In what ways could music relate to the human voice without Auto-Tune or even, necessarily, language - or, for that matter, even singing? New classical CDs are exploring a fascinating range of possibilities, and several are either by or about Iowans. In reverse chronological order, here are five standouts:
1. Erin Gee: Mouthpieces - Gee, ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, et al. (col legno). Erin Gee, who was raised in Iowa and earned two music degrees at the University of Iowa, has won such major awards as the Rome Prize (previous winners include Samuel Barber), first prize of the International Rostrum of Composers (previous winners include Benjamin Britten), and Zurich Opera's Teatro Minimo Prize. And to call her new CD “original” is to understate how maverick it is.
From the moment we’re born, our brains begin to distinguish the elementary sounds (“phonemes”) of our mother tongues and decode the meanings they convey; the process is as natural for us as breathing. That may be part of what feels so radical about Mouthpieces, since it explores phonemes that have no apparent connection to language. Gee’s astonishingly varied singing becomes a solo instrument in an instrumental web that has been described as “gossamer” - but since it’s a human voice rather than an instrument, the effect is subtly disorienting as well as beautiful. She’s a maverick with a vision.
UPDATE: In preparing this post for publication I looked for video, and found this interview with Dr. Gee (who now teaches at the University of Illinois). In it she says she's interested in "the possibility of erasing ego from vocal performance." Now THAT is radical! She also describes how she gets her phonemes by re-arranging texts - so there IS a connection to language, but it's not the usual one:
2. Michael Ching: A Midsummer Night’s Dream - Delta Cappella and Riva (composed in 2011; Albany 1507-08) - Felix Mendelssohn’s incidental music for Shakespeare’s play was so inspired that for over a century it shaped how composers evoked magical beings. Then in 1960, Benjamin Britten wrote an opera with an utterly different magic sound-world (it's the work that won the International Rostrum of Composers prize later given to Erin Gee. But I digress...) So today, if a composer sought to create an opera as fresh and appealing as Shakespeare's play, where could he or she find convincing musical options that have not already been tried? Enter Ames resident Michael Ching: he (brilliantly) dispenses with instruments altogether. In a tale centered on youthful infatuation he finds vitality in our musical vernacular. You find yourself humming the tunes, dancing to the occasional vocal-percussion effects, and feeling the youthful love. The singing by the Memphis vocal groups Delta Cappella and Riva makes you smile as it melds classical, pop and Broadway styles into a perfect unity (I'm paraphrasing conductor Curt Tucker) - and the effortless virtuosity of this live performance suggests that it had Puck's blessings.
3. Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco: Morning in Iowa - David Knopfler, narrator; Ensemble 05 led by Massimo Felici. (Soundset ) - Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco fled his native Italy in 1939 to escape Fascist anti-Semitism, and settled in Hollywood, where he scored over 200 films and taught composition to John Williams, Henry Mancini, and Andre Previn. Although he could write fluently in twelve-tone style, he preferred neo-Romanticism even after it fell out of fashion. That stance led posterity to undervalue his music, and there's no better example than Morning in Iowa.
Castelnuovo-Tedesco loved this 1952 composition, devoting a full chapter to it in his autobiography (which, tellingly, was first published in 2005, almost four decades after his death). But he never heard a full performance of it, and this new CD is its first recording.
The music was meant to accompany a narrative poem by another American of Sephardic ancestry, the New York-born novelist/ playwright/poet Robert Nathan. It is - yes - set in our state. Castelnuovo-Tedesco scored it for a folksy, sonorous ensemble of guitar, banjo, accordion, double-bass, percussion, clarinet and saxophone, and said, “I find it amusing to show my American colleagues that, if I choose, I can be and sound more American than Americans!”
The score was never published, and sat for decades in uncatalogued boxes in the Library of Congress. Massimo Felici spent years seeking it out, then worked with his trusted collaborator Lorenzo Micheli to realize it in performance. When they recorded it, one inspired choice was of the narrator, a Glasgow-born, North England-raised singer songwriter you may well have heard before, Dire Straits co-founder David Knopfler. The CD, clearly a labor of love, is gentle, pastoral and infectious.
4. Virgil Thomson: The Mother of Us All - Manhattan School of Music Opera Theater (Albany 1486/7) - This 1947 American gem is in every sense of the word fantastic. As The New York Times points out, Gertrude Stein’s text prefigures Tony Kushner: the “mother” in the title is Susan B. Anthony but the characters include John Adams, Daniel Webster, Thaddeus Stevens, Ulysses S. Grant, “Jo the Loiterer,” and two narrators identified as “Gertrude S., American writer” and “Virgil T., American composer.” As for that composer, Thomson was at a creative peak, producing what New Grove Dictionary calls his “richest statement of Americana.” The result delights but also moves you as it celebrates our country's ideals - the booklet speaks of the opera’s special “coherence and seriousness.” This new release is, amazingly, a live recording of a student production, and it’s a gem in its own way. As a bonus, it includes a suite of music Thomson arranged from the opera. Don’t hesitate!
5. C.P E. Bach: Magnificat, Heilig and Sinfonia - Akademie fur alte Musik Berlin, RIAS Chamber Choir, soloists, (Harmonia mundi) - “Bach is the father, and we are all his children” - when Mozart said that, he was referring not to Johann Sebastian but to his number-two son, Carl Philipp Emanuel. In the decades that followed Mozart’s pronouncement, C. P. E. Bach’s celebrity faded, but 2014 is the 300th anniversary of his birth, so a number of recordings are letting us hear just how original and powerful a composer he was. Of the CDs I’ve heard so far my favorite is this one, which re-creates part of the last concert he conducted, a 1786 benefit for a free clinic for the poor of Hamburg. It featured one of his adventurous symphonies and the two works he regarded as his choral masterpieces: the Heilig from 1776, which reaches new expressive horizons using standard harmonies, and the Magnificat he’d composed in 1749 as an audition piece when he tried out for his father’s job in Leipzig. The town fathers there seem to have been unimpressed, giving the job to a non-entity named… I can’t remember… but if you love J.S. Bach’s Magnificat, you will surely respond to this thrilling setting. It seems that Emanuel (as he was called) understood his father’s art as deeply as anyone in his generation: that 1786 concert also included the first-ever public performance of the Credo from J.S. Bach’s Mass in B Minor - but that’s a story for another time, since it’s not on this CD, and we have many options if we want to hear it. The musicians perform with such joyful commitment and mastery that this disc would be worth hearing in any year. Here they are in that groundbreaking masterpiece, the Heilig, which is a setting of the Sanctus in German: