ALBUM TITLE: Collection: Howl, Usa
WORKS: Sing Sing – J Edgar Hoover; Barstow – Eight Hitchhikers’ Inscriptions from a Highway Railing at Barstow, California; Cold War Suite from How It Happens; Howl
PERFORMER: Kronos Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: 7559-79372-2
‘it’s no longer crossover, fusion, world, new age, ambient, whatever new word corporate record companies come up with this week. what’s happening is beyond trendy descriptions and hype. it’s actually a breakthrough of musics, plural, and the emergence of new musics, also plural. out of the rot and decay of the musical traditions of various cultures come new musical ideas built on the fact that the world is small, no place is remote, and information travels fast.’
Michael Gordon’s introduction to his recent Trance suggests that the old idea of America as a cultural melting-pot has taken on a new dimension in the age of the Internet. The piece itself, written for and brilliantly played by the British group Icebreaker, combines Nancarrow-like superimpositions of complex rhythms, Reichian shifting patterns, and samples from the sounds of worship in different cultures, with the energy of rock music, driven by an almost constant electric bass guitar. Trance-like, in the conventional sense, it isn’t. But the relentless rhythms, and the denatured quality of the sounds, do suggest something oddly impersonal – as if in embracing the world Gordon has effaced all consciousness of himself as an individual.
Peter Lieberson (fifty last year, ten years Gordon’s senior) shows himself to be a citizen of the world in a different sense, with his 1991 setting of Douglas Penick’s version of the Tibetan Buddhist myth of King Gesar. The story is told by a narrator – the excellent Omar Ebrahim – in occasional bursts of song, but more often in recitation, and frequently also in very fast chanting (like Judith Weir on speed). Meanwhile, the starry instrumental ensemble is reduced to a largely neutral supporting role. Not until the 35-minute mark, when the song of the goddess Manene ‘is heard only by Gesar’ (and so not by us), does a sequence of exquisitely written duets suggest how Lieberson’s undoubted talent might have been put to more persuasive use.
At 80, Lieberson’s one-time teacher Milton Babbitt remains a staunch defender of music which, unlike Lieberson’s, is about nothing but itself and its own processes. Babbitt’s notoriously spiky application of serial techniques gives a hermetic quality even to the single- and double-line miniatures from the last 15 years, played by members of the New York-based Group for Contemporary Music. But what this collection reveals is the extent to which, in the hands of such skilled and sympathetic advocates, this can be highly effective performers’ music. And listeners willing to persevere in trying to penetrate Babbitt’s sound-world will get nothing but encouragement from the composer’s reading of his witty and lucid 1989 essay, and from Joseph Dubiel’s helpful, non-technical notes.
Diversity in American music is nothing new, as is evident from the gulf between Babbitt’s music and that of his near-contemporary (and fellow-pupil of Roger Sessions) David Diamond. Diamond is a symphonist of traditional cast: the Adagio of his Eleventh Symphony of 1991 recalls no one so much as Bruckner, with its nobly elegiac tone and sonorous climaxes. Unfortunately (and mysteriously), this Adagio is the only part of the Symphony included in Vol. 5 of Gerard Schwarz’s authoritative Diamond series for Delos. The polished playing of the Seattle Symphony in the earlier works on the disc, notably the cheerful 1944 Rounds, hardly compensates for the absence of the rest of the new work.
No one could have been much further from the American mainstream than that unique American pioneer Harry Partch, inventor of a battery of unconventionally tuned instruments. Partch’s Barstow has been recreated for the Kronos Quartet with unexpected success by his pupil Ben Johnston. Elsewhere on this Kronos disc of music combined with words, Michael Daugherty and Scott Johnson manipulate archive recordings of the ranting J Edgar Hoover and the rational IF Stone with great ingenuity, but the music seems to add little. Lee Hyla achieves greater success by using the whole of Allen Ginsberg’s fierce recital of Howl, and picking up on its strong rhythmic beat in his music. But in the end, for all the Kronos’s strength, it’s the words that stick in the memory.
Michael Daugherty (born 1954) is better represented by the new recording of two of his recent works inspired, characteristically, by the Superman comic strips. Here the energy of rock is well matched to a fluent compositional technique, and the results are stunningly played by Zinman’s Baltimore musicians. Daugherty does sometimes seem to stretch his talent a little thin: the nine-minute build-up of Bizarro, for wind and percussion, is more effective than the 13-minute finale of the Symphony, spun out of the single idea of the Dies irae plainchant in tango rhythm. But you can forgive him a lot when he calls another movement ‘Oh Lois!’, and gives it the tempo marking ‘Faster than a speeding bullet’.