Monday, January 23, 2012

CD Reviews: ONCE Festival, Dessa, John Luther Adams

I wrote this a month or so ago; a review of some CD's I'd picked up from the public library -- but didn't get around to posting it. It turns out that today is John Luther Adams' birthday, so here it is.


I found this in the library while looking up music by a particular composer (I have forgotten whom). This is obscure in the extreme: badly recorded, sometimes badly played, but generally pretty interesting (though usually not beautiful) music from the now more or less defunct atonal avant-garde styles. This is truly music from a bygone era; even the aesthetics of “experimental” music were different back then. This was an era of loudness and harshness – an obnoxious squeak and honk was considered much more profound than a melody or a sonorous chord. Obviously this trend would soon bleed into mainstream popular music, where it still exists, if robotically, in the form of heavy metal. …All music is a little mellower now. (I have noted this change before, even in performances of the same piece: compare the first 1967 recording of Takemitsu’s “November Steps” with more recent versions.) Another curiosity is that the separate strands or sub-genres don’t seem to be as clear; I could not tell my listening whether I was hearing serialism, aleatory music, free improvisation, or something else. Nowadays these forms are quite distinct… Anyway, I would recommend this to anyone interested in the history or experimental music, mostly as a period piece. There are some astonishing instrumental sounds here (particularly some of the piano and electronic pieces) but don’t expect sound quality – the monaural recording (in an acoustically dead space) gets pretty oppressive by the end. At least the last three pieces on the last CD are in stereo…


This is the antithesis of the ONCE Festival music. One was music just learning to be loud and rough; this is music that is usually thought of as loud and rough being transformed into something beautiful and fairly still. Yes, this is hip-hop with an attitude of tranquility (!) It avoids the cliché’s of tranquil music that are so annoying in “new age” and easy listening, but is still mainstream enough to be given a spot on NPR’s “All Things Considered” (it probably won’t make it onto pop radio, though).

Dessa’s poetry consists of gritty (maybe fictional) slices of life, though with a notable absence of the negativity that pervades hip-hop. There is also an obvious lack of those juvenile shock techniques – the misogyny, racism, profanity, etc., that are so often found in rap lyrics. Probably some (younger) listeners will criticize this music as “weak” because it doesn’t include any of this (I’ve heard that concerning Mars Ill) but to me it signifies the realization that there’s music behind that stereotypical attention-getting.

And what of that music? On one level, it’s obviously of the hip-hop genre (even if its aesthetic is rather aberrant) – the beat is there, the samples are there, the rapping is there. On another level, though, it’s not hip-hop at all: Dessa’s soulful voice often wanders into jazzy melody in the middle of the rapping (in fact, the rap and jazz vocals are juxtaposed with such skill that it’s often nearly impossible to tell exactly when one ends and the other begins). But the curious difference comes from not only from the vocals but the choice of backgrounds – samples include harps, jazz vibraphones, frame drums, classical piano, and a tango band. It’s all quite pretty, a thousand miles away from edIT or M.I.A. Fortunately, though, it never quite crosses the line of becoming “just” pretty (as in Enya or Kitaro) – and therein lies the beauty. This is one genre leaving behind the worst of itself, and successfully experimenting with being something different, without lapsing into the worst of another genre.


I’d heard of John Luther Adams before; not to be confused with the other composer John Adams (or those other two John Adamses, the presidents…) Again, a spot on NPR helped me sort them out.

John (Luther) Adams is also called a minimalist, though that label has of course lost much of its meaning in recent years. One could also call him a composer of uncompromising, in-your-face ambient music (!), which I know is an oxymoron but it describes his compositions. The present CD, “Red Arc, Blue Veil” was, I assumed, a single large work in four movements, with the first two pieces for two pianos, the third for two percussionists, and the last for all four. The first piece is in the manner of Somei Satoh; trills and tremolos crossfade, possibly with the help of digital delay, creating a galaxy of harmonies. The second is a mathematically precise interplay of polyrhythms; for the most part it seems like four against five but there are also passages of five against six. Each piano plays a chord, for a specified number of times, in a certain rhythm, then moves on to the next – but the two pianos (intentionally) don’t match up. Interestingly, it doesn’t all become a jumble. The listener can clearly hear both parts and feel both rhythms as well as hearing their interactions. A fascinating piece, though perhaps a little long for what it does.

The third piece presents bass drums in a similar interplay of rhythms. The effect is like a giant abstract taiko improvisation; all I can say is that I can’t really follow the cross-fading of the thunderous rhythms but the whole thing is just a lot of fun (something that’s sometimes missing in experimental music). Lastly, the final piece returns to the “Satoh” music, though now augmented with a vibraphone and a glockenspiel. The end leaves the listener refreshed, having taken a voyage through the loudest possible interactions of rhythms, and then returned to the familiar sonority of ambient harmonies.

All four of these are “one idea pieces” (as Oliver Knussen had said of certain orchestral works), but they play off of similar ideas, so I had assumed that they were intended to be played together. I was surprised to discover, when reading online reviews of the CD, that these are in fact separate pieces written at different times during the composer’s life. Two things can be said about this (and they are two sides to the same coin): one, that the composer is stuck in the same vein and keeps repeating himself, and, two, that he shows a remarkable continuity of vision. A third possibility is, of course, that these are pieces from an extended cycle written over a long period of time, and that John Luther Adams has also written a number of completely different pieces. I’ll have to hear more before I decide which of these (or all of them) are true.

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