Classical Music Review: New Releases

Earle Brown - Collected Early Works. Times Five (ensemble conducted by Earle Brown); Octet 1, for Eight Loudspeakers; December 1952 (David Tudor, piano); Novara (ensemble conducted by Earle Brown); Music for Violin, Cello & Piano (Matthew Raimondi, violin; David Soyer, cello; David Tudor, piano); November, 1952; December, 1952; Four Systems (Michael Daugherty, piano); Music for Cello & Piano (Dorothea von Albrecht, cello; Christine Olbrich, piano); Nine Rare Bits, for One or Two Harpsichords (Antoinette Vischer and George Gruntz, harpsichords).  CRI CD 851 (65'17).

Classical music doesn't change very often so when it does we're always in for a shock.  The early part of the last century got several in quick succession -- Schonberg emancipated dissonance, Stravinsky used "primitive " rhythms and Bartôk transformed folk sources.  Things calmed down a bit when neo-classicism took the stage.  That is -- until Boulez and a few radical Americans started questioning basic assumptions -- form, for one, and content, for another.  Influenced by Stein, Proust, Joyce and Mallarmé and the Surrealists in literature, and by Abstract Expressionism and the mobiles of Calder in the visual arts, John Cage (1912-1992), Christian Wolff (1934-), Morton Feldman (1926-1987) and Earle Brown(1926- ) formed The New York School , in music.  Their work evoked the porousness and randomness of modern experience, and each concentrated on time. Cage broke it up, Wolff miniaturized it, Feldman expanded it, and Brown treated it as something both static and dynamic.  This CD collects some of Brown's early discoveries.  Brown, after all, invented "open form" and "graphic notation", and all the pieces here have the character and sense of freedom that these terms imply.

Octet 1, for Eight Loudspeakers (1953) is superficially form-less and time-less. Produced by Brown at the Project for Music and Magnetic Tape where he worked from 1952-55, it's made of leftover tape fragments.  It's also one of the liveliest works of its kind -- squeaks, bleeps, birds, buzzers, bells and voices compete in a benign sort of channel surfing.  Brown's famous graphic score December 1952 -- it's always compared to Mondrian -- couldn't be more different, and pianist-composers David Tudor (1926-1996) and Michael Daugherty-- a former student of Brown's -- give widely varying realizations. Tudor's has a Zen-like urgency, each sound being a complete world in itself -- delicate, stark, primitive -- while Daugherty's feels "fuller" and in a way more linear. He also plays 2 other pieces from Folio -- "November 1952", whose score consists of notes floating on barred graph paper, and "4 Systems" (Jan. 1954), another graphic score, written for David Tudor. Two chamber ensemble pieces are also included here -- Times 5 (1963), for 4 performers and four channels of tape sound, and Novara (1962). The first is the more obviously dramatic of the two, and skillfully integrates and opposes live sounds with taped ones, in a kind of (mostly) slow accelerando and decelerando.  Novara is sublter, but even wilder, with sudden, surprising and very beautiful unisons -- a Brown trademark -- and moments where a sort of clockwork clicking occurs. The other pieces on the CD are for smaller forces -- Music for Violin, Cello and Piano (1952), Music for Cello and Piano (1954-55), and Nine Rare Bits, for One or Two Harpsichords (1965), and all have varied shapes and densities, the first delicate yet mercurial, the second more aggressively enacted.  Brown's harpsichord piece sounds like not one but two kittens on the keys, who are obviously creating a ruckus, and having a great time too.  Or like two Scarlattis dropped into the 20th century.  This is a spectacular realization of Brown's idea of making the time of composing and the time of performing one  -- with no lag between.  The other performances are just as alert and imaginative, and I should also mention David Arden's remarkable CD of Brown's piano music on New Albion.

Michael McDonagh
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