Author: Caw, Tom
Date published: June 1, 2011
West Meets East: Sacred Music of the Torino Codex. Schola Antiqua of Chicago, Michael Alan Anderson, Director. Discantus Recordings 1002 (2010), CD.
This is the second Discantus Recordings release by Schola Antiqua of Chicago, a professional vocal ensemble dedicated to the study and performance of medieval plainchant and early polyphonic music before the year 1500. The album is taken from a live performance on May 15, 2010 at St. Benedict Parish in Chicago, and it contains never-before-recorded plainchant and polyphonic music from the early fifteenth-century Torino Codex (Torino, Biblioteca Nazionale, MS J.II.9). Artistic Director Michael Alan Anderson offers context for this lack of prior recordings in his liner notes, positing that although this is the largest musical source in the French tradition between the Ars nova manuscripts of the fourteenth century and the Franco-Burgundian manuscripts of the late fifteenth century, the music of the Torino Codex has attracted comparatively little attention from performing ensembles and scholars due to almost all of the pieces being both anonymous and significantly lacking in concordances with other known sources. Anderson explains that the music, ranging from sacred plainchant and polyphony to secular song, appears to have originated on the island of Cyprus at the court of King James I of the ruling Lusignan family, with the manuscript accompanying Anne of Cyprus as part of her dowry in her marriage to Louis of Savoy in 1433. The program for this album derives from the first three principal parts of the manuscript: chant (fascicle 1), Mass Ordinary movements (fascicle 2), and motets (fascicle 3). Music in honor of St. Anne and St. Hilarion, two saints celebrated in the first fascicle, is also included. The group has a lovely sound, with all nine voices blending well into the homogeneous ideal for early music ensembles. William Chin is the only soloist, delivering a strong performance on the plainchant Alleluia verse Ave sancte Ylarion. As it is a concert recording, there are numerous instances of ambient sounds joining with the voices throughout. The first noticeable noise occurs at 2:58 of the second track (Gloria), when what sounds like a large door slams, reverberating through the church for several seconds. It is jarring on the first listen, but I grew to expect it on subsequent listens, looking forward to its attack as well as the decay in the church. It functions to heighten my awareness, to make me aware of the messiness of life and the permeability of walls, and to remind me this timeless music was made in a specific time and place. There are other door sounds, errant knocks, and the rumblings of traffic audible at various moments later in the performance, all of which increases my sense of the cavernous space in which the singing is occurring. I enjoy the "audio vérité" approach of the recording, but I realize other listeners might not share my opinion, so consider this both a celebration and a caveat. There are also moments when errant sounds are coming from the singers. I can hear the protestations of every choir director I have known while listening to the susurrus of s sounds throughout the Sequence for St. Hilarion: Exultantes collaudemus. Anderson might have preferred a more uniform delivery, but chose to present the concert recording intact. The integrity of the concert performance would have been better served by the audio engineer allowing the decay to continue at each selection's conclusion, fading into the start of the next track without any audible interruption (as heard between tracks 4 and 5). This is a minor quibble, but the space shaped by the architecture is as much a participant in this performance as any one of the singers, and to clip the sounds as they decay is to denigrate its role. A viola da gamba is added to the ensemble in the three motets included to great effect. It is neither too intrusive in the mix of voices nor too far in the background as to be ineffectual. The only piece on the program not found in the Torino manuscript is Machaut's rondeau Rose, liz, printemps, verdure, which closes the concert. Anderson explains the Machaut selection appearing on this program in his notes, pointing to an "oblique connection" Machaut had to the Lusignan court in Cyprus, predating the other music here by several generations. This secular text celebrating a beautiful lady is bestowed with a sacred solemnity in this performance, an aesthetic decision that might be attributed to Anderson's directorial vision-he mentions the "porous nature of sacred and secular themes in the late Middle Ages" to bolster his argument that "it is not inappropriate to see the looming presence of the Virgin Mary" in this composition. Theological interpretations aside, the blend of the voices combined with the subtle presence of the viola da gamba makes this a wonderful conclusion to an enjoyable listening experience. This recording will broaden the early music offerings of all libraries. Complete texts and translations of the selections performed, excluding the widely available Mass Ordinary movements, along with additional commentary and content, may be found at http://www.chicagochant.org/ (accessed 23 February 2011).
Johann Sebastian Bach. The Art of Fugue. George Ritchie. Fugue State Films FSF-DVD-0001 (2010), CD/DVD.
There is much to savor in this lavish package from Fugue State Films, but the main course is George Ritchie's magnificent recording of the Art of Fugue, made on the Richards, Fowkes, & Co. organ at Pinnacle Presby terian Church, Scottsdale, Arizona. Ritchie, Professor of Organ Emeritus at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, chose to record the later version, for which Bach revised various pieces, rearranged the order, and added new works for a total of fourteen fugues and four canons. In his essay "An Approach to the Art of Fugue," which is included in the booklet accompanying the two CDs and DVD, Ritchie credits the combination of Christoph Wolff 's scholarship on the Art of the Fugue- including his publication of both the early and the final version-and the building of the organ based on central German organs of Bach's time by Ralph Richards and Bruce Fowkes in 2006 for leading him to fulfill the goal he had for decades of recording this version. Another key figure in this endeavor is Helmut Walcha (1907-1991), a blind German organist who specialized in performing, recording, and teaching the organ works of J. S. Bach, who Ritchie studied with in the 1960s and to whom he dedicated this recording. Ritchie describes Walcha's completion of the fragmentary final fugue as "one of the most successful of several that have been published," and he includes his recording of it here as a bonus track (in addition to his recording of the unfinished final fugue in Bach's manuscript). Due to the time constraints of the format, Ritchie was forced to add a second CD to accommodate all of the pieces. On the second CD, he includes selections under the heading Additional Late Works, all of which were previously released in 2003 on his 11-CD set J. S. Bach Organ Works Complete (Raven OAR-875). These performances were recorded on three different organs in the United States during the 1980s and 1990s, and the works include Ricercar à 6 (from Musi kalisches Opfer BWV 1079) and the six "Schübler" Chorales. Al though it is nice to have a side helping of late Bach to go with the main course, these tracks mostly serve to make the performances and the sound of his work on the Art of Fugue even more brilliant by comparison. Ritchie includes all the registrations and organ specifications-as well as a glossary of terms from his essays and notes-in the booklet, making this both a helpful and instructional guide. The two CDs are complimented by a DVD, which includes a 90- minute documentary titled Desert Fugue (featuring Ritchie, Christoph Wolff, and organ builders Ralph Richards and Bruce Fowkes) and a 111- minute film of Ritchie giving a detailed introduction to all twenty movements of the Art of the Fugue. A review of the content on the DVD is beyond the scope of this column. This recording will augment the appreciation and the understanding of The Art of Fugue for all listeners, and it will delight all who are fortunate enough to find it in the holdings of their local library. It might even inspire listeners to make a pilgrimage to Pinnacle Presby terian in Scottsdale in order to experience the Richards, Fowkes, & Co. instrument in person. Listening to this recording is itself a transporting experience.
Mark Dresser. Guts: Bass Explorations, Investigations, Explanations. Kadima Collective Recordings KCR Triptych 1 (2010), CD/DVD/booklet.
Mark Dresser is a double bassist, composer, and improviser, active professionally since the early 1970s, working in jazz, classical, and free improvisation, and appearing on over 100 recordings. Collaboration-with musicians, visual artists, filmmakers, set designers-has always been a key part of his musical practice, but a commitment to the exploration and expansion of the sonic possibilities of the double bass has also resulted in Dresser actively performing and recording as a soloist since the early 1980s. This is his third solo double bass album, and he connects the dots that lead to its recording in the attractive booklet accompanying the CD and DVD: Dresser accepted a teaching position at University of California, San Diego (UCSD) in 2004, relocating back to his home state from Brooklyn, New York; the UCSD Department of Music purchased a five-string contrabass violin made by luthier Hammond Ashley in 2008, which Dresser describes as sounding wonderful; and the Conrad Prebys Music Center at UCSD opened in 2009, giving him access to a concert hall with extraordinary acoustics designed by noted acoustician Cyril Harris. Guts provides listeners with a chance to marvel at the range of musical expression Mark Dresser can coax from the double bass, aided by unconventional amplification and a wide array of extended techniques. All but two of the pieces are Dresser's own compositions, which lends this solo effort even more of a singular sense of expressivity. The two pieces not composed by Dresser are from his friend and fellow UCSD professor Roger Reynolds, who wrote them after much interaction with Dresser. There is humor and joy in the compositions and the performances, although such qualities are always in "the ear of the behearer" (as the late great Dewey Redman once put it); however, there is no denying the humor in the physiological wordplay Dresser employs in the titles of his compositions, such as "Innard Pulse," "Duohandum," and "S'Offal." It seems foolhardy to attempt to improve upon or paraphrase Dresser's own brief descriptions of his works; for example, "Spleendeed" is "a two-handed hammer-on bitonal elegy in a morphing microtonal harmonic language." This technical writing approach to describing incredibly technical playing gets at exactly what is happening in the performance, but listening to the recording yields much more musical and sonic information to ponder. Dresser includes the disclaimer that there are no overdubs on this recording, and it is a statement necessitated by the frequent moments when it sounds as if two or three musicians are pursuing distinct ideas simultaneously. The audio engineering is to be commended. The clarity in the lower registers is astonishing, as is the articulation of the pizzicato attacks, hammer-ons, and pull-offs. Dresser unleashes a wide spectrum of tones and timbres, harmonics and multiphonics, all of which are fully conveyed. It pains me to think of these pieces being compressed into various audio file formats and played back through inexpensive headphones or run-of-the-mill computer speakers. This album begs to be heard through above-average speakers in a room large enough to allow the attention to detail that went into the recording, mixing, and mastering to fill the air. The arco rumble Dresser produces throughout "Kishkus," a piece he describes as being about lowness, will test the quality of your playback system, either rewarding your investment or sending you in search of better equipment. The DVD includes a lecture demonstration by Dresser on extended techniques (such as gravity bow drops, falsetto flautando, and arco multiphonics), a conversation between Dresser and Reynolds, and detailed performance technique notes with sheet music exercises and two scores embedded as PDF files. A review of the content on the DVD is beyond the scope of this column. This is a package suited for academic music libraries-primarily for ones supporting schools or departments of music with double bass studios-but it deserves to be heard (and seen) by as wide an audience as possible. My only complaint with this release has to do with the packaging. The CD and DVD come housed in a slim DVD case that is too small to hold the booklet, thus requiring libraries to transfer the contents to a new case both to preserve it and facilitate circulation. Kadima Collective Recordings has released two titles in their Triptych Series to date, and has more titles in the works, so perhaps they will work out the flaws in their packaging for future releases. Packaging concerns aside, this triptych is highly recommended.
Konono No. 1. Assume Crash Position. Crammed Discs craw60 (2010), CD.
Konono No. 1 is a group from Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Mingiedi Mawangu founded the group in the 1960s, adapting the ritual music of his Bazombo ethnic group to be performed by musicians using electric likembes (box-resonated lamellophones) with pickups made from junkyard scraps, and percussion ranging from the traditional to the makeshift (pans, pots, and car parts), all amplified through a distortion-prone sound system. Their first recording was included on a compilation made in 1978 but not released until 1989 on the French label Ocora (Zaïre: Musiques Urbaines à Kinshasa, Ocora 559007 , CD), and they were listed by the name Orchestre Tout Puissant Likembé Konono No. 1. The Belgian label Crammed Discs released their first album in 2005 as the initial offering in their Congotronics series (Congotronics, Craw 27 , CD), and exposed the world outside Kinshasa to the polyrhythmic and trance-inducing music made by this group. Assume Crash Position is the fourth release in the Congotronics series, and it is another compelling album from Konono No. 1. Producer Vincent Kenis recorded the group in a proper studio, in addition to once again capturing their performance at Halle de la Gombe in Kinshasa, and the results provide an increased level of detail audible in the musical mélange. The ringing and buzzing likembes are still the dominant sound, but they are now supported by a rhythm section of Daki Makumbu on bass guitar and Vincent Visi on drums (playing a kit assembled from found items). The four longest of the eight tracks also include guest guitarists, whose lines are integrated into the textures and timbres of the likembes rather than altering the group's sonic identity. The group's rotating membership now includes vocalist Pauline Mbuka Nsiala, who is credited with writing "Wumbanzanga," a nearly twelveminute relentless groove in which the men echo her lead vocal imploring a man spreading his money around to think about her sometimes. Call and response chants are the norm in nearly all Konono No. 1 songs, with a male voice typically singing lead as Augustin Makuntima Mawangu does on "Mama Na Bana," lamenting that the mother of his children has run away with another man. The cyclical song structures-built on bass line vamps and the rhythmic onslaught from the drums, percussion, and the electric likembes-induce the listener to feel as if the hands have been taken off the clock, accentuating the condition of timelessness associated with trance music across cultures. Mingiedi's song "Konono Wa Wa Wa" provides aural evidence to support the "proto-techno" description some critics have applied to this music; the liner notes indicate an early version of this song was a hit for the group in the Congo at the end of the 1960s. The album's final song, "Nakobala Lisusu Te," is the lone departure from the group's typical approach, featuring only Mingiedi and his likembe. The group's founder gives an intimate vocal performance, and according to the English translation from Kikongo in the liner notes he is expressing the following sentiment (in his late seventies): "I don't feel like getting married any more because the women of nowadays think marriage is just a six month affair." The melodic and percussive effects Mingiedi coaxes from his likembe create a palpable energy even without assistance from the other musicians. Konono No. 1 makes rapturous music that moves listeners to dance. I strongly encourage attending one of their shows when they tour, and I recommend expanding your world music collection by acquiring this album-and their other titles as well.
Marc Ribot. Silent Movies. Pi Recordings Pi34 (2010), CD.
Marc Ribot is a guitarist for whom the terms prolific and eclectic seem laughable in their limitations when attempting to take in the breadth and depth of his musical output since his relocation to New York City from Newark, New Jersey, in 1978. He has spanned genres and styles, playing jazz, post-punk, soul, rhythm and blues, country, classical, and Cuban, among others. A selected biography would include: his teacher and mentor in his youth was Haitian classical guitarist and composer Frantz Casseus, whose works he has recorded; he was a member of the Lounge Lizards from 1984-1989; he has worked as a side musician for Wilson Pickett, Carla Thomas, Chuck Berry, and many others; his recording credits include appearances on albums by Tom Waits, Marianne Faithfull, John Zorn, Caetano Veloso, and Laurie Anderson; he has led his own groups, such as Rootless Cosmopolitans, Shrek, Los Cubanos Postizos, and Spiritual Unity; he has both composed and played on various film scores, and worked with choreographers to compose pieces for dance; he premiered a concerto composed for him by Stewart Wallace with the National Symphony Orchestra in 2004; and he has released numerous solo guitar recordings on a number of different labels. The music Ribot performs on Silent Movies includes pieces he composed for movie scores, some for films he declined to score but felt compelled to write for, and some he wrote for projects that only existed in his mind. Ribot writes in his liner notes that the title of the album and some of the compositions were inspired by his experience preparing for a live accompaniment to the Charlie Chaplin film The Kid that took place at Merkin Hall as part of the NY Guitar Festival in January 2010. "Delancey Waltz" is one of three on the album that Ribot indicates in the credits he originally composed for the motion picture Drunkboat, and it is woozy without swaying into maudlin territory. "Fat Man Blues" is another one of the Drunkboat pieces, and it thwarts the broad comedy implied in its title by steering clear of standard 12-bar blues. This is more of a trance blues, akin to North Mississippi hill country blues, based on a two-chord vamp that never progresses through the expected harmonic changes. It stretches out, goes nowhere in particular, and sounds great. The piece that follows it is "Bateau," the third of the Drunkboat compositions, in which Ribot's playing suggests he is plucking an amplified likembe to accompany another guitarist playing a classical guitar. This might be the piece that prompted Ribot to add the disclaimer on the back of the compact disc case stating this program of solo guitar music was performed without overdubs. The only exception to this happens on "The Kid," in which Ribot plays a vibraphone track doubling the wistful melody he plucks and surrounds with muted strumming to great effect. It is arguably the most beautiful composition on the album. There is technically another exception to this being solely a solo guitar album-Keefus Ciancia is credited with "soundscapes" on five of the pieces, and his work ranges from the barely audible ambience on "Variation 1" to the nearly two-minute maelstrom introductory section of "Postcard from N.Y." in which screams and gunfire abound. Ribot makes a quiet entrance playing an achingly gorgeous fingerstyle melody, Ciancia's sounds recede, and Ribot is alone for the next two minutes, crafting what is a decidedly pensive postcard. Ciancia's sonics return intermittently throughout the rest of the eight-plus minutes, but Ribot is the lone figure in the landscape of this audio postcard. "Empty" gives the impression of existing somewhere along the spectrum between composition and improvisation, and seems a likely candidate for one of the pieces Ribot wrote for a film he imagined. There are bound to be musical anomalies in a collection of compositions such as this, and "Natalia in Eb Major" fits that description. It opens with sustained notes amplified to the point of feedback, but Ribot pulls back each time the sound seems as if it is about to shift into something more sinister. This is one of two pieces included that Ribot composed for El General, a documentary about Plutarco Elías Calles, the revolutionary general who became president of Mexico in 1924, directed by Natalia Almada. The other piece, "Requiem for a Revolution," is framed by Ciancia's soundscapes. These two are the most overtly cinematic tracks. They function to remind the listener that this is not background music. "Radio" is engineered to sound as if it is playing on an old radio in the next room, all mid-range tinged with the slightest bit of amplifier distortion. The program concludes with the only composition not written by Ribot, Hubert Giraud's tune "Sous le Ciel de Paris," the title song from the 1951 Julien Duvivier movie. This version is more than a few steps removed from Edith Piaf's popular lilting waltz rendition. Ribot slows the tempo and applies rubato to the point that dancing seems impossible, and he imbues the melody with a touch of saudade. Ciancia's minimal soundscape contribution adds little to the track, but it does function nicely as exit music of a sort after the last guitar notes fade, while the credits roll on the screen of the listener's mental cinema. This album has much to offer a variety of listeners-guitarists, composers, film music fans, people seeking soundtrack options for the movies of their lives-and is recommended for all libraries.
Raul Malo. Sinners & Saints. Fantasy FAN-32010-2 (2010), CD.
Sinners & Saints is the fifth album in the solo career of Raul Malo, and his second release for Concord Music Group's Fantasy label. Malo rose to prominence in the 1990s as the vocalist and leader of the Mavericks, a band that added pop and Latin influences to its Grammy-winning take on country. Malo began releasing solo albums in 2001, moved on from the Mavericks officially in 2006, and has been recording and touring steadily ever since. Malo chose to get out of Nashville and record this album in Austin, Texas, and he invited many excellent Texan guests to the sessions, including San Antonio living legend Augie Meyers (the Sir Douglas Quintet, Texas Tornados) playing his distinctive Vox Continental organ stabs on several tracks, Shawn Sahm (son of deceased legend Doug Sahm) providing electric guitar in the spirit of his father, Michael Guerra (Texas Tornados) flexing his accordion skills, and up-and-coming Austin group The Trishas (Savannah Welch, Kelley Mickwee, Liz Foster, Jamie Wilson) singing close harmony background vocals. The tracks featuring the guests have a jam session looseness that keeps the proceedings from slipping into the controlled preciousness to which some singer-songwriters are prone. Malo allows his talented friends to shine, but he remains the star of his own show, playing many instruments (including guitars, drums, organ, and ukulele) and displaying technical facility with a variety of musical styles. He is a talented instrumentalist, especially on guitar, but his primary instrument is his magnificent voice. The opening title track begins with a solo trumpet motif that sounds like a Spaghetti Western theme, but it quickly veers into surf music territory when the snare cracks and the reverb-laden guitar commences to twang. Malo doesn't enter singing until two minutes into the song, almost as if he is teasing his listeners by withholding the goods. He displays the strength of his upper register while referring to an unnamed sinister something that could happen to you in this world with more sinners than saints. The song sets an intensely dramatic mood, which dissipates when the laidback groove of "Living For Today" kicks in. Meyers adds his pulsing organ to the chorus while The Trishas join Malo in declaring the song's "one day at a time" mantra. "San Antonio Baby" is as joyous and danceable a plea from a spurned lover to his lost sweetheart as you're likely to hear. Michael Guerra adds a double dose of conjunto, playing bajo sexto in addition to accordion, Meyers piles on the Vox Continental, and Malo sings of feeling "like a king who's no longer royalty." A singersongwriter's choice of cover songs can reveal influences, affinities, and alliances. Some artists choose songs they feel are deserving of exposure to wider or different audiences. Malo has stated in interviews he has a hard time fathoming why Rodney Crowell can't get played on country radio. On Crowell's " 'Til I Gain Control Again," Malo milks the pathos of the lyrics and the melody in a manner that calls to mind Van Morrison. It still might not garner commercial radio airplay for Crowell's song, but it is a stirring performance. "Staying Here" sounds like an unearthed Jimmy Webb gem-the gentle wah-wah pedal on the electric guitar shading the strummed acoustic lends a 1970s tinge, as do the near-gospel backing vocals from The Trishas-but it is another Malo original. The uncertainty the song's narrator expresses should elicit nods of understanding from anyone who has decided to remain in a relationship but still thinks of leaving. "Superstar" offers more Texas Tornados-style South Texas magic. Malo calls out Michael Guerra by name to take his accordion solo, and Guerra makes the most of it, eliciting an ecstatic grito from Malo. "Sombras" is Malo's version of a lovelorn ranchera that was a hit in the early 1960s for popular Mexican singer Javier Solís. Malo slows the tempo and delivers a passionate vocal performance of the Spanish lyrics, while Guerra's accordion combined with Bobby Flores's pedal steel guitar blurs the Mexico/Texas musical border. The ache in Malo's voice echoes that of Roy Orbison, one of his main influences, and this quality is most apparent on "Matter Much To You." The album concludes with a cover of Los Lobos's "Saint Behind The Glass" (from their 1992 album Kiko). It is a tender reading of the song, adding requinto guitar, ukulele, and Hawaiian steel guitar to the mix. The three chords repeating throughout continue into a fade, leaving the mysteries of the impressionistic lyrics floating in the air and the harmonic progression unresolved. The effect is that of an ellipsis, which makes me eager to hear how Malo will continue with his next release. Malo's musical talents deserve to be represented in more library collections.
University of Wisconsin-Madison