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Warp Works & 20th Century Masters / London Sinfonietta

London Sinfonietta
Release Date: 09/19/2006 
Label:  Warp Records   Catalog #: 144  
Composer:  Aphex TwinConlon NancarrowJohn CageSteve Reich,   ... 
Orchestra/Ensemble:  London Sinfonietta

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Notes and Editorial Reviews



WARP WORKS AND TWENTIETH CENTURY MASTERS London Sinfonietta WARP 144 (2 CDs 131:06)


APHEX TWIN Prepared Piano Pieces 1, 2 (Arr. Horne). AFX237 V7 (Arr. Horne). Polygon Window (Arr. Hesketh). CAGE First Construction in Metal. Sonatas and Read more Interludes for Prepared Piano: Sonatas 1, 2, 5, 6, 12. LIGETI Chamber Concerto. NANCARROW (Arr. Mikhashoff) Study No. 7. REICH Violin Phase. 6 Marimbas. SQUAREPUSHER The Tide ( Arr. Horne). Conc 2 Symmetriac (Arr. Trainer, Sound Intermedia). STOCKHAUSEN Spiral. VARÈSE Ionization


Musicians and Machines. If the very thought hasn’t already sent you dashing back to the Vivaldi section, read on. This set is special, a real keeper, and a cinch for the next Want List. It originated in a series of concerts presented in 2003–04 through a collaboration between the London Sinfonietta and Warp Records. These featured music composed between the early 1930s and the early 1970s by some of the 20th century’s most rugged individualists, interspersed with offerings (prepared for performance here by various arrangers) from two contemporary composers from the Warp stable, who go by the names of Squarepusher and Aphex Twin.


The heart of this collection is described in the liner notes as “ avant garde classics”—an exceedingly odd term if you think about it. Another cryptic hint is the above-mentioned phrase: “Musicians and Machines.” My own categorization is Frederik Pohl’s wonderful title, “The Way the Future Was.” Or rather, several futures, for this is an improbably diverse roster of composers who seem related chiefly by a shared characteristic of a fierce independence of spirit and—at least when these particular works were composed—a conspicuous disregard for the sensitivities of polite musical society. This music represents several points along the high-water mark of unabashed “modernism.” By now, of course, the modernist tide has been ebbing for so long that the very notion seems quaint— avant-garde is a term which can be used, without irony, to describe a now-distant past. But classics these are, and Warp and the London Sinfonietta have given us a splendidly refreshing immersion into a past where the future seemed much brighter—and more limitless—than it does now.


We begin gently, with two brief pieces for prepared piano by Aphex Twin. The piano preparations in this case consist of chains laid onto the piano strings to act as resonators. This adds tang to the spiky Asian-flavored spirit of the underlying music. Conlon Nancarrow is the first of the “ avant-garde masters” to appear. Nancarrow’s Studies (this is Study No. 7) were produced directly on piano rolls—expressly designed to be un-performable by a human pianist. But it is deliciously performable here in a deft and high-spirited orchestration by Yvar Mikhashoff.


After these amiable proceedings, the sudden, terse chords that open John Cage’s First Sonata come as a shock. We are in a new world altogether. Even if the Sonatas and Interludes are old friends of yours, you will be struck anew by how truly strange they are compared to “normal music.” Cage is the spiritual godson of this concert; five of the Sonatas are played at various points in the program, as well as the most marvelously spooky performance of the First Construction , for normal and abnormal percussion instruments, I’ve ever had the pleasure to hear. But another shock is in store: tucked between two Cage pieces is the brilliantly chiseled Violin Phase of Steve Reich. Off-hand, I can’t think of a more unlikely juxtaposition, but it works beautifully here. Reich’s early phase-music—the equally lapidary Six Marimbas is heard later in the concert—is still as capable of stunning us as it was when it was new, all the more so for being in such unaccustomed company.


In a nutshell, stunning juxtapositions like this are why this program is even more of a success than you would expect from simply knowing that the London Sinfonietta is playing it. The effect is almost visual—we move from one sonic landscape to another, utterly different one again and again. At one moment we are in the vast short-wave “between-ness” of Stockhausen’s Spiral , at another in the siren-filled arc of Varèse’s timeless Ionization , at yet another in the busy, magically mutating micro-world of Ligeti’s Chamber Concerto. Along the way we’ve heard a couple of pieces by Squarepusher, who writes dense, complicated music that is, to my ears, a lot of fun to listen to. It ends in a rousing rock-propelled affair, Aphex Twin’s Polygon Window , arranged here for percussion and one daft violin, which nearly falls completely apart at several points but somehow manages to come roaring back each time. It provides a house-rocking conclusion to a journey that has been exhilarating, ear-boggling, and simply lots of fun.


After it is all over and the cats have crawled out from under the bed (they are made edgy by the chain piano, wary by the thunder-sheets; they growl at the electronics, short-wave radio, anvils, and the Lion’s Roar, but they really, really hate the sirens) and your significant other has returned from a hastily planned shopping trip (have you gathered that this is not music for everybody?), you may pause and wonder why it all works so supremely well.


To begin at the beginning: if Cage is the godson of these proceedings, the true godfather is Edgard Varèse. His unswerving vision of music was “sounds bursting into space.” To this end, he re-imagined the very basics of music: sound, time, and space. In very different ways, so did all the composers we hear here. Thus we hear sounds ranging from the most normal ones invoked from ordinary instruments to strange clangs, roars, and crashes, some intimate and some impossibly remote and obscure. We hear time expand and contract, at times urgent and precise, at times seemingly bent, at times almost entirely stopped. Some (not all) of the works reflect obvious fascination with machines. These are not, metaphorically, the huge greenhouse gas-emitting machines of the early 20th century, those you hear, say, in Prokofiev’s Pas d’acier or Honegger’s Pacific 231 . But many of the pieces invoke visions of later generations of machines: sophisticated, clean ones whose sound textures and rhythms are wildly various and whose purposes, if they indeed have any, are entirely mysterious.


When this music was new, it was commonly called “experimental” music. Varèse drew a crucial distinction. As far as he was concerned, his experimentation was done before the work was composed. Afterwards, he said, “it is the listener who must experiment.” Listeners are still, 75 years after Ionization , experimenting with it and with the rest of the 20th-century classics in this program. These performances make it clear that, however strange the territory, the 20th-century masters indeed secured it, boldly and without question. In this regard, Squarepusher and Aphex Twin seem to me a tad less bold, but their music certainly adds to the fun.


I recommend this set with enthusiasm to both the committed and the curious. If you already know most of this music, you will be struck not only by the fine, spirited, and fearless performances, but also by the way the individual works sound even more remarkable when juxtaposed with works that they seem not to resemble at all. If you are curious, have perhaps heard the names of some of these composers and wondered what their music actually sounds like, this release is an excellent way to find out. The recording is fine; all sorts of instrumental combinations are used during the course of the concert, space itself seems to expand and contract from one work to the next. All this is captured nicely, with clarity and impact. The audience is quiet during the music, enthusiastic afterwards. You will be too, if there is adventure in your musical soul.


FANFARE: Peter Stokely
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Works on This Recording

1.
Work(s) by Aphex Twin
Orchestra/Ensemble:  London Sinfonietta
Period: 20th Century 
2.
Study for Player Piano no 7 by Conlon Nancarrow
Orchestra/Ensemble:  London Sinfonietta
Period: 20th Century 
Written: by 1960; Mexico 
3.
Work(s) by John Cage
Orchestra/Ensemble:  London Sinfonietta
Period: 20th Century 
4.
Violin Phase by Steve Reich
Orchestra/Ensemble:  London Sinfonietta
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1967; USA 
5.
First Construction (in Metal) for 6 Percussionists by John Cage
Orchestra/Ensemble:  London Sinfonietta
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1939; USA 
6.
Tide by Squarepusher
Orchestra/Ensemble:  London Sinfonietta
Period: 20th Century 
7.
Spiral by Karlheinz Stockhausen
Orchestra/Ensemble:  London Sinfonietta
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1969; Germany 
8.
Ionisation by Edgard Varèse
Orchestra/Ensemble:  London Sinfonietta
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1929-1931; USA 
9.
Six Marimbas by Steve Reich
Orchestra/Ensemble:  London Sinfonietta
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1986; USA 
10.
Chamber Concerto for 13 Instruments by György Ligeti
Orchestra/Ensemble:  London Sinfonietta
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1969-1970; Berlin, Germany 

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