Amphibian and more

– Go to Matthew Greenbaum‘s website for information on the Amphibian performance series: music and video from Maurice Wright, Dalit Warshaw, Beth Wiemann, Steve Jaffe, Wuorinen, Scelsi, Davidovsky, Wolpe, Rakowski, Nancarrow and many others, plus Matthew himself. Performers include the Momenta Quartet, Cygnus, and Mari Kimura.

– Looking forward to reading some things Santa brought me: the 2nd volume of the Sondheim lyrics with commentary and Gunther Schuller’s autobiography; also, some items from the new acquisitions shelf at Penn: At the Piano: Interviews with 21st Century Pianists by Caroline Benser (the pianists are Leif Ove Andnes, Jonathan Biss, Simone Dinerstein, Marc-André Hamelin, Stephen Hough, Steven Osborne, Yevgeny Sudbin, and Yuja Wang); and Kaija Saariaho: Visions, Narrative, Dialogues, edited by Tim Howell, with Jon Hargreaves, and Michael Rofe.

– I’ve recently been listening to The Bad Plus album For All I Care. This is the one with the brilliant Ligeti, Stravinsky, and Babbitt covers, and with Wendy Lewis on vocals. She’s awfully good – she’s not so much a “jazz” singer, more of a singer/songwriter sound, but better in tune, with clearer diction and not whiny. Her natural register seems to be a rather low contralto, but she can get into a plaintive head voice as well as a Broadway-ish belt. The reading of Roger Miller’s Lock, Stock and Teardrops is heartbreaking. But if she is so good, why are there times that I am dismayed when the voice enters? On the track Feeling Yourself Disintegrate, the trio builds to an ecstatic texture focused on a little scale segment, with some chimes layered in – it’s a wonderfully joyous moment. But then the voice comes back in, and suddenly the track becomes ordinary – very good, but mundane. It’s a figure/ground problem – I was happy to be digging the wonderful instrumental texture; that was the “figure” to which I attended. But when the voice entered, the instruments became “ground”, they seemed to recede, almost as though the level had been reduced on their channels in the mix.

The modern musicologist likes to snigger at the notion of the transcendent purity and independence of instrumental music. But that quality of going beyond the everyday is exactly what enthralled me about instrumental music when I was starting out. As a kid I remember having that feeling that I think C. S. Lewis describes somewhere – of finding oneself at home in a land you never knew existed before – when the turntable stylus hit the first groove of Kind of Blue or the Mahler 7th when I brought them home from the library. I remember my brother complaining about the lack of vocals in the jazz records I played – he felt unmoored – exactly what I loved. This special quality of music that is freed of the human voice may be a cultural construct and an illusion to be deconstructed, but that doesn’t make it invalid. I say this as a composer of plenty of vocal music. Notes and rhythms create their own world, their own voice – it’s one of the worlds I seek to live in as a musician.

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