Listening Listfully 2018

Flood piano 1937

Time is up, year is done, and once again it is time for the only remaining recurrent feature of this dusty and neglected blog, "Listening Listfully", my annual catalogue of the album/EP-length recordings released in the past twelvemonth that most particularly tickled my fancy.

I am particularly struck this year by how permeable the membranes continue to become between modes and genres, and how much I enjoy that multivalent intercursive flow. Jazz splashes on to folk, pop leaks through the interstices of whatever Classical may mean in these times, chocolate gets into peanut butter, "dogs and cats: living together!", and on and on. As Mr. Twin Sister would have it in the opening track of Salt [Number 6, infra]:

Keep on mixing, mix all people
Swirl enough and we'll all belong

This seamless web of musickes fascinates me. Historically, there has been a lot of contemporary classical/New Music at the upper ends of these lists, but this year there is no pure example in my Top 10, despite it having been a perfectly good year for such music. Nordic Affect, at Number 12, is the highest ranked straight-up example of the type - though you can make a good argument for Chris Kallmyer at Number 11, and there are elements and hints and implications sprinkled through the ostensible nonClassics above that. [I remarked eleven months ago that the entry point to John Hollenbeck's All Can Work, my eventual Number 1, "is not obviously a jazz piece at all: brass and winds sweep[ing] slow chords across chittering tuned percussion, in a manner akin to that of many a contemporary chamber group." Similar instances abound in the selections below.]

That said, all my old biases remain because heck! they work for me. The ruling biases include

  • a preference for music arranged into "albums" or their equivalent

  • a preference for buying and owning music (in the hope its creators might actually be compensated for their creations) over smash-and-grab streaming.

I feel more strongly than ever on that second point. I have a definite bias for music that can be accessed and purchased through Bandcamp, for the simple reason that it is the least intrusive middlething between listener and creator. Whenever possible, I have provided Bandcamp links to the music on this list. When there is no Bandcamp access, I have reluctantly embedded Spotify players because, while wicked, it provides ease of access to the listener. Anything Bandcampable can be bought through those Bandcamp players. For the rest, I've slipped in links to [cough cough] Amazon or, in some cases [Sweet Billy Pilgrim, Joe Garrison] to the musicians' own choice of independent distribution. However you choose to operate, I urge the rule, paraphrasing Dr. Frank N. Furter, "Don't stream it: Buy it."

The number and arrangement of the List is in constant flux. This year, I've numbered sixty choices, then added in an alphabetical listing of twenty or so more. As I said in 2016, "the List is like baseball: it could in theory go on without end." I am always one who hopes the music plays forever.

I style this blog as an index of enthusiasms. These are personal favorites, as always, rather than "bests"—although I maintain that everything here is here because it is genuinely among the best things of the past year, and not simply because I have enjoyed it. The rankings become increasingly imprecise with each step down the line.

For many of the selections on which I commented during the year via Twitter, I have embedded copies of some of those tweets. Others receive brief commentary here. Where that commentary is especially brief, it is a result of the desire to Get This Done so that it might post while it is still 2018 (at least in North America).

The same flawed, entirely subjective, and internally contradictory thing as it ever was, here begins the thirteenth edition of The List: 

 

1.   John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble - All Can Work

In a post in late January, I touted All Can Work as "The First Great Record of 2018," adding that it was "all but guaranteed a high-ranking spot on my personal List when the year is old and done." The prophecy is hereby fulfilled. As highly as I regard the other collections collected below, on returning to All Can Work after several months in which I had not listened to it I found that it remained my clear choice as the most roundly, fully, and firmly satisfying album of the year.

 

2.  Janelle Monáe – Dirty Computer

The token Big Popular Success on this year's List, Dirty Computer needs no recognition from me, but will get it anyway. Funky, filthy, free; bracing and embracing. Listening just once is not really an option. I do not think I played anything else on this page quite so frequently as I did Dirty Computer over the course of the year.

 

3.  Aidan O’Rourke – 365, Vol. 1 [featuring Kit Downes]

In 2013, author James Robertson set himself the task of writing one story each of the 365 days of the year, each story consisting of 365 words. Scottish fiddler/composer Aidan O'Rourke set himself the task of responding to one of those stories with a new composition each day for a year. This set of 22 pieces is the first of two contemplated releases of samplings from the result, on which O'Rourke shares in the harmonisation and playing with keyboardist Kit Downes [described by O'Rourke as drawing on "jazz and Ravel and church organ" which is plenty good enough for me]. It's a labyrinthine wonderment in which to get lost.

 

4.  You Are Wolf – Keld

You Are Wolf is composer/singer Kerry Andrews' solo project, messing about with folk and traditional material and squeezing it out through a mesh of contemporary and avant- techniques. The first You Are Wolf album drew themes from bird life. Keld is steeped deep in bodies of water of all sorts. Gorgeous and occasionally unnerving.

 

5.  Gabriel Kahane – Book of Travelers

The only album on this list that received a post of its own here this past year is sitting up there at #1. What has proven to be my only other musical post of 2018 went up roughly a week earlier, when I reported my thoughts on Gabriel Kahane's live performance of the songs that eventually saw release in August as Book of Travelers. I did not do a follow-up post when the recorded version appeared, though I certainly made mention on Twitter. Rather than reproduce one of my own tweets on this one, I will defer to Alex Ross of The New Yorker

 

6.  Mr. Twin Sister – Salt

First of two Unqualifiedly New York City bands in our top 10. I hear this music as the current iteration of that great NYC tradition of smart, if gawky, streetwise rock, following on from the likes of the Velvet Underground and [particularly] Talking Heads. I love this stuff. Note that the ordering between them is arbitrary; could easily have been vicey versey.

 

7.  Sweet Billy Pilgrim – Wapentak

I have been posting about Sweet Billy Pilgrim since at least 2005, and at least two or three SBP albums would place among my favorites of this wacky 21st century. As a band, Sweet Billy Pilgrim is now a duo: Tim Elsenburg, the permanent participant, now writes, plays, and sings with Jana Carpenter, who first appeared two albums back. The instruments are fewer, and more likely to be acoustic, and the production is less esoterically prog-inclined than once it was [no dishwasher samples], but there's no harm done: the less flamboyant atmosphere serves to reemphasize that quality songwriting has always been the band's strongest suit. The harmonies are frequently evocative of Richard and Linda Thompson, and they are well suited to the wistfully morose material.

 

8.  Ava Luna – Moon 2

Second of two Unqualifiedly New York City bands in our top 10. Cf. Mr. Twin Sister, supra, op. cit. I hear this music as the current iteration of that great NYC tradition of smart, if gawky, streetwise rock, following on from the likes of the Velvet Underground and [particularly] Talking Heads. I love this stuff. Note that the ordering between them is arbitrary; could easily have been vicey versey. I repeat myself when under stress I repeat myself

 

9.  The Gloaming – Live at the NCH

The very word 'gloaming' reverberates, echoes - the gloaming, the glimmer, the glitter, the glisten, the glamour - carrying in its consonants the images of houses shuttering, gardens darkening, grass-lined rivers slipping through the shadows.

                --Joan Didion, Blue Nights

That quotation was intended to open an unfinished post about The Gloaming that has been hanging about among my drafts for nearly five years, in which time the band has released two additional albums. Now at least it won't go to waste.

The Gloaming is an Irish-American supergroup of sorts, containing Iarla Ó Lionaird, Dennis Cahill, Martin Hayes, Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh, and Thomas Bartlett. They work principally with Irish traditional music, buffed and polished with a combination of intensity, energy, not-quite-standard instrumentation, and random interjections of non-standard styles. Piano is, for example, not the most common of Irish traditional instruments (which tend to be more practical for the musician to carry from place to place), and Thomas Bartlett's piano is occasionally 'prepared'. 

This set, produced by Bartlett, draws on recordings from the band's annual sold-out residences at Dublin's National Concert Hall. It is a grand jam.

 

10.  Mary Halvorson – Code Girl

 

11.  Chris Kallmyer – Juniper

 

12.  Nordic Affect – H e (a) r

 

13.  Nicole Mitchell – maroon cloud 

 

14. Daníel Bjarnason – Collider

The latest collection of orchestral music from Daníel Bjarnason, including "Blow Bright", commissioned and premiered by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Bjarnason is very good at this orchestral writing thing.

 

15. Sam Wilkes – Wilkes

      Sam Gendel & Sam Wilkes – Music for Saxofone & Bass Guitar

I first became aware of saxophonist/guitarist Sam Gendel in 2017, via his appearance on Sam Amidon's The Following Mountain. These two selections feature him with bassist Sam Wilkes, in a duo setting and as the abundantly featured player on Wilkes's own band-based release. Swirling, austere, spiritual jazz grooves from L.A.

 

16.  MeShell Ndegocello – Ventriloquism

 

17.  The Industry; Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group – Lou Harrison: Young Caesar

Lou Harrison's 1971 opera Young Caesar might well be subtitled "There and Back Again: a Roman's Holiday." It follows the teenaged Julius Caesar as he works to advance in Roman society, under the tutelage of his aunt Julia, by way of arranged marriages, public priestly service, and eventually a position as a staffer to a general. On the eve of his first battle, from which he hopes to gain a reputation for bravery and perhaps some valuable salvage, Caesar is dispatched to the court of King Nicomedes of Bithynia, to press for the delivery of some promised ships. In Bithynia, however, Caesar's diplomatic mission is temporarily forgotten as he becomes in short the boon companion and lover of the wealthy and attractive King. In the end Caesar accomplishes his mission and reluctantly parts from the Nicomedes, knowing he will likely never return, and sails again for Rome. It is a tale of love, duty, power, sacrifice, regret, and freedom: in other words, perfect for opera.

In June, 2017, the Los Angeles Philharmonic staged a single, revelatory performance of Young Caesar, in an edition and production devised by Yuval Sharon and The Industry, preserved in this live recording. The opera had never had a really successful performance previously, often as not because of backers getting cold feet over the controversial (read: overtly gay) nature of the work and its themes. Earlier versions of the libretto are also reputed to have been dramatically or structurally turgid. The Industry/LA Phil version proved eminently performable, musically and dramatically, confirming Young Caesar as a major 20th century American opera.

For all the serious matters on its agenda, Young Caesar is also shot through with humor, particularly in the person of Bruce Vilanch as the narrator, and in the production's embrace of florid gestures toward camp, particularly in the "eroticon" staged for Caesar by his Bithynian host - complete with flying phalloi, which are not in evidence on the recording. What will be plainly evident to listeners is the marvelous invention of Lou Harrison's score, and particularly his incorporation of Asian percussion and gamelan tunings to contrast staid Establishment Rome with exotic, intoxicating Bithynia. 

 

18.  Jon Hassell – Listening to Pictures (Pentimento Vol. 1)

The first new Jon Hassell release in nearly a decade, collecting recent exemplars of the diverse global paths he has trod over the decades.

 

19.  Neneh Cherry – Broken Politics

 

20.  Field Music – Open Here

 

21.  Thomas Bartlett & Nico Muhly – Peter Pears: Balinese Ceremonial Music

The grain of sand in the pearl here is a set of three dual piano transcriptions of Balinese gamelan music by Colin McPhee, which he completed and played with Benjamin Britten when both were expatriates in Brooklyn circa 1941. Composer Nico Muhly and singer-songwriter/producer Thomas Bartlett [Doveman] play the McPhee pieces,as well as nine other songs musically and harmonically inspired by them. As a practical matter, this is three-quarters of a Doveman album in all but name, and welcome for that.

 

22.  Joe Garrison – The Broken Jar

23.  Gavin Gamboa – 1685: Shadow Owes Its Birth to Light

        Gavin Gamboa – Urgency Apparatus

        Gavin Gamboa – Lipolysis

 

24.  Anthony Roth Costanzo – ARC

 

25.  Steve Reich – Pulse / Quartet

 

26.  Kadhja Bonet – Childqueen

Ambitious orchestral singer-songwriterness, with echoes of Minnie Ripperton and more.

 

 27.  Ambrose Akinmusire – Origami Harvest

Genre defiance of the best kind, combining Akinmusire's jazz trumpet and small jazz group with the Mivos Quartet and rapper Kool A.D. This was a late and recent discovery, and might well have wound up higher on the list with a few more listens. 

 

28.  Foresteppe – Maeta

Samples derived from the forest and steppes of Siberia, abstracted and diffused and etherealized.

 

29.  Donny McCaslin – Blow.

From Bowie's last sax player. Rock-leaning New York jazz, to be played loud.

 

30.  Kamasi Washington – Heaven and Earth

Kamasi and friends doing what they do. Pssst: Some of the most interesting material is on the hidden third disc.

 

31.  Elvis Costello – Look Now

A very good mature period Costello album, with strong ties back to his Burt Bacharach collaboration, Painted from Memory.

 

32.  Leverage Models – Whites

Synthpop agitprop, kicking paradigms and taking names.

 

33.  Richard Swift – The Hex

Final release of the late Richard Swift. Sad pop made sadder by his loss.

 

34.  Scott Worthington – Orbit

A little bit Wandelweiser, a little bit drone.

 

35.  Psychic Temple (feat. Cherry Glazerr) – Houses of the Holy Vol. 1

First in a promised series of lightning speed collaborative recordings between Psychic Temple (Chris Schlarb) and a range of other bands. Just a shade darker and more savory than my tweet might suggest.

 

36.  The Lazy Lies – Less Talk More Action

Everything old is new again Brit Invasion-styled pop tunes, straight out of Barcelona.

 

37.  Bettye LaVette – Things Have Changed

 

38.  Orchestre Tout Puissant Marcel Duchamp – Sauvages Formes

A jazzlike orchestra, with strings, incorporating plenty of world music and club beats. 

 

 39.  Niechęć – Live at Jazz Club Hipnoza

Prog-Jazz from Poland. These live versions are enhanced in some cases by the presence of a King Crimson-emulating cello.

 

40.  Hilja – Cucina Povera

Sounds like Iceland – spaces expanding into spaces, wind strewn and cinder blown – but it's Finno-Glaswegian. Layered voice, field recordings, subtilectronica, and a relationship to language somewhere between Cocteau Twins and Sigur Ros: a mystic sophistic blend.

 

41.  BeachglassSunroom Sanctuary

Something in a tasty psychfolk vein, from Montreal.

 

42.  Aaron Martin – Touch Dissolves

Atmospheres and moonbeams.

 

43. My Brightest Diamond – A Million and One

Shara Nova, now with 32% more beats and danceability.

 

44. Philip Glass – Symphony No. 11

Glass Glass Glass Glass Glass Glass Glass. Most everything he has learned about orchestration over the years - which is a great deal - is on display here. Symphony No. 12 ["Lodger"] premieres January 2019 in Los Angeles.

 

45. LeStrange Viols – Æternum - Music of the Elizabethan Avant Garde from Add. MS 31390

Viols! Elizabethan repertoire! What more do you need to know?

 

46. Clarice Jensen – For This From That Will Be Filled

Cello and electronics and drones, oh my.

 

47. International Contemporary Ensemble – Aequa

A survey of recent works by Iceland's Anna Þorvaldsdóttir.

 

48. Angelique Kidjo – Remain in Light

Angelique Kidjo re-appropriates Talking Heads' Remain in Light for Africa, to excellent effect.

 

49. Duo Odeon – Specter: The Music of George Antheil

Although he was in fact American, I persist in thinking of George Antheil as French, largely because he composed the score to Fernand Leger's 1924 Dada film "Ballet Mécanique". I learned of my error when I tweeted about this recording. Although I got his Frenchness wrong, I otherwise stand by my assessment of Antheil's fine music.

 

50. Marc Mellits; New Music Detroit – Smoke

Groovy Fun with Minimalism. 

 

51. Astronauts, etc. – Living in Symbol

Sophisto bedroom pop from Oakland. 

 

52. Tammy Evans Yonce – Dreams Grow Like Slow Ice

New music for solo flute, much of it utilizing the glissando headjoint. 

 

53. Simon Jermyn + Ben Goldberg – Silence

A meditative jazz excursion.

 

54. Olden Yolk – Olden Yolk

Freak folk meets Belle & Sebastian? I dunno, but I like it.

 

55. Olivia Chaney – Shelter

Luxe contemporary folk, from a zone somewhere between June Tabor and Laura Marling, with a surprise cameo appearance by Henry Purcell. Arranged and produced with unfailing subtlety by Thomas Bartlett.

56. Subtle Degrees – A Dance That Empties

Abstract and expansive new music from the duo of tenor saxophonist Travis Laplante [Battle Trance] and percussionist Gerald Cleaver.

 

57. Sergey Akhunov – Victor Hugo’s Blank Page

A survey of new and previously released compositions from the Russian composer. 

 

58. The Hands Free – The Hands Free

 

59.The Nouveau Classical Project – Currents

New York based contemporary quintet offers up new compositions from David Bird, Olga Bell, and [my personal favorite here] Isaac Schankler.

 

60. Marc Ribot – Songs of Resistance 1942 – 2018

I am conflicted about this set, which likely accounts for it landing way down here at Number 60 while having induced from me a longer Twitter thread than anything else on the card.

 

~~~

Les mentions d'honneur. Chevaliers de l'ordre alphabétique:

Aizuri Quartet – Blueprinting [rising contemporary music string quartet with chops so sharp you may cut yourself just by listening]

Alex Crispin – Open Submission  [lovely ambient ambiences]

Arooj Aftab – Siren Islands [woven drones and atmospheres of mystery]

Baeilou – Inside Under EP [Singing cellist draws musical tools and styles from a list at least as long as your arm; hoping to hear more from her, soon.] 

Brad Mehldau – After Bach [Mehldau plays Bach, and constructs Bach-like structures of his own, to fine effect]

Crash Ensemble, et al. – Andrew Hamilton: Music for People 

Eiko Ishibashi – The Dream My Bones Dream [uncategorizable really I can't even]

Etienne Jaumet – 8 Regards Obliques [clubland takes on classic jazz tunes]

Jacob Greenberg – Hanging Gardens [exploring the connective tissue between Debussy and Schoenberg]

John Coltrane – Both Directions at Once [1963] [the "lost" album]

John Lindaman – Let the Power Fall Again [A revisitation/recreation of the core 1981 Frippertronics recordings, with the sort of rigor and exploratory respect typically reserved for, say, the Bach cello suites.]

Mammal Hands – Becoming EP [contains sweetly melanchoolic jazz-like substances]

[Medeski, Martin & Wood w/ Alarm Will Sound – Omnisphere [a live collaboration between the brainy witty jazz trio and the brainy witty new music orchestra; features a super rendering of Caleb Burhans' "o ye of little faith (do you know where your children are)"]

Padma Newsome – The Vanity of trees [songs from the wood]

 [Robbie Lee and Mary Halvorson – Seed Triangular [Two fine musicians exploring and improvising on instruments old and obscure to the point of being nigh hypothetical.]

St. Vincent –  MassEducation [stripped down piano versions, with Thomas Bartlett, of the songs from Masseduction]

Sunda Arc – Flicker [an EP of lushly twitchy electronica from a member of Mammal Hands]

The Necks – Body [goes quite satisfyingly to 11 for a bit, but ultimately thinks better of it]

The Righteous Yeah – Goodbye [From a subidentity of New Zealand guitarist Michael Morley, crepuscular symphonic loops somewhat in the vein of William Basinski]

The Righteous Yeah – Unknown Album [likewise]

Yoko Ono – Warzone [at 85, the artist revisits her music, including taking her own run at "Imagine"; produced by Thomas Bartlett]

Zeal and Ardour – Stranger Fruit [black metal field hollers, not because they are easy but because they are hard]

~~~

Lagniappe: favorite song of 2018 not on an album that made it on to the List.

 

~~~

 FIN

 ~~~


John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble:
All Can Work

All can work

Hello, friend.

Have you received the good news? The news that the John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble's All Can Work is the First Great Record of 2018?

I wrote as much on Twitter, don't you know, which is the truest of tokens of truth.

All Can Work releases today [January 26] via New Amsterdam Records, which is a perfect place for it, being as the album is in part a sly, gentle slap in the face to genre. It is a fundamentally fine jazz record that, often as not, sounds nothing like a "jazz record." (New Amsterdam, while commonly pegged as specializing in something such as "contemporaryAltNewClassical", eschews such labels and has a solid history of supporting releases from or adjacent to the "jazz" corner of the galaxy, e.g., Darcy James Argue's Secret Society and exotic creatures such as Will Mason Ensemble and Battle Trance.)

John Hollenbeck is a profluent drummer and composer, collaborating far and wide with groups both large and smaller. This is his third release with his own eponymous big band. All Can Work displays the core virtues that make a “great record”: it gives pleasure, it offers variety and surprise, it rewards repeat listening, and it is a satisfying whole, most particularly enjoyable when consumed, in sequence, as such. Those same virtues inform well-crafted live performances, in any genre, and All Can Work performed straight through would be a super solid show.

The curtain-raising "lud" is not obviously a jazz piece at all: brass and winds sweep slow chords across chittering tuned percussion, in a manner akin to that of many a contemporary chamber group. It serves to clear the aural palate nicely, in preparation for the first major course.

“All Can Work” is tribute and memorial to Laurie Frink—trumpeter, educator and mentor to many another player, and longtime Hollenbeck collaborator and band member—who died of cancer in 2013. It is a song, an excursive setting of words drawn from Frink's email messages to Hollenbeck, a sketch of a cherished friend and of a musician's love for her craft and companions (and theirs for her). Theo Bleckmann is the singer, guilelessly weaving through biography, joy, fear, surprise, speculatiove philosophy and more, to reach a simple and affecting farewell:

I’m
good

cool

I will miss you all and especially the music

There follow two non-Hollenbeck compositions with which Hollenbeck has his way as arranger/reinventor. “Elf” takes its title and raw musical material from a Billy Strayhorn piece, subsequently retooled through Duke Ellington as “Isfahan.” Themes that are straightforward in most prior versions are here smeared, reshaped and relished as a tumbling burble topped with high woodwind ululations.

Kenny Wheeler's “Heyoke” was originally a quartet piece [on Gnu High (ECM 1976), with Wheeler, Keith Jarrett, Dave Holland, and Jack DeJohnette], but it thrives in its new large-band manifestation. The original begins with an enticing melody, stated by Wheeler on flugelhorn and then passed and played with around the group for roughly ten minutes; there is a pause for breath, then an extended, more urgent and even more freely improvisatory segment of the same length, subsiding in roughly its last 45 seconds to a sort of clockwork tick-tock call and response motif. Hollenbeck’s re-version starts with that clockwork, extending and inflating it for more than five minutes before the lyrical “Heyoke” melody is allowed to surface, to shine a bit, and then to subside back into the primordial broth, adrift over some mellifluous Theo Bleckmann vocalise.

Three Hollenbeck originals follow. “this kiss”, per the composer, is drawn from Romeo and Juliet, foregrounding the exuberance of the Young Love plot, with the Violence and Death plot serving as a sort of lurking descant. In “from trees”, the preposition in the title is the important bit: the piece moves steadily away from forested things into a chiaroscuro-noir urban nightscape, easing through a slippery semi-waltz on its way to a chugging slow boogie of an ending. [Hollenbeck’s liner notes—which are interesting enough to warrant obtaining a physical copy in order to read them, but which I had not looked at before writing that sentence—reveal the inspiration for the piece to be the paintings of Piet Mondrian, and particularly the path from his early studies of trees to the grid paintings for which he is best known, in particular the late “Broadway Boogie Woogie”.]

Theo Bleckmann returns to words in “Long Swing Dream”, speaking rather than singing an extended excerpt from the diaries of Cary Grant, in which the actor describes and endorses his experiences with LSD, while the band in its lowest registers pulses beneath.

For an encore? A rousing and savory arrangement of Kraftwerk’s “The Model”, shimmying naughtily like a Weimar a-go-go show.

The year is new and the remaining months hold who knows what surprises musically, but All Can Work is all but guaranteed a high-ranking spot on my personal List when the year is old and done. I have been returning to it regularly for weeks now, and custom has thus far failed to stale its infinite variety. Definitely a keeper, recommended without hesitation for any with ears to hear it.

All Can Work releases via New Amsterdam Records on January 26, 2018. This post is based on recurrent listening to a review CD received from the label, but the blogger has since put his money where his post is by purchasing a digital copy.


Songs of a Railwayfarer:
Gabriel Kahane, 8980: Book of Travelers
Los Angeles 20 Jan 2018

Gabriel Kahane - Little Love [from 8980 Book of Travelers]

On the morning following the Presidential election in November, 2016, Gabriel Kahane elected to board a train and to travel the United States, talking with those he met. He traveled for thirteen days and covered, he says, 8980 miles, conversing in dining cars, in observation cars, on station platforms, and returning with the material for the songs that make up 8980: Book of Travelers. A recording is rumored to be coming some time this year. The performance version premiered at Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of the BAM Next Wave Festival in November, 2017. On February 2, it will be presented at the University of Michigan. Last night, on the anniversary of the Inauguration that followed from the election that birthed it, Book of Travelers came to Los Angeles and the Theatre at Ace Hotel.

8980: Book of Travelers is, like The Ambassador before it, a collection of songs on a theme. It is a contemporary cousin to the mid 1970s work of Randy Newman (Sail AwayGood Old Boys, and Little Criminals) and of Joni Mitchell. It is a sort of counter-Hejira: where Joni Mitchell emphasizes travel as a means of escape, an active effort to become lost, Gabriel Kahane approaches it as a mode of inquiry, an effort to find something or other (cf. Paul Simon's "America"). In that, Book of Travelers connects with the tradition of writers taking to the road to find where it might lead, or what questions it might answer, as in Steinbeck's Travels With Charley or, in an entirely different vein, the latter portions of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and Kahane's chosen musical style dials back somewhat the American Songbook grab-bag of Newman (and of The Ambassador) and in favor of accenting the stratum of art song that grounded his short-story-esque song cycle The Fiction Issue.

The musical forces and staging for 8980:Book of Travelers are less elaborate than for The Ambassador: just a grand piano and an angled ribbon of four projection screens behind. An autoharp was discretely embedded inside the piano, and used with similar discretion. Looping pedals and a vocal processor were used for a brief segment that evoked simultaneously Laurie Anderson and the helium-voiced sociopathic toon in Roger Rabbit. For the most part, Kahane simply sat, played and sang, with occasional brief remarks on the particular travelers from whom a song was born. 

I, for one, loved it:

Whether questions were answered or not on the singer's journey is uncertain. It is clear that, for Gabriel Kahane, the trip reaffirmed that the blending and exchange of human voices, whether in conversation or in song, is something of a good in itself, and that each of those voices is uniquely derived from a long and personal history. Where are we, as a nation? How did we get here? What can we or should we do, now that we are here? Book of Travelers does not presume to answer that sort of question, other than to suggest that it is through that exchange of voices, and in the understanding of one another's individual and overlayering histories, that any route to a method for the pursuit of an approach to such answers may be descried.

Because the Book of Travelers songs have, for the most part, not yet been released in a recorded version, most of us in the room were hearing them for the first time last night. Gabriel Kahane writes very well for his own voice, so that most of his words could be grasped on the fly. Still, there is no doubt that repeated listening will yield increasing returns. There is every reason to think that this Fool will be unable to resist writing about it again, if only by an amendment to this post, whenever a recording eventually enters the station.

In the meantime, two of these songs were sent out into the world in the latter part of 2017: "Little Love" and "November." "November" literally picks up where the concluding song on The Ambassador, "Union Station", left off, referencing "that last train from L.A." It begins in direct address to the listener with the words, "When last we spoke...", pointing toward the one-to-one conversations that are at the center of Book of Travelers. I had surmised, from this circumstantial evidence, that "November" would be the first song in the Book. I surmised incorrectly: it proved in performance to be the last song in the series. "Little Love" is a delicious little earworm of a song, performed straightforward as you please in concert without any projections or dramatic lighting, on the theme of growing fondly old together. I have previously expressed my particular fondness for "Little Love" on Twitter:

Both "Little Love" and "November" are currently accessible here:


Listening Listfully 2017

  Katzenfuge

 Time is up, year is done.

July 3 of 2018 will mark the ostensible 15th Anniversary of this blog. There were giants in those days, and I stared enviously up at their scabby brilliant knees. Who knows what I may push myself to do with this dear weary site in the coming year. I suspect there will be more poetry; I hope there will be something more frequently appealing as well.

So here we are again with "Listening Listfully", my catalogue of the album/EP-length recordings released in the past twelvemonth that most particularly tickled my fancy. Old school preferences underlie the thing: a preference for music arranged into "albums" or their equivalent, and a preference for buying and owning said music (in the hope its creators might actually be compensated for their creations) over smash-and-grab streaming. A random quantity of numbered choices in the mid-forties this year, followed by an unquantified miscellany because, as I said in 2016, "the List is like baseball: it could in theory go on without end."

I style this blog as an index of enthusiasms. These are personal favorites, as always, rather than "bests"—although I maintain that everything here is here because it is genuinely among the best things of the past year, and not simply because I have enjoyed it. The rankings become increasingly imprecise with each step down the line. I have provided commentary, of sorts, for the first fifteen on the list; it is a random stopping point, driven mostly by a desire to post this while it is still 2017 (at least in North America). There are inevitably many recordings of quality omitted, simply because I have yet to listen to them.

Flawed, entirely subjective, and internally contradictory as always, here begins the twelfth edition of The List: 

 

1.    Michael Vincent Waller - Trajectories

This is a beautiful recording. To hear it gives pleasure. Great, if quiet, pleasure. This music engages the lived and living world, and particularly the acts of receiving that world through the senses and of sifting through it in the mind, in dreams, or, if one insists, in the soul, and finds the essentials of that world to be, if only impurely, good and deserving of the engagement, and the engagement good and deserving of being shared. This is hardly the only task that music, or most any art, can choose to take on itself—this List, in any given year, is something of a demonstration of how many different things music can attempt to "do", including choosing to do nearly nothing—but it is a task that has always appealed to this particular listener. When I wrote about Michael Vincent Waller's first major collection, 2015's The South Shore, I invoked Baudelaire's phrase: luxe, calme et volupté. That still fits.

This collection focuses principally on works for solo piano, plus a pair of mid-length pieces for piano with cello. The pianist is R. Andrew Lee, best known for his recordings of adventurous minimalism and composers of Wanderweiser group. on the Irritable Hedgehog label. The cellist is Seth Parker Woods. The style and sensibility of the music is Waller's own, but it is easily associated with pianistic forebears such as Erik Satie (in particular), Harold Budd, and John Cage's "In a Landscape", with a dash of Gavin Bryars' string writing. Although it is not in general circulation (it was shared with supporters of one of his commissioning projects) Andy Lee has recorded a delicious collection of Satie and Satie-influenced piano, and that portion of his repertoire serves him well here. 

At the time of release, the composer and players presented a handful of live performances, including one I was able to attend in Santa Monica. The balding back side of my head is, blessedly, out of frame in this video of "Lines" from that set:

 

2.    Sam Amidon - The Following Mountain

In the opening moments of "Ghosts", Sam Amidon bellows "I'm all out of ideas!" He is mistaken. His work has been a fixture of this list for nigh on a decade now, and the ideas never stop. Built largely on gleanings from a single long guardedly improvisational recording session, the album is a slurry combining the folk, trad, banjo, fiddle, and shape note material one expects with Sam's longstanding interest in new music and in experimental and avant corners of jazz, with drummer Milford Graves as emissary and conduit. Sam Gendel [#6, below] and his saxophone bring additional savor. At this time, my personal favorite among Sam's albums, and a good précis of what makes all of them so rewarding.

 

3.    Iceland Symphony Orchestra, Daniel Bjarnason - Recurrence

The best full-orchestra album of 2017. Accept no substitutes. Composer Daníel Bjarnason conducts works by the current generation of Icelandic composers, including his own darkly surging "Emergence". (There is a superb version of that piece on his Bedroom Community debut, . This new version is better.)  Bjarnason co-curated (with Esa-Pekka Salonen) the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Reykjavik Festival in spring 2017, and most of these pieces turned up on one program or another. If any doubt remained, that Festival and this recording serve as compelling testimony to the creative variety and strength of Icelandic music at this time.

[Both Daníel Bjarnason and Anna Thorvaldsdottír also have pieces on Los Angeles Percussion Quartet's Beyond, #8 below.]

 

4.    Miles Mosley - Uprising

Miles Mosley plays bass in Kamasi Washington's band, and much of this material comes out of the West Coast Get Down sessions that eventually resulted in Washington's epic Coltranesque epic, The Epic. In Washington's band, Mosley does most everything one can with an upright bass: plucking, bending, bowing, and more. Rather than a jazz-jazz album, Uprising is a floor-shaking contemporary soul/R&B session. Mosley is an appealing singer, on the lines of Stevie Wonder's grittier side. Just when you wonder where all the bass is, you realize that what you may have thought was electric guitar, including the Hendrixy solos, is the bass. Plenty of bottom here, in every sense. [More West Coast Get Down-adjacent music appears below, from Kamasi Washington (#9) and Natasha Agrama (#11).]

 

5.    Slowdive - Slowdive

 I rediscovered a hitherto unrecalled fondness for shoegaze this year. This, the first new Slowdive album in 22 years, sealed the deal. Bathe in it.

 

6.    Sam Gendel - 4444

and Sam Gendel - HAT TRICK

and Sam Gendel - Double Expression

Sam Gendel, largely on saxophone, is an important contributor to Sam Amidon's The Following Mountain [#2, above]. On 4444, his first album under his own name (largely featuring his trio previously recorded under the name of Inga), largely foregoes saxophone in favor of lithe, swirling, bossa nova flavored guitar songs. It remakes any space quite attractively while it is playing, and the occasional gesture toward sociopolitical concerns led me to characterize it on Twitter as "José González, with thorns".

The vocal-free HAT TRICK and Double Expression return the saxophone to the foreground. The former is a three-track EP of Gendel solo improvisations, with loops and electronics, very much in the vein of Jon Hassell; the latter is nearly two and a half hours of material recorded live, in duo and trio formats, on a single afternoon in an apartment and on the sidewalks of L.A.'s Silver Lake neighborhood. In all of these settings, Gendel's groove is true.

[Although he does not, I believe, appear on Aromanticism (#10 below), Sam Gendel also plays in Moses Sumney's touring band.]

 

7.    Aaron Roche - HaHa HuHu

Recommended, for recondite strangeness, for grit & sparkling lint, for indwelling beauties.

 

8.    Los Angeles Percussion Quartet - Beyond

There is a good argument to be made that the U.S. is currently in something of a Golden Age of Percussion Ensembles. In composition and in performance, the music on this two-disc set is roughly as good as contemporary percussion music gets. Chris Cerrone's "Memory Palace" never fails to move me as a solo piece, and this rearrangement for quartet is my favorite version yet. Andrew McIntosh's disc-long "I Hold the Lion's Paw" is an quietly immersive amble through a vivid series of interior landscapes, a trip unto itself. I strongly suspect that I will look back someday and decide I have underrated Beyond in this ranking.

 

9.    Kamasi Washington - Harmony of Difference

A six-part jazz suite with Washington and band building and trading themes and solos, the whole structure bursting to accumulated glory in its final long segment. Supremely satisfying.

 

10.    Moses Sumney - Aromanticism

Moses Sumney's falsetto. Draperies of diaphanous sound. Love and sex and happiness and their alternatives, stewed, steamed, and seasoned in yearning. Harp. Did I mention that falsetto?

 

11.    Natasha Agrama - The Heart of Infinite Change

Although Natasha Agrama has West Coast Get Down connections,  and has sung with Kamasi Washington's band, there is no sign of Miles Mosley (#4 above) on bass. Instead, one must make do with Thundercat or with the singer's stepfather, Stanley Clarke. The bass chair nicely signifies the heady mix of youth and experience on this record. The other old lion on hand, in his final session, is the late George Duke. A beautifully spare version of "In a Sentimental Mood," with just Clarke and Duke and an occasional fingersnap for accompaniment, is the second best thing here. Best is a reworking of Joni Mitchell's reworking of Charles Mingus's homage to Lester Young, "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat," expanded into a tribute to the song's entire line descent, its focus shifting from New York to Los Angeles, to dazzling effect.

 

12.    The Knells - Knells II

 Progressive rock. Medieval polyphony. Two great tastes that continue to go great together in the hands of Andrew McKenna Lee and band. Really, you should try this.

 

13.    Donny McCaslin - Beyond Now 

David Bowie played saxophone himself in the early part of his career. Donny McCaslin has the distinction of being Bowie's last sax player, as part of the jazz-based band assembled for Blackstar. McCaslin's latest with his own longtime band includes two Bowie-Eno covers: "A Small Plot of Land" from Outside and a gripping and granitic version of "Warszawa" from Low, the latter seemingly filtered through the lens of Ornette Coleman's "Lonely Woman." The blowing and swinging and escalating choruses on the remainder of the album are also of top blowing and swinging quality.

 

14.    The Mynabirds - BE HERE NOW

Laura Burhenn, rocking the #Resistance. Quite aside from its politics, this album satisfies in ways one used to be able almost to take for granted in American Rock Records.

 

15.    Psychic Temple - IV

Another waking dream narrative of Southern California musics. Chris Schlarb is a wizard at this.

 

Further in the way of item by item commentary affiant sayeth not, at this point in time. Affiant reserves the right perhaps to return and scribble post hoc commentary on some or all of the entrants below, all of which are worthy of your attention.

 

16.    R. Stevie Moore & Jason Falkner - Make It Be

  

17.    World Spirituality Classics 1: The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda

 

18.    Nadia Sirota - Tesselatum

  

19.    ensemble, et al. - The Slow Reveal

 

20.    The National - Sleep Well Beast

 

21.    Jean-Michel Blais & CFCF - Cascades

 

22.    Jasper String Quartet - Unbound

 

23.    Del Sol String Quartet - Dark Queen Mantra

 

24.    Scott Wollschleger: Soft Aberration

 

25.    The Tape Disaster - Oh! Myelin!

 

26.    Qasim Naqvi - FILM

;

 

27.    Theo Bleckmann - Elegy

 

 

 28.    Amir ElSaffar/Rivers of Sound - Not Two

 

29.    Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Courtenay Budd - David Del Tredici: Child Alice

 

30.    William Basinski - A Shadow in Time

 

31.    Kovtun - Infernal

 

32.    Choral Arts Initiative - How To Go On: Choral Music of Dale Trumbore

 

33.    Casey Dienel - Imitation of a Woman to Love

 

34.    The Dan Ryan - Guidance

 

35.    Denny Zeitlin & George Marsh - Expedition: Duo Electro-Acoustic Improvisations

 

36.    Sufjan Stevens/Nico Muhly/Bryce Dessner/James McAlister - Planetarium

 

37.    Liew Niyomkarn - Nº 3

 

38.    Conrad Winslow: The Perfect Nothing Catalog

 

 39.    Daniel Corral: Refractions

 

40.    Flower Crown - GLOW 

 

41.    Herod - Herod Plays Kraftwerk

 

 42.    Crash Ensemble - Ghosts

 

~~~

Miscellaneous extras: 

First, a selection of electronics, drones, and declamations, with a cover photo by ... me.

Gavin Gamboa - La Bibliothèque Fantastique

 

Next, the late Julius Eastman, whose rediscovery continues apace, in a 1974 live performance by himself with S.E.M. Ensemble, and in a hotchachacha 2017 cover version by Horse Lords.

 Julius Eastman: Joy Boy

 

Horse Lords - Julius Eastman: Stay On It [from Horse Lords' Mixtape IV]

 

 Some more Brazilians (to go with #25 and #31 above).

 Dialeto - Bartok in Rock

Devilish Dear - These Sunny Days

 Juna - Marina Goes to the Moon

 

Some single-piece [i.e., non-album release] new music in the somewhat classical vein.

Jonathan Morgan - Nick Norton: Elegy II

Los Angeles Percussion Quartet - Matt McBane: For Triangles

 

A handful of further jazz-related choices.

Morgan Guerin - The Saga II

 Dwight Trible - Inspirations

 DeJohnette, Grenadier, Medeski, Scofield - Hudson

 

And no musical year can end well without a pair of Gabriel Kahane releases: three solo piano pieces, featuring Timo Andres, and two new songs.

 

With that, this blogger wishes for you all a fine and musical 2018. As the sage says, things can only get better.

 FIN

 ~~~


The Mouse Man Cometh
[The Perfect American - Long Beach Opera]

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"Walt Disney", as a name, has never gone away, although it was 50 years this past December 15 since Walter Elias Disney the man expired. It is likely difficult for anyone much younger than 60 to understand what a constant and continuing presence Disney the man had in U.S.life and culture straight up to the moment of his death. Philip Glass's twenty-fifth opera, The Perfect American, which on Sunday received its belated U.S. premiere via Long Beach Opera, explores and (as it were) reanimates the man in the most appropriate way: by spinning him through a mirror-fragmented jumble of stories.

Adapted, by librettist Rudy Wurlitzer, from a novel by Peter Stephan Jungk (Der König von Amerika), The Perfect American takes place during the final months of Disney's life, imagining him hospitalized and lighting out for the territory of dreams and occasional nightmares, recalling versions of his past, confronting his history, his strengths and weaknesses, what he was and became and might be in the future. Citizen Kane-like, it freights its protagonist's earliest years - here, Disney's childhood in Marceline, Missouri, in the company of his indispensable brother, Roy - ceiling-high with significance and meaning.

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Dramatically, it works more often than not, producing a nuanced and faceted Portrait of the Artist as a Messy and Perhaps Unknowable Human Being. Reports from the world premiere in Madrid in 2013 focused in on the critiques, particularly the conclusion of Act 1 in which Disney voices an array of [sadly standard for their day] racist views, and is set upon by his own Audioanimatronic simulacrum of Abraham Lincoln. The racist attitudes are there, certainly, as are Disney's willingness to battle union labor and to bare knuckle it against anyone who stood in the way of his sometimes self-important creative vision. But if these flaws are not forgiven - and they are not - they play off against what their human carrier accomplished: not a business empire built on shabby real estate deals or moving other people's money around, but an empire built on finding, feeding and fulfilling the dreams of others. Disney is seen here (though the comparison is never made overtly) as a figure akin to Wagner, whose creative work is not ultimately poisoned by his sometimes deplorable personal qualities. 

At Long Beach, director Kevin Newbury and his design team have confined the entirety of the literal action to Walt's hospital room and the theater of the patient's mind. When Walt casts back on his fondness for trains, hospital beds become trains. When he faces a vision of an owl that he killed in a panic as a child - the only time, he insists, that he ever killed anything - it appears as a child patient's stuffed toy and as a costume constructed from medical paraphernalia. Silhouettes of Marceline, Missouri, and of a classic Disney castle are constructed of bottles, clipboards, and the like, a surgical lamp casting their shadows on suspended bedsheets.

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Philip Glass is easily and unreasonably stereotyped as nothing but a peddler of arpeggios, based on his earliest work. There was more to him then, and there is much more to him now. Glass has developed a genuine "late style" that incorporates all those swirly arpeggios and repetitions in company with a restrained  but potent approach to melody (melody!) and an array of punctuation tricks in the percussion section. It is a richly whipped brew, riding long and dextrous rhythmic lines. It is also, perhaps surprisingly, a solid ground over which to sing, allowing the audience to actually hear and decipher the words and the singers to deliver them with dramatic point. The chorus, out of keeping with the usual Glass approach, is positively folksy: they sing "happy birthday," they quack and hoot, and they sing comforting bromides about dreams coming true much as the choruses do in the classic Disney pastorals.

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Disney's Lincoln automaton, resident at Disneyland for over 50 years, was originally created for the 1964 New York World's Fair, where it was the centerpiece of the pavilion of the State of Illinois. (The best thing in the Disney studio's otherwise misfiring Tomorrowland was its loving recreation of elements of the Fair.) Disney and his "Imagineers" provided animatronic creations to a total of four pavilions in 1964: Lincoln for Illinois, the "Carousel of Progress" for General Electric, dinosaurs and cavemen for Ford and, most inescapably, "It's a Small World" for Pepsi. Pepsi's Moppets of the World make no appearance in The Perfect American, but Walt compares himself favorably to Henry Ford and Thomas Edison and Lincoln, as noted, looms large.

References to elements of Philip Glass's own past work are everywhere as well. Walt's love of trains, in particular, readily triggers memories of the trains in Einstein on the Beach; his yen to build things suggests Akhnaten; the collective, often mechanical effort on the part of animators, and the push against it, echo the tension between natural and mechanized worlds in Koyaanisqatsi; an owl appears prominently in Glass's portion of Robert Wilson's the CIVIL warS, as does Lincoln,whose concern for equality and racial justice Glass returns to in the recently revised Appomattox (which one can hope will find its way to southern California someday soon). The Perfect American seems at times as interesting a survey of the composer's creative history as it is a survey of Disney's.

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The character of Walt Disney is on stage from start to penultimate scene (and after that, receives in this production a charmingly homespun apotheosis, waving us goodnight in a manner recognizable to anyone who grew up on The Wonderful World of Color). Justin Ryan as Walt hits all the necessary notes, musically and dramatically, only occasionally veering toward overselling the part. He is persuasive as a driven and powerful man who would rather return, if he could, to a simpler world of his boyhood. As stalwart brother Roy, Zeffan Quinn Hollis is duly stalwart; at Sunday's premiere, he doubled up as the duly righteous voice of robo-Lincoln. Suzan Hanson as Lillian Disney brought to the part some of the grounded dignity she previously displayed as Marilyn Klinghoffer, particularly in the late scene when Walt's death from lung cancer is revealed as inevitable. Jamie Chamberlin, previously one of LBO's twin Marilyn Monroes, charmed as the fictitious Walt's personal nurse Hazel George, whom he addresses as "Snow White".*

Being as it is not the Big Opera Company in town, Long Beach Opera is only able to mount two performances of The Perfect American. The remaining date is Saturday, March 18, and tickets are certainly to be had. (These performances are in the cavernous Terrace Theater, so the number of potentially available seats is not small.) Let your conscience be your guide. It is whispering that you should go.

~~~

Photos by Keith Ian Polakoff, used by kind permission of Long Beach Opera.

*Correction: The original version of this post referred to Hazel George as a fiction. Assorted fact checkers, including the singer, have pointed out that Hazel George was very real and that she was a remarkable, if hidden, figure in Disney's creative life.


Listening Listfully 2016

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This blog is a sad thing these days, a walking shadow of its once sprightly self, a faded jaded mandarin, little trafficked, neglected by its proprietor. Over the length of 2016, I find that I have more unfinished drafts than actual posts. And yet, one—at the least, this one—might hold out hope that it may bestir itself again in time.

One tradition to which I yet cling is this: "Listening Listfully", my catalogue of the album/EP-length recordings released in the past twelvemonth that most particularly tickled my fancy. This year, they number 50, but the List is like baseball: it could in theory go on without end. These are personal favorites, as always, rather than "bests"—although I maintain that everything here is here because it is genuinely among the best things of the past year, and not simply because I have enjoyed it. There are inevitably many recordings of quality omitted, simply because I have yet to listen to them.

Last year, I held out until New Year's Eve. For 2016, I am electing to post on the Eve of Christmas Eve, with the intention to follow on on Boxing Day with a 50-plus entry, properly threaded Tweetstorm on this fool's Twitter timeline. If I get truly ambitious, I will update this post to embed those tweets, and possibly to add further commentary. [Update 26 Dec 2016: The Tweetstorm broke as threatened and is now embedded at the end of this post.] In a break from recent practice, I have lumped everything into a single list, eschewing arbitrary genre boundaries. It is all just plain good music to these foolish ears.

I have incorporated opportunities to stream most of the Top 25 choices on the list. I am sufficiently old fashioned that I still prefer to buy and own music, rather than simply streaming it. I also prefer that as large a portion as possible of what I pay for music should make it into the hands of that music's makers. In consequence I find myself more than ever making use of Bandcamp, which advances both of those preferences more than passing well. Bandcamp-linked recordings on this list are purchasable there; for others, I have provided Amazon links.

Flawed, entirely subjective, and internally contradictory as always, here begins the eleventh annual edition of The List: 

 1.    Julius Eastman - Femenine

 

2.    Darcy James Argue's Secret Society - Real Enemies

 

3.    David Thomas Broughton - Crippling Lack

 

4.    David Bowie - Blackstar

 

5.    Psychic Temple - III

 

 6.    The Gloaming - 2

 

7.    Battle Trance - Blade of Love

 

8.    AHNONI - Hopelessness

 

9.    Shearwater - Shearwater Plays Lodger

 

10.    Morgan Guerin - The Saga

 

11.    Gabriel Kahane - The Fiction Issue

 

12.    The Lazy Lies - The Lazy Lies

 

13.    David T. Little - Dog Days

[I wrote about Dog Days here in 2015.]

 

14.    Qasim Naqvi - Chronology

 

15.   SheLoom - The Baron of the Fjord

 

16.    Howe Gelb - Future Standards

 

17.    Psychic Temple - Plays Music for Airports

 

18.    Nathaniel Bellows - The Old Illusions

 

19.    Niechęć - Niechęć

 

20.    William Brittelle - Dream Has No Sacrifice

 

21.    EH46 - Metropole des Anges

[First appearing in August, nearly all evidence of this exemplary ambient drone raga musing on southern California themes mysteriously "made itself air into which it vanished" from the online world earlier this month. Included here in the hope it may someday return among us.]

 

22.    Finnegan Shanahan, Contemporaneous - The Two Halves

 

23.    Daniel Lanois - Goodbye to Language

 

24.    Nico Muhly, Nadia Sirota - Keep In Touch

 

25.    Vanishing Twin - Choose Your Own Adventure

 

26.    Gabriel Kahane & the Knights - Crane Palimpsest

 

27.    R. Andrew Lee - Adrian Knight: Obsessions

 

28.    The Rolling Stones - Blue & Lonesome

 

29.    Sabina Meck - Love is Here

 

30.    La Femme d'Argent - La Femme d'Argent

 

31.    Roomful of Teeth, inter alia - The Colorado: Music from the Motion Picture

 

32.    Jherek Bischoff - Cistern

 

33.    Bill Nelson - New Northern Dream

 

34.    Andy Shauf - The Party

 

35.    The Living Earth Show - Dance Music

 

36.    Eleanore Oppenheim - Home

 

37.    Jeremy Flower - The Real Me

 

38.    Still Corners - Dead Blue

 

39.    C Duncan - The Midnight Sun

 

40.    Timo Andres & Gabriel Kahane - Dream Job

 

41.    Bonjour - Bonjour

 

42.    Nico Muhly & Valgeir Sigurðsson - Scent Opera

 

43.    The Industry, wildUp - The Edge of Forever

[I wrote about The Edge of Forever previously, here.]

 

44.    Michael Mizrahi - Currents

 

45.    Chris Kallmyer, inter alia - Rhyolite

 

46.    Rational Discourse - Live at the Mothlight

 

47.    Los Angeles Opera - Corigliano: The Ghosts of Versailles

[I wrote about this production in 2015, here.]

 

48.    Magik*Magik - Magik*Magik

 

49.    Steve Jansen - Tender Extinction

 

50.    Field Music - Commontime

 

~~~

On paper, this list rolls on beyond 50. Many of those Honorable but Unmentioned recordings can be found in my Bandcamp collection, here.]

~~~

The Boxing Day Tweetstorm [clicking on the embedded initial tweet below should lead to Twitter and the complete 51-entry collection]:


Invisible Synchronicities
[The Industry Records presents
The Edge of Forever]

The Forever on the Edge of a City

Enterprising Los Angeles new-opera company The Industry specializes in productions in expansive and unexpected places: in and around a working rail terminal for Christopher Cerrone's Invisible Cities, a fleet of moving limousines around the city for Hopscotch. The Industry also operates a recording imprint, and on Friday evening hosted an event on the occasion of its second release, The Edge of Forever, composed by Lewis Pesacov on a libretto by Elizabeth Cline (also The Industry's Executive Director).

The Edge of Forever is a sort of ultimate pièce d'occasion, intended to be performed only once, on a precise date and at a precise time, portraying events that are themselves occurring at that precise moment, though they have been foreordained to happen for millennia. The date in question was (in local Los Angeles reckoning) the 21st day of December, 2012, the final day of the 5,126 "long count" as reckoned by the Mayan calendar, on which occasion either the world was to end, or else a new and renewed world was to begin. The single performance occurred in the Mayan-revival spaces of the Philosophical Research Society, in the Los Feliz district. The recording documents that performance. Three of the opera's five scenes are represented by a live recording from the event, while the first and last scenes are later studio recreations including multitracked vocal parts.

As performed and recorded, The Edge of Forever is incomplete, representing only the final act of a three-act opera. The first two acts take place, or took place (in local Los Angeles reckoning) on the 13th day of March in the year 830. On that date, the first day of the tenth of thirteen cycles comprising the long count, the ancient Mayan astronomer Laakan was granted insight by the gods: he must descend into the cenote, or ceremonial cavern, there to wait out the years until the end of the thirteenth and final cycle, when he will achieve unity with the beloved one, Etznab, at the moment of the world's renewal. The performance of the third act in 2012 thus took place following the longest intermission in operatic history: 1182 years.

Ashley Faatoalia and, looking relaxed, Richard Valitutto on oscillatorsThat final act, as it comes to us now, begins as did the first so long ago, with a procession of scribes, all four sung on the recording by Abby Fischer with an exuberant and often birdlike tintinnabulist ululation. Laakon (tenor Ashley Faatoalia, Marco Polo in Invisible Cities) emerges from meditation and sacred slumber, describes what a long and often despairing wait it has been, praises and embraces the wisdom of what the gods foretold and ordained, and achieves an apotheosis of sorts with the long promised (albeit unheard and unseen) beloved. After such a prolonged caesura, the act itself lasts roughly 38 minutes.

Ritual and enlightenment, not plot action, are the order of the day. Musically, the extant parts of the work build over rich drones and an array of bells, chimes, and other long-resonating percussion. Laakon's exaltation in the final scene aspires most satisfactorily, and without any obvious Wagnerian allusions, to achieve a Tristan-like sense of endless rising.

The non-singing musicians of The Edge of Forever, in 2012 and on the recording, are members of wild Up, conducted by Christopher Rountree. To open the release event, Rountree and a subset of those players performed another Lewis Pesacov piece: an instruction-based work also for bells and chimes and suchlike long-sustaining vibration producers, the performers singing wordless harmonics triggered by the sound of one other's instruments, the whole eventually subsiding to breath and a long sustained meditative silence. From The Edge of Forever itself, the release audience heard the recorded version of the first scene, in a highly effective surround mix, and a similarly effective live performance of the final scene.

The Industry recording is being released principally on vinyl, with texts and inserts and packaging harking to the former era of deluxe opera albums. (In his comments at the release, Lewis Pesacov had fond reminiscences of growing up perusing his parents' old opera boxed sets.) The Edge of Forever is also available for download in multiple digital formats via Bandcamp.

The Edge of Forever - front cover~~~

The June 24, 2016, release event was held at warehouse-turned-arts-space, 356 Mission, and was free to all. The blogger earlier received an advance promotional copy of The Edge of Forever on CD [rare and collectible, perhaps, given that the actual release is only vinyl and digital] through the good offices of The Industry's publicists at DOTDOTDOTMUSIC. Photos, other than the album cover, are by the blogger, from the release event.


The Naked and the Dead
[David Lang: anatomy theater]

  Anatomy theater 2

I asked myself if it were credible that [Evil as] a cosmic force of the sort postulated by Averaud could really exist; or, granting its existence, could be evoked by any man through the absurd intermediation of a musical device.

— Clark Ashton Smith, “The Devotee of Evil” (1933)

I'll lug the guts into the neighbour room.

— Hamlet, Prince of Denmark

Press and publicity for the world premiere of David Lang's new anatomy theater—being a Lang piece, it arrives with neither a definite article nor capitalization—have emphasized its most lurid qualities: A live hanging! A singing-stark-naked-mezzo corpse eviscerated before your eyes! Vitals, and vital bodily fluids, galore! The Guardian asks: is it "the goriest opera ever?" Perhaps it is. But at the opening performance Thursday evening the grisly entrails, the leering grotequeries, the uncomfortable voyeurism, and the general awfulness of the characters were largely beside the point. Despite being as nasty as promised in its particulars, the larger experience of anatomy theater is unexpectedly humane and cathartic. The gore is a McGuffin.

Working with a libretto co-written with artist Mark Dion, Lang's opera follows the final hours, living and dead, of Sarah Osborne (Peabody Southwell) in 18th century London. The performance begins outside of the auditorium, with the public spectacle (replete with sausages and beer) of Osborne's hanging for the murder of her abusive husband and her two small children. Before the noose is applied, she delivers her confession to the crowd, narrating a life of sexual abuse, street living, prostitution, drunkenness and misery. The execution accomplished, the executioner removes his hood to reveal himself as one Joshua Crouch (Marc Kudisch), proprietor of the nearby establishment at which the murderess's corpse ("still warm!" he promises with a smirk) will be publicly dissected. The spectators are ushered to their seats and the demonstration begins.

Anatomy theater 1

Crouch continues as the acidly smiling host of the proceedings, making little secret of the contempt he holds for the "young gentlemen" who have entered his theater or his pleasure at parting them from their money. So many supposed physicians, scientists, artists, he marvels, here to closely observe an attractive young woman (a smack of the lips) laid open as open can be. And adding to the specialness and high purpose of the occasion, a celebrity anatomist will be in charge: the renowned Baron Peel (Robert Osborne), on whose behalf the actual dismantlement of the body will be performed by his assistant, Mr. Strang (Timur).

Baron Peel is more moralist than scientist: he knows what he expects, nay! is certain, to find even before he sets to looking for it. He will demonstrate to us all that the evil nature of Sarah Osborne, and the judgment of the Almighty upon her, are reflected tangibly in the condition of her internal organs. He cannot be sure where exactly evil lies, but its physical presence will be revealed, for the expansion of Knowledge and the greater glory of God, or at least of Baron Peel as God's minister on earth.

anatomy theater is concerned with that question of evil, its nature, and where and how it may be revealed, removed, or understood. It has on its mind as well the question of power: Baron Peel holds power over everyone in the room by virtue of his place as a peer, high on a rigorously unbending apparatus of class. All of the other characters have power over Sarah Osborne because she has no present ability to argue otherwise, and because she never really did: the power, recurringly misused, of men over women is a given in Sarah Osborne's world, and her having acted brutally to protest and thwart it is the very thing that has brought her to her death. While these men seek to find corruption in the body of Sarah Osborne, they demonstrate by the very casualness, even jollity, with which they disdain her life and humanity that their power is itself corrupt.

With the aid of uncomfortably persuasive practical stage effects, the body of Sarah Osborne is cut open and the organs removed one by one. The initial incision produces a seemingly endless skein of intestines, cast aside immediately as of no scientific interest. The process continues as first the stomach, then the spleen, then the heart, and finally the uterus is extracted and carefully measured and described to the Baron by Mr. Strang. To the Baron's growing annoyance, each organ proves to be healthy and without apparent flaw. None shows any sign that it has housed any ill, let alone been the home to heinous evil. At the last, the Baron assures his audience that the search has not been fruitless, for we have conclusively established "where evil is not" in this woman. Perhaps it is in the soul that one might find it. He bids good night, and Crouch ushers the audience out with an invitation to meet him at the rear door should any wish to purchase any of the remaining portions of the body for (heh heh) further study at home. 

If, apart from squeamishness or repulsion at the visceral effects, a viewer is left feeling icky and uncomfortable, it may well be the result of participating in a voyeuristic exercise, as the principal voyeur. Crouch repeatedly reminds the viewer that he (all would have been "he" in keeping with the period setting) has paid handsomely to enter and to look and look and look, inside and out, at this entirely defenseless human woman. Peabody Southwell, as Sarah, lies upon the table, motionless and entirely naked for most of the proceedings. Each member of the audience is in some way complicit in that reduction. 

For all that, the end result of anatomy theater is not reductive. It is, rather, almost hopeful, reminding its discomfited witnesses that ugliness and cruelty are ever present, but that they are not all there is to human life. Beauty, decency, and aspiration to being better and kinder can be found and are worth seeking after. In the particular case of anatomy theater, skill and beauty in the creation of the piece and skill and beauty in its performance serve as the carrier waves for that more comforting view.

The singing and character work of the four onstage performers is exemplary. Sarah Osborne is provided two singular arias, one on each side of her death. In the prologue outside the theater, she gives her confession before execution, telling the story of her life and the conditions that led her to suffocate her husband and infants. Peabody Southwell presents it with mesmerizing directness, nuance, and intimacy, such that the body next seen on the dissection table is not that of a stranger. Midway through that dissection, Sarah Osborne sings again, her song consisting largely of the repeated phrase "My heart." That organ is on the side table with Mr. Strang, who has just reported its unblemished quality and been instructed to seek further after evil, in the womb. Fast approaching literal disembodiment, Sarah Osborne evokes the heart's intangible qualities, the capacity and wish for love, and the natural good she stored there through a pain-filled life. While evil may lie somewhere close by, its antithesis is also near in that moment.

Anatomy theater 3

Each of the singing actors surrounding Peabody Southwell is as strong in his way as she. Marc Kudisch's Crouch is part carnival barker, part entrepreneur, part back-alley porn peddlar, with a dollop of 50's horror-comic undertaker for spice. Crouch is a horrible person, he despises humankind, but a fellow has to make a living, so he provides ample entertainment in his flamboyant person. anatomy theater incorporates a fair amount of bleak and perverse humor, most of it emanating from the dreadful Mr. Crouch. As Baron Peel, Robert Osborne is called upon to be straight and narrow at all times, the embodiment of self-important seriousness and authority. Osborne gives Peel's declamations a from-the-pulpit quality that suits him well. Mr. Strang, meanwhile, is the closest the piece comes to a male character with any redeeming qualities. He provides the physical labor to take Sarah Osborne apart, without seeming to take any unwholesome pleasure in it, and reports his findings as to each organ earnestly, affirming strongly that he can discover nothing wrong with nor any sign of evil in any of them. Timur presents him as something of a skilled and intelligent innocent, not ultimately convinced of Baron Peel's "evil is here" premise. (Timur deserves extra credit, as well, as he seems to be charged with actually triggering and applying the sanguinary effects that so vividly disembowel the late Sarah Osborne.)

Where goodness truly lies in anatomy theater is in David Lang's score. For the most part, even in the martial tattoo accompanying the confession and execution, Lang has made use of the tools he has developed in recent years in works such as the Pulitzer-winning little match girl passion and death speaks—the latter much admired by this blogger. Texts are set over semi-repeating cells of melodic material, the melodies never seeming to move outside a limited range in any given sequence, but gaining momentum and motion by accretion atop and beside one another. The result is what could be described as a highly textured flatness, as when in an abstract or minimalist painting a seemingly unvaried color surface is revealed to have been worked with exacting precision at its finest level, discoverable only upon closest inspection. As a musical method, it proves highly effective at creating an underlying ethereal ache or melancholic and untethered yearning, moving without seeming to move. Around and about, Lang has distributed sections in a style that somehow combines opera seria with the smoky acidity of Weill setting Brecht. (The period nature of the piece and the presence of an accordion in martial tattoo accompanying it gives the execution, apart from Sarah's confession, a hint of the famous near-hanging of MacHeath in The Beggar's and/or Threepenny Opera.) The score is performed with rigor and vigor and, yes, ample heart by members of the wild Up collective, conducted with his usual energy and commitment by Christopher Rountree. 

~~~

anatomy theater is premiering as part of Los Angeles Opera's "Off Grand" initiative in conjunction with Beth Morrison Projects. Performances are in the lobby and theater at REDCAT, beneath Walt Disney Concert Hall. The final performance of the run is Monday, June 20. Procuring tickets may be in the realm of the possible but at this point is, more likely than not, not. Perhaps another time.

The beer being served at the execution was a delicious Milk Thistle Stout created by Solarc Brewing, the fine craft beer maker co-founded by Archie Carey, bassoonist with wild Up. There is no bassoon in anatomy theater nor, so far as I know, in the beer.

Photos: Craig T. Mathew, courtesy Los Angeles Opera.

The blogger attended the opening performance of anatomy theater as a paying customer. He was offered and accepted free beer and sausage prior to the performance, but that was on offer to all.


Listening Listfully 2015 - Ars Gratia Populi

Gramophone in a French trench 1914

 

[This is the second, in posting order, of two Favorite Musickes of the Year posts. There is some repetition on the introductory paragraphs.]

In 2014, the end of December pulled a fast one on those, this blogger included, who produce "year-end" lists of the best, or of their preferred, recorded music of the preceding year: two notable recordings — Andrew Norman's Play from the Boston Modern Orchestra Project and Black Messiah, the entirely-unforeseen and long-awaited return of D'Angelo—slipped unceremoniously into the world, unable to claim their places of honor on the vast majority of already-published Lists. (Both of those recordingsa have been granted post hoc, de facto 2015 release status for my purposes.)

Now then, with only a few hours left for tricksters to drop new music in 2015, comes the time for what I calculate to be the Tenth Annual edition of fool in the forest's Listening Listfully: cataloguing album/EP-length recordings released in the past twelvemonth that most particularly tickled my fancy. These are personal favorites, as always, rather than "bests"—although I maintain now as I always do that everything here is here because it is genuinely among the best things of the past year, and not simply because I have enjoyed it. There are inevitably many records of quality omitted here, simply because I have yet to listen to them.

For 2015, I have continued my 2014 practice of dividing the larger List in two, very roughly segregating these recordings by application of that old fugitive, "genre". Each list contains thirty (30) entries. Below is the portion of the List encompassing music that is essentially hip-to-be-hep-to-be-cool-to-be-Popular.. The other portion has been posted here.

I have incorporated opportunities to stream most of the Top 20 choices on each list, where possible through the invaluable Bandcamp, and otherwise through [hissss! booo! Compensate musicians fairly, why don't you?!?] Spotify. Bandcamp-linked recordings are purchasable there; for others, I have provided Amazon links. Buying music is good; do it often. 

Flawed, entirely subjective, and internally contradictory as always, here begins The List:

1.    The Epic - Kamasi Washington

2.    Motorcade Amnesiacs – Sweet Billy Pilgrim

3.    Black Messiah – D’Angelo and the Vanguard

4.    Architect – C. Douglas

5.    Infinite House – Ava Luna

6.    Natalie Prass – Natalie Prass

7.    Complete Strangers Vetiver

8.    Divers – Joanna Newsom

[Nothing embeddable available, likes she's Adele or Taylor or the Beatles or some such.]

9.    No No No – Beirut

10.    The End of the Affair – The Singleman Affair

11.    I Aubade – Elvis Perkins

12.    I Had Grown Wild EP – My Brightest Diamond

13.    Radiance & Submission – CFCF

14.    The Colours of Life – CFCF

15.    Currents – Tame Impala

16.    The Fun Rises, The Fun Sets – Van Hunt

17.    Edge Of The Sun – Calexico

18.    Sound & Color – Alabama Shakes

19.    Vestiges & Claws- Jose Gonzalez

20.    Revolutions – Steve Cobby

21.    Takamatsu Station – Ava Luna

22.    Star Wars – Wilco

23.    Songs We Like a Lot – John Hollenbeck

24.    Fresh Blood - Matthew E. White

25.    All Across This Land - Blitzen Trapper

26.    Fear Ritual – Rollmottle

27.    Willow – Germany Germany

28.    Recollected Ambient Works, Vol. 1.5: Discreet Music – Kid606

29.    Recollected Ambient Works, Vol. 1: Bored of Excitement – Kid606

30.    Stench of Exist – Boduf Songs


Listening Listfully 2015 - Ars Gratia Artis

A gramophone in Queensland ca 1903

[This is the first, in posting order, of two Favorite Musickes of the Year posts. There is some duplication the introductory paragraphs.]

In 2014, the end of December pulled a fast one on those, this blogger included, who produce "year-end" lists of the best, or of their preferred, recorded music of the preceding year: two notable recordings — Andrew Norman's Play from the Boston Modern Orchestra Project and Black Messiah, the entirely-unforeseen and long-awaited return of D'Angelo—slipped unceremoniously into the world, unable to claim their places of honor on the vast majority of already-published Lists. (Both of those recordingsa have been granted post hoc, de facto 2015 release status for my purposes.) 

Now then, with only a few hours left for tricksters to drop new music in 2015, comes the time for what I calculate to be the Tenth Annual edition of fool in the forest's Listening Listfully: cataloguing album/EP-length recordings released in the past twelvemonth that most particularly tickled my fancy. These are personal favorites, as always, rather than "bests"—although I maintain now as I always do that everything here is here because it is genuinely among the best things of the past year, and not simply because I have enjoyed it. There are inevitably many records of quality omitted here, simply because I have yet to listen to them.

For 2015, I have continued my 2014 practice of dividing the larger List in two, very roughly segregating these recordings by application of that old fugitive, "genre". Each list contains thirty (30) entries. Below is the portion of the List that slouches roughly into the "classical" or "art music" category. The other portion follows, here.

The cut is particularly rough this season: while a pure jazz album tops the "pops," a number of the choices on this more artsy List are nearly indistinguishable from jazz. Ben Folds is here despite producing what is mostly a pop album, because of his collaboration with yMusic and because he includes a full-on-entirely-serious Piano Concerto in the package. There is, as is frequently the case here, no escaping Shara Worden, who turns up in her own name, in her band name, and as a collaborator on at least four occasions spread across both of the sub-Lists. Et cetera. Go figure.

I have incorporated opportunities to stream most of the Top 20 choices on each list. Make what you will of the fact that so many here are available to play and to purchase via the invaluable Bandcamp, while I have had to resort to [hissss! booo! Compensate musicians fairly, why don't you?!?] Spotify for a larger proportion of its more popular twin. Bandcamp-linked recordings are purchasable there; for others, I have provided Amazon links.

Flawed, entirely subjective, and internally contradictory as always, here begins The List: 

1.    The South Shore – Michael Vincent Waller

2.    Unremembered – Sarah Kirkland Snider

3.    Changing Same – Numinous (Joe Phillips)

4.    Dreamfall – NOW Ensemble

5.    Prism – Scott Worthington and Wandelweiser Bass – Scott Worthington

6.    Memory and Weather – Ensemble of Irreproducible Outcomes

7.    Go Seigen vs. Fujisawa Kuranosuke – Nonsemble

8.    You of All Things – Jodie Landau [ft. wildUp]

9.    You Us We All – Worden, Ondrejcak, and B.O.X. Baroque

10.    Discreet Music – Contact

11.    Beams of the Huge Night – Will Mason Ensemble

12.    Glass Piano – Bruce Brubaker and Glass Piano Versions – Bruce Brubaker

13.    The Twenty-Fifth Hour - The Chamber Music of Thomas Adès – Calder Quartet

14.    Foggy, Foggy Dew – Ensemble of Irreproducible Outcomes

15.    Vespers for a New Dark Age – Missy Mazzoli

16.    Render – Roomful of Teeth

17.    Filament – eighth blackbird

18.    Conditional Tension – tholl / vogel / hoff

19.    PREAMBLE – Qasim Naqvi

20.    Dystopia – Michael Gordon

21.    Momenta Quartet: Similar Motion – Momenta Quartet

22.    Face|Resection – Matt Barbier

23.    Andrew Norman: Play – Boston Modern Orchestra Project

24.    Currents, Volumes 1, 2, and 3 – Yarn/Wire

25.    So There – Ben Folds [ft. yMusic]

26.    The Difficulty of Crossing a Field – David Lang

27.    This river so red – Tvärvägen

28.    Entwined - Jake Schepps Quintet

29.    Frank Zappa: 200 Motels - The Suites – Los Angeles Philharmonic, Esa-Pekka Salonen

30.    Anthracite Fields – Julia Wolfe