Sound Recordings

Pauline Oliveros
Tape & Electronic Music 1961-1970
Important PO80

Never has the Important Records label earned its name more thoroughly than it does with this monumental collection of electronic music by one of the true grandes dames of 20th-century composition, Pauline Oliveros. She was a pioneer in the field of avant-garde electronic music, joining the San Francisco Tape Music Center shortly after its founding in the 1960s and helping to redefine the very structure and assumptions underlying modern art music. This 12-disc box brings together an enormous program of her early recordings. (Given that they are tape-native works, it’s not entirely clear whether they should be called “compositions” or “performances.”) Most of these have never before been released, which adds greatly to the value of the collection. What diminishes its value (and accounts for a grade of A- rather than A+ for the release) is the really quite inexcusable lack of detailed liner notes. A skimpy 32-page booklet is included with the first CD case, and it includes a couple of gushing encomia from her colleagues, a brief note of thanks and personal history from the composer, and a longer essay that includes very brief notes on the works themselves–but what a set like this cries out for is a piece-by-piece description of the instruments used and the compositional techniques employed. (To give a piece the title “The Day I Disconnected the Erase Head and Forgot to Reconnect It” and offer no further explanation is just cruel–although I suppose one could argue that the title is essentially self-explanatory.) This lack of information is especially regrettable given the pedagogical importance of a set like this; for students of 20th-century music this box is a treasure trove, or could have been if it were more informative. That said, the packaging itself is both attractive and functional; as for the music, it’s not always pleasant, but is consistently fascinating–and very much of its time and place. Despite the weakness of the accompanying materials, this set represents the rescue from oblivion of music that should never be forgotten and a watershed in the documentation of America’s musical history. Grade: A-

Paul Simon
Graceland
Sony Legacy 88691914712

It’s a little bit startling to realize that Paul Simon‘s Graceland, which is generally considered one of the finest pop music albums of the 20th century, was released 25 years ago. If it doesn’t sound particularly dated today, that’s largely because at the time of its original release it sounded like no other album that had been released before. To make it, Simon traveled around the country and even around the world, collaborating with zydeco musicians from New Orleans, a Latino roots band from East Los Angeles, and (very controversially) a variety of session musicians, mbaqanga bands and mbube singers from South Africa. The songs are by turns heartbreaking and joyfully whimsical, dealing with such fraught issues as child custody, generational shift, poverty, and midlife crisis with both sensitivity and humor, and every single track is swooningly beautiful. That beauty comes from Simon’s writing, certainly, but it also comes significantly from the contributions of his session players: you’ll hear guitar lines unlike any you would ever hear from an American guitarist, and basslines that baffle the mind even as they thrill with their melodic inventiveness. And don’t forget the tight, unearthly vocal harmonies of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, a male a cappella vocal ensemble that became world-famous as a result of their participation in the project. Which brings us to the controversy: at the time Graceland was made, South Africa was under a United Nations boycott, and Simon’s choice to bring business to the country generated lots of criticism–which is discussed in Under African Skies, a new documentary film that is included in this 25th-anniversary reissue (along with several MTV videos and a Saturday Night Live performance) on an accompanying DVD. The audio CD has been remastered and includes several demos and outtakes, most of which have been included in previous reissues but two of which are previously unissued. (For those with more passionate interest and deeper pockets, there is also a truly deluxe four-disc box set with a wealth of other material for $95.) Grade: A+

Various Composers
EndBeginning
New York Polyphony
BIS SACD-1949

The early 1500s was a time of rich creative ferment in the region then known as Flanders (stretching from northern France up through the Netherlands). Composers like Antoine Brumel, Thomas Crecquillon, and (especially) Josquin Des Prez were changing the rules of polyphonic choral composition and creating music that remains some of the most spiritually uplifting and viscerally beautiful in the history of Western music. For this remarkable recording, the male vocal quartet New York Polyphony has put together a program of works from the period that deal with death–its approach, its occurrence, and its aftermath. They perform a Requiem mass of Brumel, a setting of the Lamentations of Jeremiah (mourning the destruction of Jerusalem and pleading with its inhabitants to repent and return to their God) by Crecquillon, and a motet by Jacob Clemens Non Papa on a text by the martyred Dominican friar Girolamo Savanarola. Their performances of these pieces are thrillingly lovely–where the harmonies are stark and vinegary they sing with an appropriately edgy tonality, but on the soaring later works they blend with a creamy smoothness that beautifully communicates both sorrow and the devotion. Then the program ends on a strange and wonderful note, with a contemporary piece by the American composer Jackson Hill. Written especially for New York Polyphony, Hill’s composition is a “reimagining” of Guillaume de Machaut‘s great rondeau “Ma fin est mon commencement” (“My end is my beginning”), in which the composer takes fragments of the original work and uses them as a jumping-off point for a new setting using modern harmonies. It’s a bracing and moving end to a remarkable disc. Grade: A

– Rick Anderson

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