July/August 2011

The Only Unpunished Rapture on Earth

The 2011 Believer Music Issue CD

compiled by Ross Simonini

Mozart and Beethoven are stars of history. We send their music to aliens in spaceships. We say their names alongside da Vinci and Shakespeare. And we know that if any Westerner ever attempts to compose, they shall forever be walking in these great masters’ dust-caked footsteps. And yet how many new composers, working within one of our culture’s most revered traditions, have we actually heard? How many new composers can anybody name? What does new classical music even sound like?

In the last hundred years, classical music has lived up to its name. The concert hall transformed into a museum, and orchestral music became the sound track to nostalgia: a slow, panoramic shot in a Hollywood epic wouldn’t be the same without weepy strings and yearning oboes. Occasionally, the alien sounds of a contemporary string quartet crept into a program of nineteenth-century music, and concertgoers politely endured it so they could reach the finale of the program, when Dvořák's New World Symphony would greet them with open arms.

For composers, too, the divide was set: write pretty music like in the past, or challenge all conventions and become the Future of Music. The old era of Romantic music (Tchaikovsky, Schubert, Brahms, etc.) was over, and, by 1910, the rigorous atonality of serialism (Schoenberg, Berg, Webern) had taken control. Any composers who tried to write nice, consonant music were viewed as regressive or neoclassical or irrelevant. Before the twentieth century, most composers would freely integrate pop and folk techniques into their music, but as composers migrated away from the wider public and into academic theory, the gap between tonal music and “serious music,” between pop and “art music,” between repertoire and “new music,” became too wide for most casual listeners to cross.

Aside from a few exceptions (the minimalists: Philip Glass, John Adams, Steve Reich; some film composers; and a few eccentrics like Frank Zappa), the divide lasted for much of the twentieth century. But recently this thinking has reached a breaking point. New composers have become skeptical of the hermetic attitudes of the classical-music community. These are musicians who grew up listening to Nirvana or the Talking Heads and playing in bands, with far deeper connections to pop culture than to historical culture. Their music reflects this. The synthesizer, electric guitar, turntables, the drum set—today, these instruments are as common to a composer’s practice as winds and strings. The downtown composers of the ’70s and ’80s (John Zorn, Glenn Branca) paved the way for this sort of thinking, but even their blend of noise rock and chamber music was dripping with aggressive, dissonant squeals and jarring avant-garde attitude. Many of the new composers welcome repeating choruses, head-nodding 4/4 beats, and melodies that you can hum—all elements that still inspire scoffing in most collegiate music programs.

But even if its sound is changing with the times, how will classical music ever be considered a relevant cultural force with a descriptor like a historical anchor? Within R&B and indie rock, new genres are coined by the month, some of which seem to be applicable to barely half a dozen artists—and yet hundreds of years of “concert music” continues to be stuffed into the classical-music bin including that which is being composed right… now. True, some discrete “schools” have emerged—integral serialism, aleatoric music, spectralism—but the terms all point so fiercely toward compositional techniques and give off such an academic whiff that they only serve to divide insiders from outsiders.

The term composer is equally troublesome: Why would a musician be deemed a songwriter and not a composer? The distinction remains one only of lineage: is a musician more in line with classical history or pop/folk songwriting history? Most of the artists on this compilation have an uneasy relationship with the term classical music, and several don’t feel right dragging around the heavy title of composer, especially when many of them don’t act like traditional composers—forming bands, touring and sleeping on floors, starting record labels, opening for rock shows, and playing music that is almost indistinguishable from just plain art-pop.

All of the tracks on this compilation come from the musical ether in which the contemporary composer floats. None of these musicians write classical music, they weren’t alive between 1750 and 1820, and their interest is not preservationism. At the same time, they aren’t necessarily trying to push at the furthest fringes of sound—qualities that define twentieth-century music. Much of their music contains remnants of the work of older composers—from instrumentation to extended techniques—but they are also borrowing from Polish folk and Britney Spears and hip-hop and jazz and post-punk. The music is highly, unapologetically listenable, its influences and tendencies familiar to those who grew up in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. What can be said of all the music here is that it responds to the conflicted institution that “new music” has become in the last century. It’s a scenario that recalls nothing so much as the rise of classical music, when a young Mozart flamboyantly rebelled against Bach’s baroque fugues—the religious, fastidious system bequeathed to a generation waiting for music without the dogma.

1. Tyondai Braxton, “Uffe’s Woodshop”

Braxton’s work with the rock band Battles often hefted a compositional weight: labyrinthine musical patterns and electronic phrase-looping“math rock,” as some called it. His solo music applies full orchestral instrumentation to this loop-based process, orchestrating the artifacts of guitar pedals and the clarity of electronic editing the sound does not flow, it shifts, industrially. The manic, stacked “Uffe’s Woodshop” recalls Raymond Scott’s pacing and Igor Stravinsky’s orchestrations, and a little bit of Sonny Sharrock’s liquid guitar playing.Braxton’s solo concerts have become legendary, and recently his concert music was performed, along with Dan Deacon’s, by the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

2. Sarah Kirkland Snider, “Nausicaa”

Snider’s song cycle Penelope tells the story of “a woman whose husband appears at her door after an absence of twenty years, suffering from brain damage.” Performed by silky-voiced folk-rock singer Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond and the new-music ensemble Signal, -Penelope embraces the sort of slow, aching beauty that pours out of Iceland these days: Sigur Rós, Múm, the composers on Valgeir Sigurðsson’s label Bedroom Community. Snider’s songwriting floats though its melody, cycling notes, leading the ear forward without adhering to the relentless A-B-A forms that can clobber similarly gorgeous pop songs.

3. Erin Gee, “Yamaguchi Mouthpiece” (part 3)

Gee performs her own vocal works, highlighting phonemes and fragments of spoken language with an “attention to a discrete unit of sound and its possibilities for slight variation and recombination.” Despite being a solo performance, “Yamaguchi Mouthpiece” calls to mind electronic manipulations, as if the vocals had been treated, plied, and reversed by a computer. She considers Austrian composers such as Beat Furrer and Bernhard Lang important both for their influence on her music and her decision to relocate to Austria from the States.

4. Owen Pallett, “Scandal at the Parkade”

Though he is primarily known as the solo artist -Final Fantasy, Pallett was cited by many of the composers on this disc as one of the most influential composers of their time. His virtuosity as a violinist and arranger is jaw-droppingly impressive, and when he performs live often solo he evokes the girth of a large chamber -ensemble through a highly choreographed dance using looping pedals, violin-processing, and old-fashioned skill.

5. Jacob Cooper, “Save My Death”

Cooper’s opera TimberBrit tells the fictional story of Britney Spears’s final concert, a night when Justin Timberlake tries to win her back. Using original songs from both artists, Cooper “drags” (or slows) the pop tunes until the melodies become taffy-like and unrecognizable. The singers replicate the strange artifacts of time-stretched music: wavering pitch, misheard lyrics, and unexpected melodic motion. Justin and Britney are backed by a band that moves from soft jazz to dreamy shoegaze to bashing hard rock over the course of the opera. Here, Justin’s final “baby” may also be the longest utterance of the word in recorded music.

6. Ted Hearne, “Snowball”

Recently, Hearne sang in a production of TimberBrit, and he and Jacob Cooper are a part of a composers’ collective called Sleeping Giant. With a mix of hot jazz and avant-garde techniques, the musical cocktail on “Snowball” maintains the ants-in-your-pants energy of a bebop band, but with a highly composed sense of twentieth-century melody the sort of unsingable lines that only an instrument could play. The rhythm, too, never settles, but still compels the body to move in frantic foot-taps and air-drumming.

7. Jozef Van Wissem, “Aerumna”

Like many of the composers on this comp, Van Wissem sees no contradiction in working deeply within a tradition (in his case, Renaissance and baroque music) while subverting and repurposing it. His lute music reimagines classical melodies as palindromes and mirrors, and often seats them atop a bed of field recordings of airport lounges and train stations. Like much pre-classical music, Van Wissem’s compositions do not express driving progression or intense, dramatic arc, but create a feeling of static meditation, allowing periods of silence and repetition to slow the act of listening.

8. Nicole Lizée, excerpt from “King Kong and Fay Wray”

Canadian composer Nicole Lizée writes music for Atari 2600 video-game consoles, karaoke tapes, and, in the excerpt featured here, DJs and turntables. Though she is “enormously influenced by pop/rock/-experimental -music,” she maintains a real connection with the contemporary classical world: notation, musical analysis, -symposiums, program notes, and the concert hall are central to her musical thinking. “There is a great wealth of analytical studies relating to the history of classical music,” Lizée says. “While this certainly does exist for other genres, the sheer volume of intellectual work is limited by the time frame in which the other genres have existed. Classical music has a long history that intertwines with world history on a broad scale.”

9. Daniel Padden, “Ship Sarangi”

A member of the British “avant-experimental” trio Volcano the Bear, Padden has a history of unhinged live performances: slamming cymbals on the stage, ululating into noisemakers, improvising wildly on the -kazoo. But where VTB comes out of no-wave and post-punk, Padden’s solo work explores more-traditional compositional methods and tape-loop techniques: this piece is made entirely from old LPs of ethnic/indigenous music. Unlike the slick sampling of modern electronic mash-ups, “Ship Sarangi” embraces rawness and the sweetly awkward rhythms of analog looping, using traditional music to reveal technology’s inhumanness rather than smooth it over.

10. Dan Deacon, “Surprise Believer”

Known for his manic, comedic electronic music, -Deacon was schooled as a composer and works as a member of Wham City, an art collective based in the warehouses of Baltimore. Over the course of his dozen recordings, his music has increasingly leaned toward compositional techniques and traditional instruments while maintaining a DJ’s sensibility. His newest record, Bromst, recalls the percussion work of Lou Harrison and the vocal collages of Paul Lansky, but also continues to hit the deep, danceable beats that are unheard of in contemporary classical music. Deacon is slated to compose the music for a new Francis Ford -Coppola film, and recently completed a long percussion-quartet work.

11. Warsaw Village Band, “Wise Kid Song”

Like Béla Bartók and Leoš Janáček composers celebrated for their integration of Hungarian folk -musicWarsaw Village Band reinterpret traditional Polish folk music through the music of their generation. -Often highly composed, their music features spot-on -fiddle work and chest-thumping drums. The thick, bittersweet female vocals recall the iconic sound of a -Bulgarian women’s chorus the haunted chanting that seems to come only from Eastern Europe. “Wise Kid Song” features a hammered dulcimer solo followed by a Grieg-like violin melody with a nice ’60s-style phaser on it all this could come across as cute in a global kind of way, but instead it hits upon the sort of dark, unsettling tone that grinning, world-beat bands can’t touch.

12. Nat Evans, “Collective Resonance”

Evans’s music, like John Cage’s, is informed by his Zen Buddhist practice, mirroring the stretched timelessness of meditation and exploring the unfamiliar nooks in seemingly familiar sounds. Though much of his music is for chorus, string quartets, or percussion groups, “Collective Resonance” recalls Brian Eno’s ambient Music for Airports and Morton Feldman’s spatially minded Rothko Chapel, functioning somewhere -between cinematic atmosphere and sound -environment. He often writes for nontraditional percussion instruments, such as bowls of water“Collective -Resonance” features a serene passage for tree branches at its -conclusion.

13. Bryce Dessner, “Lincoln’s March”

Dessner is the guitarist for the National and a member of the chamber-music band Clogs, a collaboration with the composer Padma Newsome. As a composer independent of those groups, he has collaborated with Kronos Quartet, Philip Glass, Bang on a Can, and Glenn Kotche, the percussionist for Wilco. This gorgeous work for brass, “Lincoln’s March,” recalls his orchestrations for the National and harkens back to the majestic, regal beauty of early American concert music like that of John Philip Sousa.

14. William Brittelle, “The Color of Rain”

Along with Judd Greenstein and Sarah Kirkland Snider, Brittelle is a founder of the composer-based New York label New Amsterdam Records, which is filled with -recent Yale graduate students and classically trained musicians. His music often bears strong similarities to rock and R&B, but is highly composed. Where many rock orchestrations often seem like thrown-off, innocuous backing tracks for singers, Brittelle brings his to life with rich horn melodies and flute textures that shine as prominently as the vocals. Here, Brittelle has written a -hypnotic ballad that takes some surprising harmonic turns and evokes the subtle timbres that come only from an in-depth understanding of instrumental color.

15. Tristan Perich, “Momentary Expanse”

Also a visual artist, Perich explores sound with the sort of pleasant indifference that often distinguishes -contemporary art. Often, his music and art converge: buying a recording of Perich’s “1-Bit Symphony” means buying an electronic circuit in a CD case into which the listener plugs her headphones. The sounds that emerge from this chip evoke the sonic landscapes of early electronic music—harsh cutoffs, simple frequencies, an absence of sentimentality—and are in fact the lowest quality of audio representation possible. “Momentary Expanse” juxtaposes this aesthetic against the solo vibraphone, highlighting the unusual timbral and pitch tensions between the two.

16. Matthew Welch, “Bottom’s Up”

Welch’s compositions are ethnic mashups. He is trained in bagpipe and Indonesian gamelan music, both of which are woven into this piece, along with Balinese traditional scales, piobaireachd music from the Scottish Highlands, and the regional Scottish language of Nether Lorne Canntaireachd. Yet Welch’s music is not unfamiliar: he filters his multiculturalism through European classical music or rock-band instrumentation. “Part of my fictional slant on experimentation,” Welch says, “is to imagine how an interactive, cultural -dialogue might unfold in a controlled and imagined isolation, e.g., how Scottish bagpipe music might have evolved if it were regionally or temporally displaced, and how seemingly incompatible ideas could become ambiguous or intertwined.”

17. Judd Greenstein, “Sing Along”

A central figure in New York’s community of composers, Greenstein recently curated the Ecstatic Music Festival of new music, a several-month-long showcase of composition that drew artists such as tUnE-yArDs and Nico Muhly, as well as several others who appear on this disc. With its unabashed, swelling beauty, “Sing Along” contains hints of film scoring and the cascades and crescendos of post-rock bands like Mogwai and Explosions in the Sky. Greenstein is also a member of the NOW Ensemble, is a voracious twitterer, and is among a growing group of composers who embrace the term indie classical as an attempt to situate themselves as indebted to Wagner as they are to Radiohead.

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