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Posted by gustav at 03:01AM, Friday, November 01st, 2002

New Music

I need to get motivated and start writing music again. To get into thinking-about-music mode, here I present what I've been finding stimulating lately.

Evan Ziporyn: This Is not a Clarinet

Evan Ziporyn is a cool dude. He's associated with Bang on a Can, which is about the hottest thing out of the downtown New York music scene in the past decade. Think of them as the 90s-00s version of Laurie Anderson, only louder. They're exciting because they embrace non-academic music sensibilities without approaching rock or jazz as quaint ethnographic studies; instead, they really do revolutionary, obnoxious stuff, combining traditional classical instruments and pop ones, amplifying lots of stuff, and freely using found objects -- like cans -- as instruments. The downside is that they can come across as grating and flashy, and lacking in substance (at least, that's how the uptown NY establishment might characterize them.)

Ziporyn's music is a little different from that of his Bang on a Can compatriots, I think. He tends to be slightly more cerebral. His work bears repeated listening more than works by David Lang and Julia Wolfe. It can certainly be obnoxious, but it can also be subtle and ingenious. He's a virtuosic clarinettist, so most of what he's written prominently features clarinets. He also really likes bass clarinet, which is a Good Thing. On this album, he's the only performer. The first two works he wrote. There's one, recorded with lots of overdubbing, by Michael Tenzer, about whom I know nothing, and one by David Lang. It's the Ziporyn pieces that get me excited on this (though the Lang one, Press Release, is pretty neat). Extended technique, neat sounds, formal rigour, and a hint of harmonic-series-based process make this stuff super appealing to me. And the best realization yet of clarinet pizzicato can't be beat.

Philip Glass: Various

I've listened to a lot of Glass stuff over the years. Recently, I watched the films Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi for the first time. His music works fabulously well with the sorts of visual rhythmic textures the movies set up. I still find his earlier pieces a little grating after a while -- it's far from relaxing, and, although this sounds absurd coming from someone who's a big fan of music in the minimalist genre, I can find it cloyingly repetitive. I don't think this is so much from the repeated motives as from Glass' fondness in the late 70s and early 80s for a sort of clangy sound that I just don't like, and from his tendency to set up rhythmic patterns that I find ungrokkable, and, therefore, uneasiness-inducing. A lot of his 90s music seems to have moved away from that. I've been listening to the violin concerto again, and really liking it. The Gidon Kremer recording is a great performance.

Orbital: Snivilisation

A lot of the stuff Rocky's been listening to lately I'm finding pretty interesting. I'm starting to experiment with electronic music more, now that I finally have some hardware to use. It's amazing to me, listening to a lot of this stuff, how clearly so many of these guys have spent lots and lots of time getting high listening to Steve Reich albums, or, in this case, Philip Glass. It's easy to imagine sitting down, putting on headphones, and getting lost in these artificial soundscapes.

Some of this music is a little obvious, and tends towards the repetitive (again, surprise, surprise.) Personally, I could go for either a lot more rhythmic complexity -- deeper rhythmic textures -- or more obvious movement through some sort of process, or a little of both. Static repetition I find somewhat uninteresting. On the other hand, some of the sonorities are fascinating, and this does one thing that most of the minimalists don't seem to do: night music. That sort of sparse, super-quiet, ambient feel is something that I don't associate with Glass, or Reich, or John Adams. I've heard it in a couple movements from Terry Riley string quartets, but that's it. It's curious, because it seems like something to which minimalism is well suited. This sort of thing I do associate with electronic music, though -- be it Brian Eno or these guys. That sort of drawing-you-in-while-being-subdued-enough-for-background-music is what Orbital and similar bands seem to do really well.

Leonard Bernstein: Mass

For some reason, I never got around to listening to this in grad school. I picked up a recording about a year ago, and only recently stuck it in my CD player. It's pretty mind-bending stuff. Traditional Bernstein, Copland-influenced, uneven metered, jazz-flavored, "American" sound meets Hair. Part theater-piece, maybe even vaguely Harry Partch-influenced, part conflicted neurotic liberal Jewish angsty soul-baring, part political scrant, it somehow comes together into this tremendous very cutting-edge seeming experience. I was prepared to be blown away and call Bernstein the biggest musical genius of the 20th Century, but then I read the liner notes, and apparently this came out after Hair. Okay, so it was precursed by something more straight-ahead poppy. Still, for whatever reason I find it hard to imagine anyone big these days -- Joan Tower? -- having the balls to make this kind of sloppy, humanist political statement. Recommended listening.

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