Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 12 / 22 March 2018

Avant-garde & post-colonial America


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There's a lot more to this "historical performance" thing than getting Bach and Handel right, as two fascinating new releases from Harmonia Mundi, both for multiple voices but otherwise as different as could be, prove. Stories, brilliantly performed by Paul Hillier's Theatre of Voices, lurches us back to the once-avant-garde circle created and inhabited by the likes of John Cage and Luciano Berio, while The Rose of Sharon surveys post-colonial American music from the time of the Boston Tea Party (the one in 1773, not its 2007 travesty) to the Civil War and post-bellum period.

It's hard to imagine what drives this compulsion to recreate the sounds and sense of another era – beyond, that is, the bankruptcy and redundancy of the numbed-out, iPod-shuffle present. But the compelling thing about these new releases is that the artists behind them are musicians more strongly identified with other kinds of music. Here they don't just make music outside their customary purviews come alive, they plainly come alive as musicians in doing so.

Granted, Hillier's passions run from Josquin to Arvo Paert, and he's as likely to turn up at a Kronos concert as at an early-music festival, but the post-war avant-garde was the last place I expected to run into him in a towel. But he and his five singing colleagues are such naturals in this music, which ranges from John Cage c. 1940 to Sheldon Frank four decades later, that, listening, you sometimes wonder how the engineers got the snap, crackle and pop out of the LPs. That said, stylistically spot-on as these performances are, they mostly show what an artistic backwater this repertory has turned out to be. Engaging the mind as it does, it doesn't find many contemporary ribs to stick to, and didn't leave me wanting more. Hillier is right on the button in noting, "Mostly, these pieces seem to tell a story – or stories – but avoid getting to the point." Modern-day attention spans being what they are, this is a problem.

Mostly, these pieces made me want to throw things. But two emblematic pieces do stand out. After the lobotomizing half-hour of Berio's "A-Ronne" (1974), John Cage's "Story" jerks you willingly back to life. It doesn't hurt that he's setting a Gertrude Stein text, but here the magic is Cage's, and for five minutes you lament all over the loss of Cage and his lifelong partner, Merce Cunningham, who did for urban music what Stravinsky did for music of the theater and concert hall. "Stripsody," by Cathy Berberian, the singer who was muse to a couple generations of modernist composers (and Berio's wife), is similarly engaging, and funny as well as brilliant.

I'm told you don't have to live in Bangkok to wonder what's become of the America you were born in. Anyone hungering for an America purer and more innocent than surely it ever was could hardly do better than spinning The Rose of Sharon. Its presiding genius is Joel Frederiksen, an American-born and -trained lutenist and bass (singer) who has created his own performing group, Ensemble Phoenix Munich, in his adopted home city. This CD might be the best thing homesickness has produced since Dvorak crossed the Atlantic both ways.

Frederiksen's four singers with American-sounding names and four instrumentalists with European-sounding names inhabit a dizzying array of styles in this compendium of American musics, and there's nothing close to a dull moment in it. In it you hear "The President's March," for the inauguration of George Washington, but only after you've been laid low by the opening track, "Lay me low," spell-bindingly performed solo and a cappella by Frederiksen himself. It's a Shaker spiritual "received" (think channeled) by Addah Z. Potter on April 15, 1838. You come out the other side of that minute and a half a different person.

"The Shakers wanted to create a direct link to God through their music," Frederiksen writes in his invaluable note, and most gripping are the Shaker spirituals (including the "Tis the gift to be simple" Aaron Copland borrowed for Appalachian Spring, changing, we now discover, some of the intervals) and the later spirituals and revival-meeting songs that bring the disc to a close.

The instrumental playing, including a foot-tapping "Dixie Land" and some really wicked fiddling, is as bewitching as the singing, but it's the unfamiliar music that most fascinates. There are hymns aplenty, and ballads, including the ironically entitled "The Gentleman Soldier," which gives an earlier perspective on matters marital and military: "Two wives are allowed in the army, but one's too many for me." But all of this music sticks to your ribs and in your memory, and for an hour at least, you'll be amazed to be an American.

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