Archive for the ‘Classical’ Category

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The Knife in collaboration with Mt. Sims & Planningtorock – Tomorrow, In a Year

February 28, 2010

The Knife in collaboration with Mt. Sims and Planningtorock - Tomorrow, In a Year

The Swedish electronic band The Knife have stayed busy since their last album, the widely praised Silent Shout, in their own ways. Karin Dreijer, as Fever Ray, released her self-titled debut last year to quiet but unanimous praise, Olof has worked under the name DJ Coolof and the siblings have managed their record label, Rabid Records. As a band that takes few cues from others and follow even fewer conventions, it’s no surprise that The Knife decided to release their latest album in the form of a collaborative work with Mt. Sims and Planningtorock as an opera written for the Danish performance group, Hotel Pro Forma. Tomorrow, In a Year is based on the life and work of evolution theorist Charles Darwin. It should be noted before I dive into talking about this album that not only do I have no prior experience with Mt. Sims and Planningtorock, but their influence here is apparent. These songs are clearly influenced by these outside forces, though The Knife have a hand in writing each and every song.

First, I ask those involved with the overwhelming backlash towards this album, what were you expecting? The answer is probably more material like the leadoff single, “The Colouring of Pigeons,” which The Knife released a couple months back. With that said, it’s a bit of a cruel, leading trick that the Dreijer’s decided to release “Pigeons” before all else. A slow paced, developing operatic piece, one of the few things that the song has in common with prior Knife material are Karin Dreijer’s wispy, haunting vocals that don’t even come in until the piece is three minutes deep. In contrast, the piece has a goldmine worth of new concepts to introduce: a stacatto string section, echoing gongs, and breathtaking guest vocals. These elements build slowly to incredible heights, and ultimately the song might be The Knife’s finest achievement yet.

The Colouring of Pigeons

Barely anything else on the album is even remotely like “The Colouring of Pigeons.” In fact, it takes until the second disk for even any remotely traditional sounding song structures, and a vast majority of the album consists of glitch and noise music. This will be The Knife’s most divisive album; some people will dig what the Dreijers do here, and some people just won’t. Yes, of course a modern opera by The Knife was going to strange, abrasive and abstract. But it stands that they know how to construct such an album very intelligently, slowly developing washes of noise, 8-bit bleeps, subtle atmospherics and operatic vocals with care, the end result an album that keeps listeners either on the edge of their seats or walking out of the theater.

The best of these more difficult, progressive pieces are likewise quite subjectively excellent. “Minerals” and “Variation of Birds” sputter and whir over innovative and gripping vocal parts, but they share space comfortably with the likes of “Ebb Tide Explorer” and “Schoal Swarm Orchestra,” which explore more subtle ambient textures. Many of these contemporary, often times atonal classical pieces seek out their goals more through process and theory than listenability. The Knife travelled to areas of the world such as the Amazon and Iceland for inspiration on their work here, and some pieces match their environments closely (The liquidic synths on “Geology” are meant to emulate flowing lava), and others still represent the concepts involved with the works of Darwin, not stated as evolution but instead as his coined term “descent with modification.” The creative methods in which these tracks were both written and recorded goes on: Drums were recorded while moving underwater and in open, resonating spaces, and electronics are used to create animal sounds in random patterns. The lyrics in this album are often written in relation to Darwin’s documents or essays about his life. Music and lyrics are written about the earth, its creatures and its lifespan. This is by far The Knife’s most diverse set of ideas yet.

The Knife

Which leads us to the fact that not all of these ideas are fully theirs. Remember, The Knife were commissioned to write the music for this opera. They were given a set of concepts, ideas and presumably a stage script, and had to go from there when it came to writing and recording. It’s a wonderful surprise then to know that The Knife have made the project very much their own, crafting a set of ideas that have progressed far past their previous interests. No where on Tomorrow, In a Day will you find the previously explored themes of capitalism, gender studies, politics or fractured love. This album, even within its instrumental passages, explores themes of the Earth and its inhabitants, evolution, death, and the fantastic, turbulent life of a brilliant man. It is difficult to even think about asking for more.

The second disk of the soundtrack brings the progression of both the album and The Knife’s career into perspective, delivering more traditional song structures and focusing particularly on three pieces of about ten minutes each: the aforementioned “The Colouring of Pigeons,” the electro-gothic “Seeds” and the clattering, percussive “Tomorrow, In a Year.” All three pieces slowly shift their weights throughout their massive spans, uniquely and yet somewhat similarly fleshing out sonic narratives. On either side of the stretch of electronic epics are two more quaint pieces, the earlier “Tumult” a continuation of the first disk’s noise experiments and the latter “The Height of Summer” building a tribal groove.

Tomorrow, In a Year

The disk is bookended by two takes of “Annie’s Box,” a piece about the death of Darwin’s daughter Annie, which are melodically the same but fundamentally different due to their vocals. And vocals serve as one of the album’s key elements, among others as percussion and repetition. Voices haunt these tracks like phantoms both alive and dead, and the vocal parts were written for delivery by three performers, one an opera singer, another a pop singer and a third an actress. Seeing how vocals were treated on albums like Deep Cuts and Silent Shout, it is sensible that the vocals here are just as innovative. It is quite clear that the Dreijers have developed their music in leaps and bounds throughout their now long-spanning career.

It’s hard to say whether Tomorrow, In a Year will be a game-changer. For the new decade, it almost certainly won’t- It’s form of release is decidedly exclusive, and most people who do get their hands on it probably won’t even get past the first three songs. These facts are partially due to The Knife being and always having been elegant in their delivery and embracing of high art, even when they dealt with low art concepts on Deep Cuts. But for The Knife and company, as well as everyone who gives this music the time it deserves, Tomorrow, In a Year feels like giant leap forward, both stylistically and structurally. However, the fact remains that unless an accompanying DVD is released or Hotel Pro Forma tours extensively, the masses will mostly be left without the project’s visual component, which we can safely assume is as just as important as the aural. But for the majority of us who will never experience Tomorrow, In a Year in its fullest form, it’s jaw-dropping to think that the soundtrack communicates so much on its own.

You can listen to tomorrow in a year in its entirety at http://rabidrecords.com/tomorrowinayear/.

Tomorrow, In a Year

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Susumu Yokota – Symbol

January 26, 2010

Susumu Yokota - Symbol

A very curious little album. As far as the content goes, it’s Girl Talk with classical music, that is sampling collages with instrumental source material. Which will probably be really fun for some people and really gimmicky to others, and for others still less familiar with classical music, a bit of an adventure. Yokota still retains some of his dance sensibilities, resulting in some awfully cool sampling and rhythmic loops that make a lot of the more obvious tracks here really beautiful and even sexy (“Long Long Silk Bridge,” “Purple Rose Minuet,” “Blue Sky and Yellow Sunflower”). What’s weird, though, is that the other, less obvious tracks make it a sleeper- a lot of moments on here that initially sound gimmicky will have you (or, at least had me) double taking upon further listening, and the album has a really large, initially hidden supply of mysterious, surprising moments. Part of it might have to do with “Claire de Lune” and “Moonlight Sonata” being played out of context so much that they no longer sound like they’re in the wrong place, but I think it also has to do with Susumu Yokota just being a smart arranger. He still knows how to do a lot with a little (“The Plateau Which The Zephyr of Flora Occupies,” “The Dying Black Swan”) and has a desire to challenge both himself and his listeners. Symbol might overstay it’s welcome for some people, but given a chance it can even get doubters rewinding and listening closer to their stereos. So basically, it’s another great Susumu Yokota album.

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Off This Century – My Favorite Albums of 2000-2009

December 25, 2009
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Arvo Pärt – Fratres

August 5, 2008

Arvo Part rarely ever slips up on any of his releases, and this collection is another great release. It comprises mostly of renditions of Fratres, some of which are arguably necessary for the piece to have everything it has to say gotten out, but some are a little less exciting than others. We all know which version of Fratres succeeds the most completely…The solo violin on track two is probably the most crystalized emotion of all of Part’s tintinnabuli pieces. However, other versions are also interesting…Cello and Piano and String Quartet are also nice renditions. But the album is exhausting to listen to all in one place. There is such a thing as too much Fratres, even for Part fans. The other three pieces in the collection are equally as notable and could have been given as much attention. Festina Lente is a wonderfully tragic piece, while Summa is a bit more abrasive but equally emotional. The collection is clinched with the classic recording of Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten, probably the finest tintinnabuli piece. Part composes simply wonderfully here, cascading the strings down towards a watery abyss where all of our emotions rest; fear, sadness, happiness, anger, love. It is all consolidated at the bottom, and it is a pleasure to reach it. This might not be the best Part collection to date, but fans of Fratres who want to hear the piece given more attention couldn’t go wrong with this.

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Harold Budd & Brian Eno – Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror

June 25, 2008

After Ambient 1: Music For Airports, Brian Eno decided to immediately bring another ambient artist in for the second album of the series. The choice was Harold Budd, a pianist who had played minimalist music in the past and had recently released his first album, The Pavillion of Dreams, produced by Eno. On Ambient 2, Eno is seen as the producer and overseer, while Budd is the solo performer.

And to be sure, Budd takes the spotlight extremely well. Very little in the ambient world can compare to Budd’s playing. He is classically trained, and thus tastefully restrained, but at the same time his versatility is great and he never seems to do the same thing more than once on Ambient 2. At times he focuses his energy on the subtle melodies, while other times letting the notes loose in harp-like glissandos. What stays constant is his talent. Every note seems to matter. Some notes ring out, sounding warm yet hollow, while others feel like necessary side notes in decorative flourishes. Signposts and hooks however are few and far between. In fact, a lot of the album feels improvised, mostly due to the pacing, which says all the more for his talent and restraint considering how easily the music can melt into an environment.

And in fact, he did improvise a significant amount. What Eno has said of his producing of the album is that he would often create complex production setups that Budd would experiment with improvising on piano. The two artists would then bounce ideas off of one another. One such occasion is undoubtedly the first song, First Light. Budd’s notes are echoed and spread out like ripples over a subtle background of ambient tone. Eno plays the same card later on Above Chiangmai, and equally impressive song with just as much density and detail. But this is one of the few occasions where he tries the same thing more than once, and the album is anything but overproduced. The second song, Steal Away, is conversely left bare, in fact, and it is almost always Budd at the focal point of all of these songs.

The closest Eno gets to the spotlight is Not Yet Remembered. Eno utilizes a synthesized vocal part which Budd wrote and Eno cleverly reversed to somehow miraculously make one of the album’s most memorable tracks. Although this vocal part sometimes overpowers the piano, the melody is still the backbone of the song. Budd is the solo performer and the highlight of the album, but The Plateaux of Mirror feels like more of a collaboration than any of the other albums in the series, even Ambient 4 which featured a multitude of guest artists such as Daniel Lanois and Jon Hassell. Ambient 4 is actually foreshadowed here. We hear many drones and electronic touchups meant to represent nature here, and they all came back in full force on Ambient 4. They are much more subtle here, in the form of an occasional side drone or the sound of a bird, but they still add to the experience.

The album follows the same piano based theme throughout, but there is actually a lot of variation. The songs are played mostly on acoustic piano and occasionally on electric piano. These two styles foreshadow many of Budd’s later solo albums that used either acoustic or electric piano. Many songs feel content and tranquil, others sad and melancholy. Occasionally a dash of jazz or a romantic suspension is included to add to the variety. The result is an emotionally fluid album that can at once seem to draw on past memories, while evoking a sense of contentment with the present, and also a sense of tension towards the future. Actually, this is one of those rare albums that seems to agree with whatever the listener is feeling at the time.

What is truly striking about Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror is that all of the songs are interesting and memorable. All of them. And we have Budd to thank for that, but Plateaux is also one of Eno’s most notable production jobs, and the two stand side by side in its creation rather than Eno taking the backseat. Harold Budd and Brian Eno are both talented, humble artists that know how to work together, and Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror is a perfectly formed album, and probably the best album in the series, because their chemistry works so well.

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The Silence of Being: The Music of Arvo Pärt

May 20, 2008

Four weeks ago, my Music Theory teacher explained to the class that each of us were to do a short report on a classical composer of the twentieth century. I immediately called Arvo Pärt. Nothing else could have competed. I spent a weekend listening to his music and researching him at my local library. That weekend, I had a visit to Borders and by chance stumbled upon this box set. I walked out of the store having purchased it for approximately $32.

Why it took until 2008 for such a box set to be released is beyond me. How I got away with buying it for $32 is also beyond me.

I can say with great confidence that Arvo Pärt is my favorite composer, although I am probably not alone these days. In a world where classical music is becoming increasingly fashionable for the hip crowd, Pärt reigns supreme with his unique and somewhat legendary body of work.

The Silence of Being is a box set that contains many of the composers most famous or seminal works. Instead of being a sort of greatest hits compilation, this box set is instead a collection of five previously released collections of Pärt’s music, divided up somewhat chronologically.

The first disk contains six different recordings of possibly Pärt’s most popular song, Fratres, plus a lovely version of Festina Lente, a string version of Summa, and the timeless recording of Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten. The second disk contains the tintinnabuli classic Tabula Rasa as well as some more essential early polyphonic works. The third disk contains the divided entirety of St. John’s Passion, perhaps Pärt’s longest work, and one of the most respected. The fourth and fifth disks explore the composers post-1980 choral music that has come to characterize him, in great variety, actually.

Rounding up Arvo Pärt music is hard. Your library probably has some, and you can order some for cheap off of amazon. But you will likely never be able to get a single collection with every Pärt essential on it. To be sure, this collection misses many important pieces. It contains neither Fur Alina or Spiegel Im Spiegel, two of his most beautiful minimalist pieces, and it also skips out on Te Deum, Pärt’s quintessential choral piece.

These two exclusions alone make this box set’s goals seem purely commercial. Also indicative of a money scheme is the inclusion of the Sonic Rebellion compilation, which contains only one of Pärt’s pieces which can already be found on disk one of the box set. The subtitle of Sonic Rebellion is “Alternative Classical Rebellion.” Clearly aimed toward the indie kids who were already interested in Pärt but wanted more modern music. Pärt doesn’t fit in with these other artists, except perhaps Philip Glass, and the rest is essentially a baited hook for listeners who want to experience the more aimless pretensions of modern composition. I also  noticed several typos and misprints in the track listing on the back of the box.

So it’s a money trick. Yeah. If Pärt had sanctioned and overlooked the release himself, I’m sure we would have gotten a completely new compilation. Instead we get five classic Pärt compilations and a bonus disk of goodies. And for $32? A steal. I should have paid one hundred dollars for this, at least, considering what is in it. If you can find it for a reasonable price, waste no time and buy it. This is a great place to start a Pärt collection, but a bad place to stop.

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Arvo Pärt – Tabula Rasa (Again)

May 11, 2008

I was told several weeks ago that I was to do a presentation in my Music Theory class about a twentieth century composer. Arvo Pärt immediately came to mind as probably my favorite composer and perfect for the project. As much as I loved Pärt when I wrote the last review for the very same release of Tabula Rasa, I simply did not know him as well as I know him now. Part of this comes from having listened to Tabula Rasa fairly often up until last week, and then what happened to me last week. What happened was I acquired about fifteen Arvo Pärt releases in one weekend, both from a box set that I purchased called The Silence of Being (I’ll get to that later, after I find the time to sit down and comb through the five disks carefully and be able to make an assessment) and various other releases from my local library. I have been completely immersed in Pärt for the past week, and I feel that I owe it to him and this album to take another shot at the review with my added knowledge and understanding.

The 1984 release Tabula Rasa is the most popular and essential example of Arvo Pärt’s minimalist tintinnabuli style. Although this is by no means a definitive collection of all of his best pieces of the style, the four recordings here have remarkable cohesion, and the presence of any one piece plays off of the others and brings out its best. It’s no surprise that this album is so popular with music fans who are not attuned to classical music. Pärt has a knack for classical structure, but his tintinnabuli style is both focused on melodicism as well as texture.

Perhaps the most obvious examples of the active working of this contrast are the two versions of Fratres collected here. The first features a fiery, raw solo violin part that represents entire chords at once in violent precision playing from Gidon Kremer, who seems to have little trouble with the complex bowing. The second version of Fratres is played by twelve cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and this recording of the piece is alternatively subdued and more safe sounding, but no matter how you slice it or dice it, Fratres is a soaring, thoughtful, and sometimes spiritual piece. And Pärt is definitely a spiritual composer, although not really a religious, or Christian composer. Although many of his later, particularly choral pieces might reflect a religious theme lyrically, the aural spirituality is universal and accessible to all.

Sandwiched between these two recordings is the collection’s shortest and arguably most memorable moment, Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten. After a bell sounds off the beginning of the piece, a full orchestra cascades down over the constant pedal point of the bell like water over a cliff, or possibly like souls descending into the deep, in polyphonic parts. The downward moving strings get stronger and stronger, and then compound the dense sea of sound at the bottom. Before the piece has a chance to burn out, it cuts out, and is concluded by the same bell that started it. The word “cantus” has surely become synonymous with this piece as it is a perfect example of what kind of emotion a cantus should evoke.

The collection is rounded off with a full performance of one of Part’s most famous pieces, the twenty five minute long Tabula Rasa. The piece consists of two parts, which although are not separated in any way like on many other recordings, have unique enough ideas and emotions to make the distinction obvious. The first movement, Ludus, is a sprawling expansion on a single theme that grows in complexity with each repetition. Although the piece sounds something like more traditional European fiddle music at times, the harmonies are sublimely universal. Pärt’s experimental flair also comes through here on flourishes of prepared piano, which run rampant in the booming conclusion.

The second movement, Silentium, works opposite to Ludus by constructing a loose, polyphonic texture that delicately floats upwards into the stratosphere of the stringed instruments’ fingerboards on a melancholic chord progression which also seems to reach for the sky. There is little actual melody, but this is considered one of Pärt’s finest tintinnabuli moments and is a frequent pick along with Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten for favorite music of patients dying of terminal cancer or AIDS. Somewhere near the middle of Silentium, it sounds almost as if some ambient soundscape is vaguely introduced into the background. It might be a production trick, or perhaps even a nonexistent illusion of atmosphere, but it almost seems as if the song is ascending an icy, snowy mountain, as the air between the strings gets thinner and thinner. The piece finally fades gently into nothingness, a final equilibrium, a blank slate.

It is no surprise that this is Pärt’s most popular release to date. The pieces here are slowly seeping into popular culture; Fratres was featured in last years Academy Award nominated There Will Be Blood, Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten was featured in Fahrenheit 9/11, and Tabula Rasa was used in War Photographer. But this popular exposure does not mean that Pärt is a modern classical sellout, nor does it mean that Tabula Rasa is any less of a quaint release than it really is. All of these pieces mesh stylistically and represent a time of great inspiration in Pärt’s career, and the collection stands up as a collection of four (or five, if you count the two Tabula Rasa movements as seperate) utterly unforgettable works.