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Thursday, May 18, 2006
Ives Plays Ives, More Number Pieces, and Musique Concrete
Ives Plays Ives: the Complete Recordings of Charles Ives at the Piano (1933-1943)
Charles Ives
New World Records

Many years ago, there was a multirecord LP set of Ives' music released on the occasion of his 100th birthday, and it contained a few short recordings of Ives playing some of his studies related to the Emerson movement of the Concord Sonata, and a really scratchy recording of his vocal performance on They Are There (which, as I remember, contained one or two endearing expletives to himself for hitting some wrong notes). Well, one can now have the complete recordings of Ives at the piano, and it's a fascinating, and enjoyable, compendium.

Not surprisingly, several of the works are various studies Ives wrote in preparation for the unfinished Emerson concerto for piano and orchestra (the Four Transcriptions from Emerson. Of course, they are close relatives of the first movement of the Concord Sonata, and this CD also contains Ives playing selected portions (and the complete The Alcotts movement) of that great piano work. There are also some of his piano studies, improvisations, March No. 6, and of course, They Are There!. In total, there are 42 short tracks comprising 17 unique Ives compositions. The performances are interesting in light of the many modern recordings, such as those by John Kirkpatrick and others, and it's also good that such old recordings can be preserved for later generations.

This recording is important for many reasons. Of course, there is the historic nature of the individual tracks. It provides some insight into Ives' compositional process and self-criticism (he ultimately abandoned some of the music on this album), and also gives some information about how Ives intended his music to be performed. Most of the tracks are too short to glean a lot of useful performance guidelines, but they may still be helpful in terms of providing perspective.

John Cage
The Barton Workshop
Megadisc Classics

I like Cage's "Number" pieces, and this album doesn't disappoint. The Number pieces are titled based on the number of performers, and the exponent refers to the number of the work in that series (one8 would represent the eighth Number piece for solo performer). Each performer has his or her own set of instructions regarding pitch and duration, and the performer can start the note whenever he or she wants within the time allotted (for example, a time duration of 1 minute means that the note must last for 60 seconds, but when that note starts is indeterminate). This leads to some incredibly beautiful music, in part because (like In C, Feldman's Four Pianos, etc.), the musicians must listen to one another and make choices that determines the ultimate musical result.

Eight was written in 1991 for Trisha Brown and is scored for four wind and four brass instruments. This represents the first recording of the work. Interestingly, while most of the performance instructions are similar from one Number piece to another, in Eight, Cage specified that "Intonation need not be agreed upon." In other words, individual performers might not match the intonation used by other performers in the group. Two dates from 1987 is for flute and piano, while ONE4 is for solo drummer and was composed in 1990. These works, like the other Number pieces, represents the last major output from Cage, and are unlike any of his earlier pieces. The performances appear to be very sympathetic and well-executed, and complement the excellent series of Number pieces recorded on the OgreOgress Productions label.

Pioneers of Electronic Music
Works by Ussachevsky, Luening, Arel, Davidovsky, Shields, Smiley

New World Records

I have a book with an old photo of members of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, and I believe everyone represented on this album (with the possible exception of Bulent Arel) are in that photo. While one can point out that the first electronic composition was Johanna Beyers' incredible Music of the Spheres written in 1938, and certainly Varese and others were playing with electronics in the early 50's, this album provides some important early pieces by other early pioneers of electronic music. Indeed, Ussachevsky's first electronic pieces ca. 1951 are considered to be the first electronic compositions performed in the US.

This album includes several works by Ussachevsky, including Sonic Contours, which provides electronic manipulation of recorded piano fragments in a way that makes the piano do things that humans cannot replicate. It does not provide the rhythmic complexity of a Nancarrow, however.

What surprised me the most was how much I actually liked the early electronic music of Otto Luening. His works for flute, electronically manipulated, are quite haunting and beautiful, particularly Low Speed,. The album also contains Davidovsky's Synchronisms No. 5, which is a classic, although I've never been a fan. There is one work each by Arel, Smiley and Shields, and it is a shame that these composers have always, in my opinion, been overshadowed by Ussachevsky, Davidovsky and Luening. Perhaps this CD will help correct this imbalance.


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