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Thursday, Aug 7 2003
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Tod Machover’s Hyperstring Trilogy, on the Oxingale label and by some distance the most exhilarating disc release of these otherwise drab summer months, sets off memories of the not-too-distant past and stirs up all kinds of hopes for a not-too-hopeless future. Riffling through my old writings, from when this publication and I were 10 years younger, I came across a lot of gee-whiz prose about a fantastic toy shop called the Electronic Café, where a pianist on a stage in Santa Monica got to play duets with somebody in Santa Fe or New York, and where dancers and musicians, strung up with several miles of cable and connected to wondrous, flickering machinery, could take two steps to the right and bring about a cataclysm of electronic sound. Tod Machover took part in these events, a curly-topped moppet recently back from a stint at Pierre Boulez’s IRCAM in Paris. In Santa Monica, if memory serves, Machover showed off a fabulous wired glove whose wearer only had to think about wriggling a pinkie and musical hell would break loose.

I don’t remember whether any of the stuff at the now-defunct Electronic Café had much to do with good or bad music, and I don’t think it mattered; the gadgetry was fascinating enough. Machover — now installed as the head of the Media Lab at MIT — has continued to invent, especially in the area where certain time-honored performance techniques interact with computer technology to produce a range of sound light-years beyond what a normal cello, viola and violin could produce on their own. The new disc contains three extensive works by Machover for those instruments — a solo piece for “hypercello,” a work for “hyperviola” with computer-manipulated voice and a small ensemble of “live” instruments, a work for “hyperviolin” and chamber orchestra. These are works of considerable extent, and the most important thing about them is that they are also powerful, intense, beautiful music.

Machover, himself a cellist, is therefore something of a romantic. His operas so far include a brilliant, disturbing setting of the Philip K. Dick sci-fi fantasy Valis for which the orchestra includes several hyperinstruments; a Brain Opera that creates itself inside the head of whoever is watching it at the time; and a rather lush setting of Leo Tolstoy’s Resurrection, full of retro orchestral effects and arias. Begin Again Again . . ., the 21-minute work for solo hypercello on the new disc (played by Matt Haimovitz), has something of this stylistic sweep; most of all it is a deeply expressive work, something that gets into your blood and tells you that it is possible to draw upon the most sophisticated technology the lab guys at MIT can concoct and still shape a moving, communicative musical art. Kim Kashkashian is the solo violist in Song of Penance (with Rose Moss’ poetry intoned by Karol Bennett); Ani Kavafian, noble veteran of the new-music wars, is the violinist in the third work, Forever and Ever. Sure, having the playing of all three musicians drastically modified by this computer stuff makes it a little difficult to praise their performances in normal critical terminology; it’s like reviewing champion swimmers who rely on water wings. Whatever, the technical mastery on this disc is breathtaking, and so is the music.

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While we’re on the subject of indefinability, consider Clogs, a kind of chamber group that has come to my attention, with one disc out on the Brassland label and another due out next week. Australia’s Padma Newsome is the group’s founder, chief composer and violinist/violist; guitarist/composer Bryce Dessner, percussionist Thomas Kozumplik and — if you’re ready — bassoonist Rachael Elliott complete the group. They have a date at the Temple Bar in Santa Monica later this month.

Okay, so here is a quartet of excellently proficient, classical-trained musicians who create a repertory not quite like anything already out there. Jazz tints their musical style, yet events like 6’33” of quiet, free-flowing beauty in a rapturous duet for bassoon and viola over the insistent plink of steel drums — in the title cut of their disc called Thom’s Night Out — don’t readily fit into journalistic pigeonholes. (Must they?) The group is on the move; a recent commissioning grant from Chamber Music America puts them in cahoots with Ingram Marshall, another indefinable composer. Anyhow, I love this new disc of theirs, most of all for its still, nicely controlled sensibility — even if I don’t quite know where it goes on my shelves.

Extempore II, from Harmonia Mundi, is even stranger, and no less lovable. It is a collaborative effort between England’s Orlando Consort, a vocal quartet (countertenor, tenors, baritone) with a following for their early-music performances, and Perfect Houseplants, a jazz quartet (prepared piano, winds, percussion, bass). “Oh, oh,” you can say with some justice; the graveyards are well-supplied with those who would cross over between musical styles and between millennia. And that is exactly what happens here. The plan is to concoct a latter-day Mass for the Feast of St. Michael, following along the outlines of a medieval Mass and also — as with frequent ancient practice — including a well-known song of the time as a structural element within the Mass. The song is the famous “L’Homme Armé,” a hit-parade item circa 1350, and these Orlando Houseplants aren’t the first group to use that song in modern times; there’s also a setting by Peter Maxwell Davies. This one is a lot more fun.

What makes it so is that these performers — the singers, of course, but also the jazz combo — perform with a real awareness of what made this music tick for the churchgoers of the distant past, and what it needs to be made to tick today. There is a fine, elegant slitheriness in the parallel movements of archaic harmonies (“fauxbourdon,” you remember from Music 101) and an exaltation in the outbursts of “Alleluia” that keep things moving. No, this kind of crossover activity doesn’t answer the problem of how to bring medieval music to life in contemporary jazz clubs. All I can say is that this project is the work of honest, enthusiastic musicians bridging what used to be regarded as an unbridgeable chasm. The result is 62 minutes of music not at all disgraceful and — as a matter of fact — decidedly not bad.

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