Posts Tagged ‘Einojuhani Rautavaara’

2009 in the rearview: what’s to love in music, part 1

January 1, 2010

Happy New Year!

I’ve been thinking about the fact that year-end “best of” music lists usually leave me wanting because of how tunnel-visioned they can be. When you come across a list described as “Best Songs” or “Best Albums of the Year” you can guess without even glancing at it that it will more than likely focus on pop or indie releases. They contain no jazz, no world music, not even any country or folk music “songs” – and classical or opera are definitely out of the question.

This much I know of indie/pop music from the last year: Death Cab for Cutie, Wilco, the Decemberists, Neko Case and Jonatha Brooks all have recent recordings and make for fine listening. If you’re into more adventurous sounds, you’ll enjoy the latest from XX, Animal Collective, Grizzly Bears, and the Dirty Projectors. Likewise, I’m told the new Lady Gaga recording really represents a new sound; a genuinely fresh and creative vision. I haven’t heard much of it myself yet but I’m curious, always on the lookout for a unique voice, and I will certainly check it out at some point.

For anything besides pop or indie offerings you need to move past the popular “best of” lists and find less mainstream, more specialized sources if they exist. That’s alright, I suppose, I’d rather have a good list from an expert than a few token offerings from someone who doesn’t really love the music they’re listing.

Consequently, this look back at 2009’s music may come off as somewhat unconventional. It contains music from several different genres. I don’t feel like I can call it the “best of 2009” because I didn’t hear everything that came out last year. And I’m not going to limit the list to a number: this isn’t the ‘top 10’ or the  ‘top 50’. In fact I’m not sure right now how many recordings there will be on the final list. I’m just going to share with you some of the sounds that caught my ear over the last year, with the one provision that the recordings listed here all warranted repeated listening. In no special order, these are the recordings I loved and listened to the most in 2009:

Einujuhani Rautavaara: “12 Concertos” – I do believe that native landscape and culture can have a tangible effect on a music’s sound, and not always intentionally. The simultaneous compositional austerity and warmth of Finland’s Einojuhani Rautavaara is found nowehere more evidently than in his concertos, recently collected in the 2009 anthology 12 Concertos from Ondine Records. In each work, his great skill at manipulating a pre-determined tonal palette gives the music the lumonisity and transparency of masterful, muscular watercolors. The set includes the three piano concertos along with the concertos for harp, for flute, for violin, for cello, and – my two favorites, the Clarinet Concerto and the Concerto for (Arctic) Birds and Orchestra. There is so much to love in this rich anthology, and just when you think you’ve experienced all the 4-CD set has to offer, you can listen again and make more new discoveries.            Kailash Kher & Kailasa: “Yatra – Nomadic Souls” – If you lived in India the following sentence wouldn’t be necessary: Kailash Kher is the most popular singer in India today. His familiar beaming smile, powerful voice, supreme musicianship and magnetic personality have given him a place on the stage (leading his group, Kailasa); in Bollywood (as a top film composer); and on Indian television (as a celebrity judge on the show, Indian Idol). So why, in America, is this introduction necessary? It’s crazy to me that people around the world know who Madonna, Beyoncé, and Brittney Spears are: even if people have never heard the music from these artists, the personalities are an inescapable international pop culture ‘presence’. Conversely, American audiences are often in the dark when it comes to the superstars (not to mention the equally talented, lesser-known artists) of other countries. If you don’t already know Kailash Kher, then please let the outstanding 2009 recording Yatra – Nomadic Souls be your introduction to this fascinating musician and the fine ensemble Kailasa. The songs are traditional in many ways like their instrumentation (including tablas, oud and santoor) and their form (Sufi qwaal and Hindustani ‘classical’), and yet equally contemporary in others, like their length (shorter) and rhythmic, melody-driven lines. Yatra is an endlessly rewarding recording that balances genuine soul with popular appeal.

Kurt Elling: “Dedicated to You” – Let’s see: One of today’s most gifted and stylish singer/arrangers decides to pay tribute to monster talents John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, by re-interpreting the songs from their iconic eponymous collaboration. (Along with a few bonus tunes from the Hartman-less Coltrane Ballads release). We’ll call the result, Dedicated to You, a win/win/win with a solid chalk mark in every column. Elling does not trawl through the original lineup, track for track, note for note, nuance for nuance, in the kind of misguided “tribute” that so often comes off much more like an overly reverent excercise in faithful recreation. Elling revisits the original songs by inhabiting them, with his signature exquisite phrasing, his soaring vocal technique, and his own personal warmth as a singer. It is obvious he truly loves these songs, he loves the Coltrane/Hartman versions of them, and he loves being able to bring them to audiences in his own, fully-invested way. Understanding and appreciating your source material is a great place to come from as an artist. And it’s a great place to visit with this special, very personal recording, which as far as I am concerned can Say It Over (and Over and Over…) Again.

The Very Best: “The Warm Heart of Africa” – I was introduced to this recording by a friend, late in the year – many months after Warm Heart had been released (and more than a year after the first excited buzz about it had begun circulating on the web). My first reaction was dismay, in thinking “how did I miss this one?” and then I put that aside and let myself be carried away by the ride. And what a ride! Warm Heart lives up to every bit of its name with groovy, light-spirited funky tunes that rely on the feel and tradition of African vocals, rhythms and musical styles (highlife, in particular) fused with Western pop sensibilities. Great fun, but happily not to the detriment of quality music-making.

Renée Fleming: “Verismo” – I’d be hard put (and flat-out wrong) to describe Renée Fleming as a verismo soprano. She’s just too nice. But do I love her singing verismo arias? Yes I do! Even when she’s not given to the full range of hysteria, sobbing, and frequently guttural, more earthy sounds that characterize the style at its most fully realized. The one aria on Verismo I found myself returning to repeatedly is the hauntingly sad Sola, perduta, abbandonata (“alone, lost, and abandoned”) from Puccini’s defining opera, Manon Lescaut. Fleming gets all of that one. Along with the familiar verismo arias are several rarely heard selections, like those from Giordano’s Siberia (you’re not the only one saying “Giordano’s WHAT!?” right now), and Cilèa’s Gloria. Fleming completists will want to add this one to the collection because it’s Fleming. And, it’s good. If you’re more into the faithful rendering of the repertoire at its verismo brightest, this recording may not be the one you want. Bottom line is, this is a very nice recording with Fleming at her smoky, emotive best – verismo perfect or not.

Brad Paisley: “American Saturday Night” – Remember Brad Paisley’s “Ticks“? That’s a song that got play far beyond its targeted country music audience. The reason was its novelty, of course, but it goes beyond that. Paisley is a top-flight songwriter (and guitarist, for that matter) whose abilities shine through in funny, insightful and often poignant observations on the common things of everyday human life. He’s bold and adventurous, and his style offers a fresh perspective in an increasingly discouraging formulaic landscape of pre-fab country music hooks and hits. I’ve been listening to country music longer than any other style. I grew up on Marty Robbins and Jim Reeves and Charley Pride and Hank and Johnny and Roy and Elvis and Dolly and all the other country greats known best by a single, iconic name. With over 40 years of listening to country music (and, yes, liking it too –  if that needs to be said) I’m telling you, Brad Paisley is the real deal. American Saturday Night represents something of a change for Paisley as he moves away from catchy novelty songs and the clever rhymes to offer reflections on everything from raising kids in the 21st c. world of internet and iPods (Welcome to the Future), to the tender ballad about mature love, Then. And if you listen to country music for a flat-out good time, not to worry, American Saturday Night isn’t only about Deep Thoughts and Grown-up Perspective: the title track will be enough to keep your pointy-toed sh**-kickers tapping for a long time to come. This country girl sends up an enthusiastic “yeee-HAW!” for Brad Paisley!

Myra Melford & Satoko Fujii: “Under the Water” – I am a Myra Melford devotee. I hang avidly on her every keystroke. I devour everything she records, and follow obscure fan blogs and websites for any whiff, any unsubstantiated rumour about upcoming projects or comments on her recent performances. If you’re lucky enough, every so often an artist comes along who speaks to you on such an intense and complete level that every encounter, however brief, is a completely satisfying experience. John Coltrane and Myra Melford both do that for me. But even without that connection, I think I would have enjoyed this unusual recording for the ambition of its scope and fulfillment of that vision. Under the Water is a live collaboration between Melford and a kindred creative spirit, the Japanese pianist Satoko Fujii. Piano duos are uncommon, and that fact becomes exponential when the two performers in the duo are such uncommonly extraordinary artists as Melford and Fujii. The spontaneous, free-form recital runs the spectrum from delicate, melodic runs and lively duo interplay to dark, thumping tone clusters that act as the aural equivalent of the blackened, heavy-bottomed Cumulus of summer thunderstorms. Melford’s solo exploration, Be Melting Snow, is an inspired joyride in adept pianistic effect. Five tracks in all on this CD, it’s a journey. Prepare yourself accordingly. Under the Water isn’t an easy recording to find, but you can listen to a few samples and get a copy here at the Squidco website. (Recorded live in recital, Sept. 14, 2007 at Maybeck Studio in Berkeley, CA)

2009 in the rearview, part two coming up…stay tuned…and tell me about your 2009 favorites! Leave a comment here.

kissed by the wild

November 14, 2009

Program:

Zachary Cooper: Caterpillar Secrets (premiere)
Peter Hamlin: Visions of Ice (premiere)
Olivier Messiaen: Le rouge-gorge (The Robin) from Petites esquisses d’oiseaux
Olivier Messiaen: Par Lui tout a été fait (By Him everything was made) from Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant Jesus
Chan Ka Nin: I Think That I Shall Never See….

The Vermont Contemporary Music Ensemble describes their fall program – Kissed by the Wild – as “music inspired by the natural world”. That idea is embodied in both the concept and form of the music itself. It’s also carried out in the woody, expansive resonances of the cello and piano, and the myriad of chirping, warbling, voicings coaxed from the clarinet and flute of the VCME’s talented performers.

I sat next to a man named Jim at last night’s concert. With an apologetic half-shrug he bashfully described himself as ‘old fashioned’ when we talked at intermission, after I asked what he had thought of the first half: Cooper’s colorful Caterpillar Secrets, and Hamlin’s starkly contrasting Visions of Ice. I was thinking maybe Mozart or Bach, but it turns out that Jim’s tastes run more toward Leadbelly and traditional folk roots. “But,” he added, “I really liked this.” So did I.

It’s always especially exciting to be in the audience for the premiere of a new piece, much less two, as filled up the entire first half of this concert.  These two new works were complementary yet completely different in character. The sunny lyricality of Cooper’s whimsical Caterpillars was very soon matched by the cool, sharp, whispering soundscape of Hamlin’s Visions (inspired – and accompanied by – his wife Chris Robbins’ detailed closeup photos of eight different ice formations). Like the first frigid breeze that whips the leaves from the branches at the end of an Indian summer afternoon, Visions‘ presence was punctuated by gusts of glissandi from the alto flute and clarinet, alternating and combining with the cello’s plucking and raspy bowing, all accented with Peter Hamlin’s real-time electronic replay.

Visions‘ musical geneology is loosely rooted in the specialized genre of compositions exemplified by landmarks like Alan Hovhaness’ And God Created Great Whales (for orchestra and taped whale song) and Einojuhani Rautavaara’s marvelous Cantus Arcticus (with pre-recorded bird song captured near the Arctic Circle). Both of these pieces were conceived in the early 1970s (1970 and 1972, respectively) – not coincidentally, at the very same time newly awakened eco-awareness marked the downbeat for the environmental movement, the first Earth Day (1970) and the worldwide Earth Art movement.

Where Visions branches off from the genre is in its technique: the electronic overlay is an organic product of real-time creation, not pre-recording. The composer, Peter Hamlin, had a small table set up in front of the stage, facing the performers, just to the left. The table held an assortment of electronic recording and processing equipment, along with a music stand holding his copy of the score. At key dramatic moments in the 8-movement piece, Hamlin layered electronically-enhanced instrumental passages into the mix, recorded just a few bars before and played back right away to add another instrumental texture to the experience. The effect was evocative and surprisingly subtle, giving the pieces a cinematic depth: think of Iceland’s frozen beauty in Cold Fever, or Warner Herzog’s remarkable documentary from last year, Encounters At The End Of The World. In Hamlin’s work, the ensemble itself replaces the birds and whales of the earlier Hovhaness and Rautavaara pieces to represent the ever-changing infused ‘natural’ element.

Hamlin’s Visions of Ice is a celebration of the oncoming season’s austerity. Rather than taking the easy route and merely reflecting its most obvious surface characteristics of darkness and cold, Hamlin’s musical landscape works both on the panoramic and more detailed scale to affirm that wintertime is anything but lifeless. You just have to know how to appreciate its subtleties.

Michael Arnowitt’s solo piano tour-de-force was the highlight of the second half, with compelling and powerful performances (from memory – no easy accomplishment) of two formidable Messian works, and Cha Na Kin’s I Think That I Shall Never See…., inspired by the Joyce Carol Oates poem. Over the years I’ve heard Michael play jazz, Mozart, and a lot of nice but fairly standard concert fare. He always plays well, expressively, and brings a lot of himself to the music. But I’ve never heard him play with the intensity and purpose with which his Messiaen was infused last night. His performance was driven, his interpretation of Messiaen in turns feverish and inspired, and ponderous and introspective. In other words: just as it should be for the emotional complexity and tension of these pieces.

Kissed by the Wild is a program inspired by the natural world, but also seems to emerge from it organically as surely as the first flakes of winter are followed by coiled verdant tendrils growing and waiting to break through the crusted snow of early spring.

The VCME is Steven Klimowski, clarinets; Berta Frank, flutes; Bonnie Thurber Klimowski, cello; Paula Ennis, piano; with special guest pianist Michael Arnowitt for this performance. The second of the two “Kissed by the Wild” performances is happening tonight at the Flynn Space, 8pm.

trading fours: this week’s listening

July 25, 2009

“Trading fours” is an occasional series you’ll see here featuring four recommended recordings on a theme from any music genre. Leave a comment – send me your four picks, explain what the theme is and why you chose them. I’ll do the rest. (See previous post for the details on this project.)

I’ll get the series started with a set that can best be described as “Things I listened to this week”. In both of my jobs (as music director at VPR, and interning at Cumbancha/Putumayo World Music) and in my weekly show at the Radiator, I’m really fortunate to have exposure to a lot of different kinds and styles of music. As a result, the week’s listening often encompasses everything from jazz and classical to more eclectic sounds (electronic music, prepared instruments)  to new tunes from all different parts of the world. Here’s a pretty typical week of listening:

DJ Frane: Journey to the Planet of Birds

DJ Frane's "Journey to the Planet of Birds"

#1 – DJ Frane’s “Journey to the Planet of Birds” – I was turned on to this amazing, complete musical vision by a friend at Cumbancha. It’s an artfully crafted (more than 300 samples!) electronic tapestry, all on themes of birds and space and spaceflight. It even includes John Glenn’s magical “thousands of luminous fireflies” audio from that moment in February, 1962 as Friendship 7 ventured into the dark side of the planet, and Glenn saw the light particles (ice crystals) swarming his capsule. This is a beautiful recording, and a snapshot “of an era”, in a sense, even though it’s only a year or so old. Things are changing fast in the area of music rights and just as quickly it’s becoming about impossible to create a new work from sampling as liberally as DJ Frane does here.

TradingFours1-Rautavaara

Rautavaara's "Cantus Arcticus"

#2 – Rautavaara: Cantus Arcticus, Op. 61 – Early this week as I listened to DJ Frane weaving his spell with the “Birds” I was reminded of another piece, by Finnish sound master Einojuhani Rautavaara. His Cantus Arcticus, Concerto for Birds and Orchestra (written 1972) is an equally complex and enchanting work whose “samples” include shore larks, and migrating whooper swans. Sometimes I like to listen to this CD when I’m driving. Between its birdsongs and wide open sound landscapes, it has a soundtrack kind of feel. Perfect for watching nature roll by outside. (I’m not saying that it doesn’t deserve more concentrated listening as well; it does.) Bonus listening on this particular recording (with the Lahti Symphony and conductor Osmo Vanska) – the monunemtal “Angel of Light” Symphony #7, one of Rautavaara’s finest works. Outstanding.

Coltrane's "Meditations"

Coltrane's "Meditations"

#3 – John Coltrane’s “Meditations” – Following the tracks through from the opening (“The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost”), through the middle section (“Compassion”, “Love”, “Consequences”) to the end (“Serenity”) is nothing less than a full-circle spiritual reckoning. The fuller, louder and more demanding companion piece to Coltrane’s “First Meditations” (recorded two months earlier that same year, 1965), this one adds Pharoah Sanders and second drummer Rashied Ali to the classic quartet for a largely free-form exploration on themes of redemption and personal reconciliation. [PS – It’s been said before, but it can’t be said often enough: engineer Rudy Van Gelder is a genius of mythic Mozart proportions and talent.]

Kimi Djabaté's "Karam"

Kimi Djabaté's "Karam"

#4 – Kimi Djabaté’s “Karam” – From Guinea-Bissau and carrying on the centuries-old tradition of West African griots, Kimi Djabaté’s music leans heavy on the vocals in soulfully rhythmic tunes. The voice is definitely the thing with this one. It’s been riding around with me for a few weeks, but now that I’ve had a chance to really get into it, I can tell you the more I listen the more I appreciate some of the other (non-vocal) aspects of it: like the gentle, woody, melodic percussion that drives many of the songs. Like the sweetly singing kora. And the transparency of instrumental textures – you can really pick out the individual voices and follow them through each piece. Full disclosure: “Karam” will officially be released on Tuesday (7/28) this coming week. I’ve had a copy of it and I’ve been able to listen to it for a while now because I’m an intern at Cumbancha, and this CD is the first release in the new Cumbancha “Discovery” series. The further truth, though, is that I would be listening to this release and loving it even if I had no association with the label. (I would have just had to wait longer to come across it on my own.) “Karam” is special.

So there you have it, getting the conversation started with the first recommendations in the new “Trading Fours” series. Pick a theme and leave me a comment here with your top four music picks.


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