Album du jour: Holly Herndon, “Platform”

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Imagine carrying around a laptop set to record all the sounds you hear in a day, from voices (mostly your own, of course), ambient noises, whether natural or man-made, and even the sounds of the computer itself. Then, imagine that you used these sounds as the raw material for musical composition. What kind of music would you compose?

If you’re Holly Herndon, you compose complex, intricate modern techno, with about as much detail-per-second as the ear can take in and the brain decode. The thirty-something Tennessee native, Mills College MFA and San Francisco-based composer and sound artist possesses a daring imagination and the technical skill to realize what she imagines to the fullest, resulting in furthest thing from the push-button techno that can make the other artists working in the genre sound rather all the same.

But I can’t stress enough that this music is not just for fans of the techno genre, anymore than Bach is just for Baroque lovers or Charlie Parker for jazz buffs. Anyone with a taste for the fanciful and curiosity about today’s finest creative artists needs to hear this music. You owe it both to yourself and to the brilliant contemporary creative artists making some of the most thrilling music of the day. Include Holly Herndon among them. Do read what she has to say about her music — after listening.

Albums du jour: Joel Plaskett & Colorway

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“Joel Plaskett & The Park Avenue Sobriety Test.” Each September for five years straight back in the ‘aughts and early ‘teens, The Wife and I ferried up to Nova Scotia to attend the Deep Roots Music Festival in the Annapolis Valley town of Wolfville, home to Acadia University. First thing on our first concert, out came a tall, lanky singer-songwriter-guitarist from nearby Dartmouth named Joel Plaskett, accompanied on acoustic guitar by his father Bill. Joel’s name was as new to us then as it probably is to you now. But to judge from how well the many college-aged females in attendance knew all his lyrics, young Plaskett was quite the local celeb.

Before long, we were smitten too. Charismatic, charming and comprehensively multi-talented, with a boyish urgency to his music, Joel Plaskett struck me then and strikes me now as a throwback to such guitar-slinging songsters of yore as Hank Williams, Buddy Holly or a young Springsteen.

Praise too lofty? Well, maybe. But check out Plaskett’s latest, “Park Avenue Sobriety Test,” and see if you don’t find yourself smitten as well. Now 41, Plaskett adopts a more reflective tone than on previous albums, with lyrics that look back on past foibles and lost friends. As on past albums, he sings from the perspective of a hard-working rock musician named Joel Plaskett, one with lots to say about the life and the music. I think you’ll like what he has to offer.

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Colorway: “The Black Sky Sequined.” You won’t hear any references to the Canadian Maritimes on “The Black Sky Sequined,” the second album by the rock trio Colorway, though the tobacco field in the lyrics of the catchy second tune, “Come Back July,” drops a hint of the music’s Pioneer Valley origin. Then again, what musically-astute Valleyite does not by now appreciate manifold talents of F. Alex Johnson, whose music, lyrics, voice and exceptionally fluid guitar give Colorway its color?

Nothing fancy here, no tricks, no pretense, just the classic guitar-bass-drums trio format (horns are added for the end of the last track) that gives the album its “why don’t they make more albums like this anymore” quality. Having reached middle age seven years sober and, to judge from his music, in good psychic health, Alex writes songs that look on life with acceptance, a little wistfulness, and lots of what my late father-in-law Myer Tarlow would have called “good philosophy” — you’ll have to look elsewhere for adolescent angst or dystopian fantasies. Grownup rock for grownup listeners? What a concept! Plus, the guys can really play and the production is razor-sharp. Suitable for car travel or at-home listening. Available at select local outlets, or sample and download here.

Coming up: It’s 2015. Do you know where your string quartet is?

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Brooklyn Rider, the string quartet at the forefront of contemporary chamber music, will perform this Saturday evening, May 2 at 8:00 p.m. at Sweeney Concert Hall, Smith College, Northampton. The concert, presented by Music In Deerfield and the Smith College Music Department will be preceded at 7:00 by “Concert Conversations,” featuring the musicians in conversation with yours truly. Click here for tickets and information. Here’s what I wrote for the program booklet:

“And now,” as the Monty Python troupe would say, “for something completely different.”

Yes, in strictly classical terms, tonight’s concert is very different from the norm, consisting almost exclusively of new string quartet works by musicians not associated with classical music.  This was the idea behind the “Brooklyn Rider Almanac,” from which each selection other than Haydn’s (he came along a little too early) is drawn.

Well, this may be a new idea for classical music.  But for plain old music, of which classical is but a small and rather circumscribed part, nothing could be more in keeping with the current zeitgeist.  In today’s music, composers and performers (who are often the same people) are naturally fluent in many styles and collaborate easily with others of very different backgrounds.  I’m not talking here about musical “crossover,” where classical musicians let down their hair or pop musicians put on classical airs.  For today’s adventurous, open-eared musicians, there’s nowhere to “cross over” to – they’re already there.

So tonight, we’ll hear pieces by jazz musicians (Vijay Iyer, Bill Frisell), a top Latin composer-arranger (Gonzalo Grau), an alt-folk singer-songwriter (Aoife O’Donovan), the drummer from the rock band Wilco (Glenn Kotche), a composer-violinist equally at home in classical and in “folk festivals and dive bars the world over” (Dana Lyn) and a versatile cellist-composer from Albania (Rubin Kodheli) – though even to describe these musicians as such is to limit them.  Having practically worn out my copy of “The Brooklyn Rider Almanac” album – and it’s on CD! – I love both the skill and the fresh perspectives these talented folks bring to the venerable quartet medium.  Roll over Beethoven?  Not quite, but for one night, Beethoven can make way for what these incredibly talented kids are doing today.

Album du jour: Ava Luna, “Infinite House”

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Where has Ava Luna been all my life? Well, in Brooklyn, which one would think needs another hipster indie band like Nashville needs another country singer. But there’s always room for a good one, especially one that adds a unique sound and appealing style to the mix.

Which Ava Luna does big time. Soulful, playful, loose in spirit while tight in execution, this band can turn from mysterious vamp to metallic thrash at the drop of bar line. The three singers, one male and two female, can actually sing, singly and together, though what they sing defies easy description. I will say, however, that it’s refreshing to hear a little blues and funk in a genre that, as some have noted, does tend toward paleness. “Infinite House” is Ava Luna’s third full-length album; now pardon me while I track down the other two. All their music is available for download from Bandcamp. While Spotify is swell, I’m sure they wouldn’t mind if you actually purchased their albums. Heck, they might even be persuaded to make another one someday.

Coming Up: A Bach Bash

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You better wach auf, you better nicht schrei, ‘cuz J.S. Bach is coming to town! The good folks at the UMass Amherst Music Department gotta a whole lotta Bach goin’ on in various Amherst venues, from concert hall to coffee house. From the pièce de résistance, the “St. John Passion,” to many (pun alert!) minor-scaled delights, the music will leave you not just well-tempered but in good temper. Here’s a preview in today’s Daily Hampshire Gazette. See you there?

Album du jour: Peter Phillips & the Tallis Scholars, “Arvo Pärt: Tintinnabuli”

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It was fated, as no doubt foretold by the Sibyl: “And lo, there would come to pass a time when Magister Peter Phillips and his chorus, known throughout Britannia and all ye lands as ye Tallis Scholars, who hath achieveth much acclaim and soldeth many albums, w0uld forsake the house of ye Renaissance polyphony, in which they had become regarded as great princes and princesses, and follow instead the path of the Estonian Pärt, christened Arvo, who liveth for nigh on four score years, and delighteth many ears by composing workes of musicke in a most sparing fashion, choosing his notes as a criticke of musicke chooseth compliments.”

And what we get is pretty much what ol’ Sib would have expected, a wide and varied selection of Arvo Pärt’s a cappella works (click here for repertoire and album notes, and to download), performed with stunning perfection. Not a chord is mistuned, nor a voice unblended. Take it from one who has performed a few of these works: the execution, awesome to behold, reaches the very highest level of choral accomplishment.

So, nothing to quibble about? Well…call me ungrateful, call me impossible, call me irresponsible (oops, that one’s taken). Yet I couldn’t help feeling as I listened that amazing as they are, a certain blandness made these performances a little less than they could be.

This struck me right from the opening selections, “Sieben Magnificat-Antiphonen” (German settings of seven Magnificat Antiphons). As beautifully as the Tallis Scholars sing this music, their German pronunciation lacks bite and character. The voices ring as true as bells, and with about as much expression. The Scholars sound great, but Pärt’s music has more than sound going for it — and more than the Tallis Scholars offer it.

Other groups, especially those from the Baltics — the superb Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir comes to mind — sing Pärt with nearly as much technical aplomb, but with more warmth and emotional connection. These Nordic groups even employ a tiny degree of vibrato which, though strictly shunned by early music groups like the Scholars, has never been known to cause physical harm to any listener — sort of like the GMOs of music. Listen to the Estonians’ far more dramatic performance of the Antiphons (sorry, the Tallis Scholars CD is not on Spotify, but may be sampled here).

So, to hear Pärt’s a cappella music done to heavenly perfection, the Tallis Scholars album is a must. To hear it in flesh and blood, check out the Estonians. Here’s their Pärt discography. And for the curious, here’s a basic explanation of the album’s title, “Tintinnabuli,” a very important word in the Pärt lexicon.

L’affaire Lisitsa

1000-valentina-lisitsa3Jeff Melanson,

As reported in this morning’s New York Times:

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra abruptly canceled a performance of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto on Wednesday after parting ways with a Ukrainian soloist over concerns that her ribald Twitter commentary had crossed the line into “intolerance.”

Read the report to get the full story.  You can find the comments of TSO CEO Jeff Melanson (above right) here.

The soloist in question, pianist Valentina Lisitsa (above left), has earned considerable worldwide acclaim over the past decade through her shrewd use of social media, becoming the most widely viewed classical artist on YouTube.  Her recordings (including a new 2-CD set of the piano works of Philip Glass) and concert appearances have also elicited praise, though not unqualified, from the musical press.  Without doubt, she qualifies as a major artist, and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra was wise to engage her.

But were they wise to disengage her?  Having been in the music presenting business, radio and concert divisions, for many decades, and having been in somewhat similar if not as consequential circumstances, I prefer to extend the courtesy of not judging other presenters for their actions, just as I would prefer they extend the courtesy of not judging me for mine.  I’ve been on both sides of that equation, too.

However, I can offer some general principles that I fall back on in such cases:

1. Orchestras and other presenters can choose whom they engage and disengage, and what works they play and not play, for whatever reason, or for no reason. It’s not censorship; it’s their choice.

2. Artists should be as free to speak their minds as anyone else, but they’re not free from the consequences when an independent organization decides not to be associated with the artist any longer. Lisitsa remains free to express herself. The TSO remains free not to engage her. Those freedoms are not in conflict.

3. Those who applaud the TSO in this case should keep it in mind when an orchestra disengages an artist or work espousing a cause they believe in.

I’d love to hear your thoughts as well.