As I’ve intimated elsewhere the music that is really exciting me these day is modern composition, particularly that of the experimental composers. While I had listened to some of the experimental composers prior to my interest in contemporary improvisation it was really circling back to them from that perspective that really captivated me. I’ve since come to the conclusion that the improv I was particularly enjoying was that which was exploring the ideas of the experimentalists in improvisation. Of course a lot of so called “eai” wasn’t doing this, which I think partially explains why there are large segments of that music that don’t appeal to me. Anyway of late I’ve found that going back to the source has been a lot more rewarding for me and one thing I’ve quite enjoyed has been people that are involved in both worlds. Last years recording of four pages of Cornelius Cardew’s Treatise (Planam) by Keith Rowe and Oren Ambarchi is a good example as would be John Cage’s Four6 by Tom Chant, Angharad Davies, Benedict Drew, John Edwards on the otherwise unremarkable Decentered (Another Timbre). Of course last year was strong with new takes by established classical performers of pieces from the experimentalists, John Tilbury’s beautiful rendition of Morton Feldman’s Triadic Memories leading the pack. Historically interesting recordings such as the Treatise from the Quax Ensemble on Mode and new recordings of very recent pieces from Christian Wolff and James Tenney on New World made for a solid year of music for those who share my interests.

Morton Feldman Trio (Mode)Though still in the first month of 2010 this year is already shaping up to be another banner year for this music that is capturing my interests.  A couple of weeks back I got a copy of the new recording of Morton Feldman‘s 1980 composition Trio released on DVD by Mode.  I’ve watched this DVD several times since then and left it running with the TV off several other times.  This performance by Aki Takahashi (piano), Rohan de Saram (cello) and Marc Sabat (violin) is sublime and the quality of the recording is amazing. It’s recorded in the 24/96 standard which is much higher than what CD’s are recorded at and also I believe in surround sound. I only have a stereo so I can’t take full advantage of the surround but the stereo spatialization is very nice. Anyway its the sound of the instruments that really matters to me and they are remarkable in this piece. The piano is so rich and reverberant, audible throughout the entirety of its decay, more so then I’ve ever heard on any recording. The violin and cello, sometimes played as one in a dry wheezing chord, at other times contrasting in their separate registers are equally well presented. I don’t think I’ve heard a recording that sounds more like I was actually there than this one.

The performance of the piece is equally stunning, with Rohan de Saram gently “conducting” with his head as the play through this piece over a very leisurely 1’45” which again thanks to the format you can enjoy uninterrupted. All the sounds are given their full weight and time, perfectly placed in the space.  I have a copy of Trio that was released on the HatART label performed by members of the Ives Ensemble and I always thought of it as a rather minor work. This version, about thirty minutes longer, brings out so much more in the piece and I really prefer how it is played. Piano is the key to Feldman for me, his compositions, solo or ensemble, with piano are my favorites and just seem the most representative of the essence of his compositions.  The pianist is thus supremely important and while I love the Ives Ensemble I’ve never quite liked John Snijders piano as much as some of the other Feldman interpreters. I mean his playing is very, very good and all the recordings I have of him playing Feldman are completely acceptable. But for me I think that the piano player needs to be almost transcendental to really get to that essence of Feldman’s work. Tilbury of course is my favorite, but Aki Takahashi is I think one of the top tier, especially for the chamber pieces. There is no other cellist that I’d like to hear playing  Feldman more than Rohan de Saram and his performance here is exquisite. Perfectly played as he marks the time keeping the ensemble in order.  The cello can be such a rich, reverberant instrument and Feldman works with that, as well as the dry, flat sounds he so often evokes from string instruments. Finally Marc Sabat is fairly new to me, though I know he has been involved in several of the Mode Feldman edition releases now. In this piece the violin seems mainly in line with the cello, though there are certainly parts where all of the instruments seem to be in opposition to each other.  Sabat’s playing seems really fine to me here and I’m definitely interested in hearing more of his work.

For various reasons I’ve somewhat avoided the Mode Feldman releases but on hearing this piece completely open up for me I’m definitely going to check out a bit more of their Feldman Edition.

Lost DaylightEarlier this week I got the four new releases in the “piano series” put out by the Another Timbre label (read a review of all four here). While I am of course interested in listening to the entire series, the long awaited John Tilbury release has gotten almost all of my attention so far.  Announced almost at the beginning of the label’s history (it’s AT 10, the most recent is AT 25) it contains recordings of solo piano pieces by the minimalist Terry Jennings plus an innovative working of John Cage’s Electric Music for Piano.  The Terry Jenning’s pieces are sublime, delicate piano miniatures from 1958-66 that anticipate Feldman’s late piano pieces in their soft, deliberate nature if not their length. Jennings is woefully underrepresented in performance and recordings, I can only think of a few other pieces of his that I’ve heard. Thus it is a wonderful gift to hear some of his piano pieces so perfectly played by Tilbury on this recording. There is sound and silence and a sense of waiting in these pieces;  patient and without any anxiety.

It is music of simplicity and great mystery. There are bar lines, but nothing feels counted: things happen in moments and not measures. There is always time for the resonance of the piano. (Is there any player better at feeling this resonance than John Tilbury?) The sounds drift, suspended in a dense medium of some kind. The shape of a piece emerges gradually, like the hills appearing as the marine layer burns off. Each piece feels like a small even extended in time” – Micheal Pisaro from the liner notes to the Jennings pieces.

The bulk of the album is a near forty minute realization of John Cage’s Electric Music for Piano, which was written for David Tudor in 1964 as a set of loose instructions for combing several disparate elements. These elements are instructions for use of parts of Cage’s Music for Piano 4-84, realized using electronic equipment (the score mentions microphones, amplifiers and oscilloscope) and constellations from an astronomical chart. John Tilbury performs this piece as a duo with Sebastian Lexer handling the electronics (you can hear an earlier take on this piece by them here (scroll to the bottom)). Lexer has developed this system he refers to as Piano+ which is basically the piano captured by microphones and manipulated by MAX/MSP patches of his own devising. Of course MAX/MSP manipulation of the piano is an academic trope done enough so that even the most varied of patches share a certain amount of familiarity. Lexer’s solo release Dazwischen on the Matchless label aptly displays these tropes and the kind of digital excess that MSP can lead to. But in the case of this piece, in I think attempting to capture aspect of Tudor’s electronics, which often used cascading amplification, feedback, phase shifting and other simple and frankly abused electronics, these excesses are mostly avoided. Which isn’t to say there isn’t the occasional bit of cheesily delayed tones, autopanning or video game type of sounds, just never to any sort of excess. Most of the time the sounds seem to be more faint crackles, distorted piano tones, restrained feedback and the like.  The piece is remarkable in its spaciousness and subtlety with the most dramatic parts coming from the piano: crashes of the lid or bangs on the body or strings.  The setup of the electronics itself as well as the excerpts from Music for Piano and finally the editing of the piece all used overlaid astronomical charts to arrange their construction. This adds additional layers of indeterminacy to the  piece and fully succeeds in Lexer’s stated desire to “… go beyond a realisation that comprised of simply adding electronic effects to the piano”.  With a piece like this one is always going to be in the shadow of Tudor and I think that Tilbury and Lexer succeeded admirably in creating a realization that is fully their own but acknowledges this influence. Tilbury’s pianism is markedly different from Tudor’s though I’d say they share many a common goal. As an example of how they are different but akin Tudor’s realizations of Feldman’s indeterminate pieces are I think far superior to Tilbury’s but I would definitely rather hear Tilbury handle the late Feldman. The two pianists strengths I think lie in different areas even if their sympathies are closely aligned. Likewise the electronics that Lexer employs, digital simulations of analog effects, are a far cry from the wild, on the edge, virtuoso electronics of Tudor. And he makes no attempt here to cavort in that territory. It is far more restrained and safe then Tudor and yet it nods toward it, acknowledges the sounds if not the application. This makes the piece theirs and it is a remarkable bit of music, something that is simultaneously new and old a piece of music that could really be read as an application of new technology and ideas to older music that is open to such experiments.

The beautiful Jennings pieces and the thoroughly engaging Cage realization make for a varied and fantastic CD. One of the best releases yet on Another Timbre and absolutely well worth picking up.

For fans of the music under discussion here 2010 will clearly be another solid year. The above two releases are an incredible start, recordings that I’m sure will remain favorites throughout the year. There is a lot more to look forward to this year though, as there are two releases forthcoming that are sure to be among the years best:

Bandoneon !David Tudor Bandoneon !  (a combine)  (E.A.T./ArtPix/Microcinema)
Another DVD from the 9 Evenings of Theatre & Engineering concerts, this one featuring an early David Tudor composition that has never been released.  In this piece Tudor plays a bandoneon (a sort of accordion) manipulated with electronics and controlling some sort of visual projection system. This is one of the essential steps that Tudor took toward becoming a composer and his focus on live electronics. The combination of acoustic instruments and electronics is an area I’m fascinated by and something I’ve worked with a lot with my Prepared Wire Strung Harp. Tudor with pieces such as this one, his realization of Cage’s
Variations II and the like really pioneered this whole area and getting a chance to hear and see this seminal piece is something I’m looking forward to more then anything else this year.

The other essential forthcoming release is the first of a series of DVD-Audio discs of John Tilbury playing Feldman pieces with the Smith Quartet. I’ve long wanted to hear some of Feldman’s Piano and … pieces with Tilbury and I can’t say how excited I am to finally get the chance. For John Cage and Piano and String Quartet are two of my favorites in this category making this DVD even more exciting. The only wildcard here is the Smith Quartet of whom I’m completely ignorant but the seem to have a good history and a sold pedigree.

Morton Feldman Music For Piano And Strings Volume 1 DVD-AUDIO (Matchless)
The Smith Quartet (Ian Humphries, violin; Darragh Morgan, violin; Nic Pendlebury, viola; Deirdre Cooper, cello) with John Tilbury (piano) live at the Huddersfield Festival of Contemporary Music, 2006.

Tracklist:
01. For John Cage, 1982 (1:31:14) (Darragh Morgan and John Tilbury)
02. Piano and String Quartet, 1985 (1:29:30)