Yesterday was a refresh day for me on eMusic, and I focused on modern classical recordings; I downloaded records by composers Gavin Bryars, Brian Eno and Joan Tower.The Sinking of the Titanic, composed by Gavin Bryars and performed here by Philip Jeck and Alter Ego is a 1969 piece he wrote based on speculations about the sinking of the ship. The music is centered by an Episcopal hymn, Autumn which was played on the deck of the Titanic as the ship was going down (although many passengers reported the band was playing Nearer, My God, to Thee, more traditionally associated with the Titanic sinking). According to Harold Bride, the junior wireless operator:
…from aft came the tunes of the band…The ship was gradually turning on her nose—just like a duck that goes down for a dive. I had only one thing on my mind—to get away from the suction. The band was still playing. I guess all of the band went down. They were playing Autumn then. I swam with all my might. I suppose I was 150 feet away when the Titanic, on her nose, with her afterquarter sticking straight up in the air, began to settle slowly…The way the band kept playing was a noble thing. I heard it first while we were still working wireless, when there was a ragtime tune for us, and the last I saw of the band, when I was floating out in the sea with my lifebelt on, it was still on deck playing Autumn. How they ever did it I cannot imagine.
I haven’t heard any other versions of the work, so I have nothing to compare it with, but Alter Ego’s version is ethereal and flowing. There’s no melody or rhythm to catch, but it has a dark feeling and constant slow movement from one soundscape to another that makes it really interesting. At one point, crowd noise enters the mix, rising and falling to sound just like waves while at the same time, a subtle Morse code tapping of S–O–S is heard. I didn’t notice either feature on the first two listens, so I’m sure there’s a lot more to hear and pick up.
Brian Eno’s Music for Airports is a classic of ambient electronic music, built from tape loops of all sorts of sounds. I had a cassette of Eno’s recording in high school and listened to it a lot. Surprisingly, the live version I downloaded by the Bang on a Can All-Stars is quite recognizable to me as the same work, even though I probably haven’t listened to the original recording in more than twenty years. In the eMusic review of this version, John Schaefer writes:
Eno wanted his “ambient music” (his term) to be “as ignorable as it is interesting.” Music for Airports is both. With a stillness that belies the fact that its minimal musical materials are constantly cycling through, the piece serves to tint the sonic atmosphere but also reveals unexpected juxtapositions of sounds—especially in the Bang on a Can arrangements. A studio recording by the All-Stars was released 10 years ago. This is a live performance from 1998, and demonstrates that even with humans playing it, Music for Airports still does what Eno originally wanted it to: it challenges our most basic notions about what is or isn’t music, and it creates a spare, contemplative inner space.
I also have Bang on a Can’s version of Terry Riley’s In C. Very enjoyable. Given how much I like these two BoaC records, I’m looking forward to hearing their version of Philip Glass’s Music in Fifths, which eMusic also has.
The final album I downloaded is Joan Tower’s composition Made in America with Leonard Slatkin and the Nashville Symphony Orchestra (?!) on Naxos which won three classical Grammy Awards this year (Best Classical Album, Best Orchestral Performance, Best Contemporary Classical Composition). It was also one of the better reviewed contemporary classical orchestral recordings last year (according to eMusic classical expert nereffid) so I was eager to check it out.
The title piece was commissioned by 65 smaller orchestras in the United States, set to America, the Beautiful, and designed to be playable by any regional orchestra. Between 2005 and 2007 it was performed in all 50 states, culminating with a performance by the Juneau Symphony in Alaska. According to Tower, “The theme is challenged by other aggressive and dissonant ideas that keep interrupting, interjecting, and unsettling it.” I like the dynamic nature of it, carrying the listener along.
The other tracks on the album are equally impressive. Tambor focuses on orchestral percussion and is a driving, rhythmic work that is still very “classical,” (as opposed to something like Steve Reich’s Drumming, which is percussive, rhythmic, but much more “contemporary” sounding). The final two tracks are her Concerto for Orchestra, which I like, but haven’t had a chance to absorb yet. One of the reviews I read mentioned there’s a tuba solo and duelling duets of trumpets in the work, so I need to look out for that.
All in all, a great set of downloads. There’s just so much variety and creativity in contemporary classical music that it’s hard to decide what to download, even as all the other categories of classical music (and indie rock, for that matter!) compete for my time. Maybe next week I’ll go back to some of Bach’s cantatas.
I’ve been taking a break from Bach for the past week, listening to some modern stuff recommended by various blogs and lists on eMusic. It’s quite a change from baroque music, and requires a whole different manner of interpretation and listening. Pieces include Karlitz Stockhausen’s Gruppen (DG), some flute concertos by Kalevi Aho, Haukur Tómasson and Christian Lindberg (BIS / eMusic), Symphonies 1 and 4 by Jean Sibelius (really more romantic than modern, I guess) (BIS / eMusic), Turangalîla-Symphonie by Oliver Messiaen (Naxos / eMusic) and James MacMillan’s Triduum (BIS / eMusic).
I don’t have much to say about them, really, since I don’t feel like I completely understood what I was listening to. The Sibelius symphonies are fantastic, and I certainly enjoyed parts of the others, but in all the music I was struck by how disjointed they all seemed. Part of my problem, at least with Messiaen’s symphony is that the work has a very carefully designed structure with three themes (statue, flower, love) and ten movements connected by these themes, but as much as I tried, I couldn’t easily pick up these themes, and so I didn’t see the pattern. The Wikipedia entry even includes some music notation to help an educated reader pick up the melody of the themes, but I no longer remember how to read music.
I think this is sort of like reading Thomas Pynchon. If you don’t pay attention and read carefully, the whole thing will seem completely incoherent. But if you look up the references, write down the characters, and really study what’s going on, his books are masterful in ways that most other writers don’t approach. My problem with musical analogues to this kind of brilliance is that I’m a much more accomplished reader than musical listener. I lack the basic tools to even know what I should be listening for. But as Pynchon (and Joyce before him) have demonstrated to me, it’s worth the effort when you’re ready.
I’ll be revisiting these works again.