Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Randall Harlow Puts Out a Wild, Epic Triple Album of Spine-Tingling Recent Concert Organ Music

With his epic new triple album Organon Novus – streaming at SpotifyRandall Harlow seeks to restore the king of the instruments to its rightful place in concert music. Current generations may not realize how prominent a role the organ has played in American history. A hundred years ago, pretty much every major concert hall – not to mention city hall, baseball stadium, movie theatre, skating rink, funeral parlor, wedding venue, even the occasional department store – had its own organ. Harlow’s criteria in selecting the material here is to focus on American composers who are not organists themselves.

He explains that rationale in the liner notes: “As a performer I am particularly attracted to works by non-organist composers, as they tend to refreshingly avoid the well-worn gestures and techniques oft overused by incorrigible organists. This is not to say there aren’t compelling and original works composed by organists, particularly by those whose professional compositional activities extend beyond the organ and choral worlds, but works by non-organists such as these here often present novel and challenging figurations and elicit compelling new sounds from the instrument.” That’s something of an understatement. Harlow plays them on the titanically colorful E.M. Skinner organ in Rockefeller Memorial Chapel at the the University of Chicago.

The music here runs the gamut as eclectically as any other instrumental album released over the last several years. If you want an in-depth survey of some of the most interestingly diverse works for organ since 1990, you can’t do any better than this. The majority of them are on the short side as organ works go, generally under ten minutes, many of them under five. The dynamic and timbral ranges are as vast as any fan of the demimonde could want, from whispery nebulosity to all-stops-out pandemonium. The quietest pieces are the most minimalist.

Harlow opens with an alternately showy and calmly enveloping Libby Larsen study in bell-like tones which he calls an “all-limbs-on-deck work for the performer.” He closes with Aaron Travers‘ Exodus, an oceanic partita once considered unplayable for its complexity, wildly churning menace, leaps and whirling vortices. It will take your breath away.

In between we get Matt Darriau‘s crescendoing, anthemically circling Diapason Fall, which sounds nothing like his adventures in klezmer or Balkan music. Harlow follows Michael Daugherty‘s stormy, pulsing An Evangelist Drowns/Desert Dance with Roberto Sierra‘s Fantasia Cromática and its dervish dance of an outro.

He turns a Christian Wolff piece for either organ or celesta into a coy dialogue betweeen that relatively rare organ stop and the high flutes. Then he improvises against the rattle of dried beans and macaroni atop percussionist Matt Andreini’s snare and tom-tom in a droning, hypnotic Alvin Lucier soundscape. A “hair-raising study in how not to play the organ” by John Zorn, contrastingly careening and quietly macabre, concludes the second disc.

Other standouts from among the total of 25 composers represented here include John Anthony Lennon‘s allusively Doors-influenced, cascading Misericordia; a towering, picturesque Rocky Mountain tableau by George Walker; Samuel Adler‘s purposeful, tightly coiling Schoenberg homage From Generation to Generation; and Joan Tower’s delightfully blustery, aptly titled Ascent. The portents of the penultimate number, Lukas Foss’ Hiroshima-themed triptych War and Peace are among the album’s most riveting moments. Harlow attacks each of these pieces with equal parts meticulousness and passion. Even better, there’s a sequel in the works.

November 29, 2020 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, organ music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The NYFA Collection – Best Album of 2010?

The new NYFA Collection, just out on Innova, aims to be the Rosetta Stone of cutting-edge new music in New York, a goal that may be as impossible to achieve as it is admirable to shoot for. But by any standard, this massive five-cd set is extraordinary, a genuine classic. It’s the new music equivalent of the Harry Smith albums. In over six hours of recordings, 52 composers are represented, most of them not more than once, the well-known outnumbered by those who deserve to be. Stylistically, it runs the gamut: vocal, chamber and large-scale works, the avant garde alongside the Romantic. Very impressively, the compilation does not ignore jazz – there’s a whole cd’s worth, and it’s choice. On the other hand, rock is represented only once, and maybe just as well, because the lone rock/pop song here is a dud. Nor is there a lot that falls into a non-western tradition, nor any hip-hop at all. But any perceived shortcomings are literally dwarfed by the collection’s strengths: it’s a brain-warping, provocative feast for the ears, a triumph of smart curating and reason for absolute optimism for this generation’s composers. Not everything here is genius, but a lot of it is.

The premise of the collection is new(er) works by composers who’ve been on the receiving end of NYFA music fellowships since the grants were established in 1983 (talk about taxpayer money put to good use!). CD one is has an emphasis on percussion, and various flutes feature prominently. It’s the most hypnotic, and best-suited one for sleeping or thinking about it. The second emphasizes slightly larger-scale pieces; the third is jazz, the fourth wins hands-down for scary intensity, and the fifth is mostly large ensembles. Although this is all over the map stylistically, the compilers have very cleverly juxtaposed similar works as sort of mini-suites, to the point where it’s sometimes difficult to tell when one ends and another begins.

The collection opens with a playfully warped, percussive waltz by Annie Gosfield. The rest of the cd includes a gamelanesque miniature by David van Tieghem; gamelan interludes on the factory floor by Joseph Bertolozzi; a shakuhachi tone poem by Bruce Germo; ambience versus bustle assembled by Lukas Ligeti; a mystery movie in space for theremin by Jed Chadabe; and an acidically crescendoing chamber-metal piece by Iconoclast.

The highlight of cd two is a work for solo faucet by Eric John Eigner. It’s pretty amazing – who knew how many eerie textures a simple plumbing fixture could create, whether bowed like a cello, used as percussion or for the groan of the pipes as the water runs? Other points of interest here include pianist Anthony de Mare’s elegant arrangement of Meredith Monk’s Urban March; a John Morton music box piece deftly processed to mimic a gamelan; a brooding, tangoish string duo by Monteith McCollum; Daniel Goode’s Tuba Thrush, done by Flexible Orchestra with effectively jarring switches between warm Romanticism and boisterously playful noise; and a texturally ingenious version of an apprehensive Annea Lockwood piano piece played both on and inside the piano by Sarah Cahill.

Diverse jazz styles, both traditional and modern, are represented on cd three: a revolutionary suite by Fred Ho and ensemble dedicated to the survivors of the Golden Venture immigrant smuggling ship; a brief and very funny foghorn piece called Blob, by Robust Bog; a balmy yet boisterous ballad by Rudresh Mahanthappa; a brightly lyrical romp by Laura Kahle featuring Jeff “Tain” Watts, JD Allen and Yosvany Terry; a wistful, carillonesque piano work by Angela Read Thomas played by Nicola Melville; a jaggedly funky late 60s style small combo piece by Howard Prince featuring the late John Stubblefield; and a bracing New Orleans second line drum solo by Newman Taylor Baker.

CD four is a feast of ominous melodies, motifs and tonalities. Andy Tierstein conducts the Interschools String Orchestra of NY in a horror movie soundtrack for boys’ voices and strings, then Bora Yoon evinces some deliciously creepy sounds out of singing bowls in a performance recorded live at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Mary Jane Leach’s Night Blossoms, performed a-cappella by Eileen Clark, Karen Goldfeder, Gregory Davidson and Jared Stamm offers distantly operatic, sarcastic menace. The highlight of the entire collection is the University of Wisconsin River Falls Concert Choir and Percussion Quartet’s sepulchrally disembodied, absolutely macabre performance of Pauline Oliveros’ Sound Pattern and Tropes for mixed chorus and percussion, a feeling echoed with slightly less intensity by the chamber choir Volti’s eerily shifting version of Aaron Jay Kernis’ Ecstatic Meditation. With a nod to David Gilmour, guitarist Joel Harrison virtuosically evokes a wrenching anguish in a duet with percussionist Paul Motian plus string quartet. There are also a couple of vivid nocturnes, a rich, chromatically charged one by Judith Sainte Croix played by Oren Fader on guitar plus Andrew Bolotowsky on flute, plus an absolutely beautiful one by Ray Leslee played by Ashley Horne on violin and Barbara Bilach on piano, a black-and-white early 30s sound movie.

The final cd reaches majestic, epic proportions. Raphael Mostel’s Night and Dawn effectively signals a bad summer day about to begin. Far more aggressive than Erik Satie, George Tsontakis’s own Gymnopedies range from bubbly, Bernard Herrmann-esque tension to Debussy-style austerity. Randall Woolf’s Romantically-tinged Franz Schubert is less homage than cleverly rhythmic, circular mood piece; Jay Anthony Gach’s concerto La Vita Autumnale offers darkly dramatic Rachmaninovian ripples and intensity, followed by Peter Golub’s aptly titled, tense Less Than a Week before Xmas featuring choir and orchestra. The collection winds up with the astringent circularity of The Gathering, from Neil Rolnick’s Extended Family suite; the uneasy atmospherics of Lisa Bielawa’s Trojan Women, and Joan Tower’s towering, magnificent Tambor, ablaze with thundering, ominously portentous percussion. There are literally dozens of other artists here who at this moment in time may be somewhat less known, but whose work is no less important or captivating. Thankfully, this collection represents them. It wouldn’t be a difficult choice for best album of 2010: check back with us in about a month and see where it ends up on our list.

November 17, 2010 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, experimental music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments