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The Minimalists / Jussi Jaatinen

Release Date: 10/27/2009 
Label:  Mode   Catalog #: 214   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Steve ReichKyle GannLouis AndriessenTerry Riley,   ... 
Performer:  Geoffrey Douglas Madge
Conductor:  Jussi Jaatinen
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Volharding Orchestra
Number of Discs: 2 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

THE MINIMALISTS Jussi Jaatinen, cond; Geoffrey Douglas Madge (pn); 1 Volharding O MODE 214 (2 CDs: 134:11)

REICH (arr. Fiumara) City Life. GANN Sunken City. 1 ANDRIESSEN Workers Union. Read more class="COMPOSER12">RILEY In C. LANG Street. ADAMS (arr. Fiumara) A Short Ride in a Fast Machine

This is a fantastic collection, though it’s also a poignant one. Orkest de Volharding (Perseverance Orchestra) was a “street” orchestra founded in Holland in 1972 in the spirit of youthful rebellion, idealism, and communitarianism sweeping the world at the time. It’s remained a bastion of both experimental and socially engaged music-making for decades, in particular blurring the lines between what’s called jazz and classical. But since this release, word has come that the Dutch government has “defunded” them and they’ve folded. Perhaps a sign of our current economic mess, or greater conservatism in Europe, or both. So, no matter what the reason, this recording seems to be their swan song.

The program is focused on American composers who invented a style centered on pulse, repetition, and tonality now known as minimalism (though at the time of its invention, the term was thought of as a visual art descriptor). Riley and Reich are amongst the founders; Andriessen is one of the most important European adherents; Adams, the leading composer of the next, postminimalist generation; and Gann and Lang are the youngest, at midcareer taking the aesthetic in very different directions.

Steve Reich’s (b. 1936) City Life (1995) is a continuation of his fascination with speech rhythm as a compositional stimulant. Unlike Different Trains , it uses live samplers instead of a fixed recorded accompaniment. Its five movements use fragments of speech (like “Check it out”) or environmental sounds, such as boat whistles and pile drivers. The middle movement, with its looping vocal texture, feels closer to his early works, such as It’s Gonna Rain, than to anything the composer has done in several decades. And the final movement is a 9/11 memorial, and genuinely chilling with blend of sirens and emergency dispatchers’ voices.

John Adams’s (b. 1947) A Short Ride in a Fast Machine (1986) is a romp, four minutes of exuberance atop a relentless woodblock. It’s of course a symphonic concert staple now, but Anthony Fiumara has performed the admirable feat of making this version seem completely natural, and we don’t miss the strings (the same in the Reich, where the string quintet is eliminated, and the samplers, percussion, and piano are reduced to one each).

Louis Andriessen (b. 1939) was one of the founders of Volharding (along with Willem Breuker). Of all the European minimalists, his early pieces are closest to the rhythmic drive of his American counterparts, though his love of Stravinsky has brought out an entirely different facet to his œuvre over time. His Workers Union (1975) is a remarkable concept: all the ensemble’s rhythms are precisely notated and in unison, but the pitches are ad lib . It turns out to be a great intersection of the tightly controlled with improvisation, and the result is exhilarating, funny, and sinister. David Lang (b. 1957), best known as one of the directors of Bang on a Can, contributes Street (1993), which he says is his vision of a street band from Sweelinck’s time performing street music, using Dutch Renaissance materials. The result, a cloud of shifting harmonies over a steady quiet beat, is attractive and interestingly ambiguous. It also strikes me, like many of the composer’s pieces, as not as fully realized as its stated concept might suggest.

For my money, the two most engaging works are the oldest and most recent, coming from two very different composers, in both age and aesthetic. Kyle Gann (b. 1955) may be familiar to some longtime readers because he wrote for this publication years ago. He has gone on to a remarkable polymathic career as composer, critic, teacher, and scholar. I think he’s not really a minimalist because much of his music exults in complexity and prolixity (as does the piece on this disc). But he has written a number of more stripped-down and repetitive works, and he’s been a staunch and fearless advocate of much of this music, so his inclusion here makes sense, even if to me he’s more of a maverick. His Sunken City (in memoriam New Orleans, 2007) is a piano concerto in two movements, “Before” and “After,” lasting about half an hour. Of course, we all know what happened in between. The first is a rambunctious evocation of New Orleans jazz from the 1920s (I think Jelly Roll Morton, but Gann has several models in mind). This music is not jazz anymore than Stravinsky’s version was, but authenticity isn’t the point. In fact any attempted authenticity would ruin the piece. Instead Gann’s clashing, stomping rhythms are a kind of distillation of the original’s energy, put through a very personal filter. I remember being impressed a few years back by a set of his Disclavier pieces (New World 80633, reviewed in 29:2), in part for their encyclopedic understanding of a vast range of styles of American music, jazz included. This work confirms that judgment. But the second movement is where things get really interesting. It’s an elegy, starting with a passacaglia stated by a series of chords, each of which swamps the listener like a wash of sound breaking its boundaries and cascading upon us (like collapsing levees). The rest of the movement slowly picks up the pieces, and by the end there is a return to some of the opening’s energy, but it doesn’t go for any easy, happy ending. The effect is a glimmer of hope, but tempered by a sense of real tragedy.

The other piece of news is the performance of In C (1964) by Terry Riley (b. 1935), a piece some see as the reference work for the entire movement. In a sense every recording of the piece is a premiere, since its modular form and open instrumentation leads to very different formulations of the piece. Volharding presents a version that adds greatly to the work’s discography on a couple of fronts. First, it has a more leisurely tempo than many, so that you feel the waves of different emerging ideas with greater amplitude. I particularly liked the return of the big C-Major triad in module 29. Second, they’re not afraid to emphasize dissonances. I had never before heard the minor ninth, F?–G, between modules 19 and 21 so clearly before, but look at the score, and there it is! Also, they perform the E-Minor section without the traditional pulses on the dotted quarters, which gives the section an entirely different feel, and again brings out dissonances more strongly. My only regret is that it seems that in module 35, the one big “tune” of the piece (in terms of length and chromaticism), the trumpets have a little trouble. But any recording of the work really has to be one take if it has any integrity, and the register of that module, when given to these instruments, really does push their tessitura.

In short, a wonderful collection that stimulates our creative juices while occasioning mourning for an ensemble that appears to be no longer with us.

FANFARE: Robert Carl
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Works on This Recording

City Life by Steve Reich
Conductor:  Jussi Jaatinen
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Volharding Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1994; USA 
Date of Recording: 04/30/2009 
Venue:  MCO Studios in Hilversum, The Netherland 
Length: 22 Minutes 5 Secs. 
Notes: Arranger: Anthony Fiumara. 
Sunken City by Kyle Gann
Performer:  Geoffrey Douglas Madge (Piano)
Conductor:  Jussi Jaatinen
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Volharding Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Length: 28 Minutes 55 Secs. 
Worker's Union by Louis Andriessen
Conductor:  Jussi Jaatinen
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Volharding Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1975; Netherlands (Holland 
Length: 17 Minutes 11 Secs. 
In C by Terry Riley
Conductor:  Jussi Jaatinen
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Volharding Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1964; USA 
Length: 51 Minutes 35 Secs. 
Street by David Lang
Conductor:  Jussi Jaatinen
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Volharding Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Length: 9 Minutes 44 Secs. 
Fanfares (2) for Orchestra: Short Ride in a Fast Machine by John Adams
Conductor:  Jussi Jaatinen
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Volharding Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1986; USA 
Length: 4 Minutes 7 Secs. 
Notes: Arranger: Anthony Fiumara. 

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