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Monday, June 19, 2006
Two Fresh Cantaloupes
John Luther Adams: The Mathematics of Resonant Bodies
Steven Schick, percussion
Cantaloupe 21034

I've been asked to review two recent releases on the Cantaloupe label, one of my favorite record labels. Both releases contain music by composers I am unfamiliar with.

I'll start with John Luther Adams' work for layered percussion and electronics named The Mathematics of Resonant Bodies (2002). As mentioned above, I am quite unfamiliar with the work of John Luther Adams and therefore was immediately struck by the work's similarities to John Cage's Four4 (1991), which I recorded in 2000. In Cage's Four4 single percussion sounds (chosen by the performers) can be heard for very long periods of time ... many sounds return more than once ... providing the listener with a way to hear these sounds, as though focusing on them through a microscope, as they slowly change character due to the changing perspectives of time for each viewer/listener. In particular, the effect of long percussion sounds and the scale of The Mathematics of Resonant Bodies (69 minutes) is what I find similar to Cage's final percussion work (72 minutes).

One big difference is how the Adams is structured into 8 skillfully labeled sections. The genre might be described as a minimalist tone poem ... program music which is about the mental images (single words) that arise from individual, layered and slightly manipulated percussion/electronic sounds. Thus parallels to Reich's Drumming (1971), in terms of a "color structure" for each movement, also come into play. The sounds, aside from some subtle electronic manipulation (an aural realization of what might happen while listening to single sounds over long periods of time), used for each movement are as follows.

burst (snare drums)
rumble (tam-tams)
shimmer (triangles)
roar (tam-tams)
thunder (tom-toms and bass drums)
wail (bowed metallic percussion [including waterphone?] and sirens)
crash (cymbals)
stutter (snare drums)

The Mathematics of Resonant Bodies and Four4 are really not about the sounds themselves, but the act of listening over long periods of time. In the case of Adams, brief labels focus the listener's mind on a single descriptive word, while Cage frees the mind to hear sounds without labels, aside from the number of sound sources producing sounds (Four). In both cases each listener will come away with different experiences, but since the Adams work employs descriptive words and a defined structure, those experiences might be more similar.

The acoustic on this ambient-style recording is wonderful given the nature of the music itself, and Steven Schick is a percussionist I have great respect for. The playing is therefore very sensitive to the music's nature. As in Cage's Four4, this performance is not about rhythmic virtuosity or even accuracy because these percussion sounds are being used for coloristic effects ... single percussion sounds heard over long periods of time. The macro becomes more important than the micro and a performer's playing style can have a big effect on the result.

During an interview with Jan Williams in 1983, in regard to composing for percussion, Morton Feldman said "You don't have the historical implication of harmonic rhythm or atonal rhythm and you are in another kind of time world there and that kind of time world is very, very interesting for me, especially now since I'm writing very long pieces. So maybe now I will write a piece that is very long using that aspect." He never composed such a piece, but what Feldman said in this 1983 interview applies to The Mathematics of Resonant Bodies, Four4, and perhaps retrospectively to Steve Reich's landmark percussion work, Drumming (1971). Those wishing to compose percussion works are advised to read Feldman's article and listen to these works, which I find most successful in this regard.

Don Byron: A Ballad For Many
Bang on a Can All-Stars
Cantaloupe 21036

Just as John Luther Adams is composing music which seems the logical outgrowth of John Cage, Don Byron's music, even more so, is the closest I've heard to Frank Zappa. I'll make this review short and sweet. If you like Frank Zappa you'll not only clearly hear it in this music, you'll appreciate that squeaky clean, yet really cheap 1970s studio sound ... a Zappa hallmark. Not my favorite release on Cantaloupe, but played and recorded expertly. This is a players recording, and the various pop/jazz styles, tempos and meters are performed flawlessly over the course of 20 tracks. Evan Ziporyn as usual, shines on many of the tracks along with the rest of the always wonderful Bang on a Can cast. Those who appreciate Zappa should try and hear this recording ... this is music to listen to, not write about.


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