"Downtown" Archives, 1998-99

critiques by Dan WARBURTON and James BAIYE


        Eugene Chadbourne:

        by Dan Warburton

        Even if you’re a record collector of the most extreme persuasion, you will probably no longer be able to find original vinyl copies of Parachute 001 and 002, Eugene Chadbourne’s first solo guitar recordings from 1976-quite how they fell into the hands of John Zorn the late 70s we may never know, but fall they did, prompting a collaboration of extraordinary intensity and commitment between the two men, launching Zorn’s career in the process. But now, at last, here is the long-awaited reissue on Rastascan (I’m reviewing Volume 2 because I still haven’t got my hands on Volume 1 yet)! From time to time in the history of music there are recordings which are so utterly out that you wonder if they haven’t snuck in on a UFO-Harry Partch’s early works, Sun Ra’s “Strange Strings”, Derek Bailey’s “Lot 74”... and this. As Chadbourne notes: “There are several sounds on this recording which the performer had nothing to do with. They are there because the microphones were turned up so high they began to pick up the rest of the world.” (In fact, he’s probably referring to a rather prominent background hum on “Father (You Opened)”, but you know what I’m getting at...) Quite how the sounds herein included ever came from a guitar is sometimes impossible to discern: unlike Derek Bailey’s music, which always sounds like a guitar (it is Bailey’s syntax which is revolutionary, differences between melody, rhythm and harmony explode and vanish), Chadbourne goes one step beyond into the nether regions of timbre, seemingly abandoning any attempt to make the instrument sound guitar-like. Extraneous objects abound-rubber bands snap, rulers twang, chaotic coils of broken guitar strings clang all over the place and the legendary Chadbourne balloons squeak and pop-but the aforementioned high recording level also accounts for much: tiny breathing noises, clicks and taps color the surface of the music. It’s like acoustic Bernhard Günter. Every track, especially the gloriously entitled “Mao Tse Tung Did Not Have To Deal With People Who Were Watching Seven Hours Of Television Every Day”, is a tour de force. Buy now or cry later. [Rastascan BRD 032 (http://www.rastascan.com)]

        Derek Bailey, Pat Thomas, and Steve Noble:
        by Dan Warburton

        At the age where most men are shuffling around in carpet slippers like the Shakespearean pantaloon, Derek Bailey is phenomenally active: here he is again with his third album for Rectangle. After "Close to the Kitchen" with Noël Akchoté and "Tout for Tea" with Eugene Chadbourne, Bailey teams up here with keyboard whiz Pat Thomas, fresh from a stint with Butch Morris on the London Skyscraper tour, and turntablist (and erstwhile Rip Rig and Panic drummer) Steve Noble-though if you were expecting "Bailey plus hiphop" as a follow up to "Bailey plus jungle" (on the "Guitar Drums'n'Bass" album), you may be in for a surprise. Noble's DJing incorporates snatches of world music, West Coast-style jazz piano, in fact just about anything except breaks'n'beats. Listening to Thomas' fascinating keyboard work (who else in improv has worked with John Zorn and Chuck Berry?), you can hear why Morris handpicked him for his conductions.
        Bailey is as lively and creative as ever, though his trademark finesse with harmonics and volume pedals is a little less in evidence, caught up as he is in the whirlwind of fast-moving sound thrown at him by Thomas and Noble. As ever with Rectangle, the hallmark white "home-made" look with grey stenciled lettering and black and white photos (of a Japanese restaurant kitchen??) is as wacky as the music on the album. Class stuff. Follow producer Quentin Rollet's advice: "Play it LOUD."

        Kurt Schwitters: URSONATE; and Christopher Butterfield: MUSIC FOR KLEIN AND BEUYS and PILLAR OF SNAILS
        by Dan Warburton

        Kurt Schwitters "Ursonate" ("sonata in prime sounds") is, along with Satie's "Vexations" and Messiaen's "Modes de Valeurs et d'Intensités", one of those mythic pieces that most people have heard about but never actually heard. Schwitters-better known as a major painter, sculptor and key figure in the post-Dada movement- recorded his epic forty-two minute sound poem in 1923, but to the best of my knowledge that version is not available on disc (though bits of it were swiped by Brian Eno for use on the track "Kurt's Rejoinder" from his 1977 album "Before and After Science"), making the release of this disc is especially welcome. Despite its origins in surrealist sound poetry and its subsequent influence on future generations of sound artists-as opposed to composers-from Bob Cobbing to Henri Chopin, the "Ursonate" is a real traditional sonata, though more Beethovenian that Mozartian in its scale.
        The four movements (Rondo Allegro, Largo, Scherzo and Presto Finale) are superlatively performed (sung? spoken? neither!) by Christopher Butterfield, two of whose compositions also feature on the album. "Music for Klein and Beuys", with its odd line-up including tenor banjo, bass recorder and melodica, is delicately intriguing, while the exquisitely-titled "Pillar of Snails", a twenty-seven minute epic for piano is most impressive in its control of the large form. On balance, I'd even have to say I prefer the Butterfield pieces to the Schwitters (which is pretty hard going after ten minutes), but I'm glad to have this on my shelves, and look forward to hearing more from these artists.
        [Artifact ART 015; contact 925 Longfellow Ave, Mississauga, Ontario L5H 2X9]

        Unknown Public

        This music "magazine" comes in a 6 by 9 inch flat brown box every three months. What's in the box? Each issue brings new surprises: a mobius strip, a thematic CD, poems, pictures, essays, and loose leaf sheets of program notes. The graphic design, in black and white with red accents, is stark and handsome.
        unknown public's aims (broadening the audience for new music, etc.) are similar to ours here at the PNMR. We've been very impressed with this product, and wish them lots of success. The musical focus is primarily (but not exclusively) British and the sound quality is universally fine. Occasionally, the compositional quality is slightly rough, but each disk has a few gems.
        [unknown public]
        PO Box 354, Reading RG2 7JB, UK, or fax at (44) 1-734-312-582.

        by Derek Bermel

        CRI has released digitally remastered recordings of Bassett's Variations for Orchestra (Radio Zurich Symphony Orchestra), Echoes from an Invisible World (Baltimore Symphony Orchestra) and Sextet for Piano and Strings (Concord String Quartet, plus pianist Gilbert Kalish and violist Joel Graham). The disc shows off Bassett's imaginative manipulation of orchestral timbres; delicate textures alternate with dazzling splashes of color. A new disc of his chamber music - featuring clarinettist Fred Ormand, flutist Keith Bryan and pianist Ellen Weckler, among others - is imminent on the Opus One label (and may be available by now).
        Finally, Gothic Records has released Albright's oratorio A Song to David, based on the poetry of Christopher Smart, and performed by the Choir of St. Mark's Cathedral in Minnesota.
        The disc was recorded live, adding a sense of spontenaeity and immediacy to the listening experience, in contrast with today's over-tweaked digital patchworks. Throughout the work, the unabashedly tonal spirituals and hymns mix comfortably with haunting atonal flourishes in a music revealing Albright's mastery of genre-splicing. Also released this season: Albright's Flight's of Fancy, an 8-movement organ extravaganza, along with Chasm, on a recording by organist Pamela Decker. The disc also features Herb Bielawa's Undertones, as well as Decker's Nightsong and Ostinato Dances. Promises to pack a wallop for pipe dreamers.

        Mark-Anthony Turnage:

        City of Birmingham SO, Birmingham Contemporary Music Group / Simon Rattle
        by Dan Warburton

        We like wunderkinds in English music: in the early 80s it was George Benjamin, who soon went underground (i.e. to IRCAM); by the end of the decade Mark-Anthony "Reg" Turnage had taken up the mantle... nowadays it's Tom Adès, it seems. Reg, taking his place alongside Max, Olly, Harry et al.(the English are such a friendly lot) first attracted attention in 1989 with the opera "Greek" (see elsewhere in this issue) and "Three Screaming Popes" (good title, Reg), commissioned by the CBSO, who play it here with such aplomb you'd think it had been standard repertoire for thirty years. And maybe that's the point: without exception, all the music on this CD could easily have been written thirty years ago (though perhaps the Charlie Parker quotation in "Kai" would have seemed less historical back then). Adjectives like "brash", "violent", and "brutally dynamic", which abound in the liner notes, are more applicable to Barrett or Birtwistle; despite his youth (he was born in 1960), Turnage sounds as if he's found a comfortable niche in the comfortable British new music establishment. Make it dramatic (but not too disturbing); choose a good title (if you can throw in establishment figures like Francis Bacon or William Golding, all the better); add a touch of jazz (not techno or hardcore) while at the same time honoring your roots (Tippett comes to mind), and the world is your oyster. Or rather Great Britain is your oyster, for though known on the continent, Turnage has attracted less attention than Ferneyhough and Barrett (for reasons which may ultimately have little to do with the music). This CD represents a good introduction to the music of an undeniably talented and undeniably English composer: buy it now before he moves to a remote Scottish island and starts writing childrens' operas with giant garden gnomes...[DW.]
        [EMI CLASSICS 5.55091.2]

        IN BRIEF
        by James Baiye


        Capstone records frequently produces discs with one or two fine tracks, although often the overall quality is inconsistent. Still, this label has terrific potential. Recent arrivals in our mailbox have included "Extended Resources" from the society of composers, and also a recording of Corrado Canonici, an Italian contrabassist. From the former: "Tantrum," by C.P. First (see photo above), for solo mandolin. Dimitris Marinos gives an excellent performance. Writes Mr. First, "Marino's virtuosity, as well as the mandolin's timbral capabilities, dictated the sonic materials of the work."
        From Canonici's disc, we particularly enjoyed Dinu Ghezzo's "Five Corrado Songs" for contrabass and interactive computer.
        Capstone Records, 252 DeKalb Avenue, Brooklyn, NY, 11205, USA
        Society of Composers, Inc: Extended Resources: CPS-8626
        Corrado Canonici, contrabass: CPS-8628

        Hectic Minimalism

        From the new Parisian label Artgallery we have just received a slew of discs by the German minimalist Conrad Schnitzler. The best of these is Con Repetizione, a double piano work, as far as we can tell. The CD booklet leaves us a little baffled, since it contains no useful information about Mr. Schnitzler's identity or the performers. By all means, drop us a card and tell us a bit about yourself. In the meantime, this a good buy for fans of his driving, somewhat hectic acoustic minimalism. A handsome and relentless sound, full and powerful.
        [Artgallery-AG 004 CD] Con Repetizione
        EPSL, 91 rue Eugene Labiche, 78290, Croissy sur Seine, France.

        Roger Reynolds

        Ivanov Suite and Versions/Stages, by Roger Reynolds, is the result of an electroacoustic collaboration with the Japanese experimental theater director Tadashi Suzuki. "Rich and Strange," to quote Peter Greenaway. This has a lot of sonic potential. Very diverse and fascinating incidental music. Emotion ranges from the terrifying to the somniferic. New World records deserves praise for their eclectic and American discs.
        [NW 80431-2]

        The Bern Nix Trio

        Also from New World, but on a different planet, (and a lot more fun, frankly) is Alarms and Excursions by The Bern Nix Trio. Harmolodic music alla Ornette. Jazz guitarist Bern Nix' work from 1975 to 1987 with Coleman's Prime Time Band pays off in a humorous and imaginative series of tunes.
        [NW 80437-2]

        Urban Cabaret

        Geoffrey Burleson, pianist, teams up with Maria Tegzes, soprano, to bring us some very unusual and perhaps deservedly abandoned music in a Neuma disk called Urban Cabaret. This is worth hearing just for the repertoire, which is mostly songs by Eisler and Schoenberg.
        [N 450-83 - NEUMA Records - 71 Maple Street - Acton, MA - 01776 - USA]