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Listening Listfully 2010, The Details, Part IV:
Minstrels in the Gallery Edition

Please. O Muse!  Hearken to my cry and let me finish this before the year is out. 

Very well: this is the fourth and final installment in my expanded commentary on the top 20 items on my 2010 List of Most Preferred List-ening Material.  In this segment, perhaps the most conventional items of them all: plain ol' Mostly 'Merican Mainstream Music of the Olde Schoole, drawing to one extent or another on folk and popular traditions.  So here we go with my final Non-Dirty Half-Dozen:


#5  National Ransom

  National ransom

Elvis Costello

I have been following Elvis Costello—off and on, inconsistently, not like a stalker or something—since his first album and caught his first American tour, in which he was second billed to the now-largely-forgotten Mink DeVille, at Winterland in San Francisco.  I haven't actually seen him live since then, but no matter.  He is, I will insist, possibly the finest living American Songwriter ever to be born in London, and thus being therefore some kind of a foreigner. 

Here, Costello re-ups with T-Bone Burnett, who produced last year's very fine Secret, Profane and Sugarcane.  Where that album stuck mainly to a retro-Americana sound, National Ransom ranges across the musical map and hearkens to nearly every stage of Costello's now-long career.  If it relates directly to any prior Burnett-Costello collaboration, it would have to be 1990's Spikewhich showed a similarly cavalier attitude toward genre.

This is my favorite Costello record of his current, very productive period, and is even better to my mind than Sugarcane was.  There is no consistency of style, song to song, other than the constant of Costello's singing voice.  Half the fun is deciding which previous Costello record any given song would have fit right into.  Elvis Costello, without for an instant getting nostalgic or sentimental in the least about it, draws here on most everything he's done in the past three decades and Brings It All Back Home.  

Here's a little video primer from Mr. Costello and company:


#6  The Courage of Others

  Courage of others


My my my: this may be the most unfairly savaged record of the year.  

Here's the story: in 2006, seemingly out of nowhere, Midlake released The Trials of Van Occupanther, in which they took a series of songs evoking a lost American Pastoral Era, vaguely 19th century but not particularly specific, and ran them through the prism of late-1970's mainstream American radio—think Lindsey Buckingham period Fleetwood Mac (listen to "Roscoe" from that album and just try to think of anything else), America, and the like.  The "indie kids" just ate it up.  As well they should have done, because Occupanther is a record of tremendous craft and appeal.

Suddenly, it is 2010.  MIdlake have worked very hard on a follow-up, reportedly threatening to break up the band in the process.  The record is immensely anticipated.  It is given out, accurately, that the band is now interested in a different set of influences: the Brit-Folk Revival stylings of, say, Fairport Convention or the Incredible String Band.  Out comes the record and . . . the dastardly Pitchfork nails it wriggling to the wall with a rating of 3.6 out of 10.  They might as well have assured you that listening would give you salmonella poisoning and a nasty rash.  Morons.

Pitchfork, and others who were similarly disdainful because, well, it isn't Occupanther, turned on the band and its record with abandon.  And that is simply wrong.  This is a wonderful record, to my mind, provided you are not put off by serious levels of sincerity and yearning to Get Back to the Garden.



#12  Alegrías


Howe Gelb & a Band of Gypsies

I have become a huge fancier of Howe Gelb (Giant Sand) in the past few years, as earlier year-end surveys will attest.  This project, released so far as I can determine by a Spanish label, exists in this country only as a download, but download it you really should.  Gelb, rooted in Tucson and often cited as the progenitor of "alt-country", traveled to and lived in Córdoba, Spain, and entered into a fruitful collaboration and cross-pollination with scary-proficient Spanish traditional musicians, particularly Raimundo Amador and his compatriots.  The result is a uniquely steamy Peninsular concoction that will leave your eyes and ears wide open.


#14  Destroyer of the Void


Blitzen Trapper is another product of Portland, Oregon.  The band mixes the down-home side of, say, the Grateful Dead, with the noise-funk-slacker-psychedelic experimentalism of, say, Beck, resulting in a sound that is strictly Blitzen Trapper.   Popmatters, in an interesting post on "The Best Fantastical Music of 2010", speaks of the "magical realism vibe that runs throughout" Destroyer of the Void, and there's definitely something to that.  This is another of those records that I have simply found that I really like to listen to: invite it in, and it is likely to find a niche in your rotation, too.

 Blitzen Trapper - Heaven and Earth


#15  Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook


Bettye LaVette

So, Bettye LaVette is the real deal: an authentic soul diva from the golden Hitsville, U.S.A. period of Motown who, for the usual array of totally unfair reasons, never got the career she deserved.  And now, as these things occasionally sort themselves out, she is busily disproving Fitzgerald's insistence that there are no second acts in American life.

Interpretations is just what it says it is: LaVette taking a run at a series of British rock standards and near-standards.  She does it with a tight band and arrangements that are deeply soulful without being other than relentlessly tasteful—we're not talking gutbucket, Dap-Kings soul here, but something much more elegant. LaVette has not hesitated to modify and personalize the material—her take on Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here" is exquisite, but it is not at all about Syd Barrett anymore, becoming instead a tribute to Marvin Gaye and other fallen Motown giants of her acquaintance—and the result is quietly thrilling and as solid as, well, a British rock.

Here, her renditions of standards from Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones:

Bettye LaVette - All of my Love

Bettye LaVette - Salt Of The Earth


#19  What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood


The Mynabirds

Every year or two, someone moves in on the blue-eyed gospel/soul mantle of Dusty Springfield,  In this case, it's Laura Burhenn, formerly of the pop group Georgie James.  I say its an entirely credible effort and that it goes down like a perfect gin and tonic in the summertime.   In the back pew.  Shhh.

The Mynabirds - Numbers Don't Lie

Thus endeth the Listen.


NEXT: Very likely some subject other than music.  Who can say?  

Many, many thanks to those who have been drawn to these posts, most especially the musicians and music lovers who have been so encouraging, have started following me on Twitter, and so on.  I am all Gratitude on that score.


Listening Listfully 2010, The Details, Part III:
Fascinatin' Rhythm Edition

In the third segment of my four-part ramble through the details of my 2010 List of Favoright Musics, we turn away from the exciting world of alt-pseudo-new-nu-Classical and step toward . . . what?  Naming styles and genres is such a puzzlement these days.  I suppose much of this group would be classed as "indie," and there are enough guitars 'n' drums 'n' basses involved to qualify most of it as "rock," but then what do we do about all the violins and saxophones and oddly tuned percussion and such?  

What.  Ever.

The connection between these five items lies in their fondness for rhythms and the way rhythms can play and phase off of one another.  The "pulse" of the High Minimalists (Riley, Reich, Glass) is often present, albeit popularized and played with.  Also, you could in theory dance to much of this music, though you might well draw strange and troubled looks from passers-by if you tried it.


#7  Mines



Menomena, a trio from Portland, OR, seems always to be described as an "experimental" band, and I cannot say why.  Nor do I find that I can really describe the thing that Menomena does . . .  or the things that Menomena do.  In some ways, these are conventional pop songs; in their details, they are nothing of the sort.  Even when they are setting out the traditional guitars, drums and bass, and kicking the traditional gluteus, it all comes out sounding New and Wrong.  Give "TAOS" a try, below.  It is just a song about being awkward and inebriated at parties, and yet it has a sort of galactic sweep to it that the material cannot, in itself, justify. Which is to say, it's really neat.

If Vladimir and Estragon had an iPod with them by their tree, this is what would be on it.  And then they'd try to hang themselves with the earbud cord.  Smiling.

Menomena - Five Little Rooms

Menomena - TAOS


#8  Field Music [Measure]


Field Music

Always trust content from the Brewis Brothers.  I have frequently seen Field Music compared to early XTC, and it does share with that band an utterly English sensibility, a love for tidy song structure, and a fondness for a clickety-clacking rush of crosstalk among the guitars and drums.  I personally find Field Music more satisfying, even cuddly in some ways.

Field Music (Measure) is, in the physical world, an old fashioned double album, 20 tracks concluding with a 10-minute impressionistic sound collage.  While there is a readily recognizable Field Music sound throughout, there is also splendid variety of musical ideas flying in every direction, with harmonic twists enough to maintain constant interest.

This video for "Let's Write a Book" is a rush of Pop Art, like a moving grooving James Rosenquist painting, with the Brewis lads themselves getting the Roy Lichtenstein benday-dot treatment.  The title track is available below.

Field Music - Measure


#13  Magic Chairs



Denmark's Efterklang is the group here that hews most closely to the alt/new classical mode I have been on about in previous segments.  They recorded their previous album, Parades, twice: once in the studio and once (as Performing Parades) with the Danish National Chamber Orchestra.  In some ways, if they were just starting out somewhere in Brooklyn, they'd be a perfect New Amsterdam ensemble.

As with Menomena, I am having difficulty articulating just what works so well in Efterklang's music.  At the same time, I am wondering whether perhaps I have put this album too far down on my List.  So many arbitrary decisions go into the process: what's an enthusiast to do?

Listen to the piano part in "Modern Drift" below, or the big violin break in the middle of "I Was Playing Drums" belower, and try not to think Reich/Glass.  Yet Efterklang is its own thing, and that is a happy wonderment.  

If there was a "PostMinimalClassicism" merit badge, Efterklang would be out in the woods earning it.

Yeah, they probably belong higher on the List....


Efterklang - Modern Drift



#16  Part II: the New December

Fol chen

Fol Chen

Although for reasons of its own the band calls no attention to the fact, beneath the floorboards of Fol Chen lies the still beating heart of the late, lamented Bedroom Walls.  Now, however, what was once elegantly eccentric chamber-pop comes tricked out with an attic full of hip-hop trickery, electro-paraphernalia and just plain noise, as well as an inscrutable underlying post-apocalyptic conceit.  I've bought into it—here it is on my list, right?—but many will just find the twitching and gesturing annoying.  Ignore that impulse, if you will.  In the end, with some little effort, this is fine and pleasurable stuff.

Here are two examples:


Fol Chen - In Ruins



#17  Omni


Minus the Bear

Minus the Bear is the musical equivalent of hot buttered popcorn: virtually no nutritional value, but once I start consuming it I can't stop until's it's all's gone.  

The band does not pretend to depth in this collection—nearly every song is about sex or drinking or, occasionally, drugs, and the combinations in which these things might be indulged, and the surface level complications that may follow therefrom if you catch my meaning if you get my drift—nor does it insist that Attention Must Be Paid to its Profundity.  What Minus the Bear brings to this material that others do not is simple in theory and hard in practice: this band is a beautifully tuned and virtuosic music-making machine, its parts locking together with the precision of a Swiss watch.  

If it is the guiltiest pleasure on this list, at least that pleasure is genuine and earned.

Here's a charmingly goofy sample:


NEXT: In the final installment of this survey, people singing songs with guitars, getting back to the land, communing with nature, crying in the chapel, wishing you were here, and wallowing in their yearning, hopes, and dreams.  Now that's what I call music.


Listening Listfully 2010, The Details, Part II:
"Nico Muhly is the Mozart of Our Age" Edition
[Bedroom Community selections]

In this second of four installments detailing some of the what's and the why's of my List of my favorite music of the year, the focus is again on a single record label: Bedroom Community, which takes (at least indirectly) three spots in my personal Top 20.


You read it here first: Nico Muhly is the Mozart of our age.  

Now that is a statement that needs to be seriously hedged about with explanations, so I will offer up one or two.

When I use the term "Mozart" here, I am not really thinking of Mozart the actual historical person or Mozart the extraordinary prodigy or Mozart the supreme figure of hitherto unexampled creative genius, although I am thinking of each of those more than just a wee bit.  For the most part, though, I am thinking of this Mozart:

That is, of course, Tom Hulce as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in Milos Forman's film version of Peter Schaffer's Amadeus.  Schaffer/Forman/ Hulce's Mozart is all the supreme and prodigious and miraculous things I just mentioned, and at the same time a low, giggling prankster with a fondness for the crudest sort of joke.  You know, dog farts and such like. Nico Muhly is kind of like that, too, at least as he presents himself through his blog and especially through his Twitter feed.  That blog, I make haste to add, is well worth the following, because it is so often home to seriously sharp writing on the process and inner workings of music making. The savvy and the sulphurous live together happily on that blog, with the savvy tending to win out.

By now, I assume most folks likely to be reading this are already familiar with at least the broad outlines on Nico Muhly: New England born, turns 30 this coming year, double/simultaneous degrees from Julliard (M.A., Musik) and Columbia (Englitch Litt), worked for/with Philip Glass as score preparer and assistant for several years, prolific and serious Contemporary Composer and Collaborator in settings high and low.  In that latter capacity, he has contributed arrangements and accompaniments to a range of artists including the likes of Antony and the Johnsons.

It was in his "orchestral arranger" role that I first became aware of Muhly, via Bonnie "Prince" Billy's The Letting Go in 2006.  That album (recommended!) was produced by Valgeir Sigurðsson and recorded at his Greenhouse Studio in Reykjavik, and it was there—also in 2006—that Sigurðsson, Muhly, and Ben Frost formed Bedroom Community.

Bedroom Community has a verrrry exclusive list of artists in its stable: basically the three founders plus Sam Amidon and Icelandic composer Daníel Bjarnason.  And this year two of those five contribute three selections to my List.  Let's examine them, shall we? 


#2 [tie]    I See the Sign

I see the sign 

Sam Amidon

I See the Sign received a post of its own on Good Friday and I must confess I have little to add to it.  Sam Amidon is one of the world's true musical treasures.  We would have him bronzed and erected on a tasteful pedestal of local mineral origin in the market square, but he'd be of no further use to us then, would he?  

I wrote a year ago almost to the day that Sam Amidon's All Is Well, with Nico Muhly arrangements, would have been my clear Number One Choice for 2008, but for my not having compiled a List in 2008, and I added: "Based upon the one track that is circulating about at the moment, I can predict with confidence that I will be talking about Sam's I See the Sign somewhere on next year's list."

Well, yeah.

It is interesting, to me, that my Good Friday Sam Amidon post actually mentions ol' Homer's Penelope—apropos of the wonderful "Pretty Fair Damsel" on I See the Sign—given that Sarah Kirkland Snider's Penelope is essentially the only thing standing between Sam Amidon and another Number One spot with me.  Coincidence?  I think not.

In any event: as was true of All is Well, I See the Sign is a collection of music that simply invests itself into the listener's inner life and stays there.  It is the very exemplar of Ezra Pound's injunction to "Make it new." It is fine, darned fine, and not to be missed.



#4  I Drink the Air Before Me

I drink the air 

Nico Muhly

This is my favorite Nico Muhly recording to date, perhaps because it is more performance-driven and less obviously a creature of the recording studio than the earlier Speaks Volumes and Mothertongue.  Mind you, those are fine recordings, though Mothertongue especially is, for me, more interesting in theory than  in execution (albeit still full of really really good stuff).  But I digress—

Some composers find an approach that works for them and simply stick with it, so that their works are almost immediately recognizable as theirs. Debussy almost always sounds like Debussy, for example.  More recently, Philip Glass and Steve Reich have done something similar.  (This is as good an opportunity as any to point to Kyle Gann's kind o' brilliant Christmas Eve post, "Resisting the Narrative," which gives a hard look at the mixed blessing of being "typed" as a composer of one kind or another. Steve Reich, he notes, has done quite well by being "unbendingly faithful to his brand.")  

To his credit, Nico Muhly is not [yet?] one of those composers of whom it can be said "I know him when I hear him."  If he has one distinctive calling card/quirk, it is a sort of fluttering/twittering tendency in the woodwinds ... which personally I quite like.

So, what of I Drink the Air Before Me?  Well, I wrote about it back in September, and there's not much to add.  I do want to quote Nico Muhly's own description of the assignment he had before him, crafting music for a dance performance by the Stephen Petronio Company:

Start small, get big!  The rules: a children's choir should begin and end the piece.  The work should relate to the weather: storms, anxiety, and coastal living.  A giant build-up should land us inside the center of a storm, with whirling, irregular, spiral-shaped music and irregular, spiral-shaped dancing.

Exactly.  And here, Muhly has had the advantage (I suspect) of picking who would be the players of the finished piece, and of writing (much as Duke Ellington was able to do) to the strengths of those players.  As a result, I Drink the Air features extended segments showing off the Mad Wild Chops of, say, Nadia Sirota's viola or Alex Sopp's flute.  And it's all good. 


#11  Nico Muhly: A Good Understanding

Good understanding

Los Angeles Master Chorale
under the direction of Grant Gershon 

This is not a true Bedroom Community project because, while it is 100% devoted to Nico Muhly's music, it is not a Nico Muhly recording.  Instead, this is a project of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, released via the mighty Decca Classics label.

Much has been made of Muhly's abiding fondness for the golden age of Anglican choral music, particularly music from the Tudor and Jacobean eras, and it has been claimed, not least by the composer himself, that this choral strain is a huge part of what he does.  And yet, I have been able to detect very little of that influence in the works that have previously seen commercial release.  If we examine his catalogue of works, we find an abundance of liturgical and choral pieces that simply have not seen the light outside of live performance.  A Good Understanding remedies that omission, surveying examples of Muhly's choral writing over the course of his career to date. 

"Bright Mass with Canons" does, really, what you would hope and expect from a piece with that title: it offers up the praises of the congregation and reflects the lightborne shower of affection returned by the object of that praise.  Comfort and joy, indeed.  And it includes one of my favorite little musical gestures here: a full-on Glass pastiche slipped as a special treat in to the closing minute of the "Sanctus."

"First Service", settings of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittus, is similarly open and giving music, not far removed from the best bits of Bernstein's Mass—of which Muhly wrote a fine appreciation for Opera News back in 2008.  It is followed by his setting of Senex Pueram Portabat, which I praised at Christmas, and the title piece "A Good Understanding," an urgent organ-driven cobbling-together of two Psalm texts.

The set ends, sadly, on what is for me its weakest note: "Expecting the Main Things From You," built on excerpts from Walt Whitman.  My quarrel here is much more with Whitman than with the composer: I know how and why he is is Important, but he Does Not Move Me as a poet. Whitman has been the ruin of many a composer.  I am prepared to believe he is affirmatively un-settable: his music is not the music of Music, if you follow. 

Still and all, A Good Understanding has many more wonderful parts than not in it, and deserves attention from anyone not inclined to run screaming at the sight of an oncoming choir. 


I have only just now started listening to Daníel Bjarnason's Processions, which is striking me as a recording that probably would have a spot on my List if only I'd heard it sooner.  It is the sort of loud, dissonant music that sends Traditional Symphony-Goers to the exits, but not (if one would only listen) deserving of that reaction.  Very intriguing stuff, of which I may have more to say after living with it for a while.


NEXT: In Part III, five albums whose connection with one another lies in each being full of inventive and tricksy rhythms.


Listening Listfully 2010, The Details, Part I:
New Amsterdam Records Special Edition
[Including This Year's #1]

New Amsterdam, it's become much too much....
    —Elvis Costello, "New Amsterdam" (1980)


When I posted my List of my favorite musical recordings of 2010, I promised—promised myself as much as anyone else—that I was at work on "more detailed posts . . . replete with embedded media and other choice frills and gewgaws" that would expand on my choices.  With the last week of the year lowering down upon me, my plan is to roll out those posts over these next few days, before 2010 consigns itself at the last to the Island of Misfit Years.  

Rather than reviewing The List in strict numerical sequence, I have opted to proceed thematically. The theme for this first post is my favorite releases from New Amsterdam Records which, as I have said previously, more or less owned my ears in 2010.  

New Amsterdam, for those not already familiar with it, is a New York based label founded by three young composers—Judd Greenstein, Sarah Kirkland Snider, and William Brittelle—as an outlet for their own music and that of their professional friends and collaborators.  To some extent, New Amsterdam is a "generational" label, tapping in to a community of classically-trained but eclectically inclined musicians for whom "serious music" is not confined to traditional concert hall venues and is not restricted in the influences it can absorb and reuse.  There is no single "New Amsterdam style," and the recordings that have come out under its umbrella range from more-or-less "conventional" contemporary chamber music through large ensemble jazz (last year's Infernal Machines by Darcy James Argue's Secret Society, just recently nominated for a Grammy as "Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album") through lushly elaborate Pure Pop.  

What is largely shared among the composers and performers at New Amsterdam is a background with superserious institutions of musical learning such as Julliard and Yale combined with relentless curiosity and intelligence in the quest for high-level musical expression.  Please don't call it "crossover," as I fear the Los Angeles Times tried to do in an irritating article this past August, which attempted to conflate New Amsterdam with the generally ghastly "classical arrangements of rock tunes/rock arrangements of classical tunes" school.  

Here, then, are the six—count 'em, six—New Amsterdam Records releases that placed in my personal Top 20 for 2010:

#1    Penelope 


Composed by Sarah Kirkland Snider,
performed by Shara Worden and Signal

Sarah Kirkland Snider's Penelope is Number One on the list this year, and a clear and easy choice for me for that position.  I have gone on at length in the past on the subject of Penelope, so I will be brief on this occasion.  Let it suffice that everyone involved in its writing, its composition, its performance and its recording should be praised and thanked for bringing such a fully satisfying work to the world.  

Snider's Penelope is much like Homer's own Penelope: Beautiful, intelligent, strong, humane, deft and subtle in its craft.  She's a keeper, for sure.

Just in time for Christmas, New Amsterdam last week released this new video trailer for Penelope, featuring performance footage and brief interviews with the key participants: 


#2 [tie]    Television Landscape

Television landscape

Wiliam Brittelle

Television Landscape, like Penelope, has previously received a post of its own.  It rocks unapologetically, with fervor and smarts to burn, a sort of apotheosis of dramatic orchestral pop, but its seeming wild abandon is in fact fully-composed, its every gesture planned and notated in advance with the same detail usually reserved for a tone poem or concerto. Balanced at the edge of excess and decadence but never quite falling prey to them, you don't so much listen to Television Landscape as sink guiltily into it, consuming it as you would a perfectly sized portion of a perfect dessert.

 William Brittelle - Dunes of Vermillion


#3   Sweet Light Crude

Sweet light crude  


sweet light crude came out of nowhere in November and powered its way instantly into the upper end of my List.  Newspeak describes itself as "an eight-piece amplified ensemble working under the direction of composer [and drummer] David T. Little and clarinetist Eileen Mack. . . . embedding elements of a rock band into a classical new music ensemble."  Again, please don't call it "crossover."  If Newspeak belongs anywhere in the spectrum of popular music, it is on the elite outer edges of the oft-maligned "progressive rock" genre, in the company of the best work of King Crimson or Soft Machine.  In many ways, as I enthused in a tweet earlier this month, sweet light crude really is the best "prog" album since King Crimson's Red, way back in 1974.

In addition to co-directors Little and Mack, Newspeak includes Caleb Burhans (violin), Melissa Hughes (soprano), Taylor Levine (electric guitar), Brian Snow (cello and bass), James Johnston (synthesizer), and Peter Wise (percussion).  sweet light crude offers up six different pieces by six different composers, showing off the ensemble's substantial virtuosity and aggressive commitment to contemporary, serious music. 

The sequencing of works on sweet light crude is a classic fast/slow/ louder/softer mix.  The set fires off immediately with Oscar Bettison's "B&E (with aggravated assault)," a clanking, charging, jazz-driven turn that evokes a Looney Tunes short as scored by Charles Mingus.  "I Would Prefer Not To" by Stefan Weisman features Melissa Hughes repeating the passive-aggressive title phrase (famously the refrain of Melville's sorry scrivener, Bartleby) over a meandering drone with hiccups of percussion. David T. Little's "Sweet LIght Crude" is, as its title suggests, a nervous paean to black gold, Texas tea—oil, that is.  See the appropriately jumpy video below.  Missy Mazzoli's "In Spite of All This" returns to a more contemplative, if knotty, mode, probing furtively about with occasional nervous outbursts, before Pat Muchmore's Pynchon-inspired "Brennschluß"—named for the moment, featured in Gravity's Rainbow, when the fuel of a ballistic missile burns out and pure Newtonian physics takes over—roars Metallically to the fore.  After that bout of explosive chaos, the set closes with the slow, majestic, post-Industrial elegy of Caleb Burhans' "Requiem for a General Motors in Janesville, WI."

Like the promise of a hanging in the morning, sweet light crude concentrates the mind wonderfully. 


#9    Fallen Monuments

Fallen monuments

It's Caleb Burhans again, in collaboration with guitarist Grey McMurray and an array of digital looping and effects.  As itsnotyouitsme, Burhans and McMurray jointly compose, or improvise, and play an array of largely Ambient music marked by simultaneous qualities of doubt and majesty. Fallen Monuments is a transitional collection, largely drawn from live recordings and one-off improvisatons, focusing on music that, they say, they are unlikely ever to play again.  Largely quiet and gentle, but without weakness beneath it.   

itsnotyouitsme - Vanity stays my hand


#10    Cathedral City

Cathedral city

Sometimes a composer just wants to have a personal ensemble to write for, and Victoire serves that purpose for Missy Mazzoli.  Five women—Mazzoli and Lorna Krier on various keyboard instruments, Eileen Mack (see Newspeak, supra) on clarinet, Olivia De Prato on violin, and Eleonore Oppenheim on bass—sometimes supplemented with extra guests, such as Melissa Hughes (Newspeak, op. cit.), work their way through Mazzoli's angular, appealing music.  About half of the material on Cathedral City previously appeared on a downloadable EP from eMusic in 2008: that material, already plenty intriguing, has been re-recorded in slightly modified and strengthened form, and is supplemented by an equal number of newer pieces.  Difficult to describe, never boring, all recommended. 


#18    i am not



Janus, aka the Janus Trio, is flutist Amanda Baker, violist Beth Meyers, and harpist Nuiko Wadden.  As that configuration suggests, this is the most purely "classical" of the releases considered here, in many ways, although the trio is often supplemented by percussion or electronics of various kinds.  Whatever that lineup of instruments might lead you to expect, the music of Janus is neither dainty nor old-fashioned.  Nine pieces, six composers (Jason Treuting's "I am not (blank)" is spread across the album in four parts), and three strong players make for a sparking and sparkling survey of what these instruments can do in tandem.  Frequently lovely, but with a free and assertive mind of its own, Janus as an entity is never dull.  By way of example, here are brief excerpts of Janus performing Caleb Burhans' "Keymaster" live:  

NEXT: In Part II, three choices from Iceland's Bedroom Community label.


Top Photo: The Nieuw Amsterdam on the Hudson River, New York City, 1909, via Maritime Quest


Happy Christmas
[mit Doppel-Schönberg und extra Muhly]

Union station holiday

I have established something of a lazy blogging habit tradition here of honoring Christmas—that wonderful German invention—with Arnold Schönberg's Weinachtsmusik, his lovely pre-12-tone chamber arrangement of the German carol "Es ist ein Ros entsprungen" (Michael Praetorius, 1609), known in English as "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming." Tradition dies hard, so here we go again.  

We begin, for at least the third time in seven years, with a video from the Arnold Schönberg Center, Vienna, featuring memorabilia and photos of the composer and his family.  The photographs include (ca. 2:23) my personal favorite: Schönberg in 1947 in his Los Angeles backyard, watering the cactus—and writing about it to Alma Mahler.

I am pleased to have found a second version to offer up this year.  This performance comes from the Taverner Consort, under the direction of Andrew Parrott, and is accompanied by photos of the Peak District, Derbyshire, in which there are no cactus.

A Happy Christmas to all from a fool in the forest.


For Further Reading/Listening:  Although it was written back in September, this post by Nico Muhly is largely about his late-December-appropriate setting of the text Senex Pueram Portabat, which in his version is combined with the explicitly Christmassy Hodie Christus natus est.  He has helpfully embedded the Los Angeles Master Chorale's recording of the piece in the post (as well as a recording of the choir of King's College Cambridge performing William Byrd's 1605 setting of Senex).  It is probably my single favorite item on the Master Chorale's very fine Muhly recording, A Good Understanding.  The post is worth reading whether you listen (as you should) to the music or not, for the reason that when Nico Muhly is of a mind to talk about how music works—whether it is his own music or someone else's—he is really good at it.  

Lovely music, smart writing: who can ask for more on a holiday?

If, by chance, that post gets you in the mood for more choral music, consider Obsessive Choral, the series of online broadcasts Mr Muhly put together for WQXR's "Q2" service, sharing the choral music that has most influenced or excited him as a composer (and erstwhile choirboy).  There is splendid stuff throughout—John Taverner's Western Wind Mass (ca. 1520) in Episode 1 for starters—and three of the four episodes are available to download.  The fourth, focusing on the 20th century, is streamable-only, presumably for copyright reasons.  I was under the impression that I had no ongoing interest in choral music until these broadcasts proved me wrong.


Photo by the blogger.


A Toast at Christmas Time:
Bob Schneider, "Fairytale of New York"

Christmas Time is Here, LA Union Station

A kinder, gentler, insult-free version of the Pogues' classic:

Bob Schneider - Fairytale of New York

For those who may be craving the salty original just about now, the site Irish Central revisits the making of "Fairytale of New York", concluding with the observation that the song "never made it to No. 1 on release [in 1987], finishing second in Britain to a Pet Shop Boys number, now long forgotten [sic]."


Photo by the blogger: Los Angeles, Union Station, 4 December 2009.


A Song for the Solstice: "Walking in the Air"

Now, to our discontent, is Winter come.  

Here in California, last night's big "Earth vs. Sun, One on One" match-up was rained out.  Still, the solsticial moment has come [15:38 PST] and with it the occasion for more wintry music.

Hong Kong in the 60s, "a multilingual London three-piece who formed in 2007 and are influenced by early electronic pop, 1960s Chinese music and Italian film soundtracks," recently contributed a wordless version of the endlessly covered "Walking in the Air" (from the 1982 animated film, The Snowman) to the holiday compilation Christmastime, Approximately, compiled for the holidays by—and, at this writing, still available as a free download from—the good people at the Where It's At Is Where You Are label.

There's a seasonal video accompaniment, of course:

And here is the tune without visual aids:

Hong Kong in the 60s — Walking in the Air


A Song for the Season: "Holiday Eyes"

  Christmas eaves

"Here at home tonight . . . ."


"Holiday Eyes," from Melted Wires, a download-only album project from Howe Gelb (Giant Sand) [piano, guitar, vocals], with John Convertino [drums 'n' vibes], Thøger T. Lund [upright bass], and Jacob Valenzuela [trumpet].  This track is leavened with the vocal stylings of Miss Talula Gelb.  Tasty, jazz-inflected alt-heartland music, Melted Wires can be yours for a mere US$2.22 via the links above.


Photo by the blogger, December 2009.