April 30, 2011

Mark Andre


MARK ANDRE
(b.1964)


The archive search for items related to Mark Andre in the leading American newspaper - based in the self-proclaimed "Cultural Capital of the World" - is downright depressing.  There is only one article (2006), reviewing a dance in which Andre's "ASCHE" was used as a soundtrack, with the music itself described only as "eerie whines and bleeps".
     Even more depressing manifestations of American musical provincialism can be found on the CD-reviewing website www.classicstoday.com, especially in the reviews of recordings of contemporary European music written by one Daniel Felsenfeld - a frustrated music teacher from New York's City College.  The music of contemporary European composers reviewed there - from Helmut Lachenmann to Olga Neuwirth, Rebecca Saunders, and Beat Furrer - is invariably described with the same dismissively economic vocabulary of "whines", "bleeps", and "squeaks".
     After I checked out a few samples of Felsenfeld's own compositions on his personal website, the theoretical basis of his critical vitriol toward the European avant-garde became crystal clear: that kind of music must be shit because he, Felsenfeld, is utterly incapable of producing anything even remotely approaching its individuality and originality.  And the fact that conductors of the stature of Boulez never program anything by Felsenfeld and other victims of musical graphomania collectively known as New York's Downtown Composers (while regularly performing music by young Europeans)  only proves to the aggrieved Felsenfeld that contemporary music in Europe is infected by vicious anti-American bias.  No wonder he relishes the opportunity to strike back at those snotty, anti-American Euro-motherfuckers in his online reviews of every Kairos CD sent to him by the clueless editor of classicstoday.com.

A few words about Mark Andre: Although he studied with Claude Ballif and Gerard Grisey before coming to Helmut Lachenmann, it is the latter's influence that I feel most strongly in Andre's music, even if Andre's musical aesthetic is entirely his own.  To my mind, Andre is the most interesting and substantial composer of his generation.  He certainly does not aim at being liked on the first hearing (as, for example, do Marc-Andre Dalbavie and Bruno Mantovani with their tonally centered and rather lushly orchestrated compositions), nor does he try to boost the "hip factor" of his music with rock-tinged electronica (à la Olga Neurwirth or Fausto Romitelli).  His splendidly otherwordly works for large orchestra have received a good deal of attention over the last two decades - Boulez has performed them often with EIC, and there also are recorded performances under Hans Zender and other well-known conductors of contemporary music. 

April 27, 2011

RAN DANK plays Bach, Scriabin, Prokofiev, Boulez


It was a thrill for me to hear this live recording of Boulez's Notations performed by an excellent pianist for whom this music belongs as much to the standard repertoire as Prokofiev's Visions Fugitives or Ravel's Valses Nobles et sentimentales.  In fact, when followed by the far more angular and aggressive wartime Prokofiev, Boulez's miniatures begin to glow with fin de siècle lyrical warmth.  Scriabin's 9th sonata may be more analytical than vertiginous in Dank's hands, but I found it an attractive alternative to more flamboyant performances of Sofronitzky and Horowitz.  As for Dan's Bach - the B-minor Partita BWV 831 - it is as glowing and golden-toned as his later performance of the 4th partita BWV 828 from the 2009 Van Cliburn Competition. 
   
As with so many talented young pianists who were fed 20th century music with their milk, Dank seems bored to tears with the mind-numbingly overplayed 19th century Romantic music (his Chopin Polonaise Op.26 was played as if he had swallowed a bottle of Xanax shortly before that performance).  If he is, then rightly so, I believe.  After all, the age of Boulez's Notations - relative to Dank's year of birth - is almost the same as the age of the Liszt Sonata in B minor relative to the year in which Horowitz was born!  So why the fuck should our young pianists feel excited about performing music old enough to have been recorded by just about every "keyboard giant" from several previous generations?   I doubt that Horowitz would have played much Liszt, Schumann and Chopin if he had to compete with recordings of their music by every major pianist of the preceding century, beginning with the composers themselves.

April 22, 2011

RECORDING TECHNOLOGY: SHOCKING NEWS


22 APRIL, 2011
After many years of unsuccessful efforts, the researchers at IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique) finally identified the set of giant pillows through which the celebrated sound engineer Tony Faulkner recorded many CDs for the Hyperion label.  The news of this amazing discovery spread like wildfire through the world of classical record labels.
     Said Dr. Gunther Editmann of Deutsche Grammophon: "We tried for years to duplicate that uniquely muffled, fuzzy, and disembodied sound for which Mr Faulkner is so famous.  Alas, no matter how hard we tried, our recordings still made the instruments sound somewhat similar to what they sound like in real life.  Now, thanks to the brilliant scientists at IRCAM, we can finally guarantee that the sounds on our recordings will bear no resemblance whatsoever to any musical instrument you may encounter in the concert hall."
     Dr. Editmann's enthusiasm was echoed by Nick Splicer of EMI Classics: "It is not only our new recordings, but also our extensive catalog of historical treasures that will benefit from Tony Faulkner's "pillow sound" technology.  For example, in our many previous remasterings of Schnabel's Beethoven sonatas we used tons of filtering, re-equalization, dynamic compression, and other radical sound-altering methods.  Yet despite our best efforts, one could still tell that Schnabel was playing the piano.  With the new pillow-sound remastering no one will be sure about that anymore - just as no one is quite sure about the instruments played on Hyperion recordings."
     Although Mr. Faulkner declined to comment, there are persistent industry rumors that he is trying to stay ahead of the competition by testing new materials through which to record music, including mattresses, rubber flotation devices, and heavy-duty thermal insulation.

April 19, 2011

Jonathan Leshnoff: "Double Concerto" for Violin and Viola


Now I have a pretty good idea of what it's like for people with Tourette syndrome.  Even with my affection for strong language, I cannot repeat here the long string of obscenities which kept exploding in my mind as I was listening to Leshnoff's Double Concerto (a concert recording by the Columbus SO).  This is not eclecticism, not even pandering.  This is musical grave robbing, pure and simple.  The long-dead but easily identifiable victims of Leshnoff's larcenous efforts include Barber, Shostakovich, and even Khachaturian.  I can't believe I am saying this, but the schlocky Piano Concerto by John Corigliano - which I maligned in an earlier post - sounds like an original and challenging piece by comparison!

In a world ruled by reason, the only reward for such musically felonious activities would consist of a few sharp smacks on the head with a rolled-up score.  But in our music world, the rewards include commissions from (and performances by) major organizations, a series of recordings on a well-known classical label, and a steady flow of saccharine praise from music critics.

April 11, 2011

John Corigliano's Piano Concerto


Listening to a recent live recording of Corigliano's Piano Concerto (brilliantly played by John Lee with the Cleveland Inst of Music Orchestra under Sasha Makila), it took me only a few minutes to guess the "compositional" recipe behind this piece:

Start with one cup of Prokofiev (for the motoric piano part), add two table spoons of Copland (for a few pseudo-folksy themes), sprinkle with some Stravinskian rhythmic angularity (when you run out of whatever little you had to say thematically and harmonically), and then screw-up a few intervals here and there to create just a little bit of dissonance.
    Of course, the final product will have not one ounce of originality, but we can try to mask that by writing a politically and ideologically tailored program to explain the "inner meaning" of the work - say, as "A concerned artist's response to global warming".
    Alas, many concertgoers do not read programs, so a politically and ideologically appropriate short dedication to go with the work's title - say, "In Memory of the Victims of Nagasaki" -  will add some gravitas, and hopefully also will mask the stale musical odor.  (But never a dedication to the memory of those hundreds of thousands of American boys whose corpses littered the Pacific Rim islands.  That would smack of glorifying American Imperialism!  Nor will we ever dedicate any work to the memory of those many millions of innocent people murdered by the communist regimes - because Gergiev and Lang Lang will never touch a work with this kind of dedication.)

 So get busy with putting ink on paper, or the competition (Danielpour and Higdon) will get their "product" to the Pulitzer committee before you do!