2019 was not the year to obsess over new releases. It’s actually the first year I’ve managed anything resembling a healthy balance of new and old: more repeat listening, more old and obscure things, and (much) more radio (shouts to RBB Kulturradio). It was a charmed twelve months.
In that spirit I’m sharing with you only a few new things I enjoyed in 2019. Click album titles for more info.
Quality classical releases
Kullervo Op. 7, Jean Sibelius, Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Hannu Lintu. A work unknown to me. This and Sibelius’ Pelléas et Mélisande were the soundtrack for many of my fall mornings.
Fidicinium Sacro-Profanum, Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber, Harmonie Universelle, Florian Deuter, Monica Waisman. I thought I misread HIFvB’s birth and death dates the first time I looked him up. His is music immune to the vagaries of time and taste.
Weinberg: Symphonies Nos. 2 & 21, Mieczysław Weinberg, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, Gidon Kremer, Kremerata Baltica, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Mieczysław Weinberg’s family was torn apart by war and ethnic killing in his native Poland and neighboring Russia. (I’m reading Bloodlandsright now — can’t imagine a better soundtrack than this.) Weinberg was a close associate of Shostakovich’s. His music might not be as well-known as the latter’s, but this disc rectifies this somewhat. Gražinytė-Tyla, the CBSO, and Weinberg aficionado Gidon Kremer worked magic with this one.
Sneaky projects you might’ve missed
Al Otro Lado,Liza Wallace, Lily Press, Simon Linn-Gerstein. Recommended this in the last mailer. Did you listen yet? Support good music.
The Sacrificial Code, Kali Malone. Kali Malone is a Swedish organist who finds a different gear for the pipe organ — in slow, meditative, drawn-out tones that echo across this work. It’s not clear who the audience for this is, which is to say that it’s perfect for CDA readers.
These live up to the hype
Become Desert, John Luther Adams, Seattle Symphony. The logical follow-up to JLA’s smash and CDA favorite Become Ocean.
Concurrence, Iceland Symphony Orchestra, Daníel Bjarnason, Anna Thorvaldsdóttir, Haukur Tómasson, María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir, Páll Ragnar Pálsson. Iceland : modern orchestra music :: Atlanta : trap music. I’ve written about my undisguised admiration for Anna Thorvaldsdóttir. Here you get Thorvaldsdóttir’s Metacosmos, plus installments of tingly, dense, well-matched music from three fellow Icelanders.
At the risk of oversharing and bungling this whole premise, here’s some non-classical music that blew me out of my seat
Partita for 8 Voices is a vocal work that won composer Caroline Shaw a Pulitzer Prize and her group Roomful of Teeth international acclaim. Roomful of Teeth’s self-titled 2012 debut album — where you’ll hear the first recording of Partita for 8 Voices — was nominated for three GRAMMYs, and won one. Suffice to say, Partita is as close to a smash hit as anything in the classical and art music worlds, and Roomful of Teeth are a group with megawatt power.
What’s impressive about Partita at first blush is that it contains an amazing assembly of vocal sounds that — to even a well-trained ear — register as risky, unearthly, and in some cases impossible, for lack of better descriptors. Shaw & Roomful seemed to have found an entirely new musical path. As Daniel Trueman, one of Shaw’s professors at Princeton University put it, “It’s hard to track a style that seems to have emerged all of a sudden, fully formed.”
Except that it didn’t. Not quite.
Roomful of Teeth and Caroline Shaw have been forthcoming about their influences both for Partita and for the group’s repertoire as a whole: their official bio lists yodeling, belting, Korean pansori, Hindustani music, Sardinian cantu a tenòre, and Tuvan and Inuit throat singing as source materials.
Tanya Tagaq is a virtuoso musical talent by any measure. Tagaq is an Inuk singer who has collaborated with the likes of Björk, Mike Patton, Damian Abraham, and Kronos Quartet. She’s concertized worldwide, released five albums (2019 list-makers take note: her EP Toothsayer came out in March), and written a novel. She’s also won a Juno Award and a Polaris Prize.
To give you an idea of the type of singing she does, this video is helpful.
Anyway, here’s where things go sideways.
Tagaq called out Roomful of Teeth and Caroline Shaw for swiping Inuit vocal techniques (“katajjaq”), and accused them of jacking the Love Song, a piece in which two singers are face-to-face and alternate rapid-fire utterances that repeat and change as they flow back and forth.
It’s difficult for someone unfamiliar with katajjaq to know exactly what Tagaq is talking about. I’ve probably listened to the recording of Partita for 8 Voices a dozen times since it was released. What’s more, I even saw Roomful of Teeth perform it live in Rotterdam in 2018 at Classical:NEXT. Shaw’s interpolation was lost on me. That’s exactly the point.
Tagaq also pointed out that she and other Inuit artists are the ones forced to police this. The onus is on them to level the charge, to substantiate with examples, to lean on offenders for a response, to handle third-party interlopers in the discussion (this being Twitter that’s 97.5% of the job), and finally to concretize solutions after the offending parties — who obviously wanted no part of this in the first place, and would like to end discussion as quickly and quietly as possible — have tendered their response. It’s exhausting.
Caroline Shaw offered a response to Tagaq and other critics here in this thread. Later, she and Roomful of Teeth founder Brad Wells released an official apologia (of sorts) on Scribd. In it Shaw and Wells described the writing of Partita. (Italics used below are their own.)
In 2010, Roomful of Teeth invited — with compensation and travel, lodging and expenses covered — two accomplished Inuit singers to our summer residency at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. We learned what we understood to be basic katajjaq techniques. We also learned about the genesis and purpose of these techniques and aspects of the Inuit culture. As we began to construct music informed in part by our study, we included some katajjaq patterns (as we understood them).
Here they responded at least in part to one of Tagaq’s charges (“no Inuit hired”), without wading too deep into the debate over plagiarism, appropriation, and fair use. Shaw & Wells followed with a bulleted list of “next steps” for the group.
Credit our teachers and coaches more explicitly in public and in print
Find opportunities to amplify and support performing artists of katajjaq, and other indigenous musicians with whom we work, in concrete and monetary ways
Read aloud a source acknowledgment at the beginning of every Roomful of Teeth concert, honoring explicitly named traditional cultures’ essential contributions to our music
Be alert to and proactive about these important issues in all our future work
Continue to listen to and learn from other members of the musical community, and take seriously concerns such as those raised recently
Explore new or alternate ways of performing our repertoire
These are nice sentiments folks, but one detail is left out…
<Tom Cruise yelling into an extremely 1996 cellphone in a quiet office>
Partita for 8 Voices is an uber-successful, generation-defining work — at least, as far as it goes in the classical music world — and Caroline Shaw is now A Composer in Full. What comes from that? Triple-P, baby: power, prestige, and prize$. How do you share an equitable slice of all that?
You can’t. Not exactly.
We’ve covered sampling and plagiarism many times over in the mailer, and every time we circle back to the same conclusion: music is an inherently “slippery” medium, where moreso than other art forms characteristics can be copied, referenced, combined, chopped up, and re-deployed in dizzying and unpredictable ways. Each iteration obscures the source material, for better or worse.
This musical slipperiness is useful in some contexts. It’s important that we can interpolate ideas in new and interesting ways. When Ariana Grande and her songwriters use “My Favorite Things” as a melodic reference on the familiar-but-new “7 Rings” you don’t necessarily think, “Oh damn it, she totally ripped off Rodgers and Hammerstein!” (Actually, she paid handsomely for the privilege, so maybe it’s a bad example.) (Actually, um… <checks notes> Grande may have ripped the song idea off entirely from another rapper named Princess Nokia….without attribution? So this is truly a terrible example. Moving on.)
We have many, many, many instances of borrowing or quoting in classical music. Bartók, Mahler and Vaughan Williams weaved folk tunes into their best-known music. Bach and Palestrina took secular melodies and bolted them onto religious compositions. And when Haydn jacked Roma tunes it was seen as “paying tribute” to the source material. And on and on. You get the idea.
The point is, these kinds of call-backs are a common part of compositional tradecraft. Again, for better or worse.
So, what constitutes respectful usage, and what is exploitative? Where is the line?
On one side we’ve got people who pay for shit and credit sources. These are the types who big-up the OGs, who might use something valuable from a source but then pay it backn-fold. Also known as: the right way to do business.
On the other side though are the culture vultures: songwriters, filmmakers, TV producers, painters, comedians, and whoever else, who grab what they want — especially from lesser-known or less-powerful groups — and ask for forgiveness later. Or not. You know the type: the Westerner who lands in Mumbai and within two hours is wearing a bindi and a sari in their IG stories. Everything is an accessory, nothing is serious. Tourists.
I don’t think Caroline Shaw intentionally obscured sourcing for the piece. I mean, Roomful of Teeth appear to offer more credit and more information on their website than a lot of groups do. Shaw is an uber-talented composer and performer. It’s highly doubtful she set out to steal everybody else’s ideas in order to composer her masterwork or whatever.
But — and you could hear that conjunction coming from a mile away, like a car that lost its rusty muffler, like distant thunder on a quiet summer night — that just ain’t enough. If this is some kind of crime or infraction it appears to be one of relative ignorance. Especially when you’re dealing with groups with less power or monetary resources, and/or those who aren’t plugged into a network with great support for musical creation and distribution, the onus is on you, as a composer, to identify when you’ve used source material belonging to those who have been historically disadvantaged, and to share the spoils — media attention, monetary compensation — that come from your success.
(I don’t want this to sound like a lecture. Caroline Shaw is a woman who happens to be a composer, and that presents its own unique challenges in a male-dominated domain. It sucks to have to work twice as hard as male colleagues, all the time, to even get noticed. I marvel at the success of people like Caroline Shaw and Tanya Tagaq.)
To explain this another way we can use what Dan Savage, advice columnist extraordinaire, coined the “campfire rule,” wherein you leave the situation better than the state you found it in. The campfire rule applies here.
I reached out both to Tanya Tagaq and Caroline Shaw for comment on this piece. I haven’t heard back. Still, given the publicly available facts I decided to let the Classical Dark Arts legal department — usually tasked with various multinational entanglements regarding our company’s unusual structure and financing — come back with a ruling on this incident.
Here’s a bulleted list of their suggestions.
As a sign of good faith, Roomful of Teeth (RoT) should build out their already better-than-average website with information about musical traditions and vocal techniques one might hear in a RoT shows and albums. This should include, but would not be limited to: links to Indigenous groups performing their own music; links to purchase materials by said groups; and historical accounts that offer a fuller picture of the development of music by said groups. In the case of Inuit performers and katajjaq, drawing attention to the particularly important role of music in Inuit culture would go some way to explaining the problem with using the Love Song and katajjaq in Partita for 8 Voices.
Roomful of Teeth should offer performers who closely align with their mission and sound the chance to perform as “openers.” RoT would then be the “headliners” on a double- or triple-billing. Openers would benefit from an audience that is receptive to a wide array of musical ideas.
Similarly, Roomful of Teeth should consider hosting an annual fundraiser to benefit groups from areas with less-lucrative performance opportunities whose music aligns with the RoT mission and sound.
Roomful of Teeth and Caroline Shaw should consider sharing royalty or other prize monies generated by Partita for 8 Voices. This gesture would reflect the importance that learned and inherited traditions played in the development of the piece.
Roomful of Teeth should update fans in late 2020 about what progress has been made in the interceding time. Because Roomful of Teeth, music publications (Classical Dark Arts included), performers, the Pulitzer Prize board and others paid so little attention to the use of the Love Song and katajjaq in Partita, that obligation unfairly fell to Tanya Tagaq and other Indigenous artists. This step ensures accountability without further burdening Tagaq et al.
The Pulitzer board must decide if Partita for 8 Voices still meets the standard for the award. On their site the Pulitzer board describe Partita as a “highly polished and inventive a cappella work uniquely embracing speech, whispers, sighs, murmurs, wordless melodies and novel vocal effects.” Has this new information changed the eligibility for Shaw’s work for a Pulitzer Prize?
There you have it. Thanks to the Classical Dark Arts legal team. They may not be able to extricate me from burdensome tax obligations on Malta, but when push comes to shove they can broker their way out of a conflict.
As an epilogue, Roomful of Teeth cofounder Brad Wells appeared onRadio Bostonlast month, and host Tiziana Dearing asked Wells about the controversy. Here’s part of their exchange, edited for clarity and length. (Bolding is my own.)
DEARING: You’ve studied a wide variety of techniques from different cultures, different countries. Has receiving this criticism changed how you’re thinking about your experimentation and your use of different styles, and your learning of different styles? How are you thinking about that now?
WELLS: It hasn’t changed it at all, but I think it’s helping clarify what the project is about, and also where to be alert for how singing is held in communities. And I think it varies all over the world.
One thing that we were talking about including in the statement […] was basically saying that music is a powerful vehicle for connection, for humans to connect, from one to another, or from group to group, or whatever. We all know that this is one of the things that singing and music does. But it also has this powerful potential and expressiveness as an identity expresser. And those things shouldn’t be at odds, but they need to be aware of each other, and sometimes the scales might tip more towards one side, towards somebody really saying, ‘This is expressing me. Let me do this, or let me do this at least until I tell you it’s okay. And I’ll let you in and you can share.’
So I think it’s around sensitivity that we’re learning, it’s around clarifying what the mission is. I don’t think it’s changing it, but it’s refining it.
Wells lands a direct hit there, although it took a lot of wind-up. These are vitally important works for some people, and those people are the ones who get to say how they’re used or not used.
I’d like to hear a lot more of that, and less press-speak about “clarifying” and “refining” the mission.
Nunatsiaq News deserve credit for being one of very few outlets covering this story. Click that link to read reporting at their site.
We will tabulate the votes and publish the results in an upcoming mailer. (You’re signed up for the mailer, right?) You may then do what you wish — nudge nudge — with that information. Once the Grammy Awards have passed we’ll bring you full results.
Summary: These are concise, pop song-length tunes. Rani relies on ostinato figures swirled around with pedal, and deploys slow and deceptively uncomplicated lines of melody. It’s beautiful, very filmic, and has an unmistakable Philip Glass-ian vibe.
You’ll probably: catch at least one track on some “classical chill” streaming playlist.
Best track(s):Sun, Glass Esja, and Now, Run.
Meaningful PR blurb: “Recorded at Rani’s apartment in Warsaw […] and at her friend Bergur Þórisson’s studio in Reykjavik, Esja is a series of beautiful melodic vignettes, inspired by, Berlin, Iceland and the wild mountains in Bieszczady as well as a love of art and architecture.”
Summary: Cornish’s new album sounds like Anna Þorvaldsdóttir with a touch less Icelandic bleakness. While listening I pictured a time-lapse scene of social media influencers snapping selfies in front of rhythmic waves, while in the corner of the shot there’s like a decaying fish that nobody notices and you think “whoa. Who knew” at the very end. But maybe you will arrive at a different visual cue. Cornish’s music really takes you somewhere without you being able to say exactly how you got there. It’s quite lovely.
Summary: This project sees Dutch string group Alma Quartet linking up with DJ and composer Henrik Schwarz. Alma Quartet’s tight, nicely structured aesthetic is the cocktail on top of which Schwarz floats an eyedropper of eau-de-synthé. Everything goes down smooth. The writing is club-ready.
Best track(s):CCMYK3 is the most beat-heavy cut here, but CCMYK9 & CCMYK1 find nice grooves, too. Less danceable tracks remind me of Kronos Quartet joints (in a good way), especially Requiem for a Dream-era Kronos.
I’m not going to even: make fun of them for describing their recording process as an “open conversation between piercing intellects” in the album boilerplate. I just won’t do it.
Come for: Andrew Norman, creator of Play, one of the best orchestral works of the 2010s.
Stay for: wavery strings sounding like a drunk church organist playing a Hammond B3. You might also like to know this is the first recording of Sustain, which was nominated for a Pulitzer in 2018.
Summary: Norman swings for the fences in his latest piece, which he wrote after wondering what people would be thinking about & listening to a hundred years from now. Judging anecdotally by a few critics’ reactions on social media, this release came as a bit of a surprise – there wasn’t a lot of fanfare in the lead-up. Sustain is the whole album, and it runs just a touch over a half-hour.
Best track(s): um, Sustain I would say? since it’s the only track.
Despite the best efforts of tax officials of five separate countries, Interpol, and a host of organizations either offended or specifically targeted by CDA, the Classical Dark Arts mailer continues its circulation amongst a weird, worldwide audience. If you sign up you’ll receive a missive one Saturday every month. In it you’ll find classical goodies that make perfect fodder for cocktail conversation, casual elevator chats, pillow talk, or strained exchanges with your parole officer.
Actors at the highest levels of the classical music world want to see the Classical Dark Arts mailer fail! They’re here to legislate it away, to injunct our business dealings and slander our good name at every turn. (Believe me, our self-defeating behaviors render this completely unnecessary.) However, your subscription to the mailer ensures we’ll continue publishing in perpetuity. Sign up, for free, today.
Mission statements are a special brand of sadism arts organizations inflict on audiences. They’re as captivating as legalese in a hastily-clicked User Agreement, with all the feeling of a pharmaceutical side effects disclosure. It’s surprising and refreshing, then, when you find a group with a mission that actually means something. Like this:
Street Symphony places social justice at the heart of music making by creating authentic, powerful engagements between professional and emerging artists and communities disenfranchised by homelessness and incarceration in Los Angeles County. Street Symphony operates with the core principle that all people deserve access to a creative and expressive life.
Street Symphony is a group founded by former LA Phil violinist Vijay Gupta. They play shows in jails and shelters, ministering to Los Angelenos who are poor, homeless, or suffering from mental illness. In other words, they bring classical music to people it usually doesn’t reach. If you’re thinking “What a great idea!” you’re not the only one: this year the MacArthur Foundation chose Vijay Gupta as one of its 2018 Fellows.
The point isn’t to show how nice of a concept Street Symphony is, because that’s self-evident. The point is to highlight an “artistic” premise that is replicable and modifiable in any city, at any scale. Head here to read an interview with Gupta, and then start thinking about how this could work in your city.
The early nineties were a magical time to be online. You could never predict what you’d come across: dancing text, indecipherable fonts, busted links, page elements all the colors of the rainbow, and grainy photos loading pixel by painstaking pixel. That is, if you were able to get there at all. After the agonizing desktop start-up ritual — a procession of clicks and whirs, the labored whining of vent fans and spinning disk drives, mysterious bloops and beeps — you’d mash the internet icon with too many clicks, await the inimitable sound of a dial-up modem as it called down the line, and then, no small miracle, you’d be online.
Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web in 1989 as a way to formalize gathering places, websites, on the internet. But what began as a charming haven for coders and explorers morphed into a commercial feeding frenzy for brands and hucksters. The web was particularly well-suited for classical music fans, but like other pursuits it worked even better for marketing and sales. While diehard collectors traded bits of classical ephemera on message boards, every big classical music outfit jumped online to flog tickets, subscriptions, and CDs.
Below you’ll see the first forays onto the web for the so-called “Big Five” US orchestras: the first websites for the Boston Symphony, the Chicago Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, and the Philadelphia Orchestra. These are maybe not the very first images of their sites — the majority come from 1996 onward, and certainly none exist from the web’s inception in 1989. However, they are the oldest remaining snapshots available on the Internet Archive Wayback Machine. They are artifacts that remind us, at least from the commercial side, how this all began.
Rob Deemer is an assistant professor and head of composition at SUNY-Fredonia. Deemer is also creator of the Women Composers Database, an impressive project whose stated purpose is to provide a one-stop resource for the types of composers who often (truthfully: always) get short shrift in the great concert halls of the world: women.
I traded emails with Deemer to ask him about the project. His goals for it are modest and sensible:
It is my hope that this database will allow for each programmer to discover their own pool of favored composers rather than relying on journalists or friends or “experts”. I also hope that organizations will use the database to find composers in their area that they might not be aware of; the more their programming reflects their audiences, the more successful their interactions with their communities will be.
Deemer said he’s been surprised at the volume of submissions he’s received, “hundreds and hundreds” so far to bring the running total to 3,100. If you’d like to do the same head to the Women Composer Database submission page to submit your favorites. You can add in biographical info like genres each composed for, ethnicity, and city of residence. I asked him about other under-represented groups in classical music, and Deemer said he’s already thinking about it:
I have actually already begun work on a Composers of Color Database to fill that void. Since the Women Composers Database already had a great number of composers of color in it, I’ve started with that and will be working with my team of students at the State University of New York at Fredonia to bring that second database up to speed by the summer of 2018.
All right! Add your favorite women composers to the list, and follow him on Twitter for updates.
Seasoned gamblers know that this marvelous thing we call the internet allows one to wager money on almost any event in the world for which the outcome is not guaranteed. You can bet on the next Pope, the winner of The Voice, the length of the National Anthem at the Super Bowl, and many more things.
Typically critics and fans announce their favorite albums at the end of each year. It’s a fine tradition, but wouldn’t it be nice to get a head start? By looking at the best classical albums released thus far we can preempt some of our December binge-listening.