Monday, December 7, 2015

Cedille Records issues two year-end CDs that just earned Grammy nominations for eighth blackbird and Ursula Oppens



Eighth blackbird: Always up to something new.
Eighth blackbird, the boundary-pushing new-music ensemble based in Chicago, makes a virtue of the mixing board on "Filament," with two short pieces by Son Lux composed of bits from other works on the Cedille disc.

The odd mash-ups are "To Love" and "This Is My Line," each of them briefly incorporating the vocalized titles in addition to selections from Bryce Dessner's "Murder Ballades," Nico Muhly's "Doublespeak," and Philip Glass' "Two Pages." (It doesn't matter if you can trace what bits come from which compositions.)

The last-named piece by the reigning master of "music of repetitive structures" is a chore to listen to. It's taken from a concert performance more than two years old. With Dessner on guitar and Muhly on piano, it's a 16-minute, perpetual-motion exercise through thick unison undergrowth. The rest of eighth blackbird is not involved.  As a listener, I wasn't much involved either, sorry to say.

That's not the case with Dessner's "Murder Ballades," a reimagining (with a couple of originally composed numbers) of folk ballads that used to be tabloid journalism for mountain folk. With a variety of ostinatos, brooding melodies, vivid ornamentation, and accents evoking handclaps, the suite of seven pieces seems rooted in the music that inspired it — tales of betrayal, passion, and injustice — while also giving a 21st-century update to the kind of borrowing of folk materials that brought esteem to Liszt, Brahms, and Dvorak in the mid- to late-19th century.

Otherwise, the fine clutter of minimalist gestures and cumulative grandeur in Muhly's "Doublespeak" can be heartily recommended. Textures and colors are inviting throughout, but not solely to tickle the mind's ear. There is also a dark side to the music, something in its pauses and changes of direction that speaks to deeper musical values. Of several Muhly pieces I have heard, this is my favorite.

Ursula Oppens has long distinguished herself in new music for piano.
Ursula Oppens is a contender in the solo classical category with her Cedille recording of  "The People United Will Never Be Defeated," variations on a song associated with workers' movements in Latin America. Frederic Rzewski's lengthy suite is in the tradition of great variations on straightforward, infinitely generative tunes — from Bach's "Goldberg" through Beethoven's "Diabelli" to Brahms' "Handel."

There's such variety in articulation, color, rhythmic acuity, and expressiveness required of the pianist that few would choose to expend the effort on such a work by a little-known composer. There are variations that owe a lot to piano masters (Schumann and Liszt), some with disjunct lines that recall Webern and his successors. There are a few other-than-keyboard requirements (chiefly whistling), but no inside-the-piano stuff.  This work has both lyrical and jagged surfaces, and Oppens — long active in putting across new music for piano — shows she's at the peak of her game still.

To fill out the disc, there's a newer Rzewski piece, "Four Hands," that spans 16 minutes. As the title suggests, two pianists are needed at one keyboard to bring this piece off.  Jerome Lowenthal is eminently suited to be Oppens' partner. "Four Hands" is a more concise exhibition of Rzewski's intense manner of writing for the piano. Though the adventuresome listener will return to "The People United" again and again, "Four Hands" suits better the modern appetite for less sprawling artistic statements that don't depend on expansiveness to sound ample.