June 21, 2012


Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois and Roger Eno: Apollo. Icebreaker, with BJ Cole. Cantaloupe Music. $16.99.

Steven Stucky: August 4, 1964. Dallas Symphony Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Jaap van Zweden. DSO Live. $14.99.

Martin Schlumpf: Summer Circle; December Rains; Clarinet Trio. Krypton Quartet (Alexandra Osborne and Joel Fuller, violins; Abigail Evans, viola; James Lee, cello) (Summer); Karolina Rojahn, piano (December); Rane Moore, clarinet; Rafael Popper-Kaiser, cello; Cory Smythe, piano (Trio). Navona. $16.99.

Fire & Time: Works for Orchestra by Karen A. Tarlow, Stephen Yip, Allen Brings, Paul Osterfield, Steven Block, and Howard Quilling. Navona. $16.99.

Morning Moon. Ecco La Musica. Big Round Records. $16.99.

      Composers have always reached out to audiences – music unheard may as well not exist – but modern ones reach out somewhat differently from those of earlier times.  In the past, classical composers often wrote occasional music – works for specific occasions, whether in the form of historically illustrative tone poems or celebrations of wars concluded or individual battles won.  But many modern composers go a step beyond this to create works intended to become part of everyday life, merging the musical world with the nonmusical one.  Brian Eno is strongly dedicated to this proposition, developing pieces intended to be perceived as background music to be heard, almost subliminally, in such venues as airports.  Apollo is this sort of ambient music, created for a 1983 Al Reinert film called For All Mankind that documented the Apollo missions.  Apollo proved influential beyond the film for which it was composed: portions appeared in the subsequent movies 28 Days Later, Traffic, and Trainspotting – all of which had themes about as far removed from that of For All Mankind as it is possible to get.  The original, 13-section Apollo sounds less like film music than like the musical background for an undifferentiated experience.  It is neither very involving nor particularly off-putting, its sections (with such names as “Stars,” “Deep Blue Day” and “Weightless”) sometimes seeming to reflect their titles and sometimes seeming simply to drift (one section is actually called “Drift”).

      Steven Stucky’s August 4, 1964 is, in contrast, entirely earthbound and very definitely intended to get listeners to pay attention.  It is a secular cantata in which Stucky and librettist Gene Scheer attempt to encapsulate a specific date during the presidency of Lyndon Johnson – a day on which Johnson and his Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, decided to escalate the Vietnam War, and also a day on which the bodies of three murdered civil-rights workers were discovered in Mississippi.  An encapsulation of history rather than an attempt to explain or put it into perspective, the work uses White House telephone tapes, speeches by Johnson, letters from the civil-rights workers, plus other contemporary sources, to produce a portrait of a single day in the mid-1960s, signifying, unfortunately, not very much.  Stucky and Scheer neither idolize nor demonize Johnson, neither condemn his actions in Vietnam nor defend them; August 4, 1964 comes across as just another day in the life of the nation and those who led it.  The work has a curious anomie at its core: several sections are expressive, and the Dallas Symphony Chorus and Orchestra under Jaap van Zweden perform the piece well.  But one seeks in vain for any strong sense of why this particular day, among so many others, was chosen as the basis for the work: nothing feels particularly special in the small and great tragedies tied to this specific date, or in the music evoking it.

      Martin Schlumpf connects his works with the real world in a different way, combining some of the formality of classical music with a considerable dose of jazz and, beyond that, improvisational music in general.  The result is music that comes in parts – each section of each piece on the new Navona CD is labeled “Part A,” “Part B,” “Part C,” and so on.  There is considerable rhythmic vitality in Schlumpf’s music, but one gets the feeling that the bounciness and style are concealing an overall lack of content: the performers seem to enjoy playing the works, but there is ultimately not much for listeners to sink their ears into (so to speak).  Schlumpf does show that he can write skillfully for all the instruments he uses in these three pieces; his handling of the clarinet is especially idiomatic and interesting.  And there are enough emotional and coloristic effects in all three pieces on the CD to make the disc a worthwhile listening experience.  But given the fact that Schlumpf, unlike Brian Eno, is not intentionally writing “background music,” it is somewhat disappointing that these pieces are not more memorable and more distinctly communicative.

      What is communicated by the six orchestral works on a CD labeled Fire & Time varies quite a bit, and indeed the music itself varies so widely that it is hard to get a handle on any overarching theme for the disc.  Each composer represented here draws inspiration from a different source in the nonmusical world.  Paul Osterfield, for example, offers a work called Monadnock, the title referring to a lone mountain rising above its surroundings and the piece attempting to portray that natural feature.  Stephen Yip’s The Legendary Phoenix, for piano and orchestra, pays tribute to the famed ever-resurrected bird.  And so on.  Karen A. Tarlow’s Kavanah (Remembrance) is a brief, emotive attempt to reproduce the mindset considered necessary for the performance of Jewish rituals.  Also here are Shadows by Steven Block, From Quiet Beginnings by Howard Qulling, and – most purely musical of all these works – Short Symphony No. 1 by Allen Brings, its four movements lasting just 17 minutes and slipping in and out of a variety of moods.  Individual portions of these six pieces, performed by five different orchestras under five different conductors, are musically effective and even emotionally moving, but Fire & Time as a whole has something of a thrown-together feel about it, with very little uniting the pieces or their composers.

      The group called Ecco La Musica, on the other hand, has every intention of unity: it overtly seeks to bring cross-cultural influences into play so as to produce a unity between music and the rest of the world, and among different world cultural and artistic stances.  This is a heavy load for music to bear, and the 12 works on Morning Moon do not bear it particularly successfully, but Ecco La Musica deserves some credit for clearly perceiving a potential connection between musical and nonmusical life and seeking to bridge the gap.  Indeed, on a strictly musical basis, the group is constantly looking for unity, mixing genres to such an extent that it is impossible to say whether these pieces should (or can) be classified as classical chamber works, jazz, “world music” or something else.  This is not necessarily a good thing: there is nourishment to be had from pabulum, but it is a rather bland food.  There is simply not very much substantive in Ecco La Musica’s pieces, which range from the title work to ones with such names as Imagination of the Tadpole, Sunset of the Water Jade and Queequeg and the Serpentine Sea.  The production is all very earnest and very well-meaning, and in a cross-cultural sense has a good deal going for it, but strictly as music, these works tend to blend together, leaving behind little aural impression after they end.  They come across almost as if, like Brian Eno’s music, they are best thought of as background sounds – but unlike Eno, Ecco La Musica wants listeners to pay close attention.  When they do, though, it turns out that there is not a great deal of sustenance in the music itself, however sincere its underlying philosophy may be.

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