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September 2011
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November 2011

Machines of Loving Grace
[yMusic: Beautiful Mechanical]



So, here we have Beautiful Mechanical by yMusic, and Beautiful Mechanical by yMusic is that Great Good Thing, a collection of music in which each individual piece stands niftily on its own and in which the selection and sequencing of the pieces in relation to one another provides that extra smackerel of satisfaction that is the mark of a Really Fine Record Album. 

yMusic is a six-member ensemble cofounded by Rob Moose (violin/guitar) and C J Camerieri (trumpet/french horn) and includes four other hard-working New York musicians: Alex Sopp (flute/piccolo), Nadia Sirota (viola), Clarice Jensen (cello), and Hideaki Aomori (clarinets of all descriptions). All of the members are active in both the alt-classical/indie classical/whatever world [as suggested by this collection being released by New Amsterdam Records] and as collaborators, collectively and individually, in an array of other musical projects. They are at home equally in concert hall, studio, or dive bar, wherever the music may take them. (Daniel Kushner has written a thoroughly informative profile of yMusic's origins and world view, here.)

Beautiful Mechanical collects seven pieces by six composers, all written with the yMusic players in mind. Only two of the composers are best known as capital-C Composers; the other four are more commonly thought of as songwriters and performers. The quality of all seven compositions renders that a distinction without a difference.

yMusic introduces itself with the titular "Beautiful Mechanical." The composer credit goes to Son Lux, the performance/production name favored by Ryan Lott. Most or all of yMusic's members appeared earlier this year on the second Son Lux album, We Are Rising (which in addition to being very good has the distinction of having been written and recorded in a single month). The more usual Son Lux sound works the darker, sparser, more angst-ridden regions of hip-hop and electronica. "Beautiful Mechanical" takes advantage of the organic warmth provided by non-electronic, non-amplified instruments while still carrying a semi-industrial edge. It is a propulsive, even sprightly piece, a distant contemporary relation of Raymond Scott's "Powerhouse" (fondly remembered as the "assembly line" music in many a Looney Toon). "Beautiful Mechanical" would be the perfect score for an image-building manufacturing documentary, of the kind that might be shown in a 6th grade classroom ca. 1961.

"Proven Badlands" by Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent) follows, and its first 90 seconds or so achieve a sort of eccentric perfection. The woodwinds begin, suggestive of Debussy or Ravel; a moment later, the trumpet takes up the same theme, but now it evokes some craggly bit of the American West—the Great Basin or the Black Hills; an ominous thrum develops in the low strings; the trumpet blasts in with a fanfare befitting a high speed car chase, and we are on our way through a 7-minute kaleidoscope of shifting mood and terrain, with nary a dull moment. 

Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond, whose forthcoming/ anticipated All Things Will Unwind features yMusic as its core players) is represented by the two shortest pieces, a pair of atmospheric nocturnal miniatures. "A Whistle, a Tune, a Macaroon" seems to pick its way through marshes by moonlight, with plucked strngs and low warbles of the flute. "A Paper, a Pen, a Note to a Friend" is more percussive, if no less mysterious in its intentions, an invitation to ritual movement. In her recent performance at the Carlsbad Music Festival, Shara Worden used yMusic's recording of the piece for her bemasked entrance; yMusic performs it al fresco in the second video, below.

The two Worden pieces serve as parentheses around "Daughter of the Waves," by Sarah Kirkland Snider, regularly mentioned here as the composer of fool-favorite Penelope. In a recorded interview, the composer has said that this piece was influenced by its being composed during her pregnancy and that the title references both her daughter's name (Dylan, Welsh, 'child of the waves') and the turbulent emotional states of pregnancy. It is open to many interpretations, and could as easily be heard as a [small-i] impressionist seascape/shorescape, Debussy's La Mer or Britten's Sea Interludes retooled for small ensemble, although it is not particularly imitative of either. It is superior mood music for those with ever-changing moods. 

Judd Greenstein's contribution, "Clearing, Dawn, Dance," bears a distinct structural resemblance to "Change," the Greenstein piece that is the highlight of NOW Ensemble's Awake, released earlier this year. In some ways, the pieces display a town mouse/country mouse relationship, their respective sound profiles driven by the constituent instruments in the two groups. "Dawn, Clearing, Dance" builds from a series of shifting interlocking pulsating melodies, the players metaphorically leaping and catching like a seasoned trapeze act. It resembles "Change" in the prominence of the woodwinds—Alex Sopp and her flute are central to both pieces—but the presence of the trumpet, the emphasis on the string players, and the absence of piano or (prominent) guitar give "C,D,D" a more pastoral, bumptious feel. (The second half of the first video below is devoted to an excerpt from "C,D,D.")

As a coda, yMusic offers Gabriel Kahane's "Song." Rob Moose is a longtime collaborator with Kahane and the other members of yMusic put in supporting appearances on Kahan's quietly sensational Where are the Arms, of which I will have more to say in another post. Befitting its title, "Song" seems at first a simple, melodic piece featuring yMusic co-founder Camerieri's yearning trumpet and Moose's quiet guitar. As happens in Kahane's own songs, however, apparent simplicity is deceptive and the melody tends to strike out in unforeseen directions each time the listener thinks to predict where it is going. It is a conclusion both calming and bittersweet.

After living with this music for several weeks, I find that bits and passages from every one of the pieces on Beautiful Mechanical have taken to arising unbidden in my head throughout the day. It is like a fine red wine with a finish that lingers enticingly and ends too soon. 


Video: yMusic in performance, with and without Shara Worden.



Bonus: Richard Brautigan reads his poem, "All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace" (1967), from which the title of this post is drawn:


There is Nothing Like a Dame
[Così fan tutte, Los Angeles Opera]


Listen: do you want to know secret about Los Angeles Opera? I won't even make you promise not to tell. Shhh.... Ready?

When LA Opera Music Director James Conlon is conducting, it is at least an even money bet that he will receive the loudest applause at the end of the evening.

Now, I happen to believe there is nothing wrong with that arrangement. Conlon is deeply knowledgeable in the repertoire, technically gifted, and an unstoppable enthusiast for the works he presents. He is, as I have probably written before, the best Talker About Music that I have heard since the golden age of Leonard Bernstein. His pre-performance talks draw full houses in their own right. Los Angeles is fortunate to have him (at least until 2013). 

That Conlon should draw the loudest curtain call response for this season's Eugene Onegin is perhaps unsurprising: there are some fine performances on stage in that production, particularly among the women, but the the work of Conlon and the orchestra is what ultimately carries the night. What is more surprising is that Conlon should still win out, if only by a hair, in the applause sweepstakes when it comes to the company's concurrent production of Mozart's Così fan tutte, in which all six of the principal singers shine with exceeding brightness.


To review, Così fan tutte is the last of the three operas Mozart devised in collaboration with librettist Lorenzo da Ponte. It is often said that because the women in their first two projects (Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni) had been portrayed in such a favorable light, the poet and the composer felt the need to redress the balance of the sexes by telling a tale of female duplicity. I don't believe their hearts were really in it in that respect.

I cannot speak to da Ponte's relations with women, but Mozart was certainly no misogynist. Two of the relationships most central to his life, and most cherished by him, were with his sister and his wife. While no more of a feminist than his era allowed, Mozart seems to have had no difficulty accepting women as something more than a lesser form of life.

The dashing Neapolitan heroes of the tale, Ferrando and Guglielmo, are the fastest of friends and have become engaged to two beautiful sisters, Dorabella and Fiordiligi. As we join them, the friends are praising their beloveds to their older companion, Don Alfonso. Alfonso assures them that all women, even these the friends so prize, will prove unfaithful given the opportunity. He proposes a wager: if they will follow his every instruction, he will prove that his faith in women's infidelity is well founded. The friends agree, and Alfonso promptly arranges that they will appear to be conscripted and sent off to to the front. The lovers part tearfully, the men march martially away, and in no time Don Alfonso is introducing the sisters to two Albanian gentlemen of his acquaintance. The "Albanians" are, of course, Ferrando and Guglielmo, now disguised (in this production) as Orlando Bloom and Inigo Montoya, respectively. Each sets to wooing the other's fiancee, at first with no success. Rebuffed, the men demonstrate the sincerity of their petition by "taking poison," nearly dieing before the eyes of the horrified sisters before they are miraculously saved by a passing practitioner of magnetic healing (the sisters' servant Despina, also in disguise). Their hearts softened by the Fauxbanians' suicidal ardor—and persuaded by Despina that they are unlikely to be found out—each sister eventually succumbs and agrees to marry the other's beau. The men are most unhappy with the lesson that the wily Don Alfonso has taught them: that indeed "così fan tutte", "all women are alike". As the new marital arrangements are about to be formalized, the friends reappear as themselves, confront the women and . . . all ends in tentative reconciliation in the light of Don Alfonso's second lesson: that we should all be guided by Reason because, lord! what fools all we mortals be, man and woman alike.


This production is an import from Glyndeborne, where it was originally devised and directed by Nicholas Hytner. It is pleasant to look at and provides a comfortable setting for the work of six seriously fine singing actors making the most of what Mozart and da Ponte have given them, singly and in combination. 

First among near equals are Aleksandra Kurzak and Ildebrando D'Arcangelo as Fiordiligi and Guglielmo. As the more level-headed and sophisticated of the sisters, Kurzak is the most reluctant to give in to temptation and gets the best arias in the piece, which she sings with gorgeous range and sensitivity. She also shows a gift for the "grace under pressure" style of comedy, with a few big-eyed Lucille Ball faces for good measure. D'Arcangelo's baritone is a burnished and resonant thing, which he places exactly where he wants it to go. For those to whom such things are important, he is quite the smolderingly handsome fellow. He, too, has a talent for comedy, of a more earthy and physical turn. It is reported that he will be back to Los Angeles next year to portray Don Giovanni, and his performance here makes that a production to begin anticipating now.

Ruxandra Donose was last seen here, frequently in lingerie, as the female lead in the horror show that was The Fly. It was not her fault, and she managed to maintain her dignity under extremely trying circumstances. As Dorabella, the marginally more flighty and slightly more open to possibilities than Fiordiligi, she charms completely. The two sisters frequently sing at the same time and in those passages the combination of Kurzak's and Donose's voices is a luxuriant pleasure. Saimir Pirgu, an actual Albanian playing a pretend-Albanian, brings matinee idol style, a winning grin and a clear and shiny tenor voice to the role of Ferrando. Roxana Constantinescu is appropriately sharp-eyed and bawdy as Despina, especially when advising her mistresses to do as they will, since what the men don't know won't hurt them.

Don Alfonso is in some ways a more grounded and responsible Pangloss, out to teach his young friends the ways of the world and the errors in their assumptions about it. Lorenzo Regazzo gives us a younger than usual Alfonso, his devotion to reason derived from experience rather than years. He combines a lounge lizard's insouciance with some of the out of plumb, possibly inebriate aura of Christopher Lloyd, even occasionally breaking the fourth wall for the audience's benefit. He is our generous host, the off-center center of the piece, and he brings an embracing humanistic warmth to his final lessons for the younger lovers.


Così fan tutte is a comedy, an opera buffa, and it bears emphasizing that this production is just plain funny. The jokes work, and for the most part they have not been imposed by the production team, but grow organically from the loam of character and situation. This Così is smart, funny and beautiful. Would that they could all be like that.

Photos: Robert Millard, used by kind permission of Los Angeles Opera.