll hear the themes slowly develop as they would in a Philip Glass or Steve Reich composition.

Will 1-bit music become its own school of composition? Perhaps not.

But Perich has created a valid form of musical expression that's uniquely his own. And that's a remarkable feat, indeed.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Original and rare recordings of Kurt Weill, 1928-1944

Kurt Weill 
Die Dreigroschenoper 
Historic Original Recordings 1928-1944 

The first disc of this 2-CD collection is mostly music from the Threepenny Opera, including the original cast (1928-31) and select foreign song recordings from 1930-31. While this music by Kurt Weill and Berthold Brecht has received many performances, there has been a subtle shift in interpretation over time.

These recordings document how these songs were first performed, with the brashness and exuberance of early jazz. Listening to the original cast of Die Dreigoschenoper (Harald Paulsen, Carola, Neher, Kurt Garron, and Lotte Lenya) is a revelation. There’s a subversive undercurrent in these singers’ delivery that’s missing in modern performances.

The collection includes not only the original cast, but also the first Dutch recordings of Weill’s music, along with some dance band covers of the day. Also included are 1929 recordings by the Berlin State Opera Orchestra with Otto Klemperer of the Threepenny Opera concert suite.

Disc 2 features a variety of historic and exceedingly rare recordings from 1928-1944. It includes music from Happy End, a unsuccessful comedy. The songs by Brecht and Weill from that ill-fated production were recorded in 1929, but seldom heard since.

“Six Songs” is a transcription of a box set released in 1943. These American releases feature Lotte Lenya (her voice already starting to darken) with Weill’s piano arrangements made specifically for the recordings. The collection ends with two anti-Nazi political songs Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht wrote for the Office of War during the Second World War. These were broadcast into Germany via shortwave in 1942 and 1944 sung (of course) by Lotte Lenya.

For the most part, the transfers are very good. Surface noise is minimal, and the sound isn’t over-processed. These are mono recordings, and there’s some compression, but not more than what one would expect from shellac discs almost a century old. I found this a fascinating collection of music, and one that provides historical context to Kurt Weill’s compositions.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Schnittke String Quartets: Modern Classics

Alfred Schnittke
String Quartets 104
Quatuor Molinari
Atma Classics

This two-CD set presents all four of Alferd Schnittke’s string quartets. The first was composed in 1966, and the remaining three over a relatively brief span in the 1980’s.

The first quartet is very tonal and contrapuntal. There’s a lyricism I find very appealing in the music, perhaps even a neo-romantic undercurrent.

It would be fourteen years later that Schnittke would return to the genre, and the second quartet attests to the changes in the composer’s style. This is a more aggressively modernist work, and I heard traces of minimalist drive coupled with the angularity of Stravinsky mixed together in an exciting fashion. (Speaking of which, also included the Canon in Memoriam Igor Stranvinsky, a short work that shows Schnittke’s deep respect and understanding of Stravinsky’s music.)

The third quartet, written just three years after the second, sounds radically different. It opens with lush modal harmonies that set the stage. As the work develops, it becomes increasingly dissonant, but never very much so. Of the four quartets, this is Schnittke’s most neo-classical work, which makes it the most accessible as well. No wonder the Quartuor Molinari chose to start the program with it!

By contrast, Schnittke’s final quartet is a much sparser work. It seems very pointilistic – often only one instrument is playing at a time. This elegiac quartet gradually building in intensity, leading to a powerful finish that seems sum up not just the composition itself, but Schnittke’s thoughts on the genre as a whole.

The Quator Molinari specializes in contemporary repertoire, and is perfectly at home with these works. As with all good chamber music, there are conversations going on between the instruments that help bring cohesion to Schnittke’s music. These were recordings I found myself returning to several times. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011


Christopher O'Riley, piano ; Matt Haimovitz, cello
Oxingale OX2019

This is an album of arrangements and transcriptions. I know that might sound sort of "dirty" to some in the classical music world, but consider that even the "purest" and most un-tampered-with works on this album, the Pohádka (Fairy Tale) by Czech composer Leoš Janáček and the Suite italienne by Igor Stravinsky are themselves excerpted from larger works by their composers, and in the case of Stravinsky, sanctioned for arrangement by the much-praised cellist Gregor Piatigorsky.

This album is subtitled "a collaboration that blurs the boundaries between classical and pop." I'm not sure it does that in the way it portends. We're not suddenly whisked to Le Poisson Rouge or the Knitting Factory. Cellist Matt Haimovitz has spent the last decade bringing classical music to unlikely venues. Pianist Christopher O'Riley has broken the fourth wall of radio through his arts education/variety show, From the Top, and his arrangements of Radiohead songs for piano earned him four out of five stars from Rolling Stone magazine. This type of hybrid program fits into the vision of the classical future by music writers Alex Ross and Greg Sandow.

This is, in some ways, a very traditional live chamber music album; in fact, it succeeds better than most live albums of any genre. It captures all of the individualistic quirks of chamber music performance -- the burnished weight of the bow on the cello strings, the staccato (and even lighter) touches of the pianist's fingers, and most importantly, the blend of the instruments in a hall with just the right amount of ring. It does not seem to be recorded before a live audience -- which is not a bad thing. The album was recorded in the cavernous Multimedia Room of the Schulich School of Music at McGill University in Montreal.

The twentieth century is well-represented on the first disc, with works by Leoš Janáček (Pohádka [Fairy Tale]), Bohuslav Martinù (Variations on a Slovak Folksong), Igor Stravinsky (Suite italienne (after Pulcinella)), and O'Riley's own arrangement of Bernard Hermann's music cues from the 1958 film Vertigo. The five movements of this last suite are spread out between the other pieces of the disc, giving a shuffle feeling to the disc, even if one were not consciously shuffling their digital music player to the next selection.

The Janáček is given a upbeat and bright reading which brings out the love and anguish expressed in the original incidental music he wrote for Julius Zeyer's dramatic tale, Raduzand Mahulena, in 1899. Haimovitz's use of line and touch are also evident in the Martinù and the Stravinsky (which is alternately playful and detached as required--this is Stravinsky's neoclassic period, after all).

It is the Hermann where both have a great deal of fun in outlining the characters and the action--and it is all in the touch of Haimovitz's bow whether it is burnishing the strings or singing in a wisp-like fashion on the upper strings. (His use of harmonics are also outstanding). Once again, I can't think of a disc I've heard in recent memory where the the recording location has helped the performers sound so good. (Please don't let this be some tomfoolery of the post-production process!)

If you're familiar with some of the songs on the second disc, you are going to know that they have left their native environment. They lose the drum beats, the electric guitars, and the voices of their original incarnations. Arcade Fire's Empty Room keeps the frenetic strings (provided by Haimovitz at the outset), but he soon becomes the lead singer, crooning over O'Riley's fast fingers--in a style akin to Philip Glass's music, but also very close to the accompaniment of Stravinsky's Suite italienne.

Compare Haimovitz/O'Riley's version of Empty Room...

with the original by Arcade Fire:

Haimovitz twangs and colors each of the songs on this disc in a distinct way which sometimes mirror the original, and at other times is completely different. O'Riley shines more in the Radiohead arrangements, such as Pyramid Song and Weird Fishes/Arpeggi. If not all of these pieces capture the spirit of the originals, then it should be noted that there are some very pretty melodies that are being re-worked effectively for a classical audience.

Transposing the Mahavishnu Project's Dance of Maya by John McLaughlin on cello, though, eliminates the weirdness of the electric version, and we are left with music which sounds like Martinù. It swings later when O'Riley enters, and Haimovitz's energy amps up when he's using his portamento (sliding between notes) to create a distorting haze over the proceedings. I don't know if this is effective, but it certainly is well-played and thought-provoking.

McLaughlin's Lotus on Irish Streams in this form, alternates between Debussy and George Winston for me. Other treatments of Blonde Redhead (Misery is a Butterfly), the Cocteau Twins (Heaven or Las Vegas) and Radiohead alternate between intense, laid-back, and melodic. The selections on this second disc (arranged for the most part by O'Riley) have been well-chosen to blend with the first one.

Listening to these discs in the car on shuffle mode, they transitioned quite well, but they could also be programmed in a more conscious fashion. One could enjoy Shuffle.Play.Listen as a well-curated (and superbly executed) recital of different genres of music being incorporated into a concert hall experience. Or you could just sit back and shuffle through a bunch of good tunes. I recommend lowering the lights and taking it all in on the best audio equipment you own.