Capsule reviews & playlist fodder

I want to recommend a few albums getting play here at CDA HQ. Most of these are on Spotify but gettable elsewhere. Shouts to Peter Margasak whose Best of Bandcamp Contemporary Classical, published every couple months, has real gems.

Elgar; Edward Elgar et al.; Sheku Kanneh-Mason, Sir Simon Rattle, London Symphony Orchestra

Sheku Kanneh-Mason’s second full-length is an album for an overcast, drizzly day, where the heat keeps clicking over and you won’t leave the house for love or money (sound familiar?). Kanneh-Mason is poised at 21 to become the Next Big Thing in the classical world. Normally this involves tours, press junkets, and prestigious awards. Those will come in time. For now we concern ourselves with the quality of this release.

Leçons de ténèbres; Francois Couperin; Caroline Mutel, Karine Deshayes, Sébastien d’Hérin, Les Nouveaux Caractères

Soprano Caroline Mutel and harpsichordist Sébastien d’Hérin founded new-music group Les Nouveaux Caractères in 2006. This is the first recording of theirs I’ve been privy to. I’m not a huge Couperin stan but the bell-clear singing of Mutel and fellow soprano Karine Deshayes sold me immediately.

Here; Ruth Anderson

This is American composer Ruth Anderson’s first-ever release, but sadly Anderson had already passed by the time it came out last September. Selfishly, I hope this is just the beginning of works we’ll hear from her archives. Listen to something like Pregnant Dream and tell me how you feel after.

Carissimi: Iudicium extremum & Jephte; Giacomo Carissimi, Ensemble San Felice, Federico Bardazzi

I expected a somewhat meager performance of Carissimi, a composer I’d never really given a thought to. But when the percussion comes in and these chefs start cooking, you better be ready to feast. This record and the Alain one below have a particularly expansive aural environment — dig that lonnnng decay on phrase endings — the type you forget about after being confined to snug spaces for months on end. Refamiliarize yourself.

Bach: Works for Organs / Sonatas; Johann Sebastian Bach, Marie Claire-Alain, Werner Jacob

I don’t want to rail on Spotify too much, but why does the bio page on organist Marie Claire-Alain feature her family — and especially Alain’s famous brother — as much as Alain herself? Anyway, with churches and concert halls closed right now there’s an organ-sized chasm in our lives. So, take your speakers to the absolute limit while Marie Claire-Alain rattles all the glassware in your cabinets. Bonus: neighbors won’t complain because they will assume you’re listening to a church service or something.

Nozzling the great live-content hose

If we’re talking about live music in May 2020, we’re talking about streaming: music sourced from living rooms, basements, bedrooms and closets; or broadcast from empty performance spaces and sent to where we’re watching on our devices….. in our living rooms, basements, bedrooms, closets (and toilets).

What it says, or what it’s supposed to say about us, is that we refuse to be cowed by the momentary pause on public gatherings. We’re getting together, online, to continue making art in the face of adversity. That’s admirable, obviously.

My own conspiracy theory about all this — based on no data whatsoever, and conjured moments before I typed this, in keeping with the practices of our most cherished conspiracy theorists — is that it’s a wash. None of this will matter in the way we think.

Don’t get me wrong. Live streaming is useful like it was pre-quarantine. Can’t get a ticket to see Wozzeck? Keep a tab open to stream on your laptop. Don’t want to schlep across town to see a buddy’s show? It’s on Facebook Live, my good chum.

No doubt it’s empowering for musicians to cut the bullshit & go direct-to-consumer. That’s an arrangement that will endure. But streaming live performances is also — and how do I put this delicately? — an utterly miserable way to consume music. Nothing replaces the live, in-person experience. Nothing.

***

What we like about music live-and-in-person is the shared experience. We bear witness individually, but when we’re planted in a concert hall or the club, what we remember at the end of the night besides a catchy melody or wrong notes or the onion-y scent of our neighbor is our collective reaction to the music. We remember the crackle of pre-concert anticipation, and the applause after. And in between we hold the performers in our collective gaze, kind of a well-meaning, laser-focused beam of support. They need us, we need them.

What’s happening online is a pale approximation of this. We’ve got (time-delayed) remote collaborations; musicians staring bug-eyed into a camera while playing stiff renditions of familiar tunes; approximately 13 million DJs a night streaming sets on Twitch & IG Live and getting served preemptive takedown notices; and occasionally, very occasionally, some live entertainment well-suited to the format. But it’s just not what we had before.

(We should note the strangeness of performing in your home for an online audience, people who are no doubt ignoring you and instead taking screenshots of the “no coffee, no workee” Baby Yoda mug you inadvertently left in the shot. You went to musical school for this. Now you’re a meme, baby!)

***

This is an incongruous position for me to take because I usually enthuse over everything new, different, and potentially threatening to the status quo, even if the results are mixed or simply unsuccessful. But I’m not sure my delicate constitution can take another moronic industry thought leader going on about how we’ve stumbled onto the Future of Live Entertainment in these two sweaty months. There’s a wave to ride here, but that. is. not. it.

Let’s call live streaming what it really is: a placeholder until public gatherings are safe again. If you think it’s more than that I suggest you read Cherie Hu’s piece on the licensing nightmare for streaming musicians. Here’s a cut:

[B]ecause livestreams sit at the intersection of recording and live performance — especially if the streams are archived after the fact — they can involve literally every kind of license in music: Masters, mechanical, sync, performance, trademark, name/likeness, the list goes on. It’s actually a powerful lens for understanding how most of the music business works.

Powerful indeed. Care to add a sheaf of paperwork to your pre-stream logistics? Got a solicitor on speed dial? The future of performance is here.

***

On a positive note, I like the immediacy of seeing friends’ recent quarantine projects and recitals as soon as they go live. (Guess none of you have kids, apparently?) And most of it is material I wouldn’t be able to access for reasons of geography, time, money, etc. So that’s cool. But this convenience also makes plain the strengths & weaknesses of web- or app-based broadcast, as well as the reliability of the internet as a library to hold (or to forget, or to unceremoniously expunge) our work.

***

As a postscript I recommend this conversation that’s been making the rounds on Facebook. Don’t miss Karina Canellakis, Alan Gilbert, Daniel Harding and Simon Rattle discussing when, or how, we can cold-start the aestivating classical music machinery. There’s a lot to enjoy, from Canellakis explaining why orchestra halls are preeminent working spaces, to Simon Rattle slowwwly fading into darkness as daylight gives out in his timezone.