CD review: 25 Years of New York New Music

Some time ago I said that one of the best things about the American Composers Forum record label innova was its function as a publicly available archive of weird and wonderful American composition, the sort of music that no commercial label would ever touch.

25 Years of New York New Music, a 5-disc, 61-track compilation of works composed by Fellows of the New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA) is a superb case in point. The goal, as stated in the liner notes by innova‘s Philip Blackburn and NYFA’s Cristian Amigo, is to ‘acknowledge the place of these composers in the larger narrative of American music history’, and in musical terms it seems to do this exceedingly well.

For an archival project like this, however, the quality of the documentation has to be of a high standard, and unfortunately this isn’t the case here. One thing niggles in particular: often little information is provided about the context for each piece (at minimum, its date of composition). This is essential if you want not simply to slap this stuff onto disc but to construct a coherent and structured collection of work with its own narrative shape, as Amigo and Blackburn claim to do. As soon as I heard Mary Jane Leach’s incantatory Night Blossoms, for example, I wanted to know where she sat historically in relation to the much better-known Meredith Monk. 25 years is a long time in new music, and it makes a difference whether something was composed in 1983 or 2008, unless you’re assuming a de facto, homogenous classicism (which this is anything but).

I’m not, therefore, going to try reconstruct the history that is represented on this disc, or elucidate the story it’s trying to tell. There is some loose structure applied to the five discs, in that one is clearly more jazz/improv-based, one more orchestral-based, but the overlaps are too great to declare absolute distinctions. There is a wide range of music, wide enough that it’s not possible to pin down many unifying elements. As far as they exist, they are negatives: this is (almost all) music that is anti-classical, that rejects – quite simply and usually with minimal fuss – the conventions of concert hall, standard genres, traditional ensembles. (I say almost all because in occasional cases, like Aaron Jay Kernis’s Ecstatic Meditation 4 or George Tsontakis’s Gymnopodies, the traditional tropes of classical music are still very much to the fore.) This isn’t a world of Fluxus-type agitations either: composership–or musicianship in the case of the pieces with improvisation–is highly valued, as is good taste.

Sometimes the taste is a little too good, as in the several examples of super-cute acoustic electronica. There are now albums and albums that follow this sort of decorative, sort-of-minimalist formula (some of them, indeed, may be found on innova). Alarm Will Sound’s Aphex Twin album is a high-water mark for this kind of thing (and an exception in being an album of covers not new pieces) but they are demon players drawing on outstanding source material. Very little matches up. Often it feels like a nascent genre that has substituted the courage to state something of its own for the cynicism of synthesis, crossing two trends – postminimalism and post-techno – which are themselves shadows not pillars. Cross a shadow with a shadow and you’re left with nothing.

Nevertheless, even works like David van Tieghem’s Waiting for the Gizmo No.1 or Bora Yoon’s G I F T, both of which could sit comfortably on the next Groove Armada compilation CD, have an innocence that puts all cynical thoughts to rest: innocence, in the best possible sense, is a rewarding common theme throughout all five discs. (I was going to say propose Judith Sainte Croix’s Los Pajaros Blancos de la Noche Profunda as another example, until I read in the notes that ‘Jungle imagery is used to convey quantum physics ideas … The piano gestures represent non-physical energy waves that …’ Yawn. The worst kind of verbiage, needlessly weighing down music that is deliciously feather-light on listening.)

New music fans will probably head first for the rare cuts by better-known names in this collection: interestingly, most of these (Pauline Oliveros, Annea Lockwood, Meredith Monk, Eve Beglarian, Joan Tower, Augusta Read Thomas) are women – indeed women composers are very well-represented. But don’t neglect the lesser lights – as well as those already mentioned, pieces by Iconoclast, Bruce Gremo and many others are not to be overlooked. Despite its frustrations, this is an endlessly fascinating collection that I’ll be dipping into for months to come. Someone else can do the musicology that makes sense of it all.

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