New CDs From Musicians Who Play the Field

Alan Pierson conducts Alarm Will Sound at Carnegie Hall.
Alan Pierson conducts Alarm Will Sound at Carnegie Hall. (By Cory Weaver)
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Sunday, March 9, 2008

The makeup of a chamber ensemble, the mind-set of a rock band: This is a description that applies to more and more contemporary music groups. The Kronos Quartet paved the way in 1971; the Bang on a Can All-Stars (which includes an electric guitar) took things up another notch. And today genre-busting is the norm for new music ensembles, from the relatively conservative Eighth Blackbird (which won a Grammy this year for "strange imaginary animals") to So Percussion (which like many of these groups has just formed its own label, shhh Productions). The following are some notable new releases by artists from contemporary ensembles old and new.

-- Anne Midgette

Terry Riley: "The Cusp of Magic." Kronos Quartet and Wu Man, pipa.

You don't need to eat peyote buttons to appreciate "The Cusp of Magic" -- though it probably wouldn't hurt. The opening and closing movements of this fascinating work by California composer Terry Riley are based on Native American peyote rituals, and the music in between -- at turns luminous, frightening and unbearably lovely -- shimmers with the elusive delicacy of a dream. Performed by the Kronos Quartet (which commissioned the work), "Cusp" takes its title from the summer solstice, and evokes those transitional moments in life when the sharp edges of reality become blurred, and anything seems possible.

Riley has grown in recent years from a minimalist to a little-of-everything-ist, and in "Cusp" he incorporates singing, a synthesizer, children's toys, a drum and the traditional Chinese "pipa" lute (played here by Wu Man) to bend and blend musical genres with protean ease. The effect is, in a word, magical: You have the sense of being swept into a surging ocean of memory, where lullabies float up over mysterious drones, nervous waltzes twist suddenly into quirky little marches, and nothing is ever quite what it seems. But the music never descends into runaway eclecticism: Riley's touch remains both sure and deft throughout, and the effect is powerful.

-- Stephen Brookes

Michael Gordon: "Van Gogh." Alarm Will Sound, Alan Pierson, conductor.

Ubiquitous in New York this season, the omnivorous group Alarm Will Sound plays everything from Steve Reich to Aphex Twin, the indie electronic artist whose music was the focus of their last CD. For this album, they turn to a composer who, if not the granddaddy of their brand of contemporary groove, is at least one of its uncles: Michael Gordon, one of the three founders of the composers' collective Bang on a Can.

The work they chose, "Van Gogh," dates from the days when Bang on a Can was still establishing its identity; it was first performed in New York in 1991, conceived as a video opera with visuals by Elliot Caplan. With text drawn from the letters of Vincent van Gogh to his brother, it is at once a dramatic narrative, tracing the artist's life from youth through misunderstood creativity to madness; an artistic manifesto; and a young piece struggling with its own naivete.

Gordon's music has the groove of pop and the driving rhythmic patterns of minimalism; this piece explodes with puppylike energy as he strives to fuse the two. Leaner and rawer than more recent works like his large-scale "Decasia," it's a good arena for Alarm Will Sound, which has an engagingly puppylike energy of its own. Since the ensemble has experience to burn -- its members began playing together as students at Eastman in 2001 -- one has to assume that the moments of sloppiness in the performance are intentional. It's not cool to be too polished -- particularly when singing. Straddling the line between opera and pop song, the piece reins in its three vocalists, demanding a boy-soprano straightness from Sarah Chalfy and reducing the tenor, Matthew Hensrud, to adolescent baying. Still, this is an eminently listenable piece by and for artists engaged in a process of creative development.


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